It'll Take More than an Election to Defuse the Threat of a New Civil War | Opinion

As we approach the national witching hour, right-wing militia groups are increasingly threatening violence at the polls and afterwards. "Civil war" has become the meme of the moment, wielded like a flaming sword of divine retribution, as if its mere threat would cause enemies to capitulate. Many Trumpists warn that if their leader is defeated they will refuse to accept the results. From legal challenges to vigilante violence they vow implacable resistance. Minus the violence, many Democrats pledge total noncooperation with a renewed Trump regime. What happens if neither accepts the legitimacy of the other's authority?

Whichever party ends up in the White House, we have reached the ultimate extreme of political paralysis: Mutually Assured Obstruction. Has anyone really thought through what a 21st century "civil war" would entail? Ruination.

Rather than ruin the nation, we might want to consider a commonsense alternative: "You go your way and I'll go mine." It's not a perfect solution – in fact it's likely to be pretty messy. But it would be a whole lot less bloody than civil war, and potentially a lot more productive.

Columnist David Brooks calls it "decentralized pluralism." Others call it "the new federalism." In essence, it means loosening the bonds of federal authority to enable governments closer to the ground at the local, state and regional levels to craft solutions more tailored to their particular circumstances. The Founders never intended for the President to hold the powers he wields today and embedded checks in the Constitution to avert unhealthy concentrations of power. But in recent decades those constraints have been loosened to a perilous degree. Left and right agree on few issues, but both fear tyranny by an unchecked president inflicting his illegitimate rule on them.

A robust federal government is altogether essential to the efficient functioning of a nation and when it is properly administered it can be a potent force for the public good. But when it ceases to function effectively and in the view of a substantial portion of the populace threatens their basic rights and freedoms, it breaks faith with "the consent of the governed" on which its authority crucially depends. The Declaration of Independence prescribes the people's ultimate remedy: "alter or abolish it...and to institute new government."

Instituting "new government" sounds a lot like revolution or secession, neither of which has fared well in human history. But there's a third way that offers more positive possibilities – not a "new government" but new, more flexible forms of governance that reflect the diversity of new players on the field – private corporations with capital and technology, the nonprofit sector with its expertise and R&D, and citizen movements that inject disruptive yet constructive social inventions. Each sector engages new participants in a political process gone terminally stagnant, corrupt and unrepresentative. Each also contributes a crucial piece to the puzzle of how to transmute the firestorms of cataclysmic change into crucibles of creative renewal.

One might dismiss such a redistribution and redefinition of power as pure fantasy—except that it's already happening. No better example can be found than in the pragmatic responses to the Trump regime's handling of the global pandemic. Into the void created by federal disarray, states have sought to create coherent, coordinated strategies. Their initial efforts have been weakened by inexperience, inefficiency and institutional inadequacies. Yet the Trump administration's failure to govern at the federal level on issues ranging from climate change to economic recovery is forcing the rest of us to develop functional workarounds, inventing more flexible and adaptive forms of coordinated cross-sectoral governance.

We now face a double crisis of legitimacy, with each side declaring that the other's candidate is "not my president." It's like a failing marriage where in their own misery each partner seeks to make the other still more miserable. That way lies a failed state. Time for a trial separation with breathing room to try our own experiments without insisting on inflicting them on unwilling others. Thanks to decentralized, networked social technologies we no longer need to live beside one another to govern together, nor to try, unsuccessfully, to inflict our will on others in the neighborhood if they'd rather go their own ways.

Propelled by the pandemic, we now Zoom together, convening across continents in frictionless collaborations freed of spatial and geographical constraints—and already do so far more than we recognize. We cooperate across sectors, borders, races and even ideologies on practical projects addressing urgent issues. Now when we seem most bereft of new ideas it's time to loosen the ties that bind us. If the states are laboratories of democracy, necessity is spurring us all, as both institutions and individuals, to cease trying to govern over one another and instead invent better ways to govern together through direct participation in the decisions that crucially affect our lives.

Mark Sommer is an award-winning syndicated print and broadcast media journalist based in Northern California.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.