In late September, the veteran reporter Carl Bernstein said on CNN: "... we are in a cold civil war in this country. These two events, both the Mueller investigation and the Kavanaugh nomination, are almost the Gettysburg and Antietam, the absolute central battles of this cold civil war.”
That phrase, “cold civil war,” struck me as an apt characterization of our current political polarization. The two sides not only completely disagree with but habitually demonize each other; they have no common ground, not even a consensus on what is true and what is “fake news.” That’s the “war” part. As for “cold,” there is no violence between the two camps (with rare exceptions, such as in Charlottesville, Va., in August 2017), but one need only look at footage of a Trump rally to understand that the threat of it is in the air.
“Cold civil war” was not invented in or for the current era. But it is interesting that on both its origin and its current incarnation, there is a focus on education. The New York Times reported in 1950 on a speech by one of its editors, Delbert Clark, criticizing the climate of fear and intimidation that anti-Communism had instilled among teachers:
Five years later, Telford Taylor used the phrase in a similar context in his book Grand Inquest, and a Times book reviewer -- neglecting Delbert Clark! -- credited him with “coining” it. “Mr. Taylor says that ... our internal unity and free traditions are under challenge by a nationalist alignment,” wrote the reviewer, Herbert Mitgang.
Given that background, it’s surprising that the contemporary use of the phrase is far more common among conservatives than liberals, Carl Bernstein being an exception. The first page of results for a Google search for “cold civil war” yields, in addition to a link to an article about Bernstein’s (continued) use of the term, links to five right-wing websites: The Federalist, Townhall, The American Greatness, Return of Kings, and the Claremont Institute. And its recent uses in the Times are all from the conservative columnist Ross Douthat.
An April 2017 article on the Claremont site by Angelo M. Codevilla is the earliest publication on that first Google page, and seems to have given the phrase an important boost. Codevilla defines the two sides in the war as “America’s ruling class and the rest of the country.” No surprise, the ruling class are not the good guys:
The government apparatus identifies with the ruling class’s interests, proclivities, and tastes, and almost unanimously with the Democratic Party. As it uses government power to press those interests, proclivities, and tastes upon the ruled, it acts as a partisan state. This party state’s political objective is to delegitimize not so much the politicians who champion the ruled from time to time, but the ruled themselves.
And -- again no surprise -- the so-called ruling class comprises “elected and appointed officials, plus the courts, business leaders, and educators.”
The piece on Townhall mocks the education/indoctrination of a fictitious character named Kaden: “In history, he learned about Europe’s history of colonial oppression, and how the American Revolution against colonial oppression was a reactionary spasm by a bunch of slave-owning white males whose sole goal was to subjugate women, minorities, indigenous peoples, the differently-abled, and the trans community.”
And the piece on Return of Kings, by Roosh Valezadeh -- identified by Wikipedia as a “blogger, pickup artist, and writer known for his posts related to the manosphere” -- says, “academia must be purged.”
I’m not completely sure why people on one side favor the phrase and the concept “cold civil war” more than their counterparts on the other. I do know that -- Carl Bernstein notwithstanding -- when I encounter it from here on in, I’m going to raise my eyebrows and my guard.