“At what point shall we expect the approach of danger? By what means shall we fortify against it? Shall we expect some transatlantic military giant, to step the Ocean, and crush us at a blow? Never! All the armies of Europe, Asia and Africa combined… could not by force, take a drink from the Ohio, or make a track on the Blue Ridge, in a trial of a thousand years.
“At what point then is the approach of danger to be expected? I answer, if it ever reach us, it must spring up amongst us. It cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.”
— Abraham Lincoln: The Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions:
Address Before the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois,
January 27, 1838
Abraham Lincoln saw clearly the fault lines upon which his nation would crack asunder, a quarter century before he would be called upon to suture that fissure with unprecedented force as the 16th President of the United States. He knew that in 1838, the prosperity, well-being, the very national security of the United States was under threat from entrenched and intransigent factions growing ever more estranged and irreconcilable.
Such fault lines are growing wider and deeper again.
Small Wars Journal recently published an essay by Major Jeremy D. Lawhorn, a specialist in psychological operations, with over a decade of Special Operations experience. “National Security Implications of Unresolved Grievances” is long and dense — and an important read.
Lawhorn in 2018 echoes Lincoln in 1838:
“Fissures have opened up along every major demographic line including race, ethnicity, religion, place of origin, gender, and along every major political and social issue including immigration, national security, gay marriage, religious freedom, structural inequalities and many others.
“The extreme fracturing along these fault lines has wide ranging social, political, and security implications for the United States. Today, the single greatest challenge to the United States national security is the growing threat posed by people that are being forced to join factions that align, if only loosely, with their beliefs, creating deep fractures and eroding the internal cohesion of the country.”
As a military thinker, Major Lawhorn applies Carl von Clausewitz’s seminal treatise “On War” to understand the United States’ “center of gravity” — the locus of our strength and power.
“For the United States, the center of gravity is unquestionably the population, not the military,” he writes.
“We The People” are the locus of the moral and political strength and legitimacy of the republic. To function properly as the nation’s “center of gravity,” the population has to have a certain level of trust in the social contract, in the institutions of government and in its fellow citizens. As these erode, so erodes the capabilities and the strength of the nation.
Major Lawhorn writes that:
“…critical vulnerabilities are manifesting in the expanding fractures among the population, friction between the population and the government, and the unresolved grievances held by segments of the population. Collectively, these vulnerabilities reduce the sense of national cohesion, faith in the political system, trust in government, and trust between neighbors… If not properly addressed, these fractures will continue to present significant challenges and have potentially devastating consequences for national security.”
Posing the breakdown in civic function as a national security threat is sobering, and offers an opportunity to pause and reflect upon what we’re doing to ourselves. The way we communicate is both a symptom and a cause of the fractures that Lawhorn identifies.
“While technology is useful for those who seek solidarity and redress for legitimate grievances, it also increases homophily and by default creates substantial echo chambers. These echo chambers emerge on all sides of issues where people do not invite new ideas but rather become increasingly committed to their views and causes. This is important to understand, because people that have grievances become even more committed while those who reject those grievances also become more committed. The problem is that many people consume information that reflects their preexisting beliefs and ideological predilections without having to consider or grapple with different perspectives. These echo chambers result in incendiary hyper-partisanship creating a population that is unwilling to compromise or cooperate across the various fault lines. When people continue to surround themselves, physically or virtually, with people that share the same views it creates a reinforcement mechanism that makes them feel that their views are correct. This confirmation bias has potentially disastrous consequences as society becomes more entrenched in their beliefs.”
This may not be fixable. It bears keeping in mind that warnings from Lincoln and others in the decades leading up to the American Civil War of 1861–65 did not stop the train from hurtling down the track with the throttle stuck and the whistle shrieking. It’s not just that we love our devices and the easy, shallow “discourse” they provide. It’s not just that politicians make hay out of division and fear; as our podcast guest Jack McGowan pointed out years ago to the City Club of Portland, there is a “business of division.” A great many people make a very lucrative living out of driving wedges into the fault lines, and nothing suits them better than to see those cracks open up wider and wider.
So maybe we should ask ourselves why we’re making the carrion birds that feed on division fat while we sit loading the cartridges in the revolver — tweet by tweet, meme by meme, panel shout-fest by panel shout-fest — spinning the cylinder, our finger on the trigger of the implement of our own destruction.