Domestic Affairs

Military History Lessons for Partisan Warfare

America is at war with itself, or so we are told. Every day we are told to take up the cause and fight for our side. Correspondents report to us around the clock from the front lines in Iowa. When everything in politics is a battle, where will we end up? Military history teaches a few important lessons of who will win a political war of attrition: no one.

There is already plenty of finger-wagging over incivility in political discourse. I get that. However, warfighting has become a mindset for pundits and politicians rather than mere rhetoric. Each party has decided to embark on a strategy to vanquish the other. The term “one-party state” was once used to describe dictatorships. Today, this seems to capture the “utopian” vision that both the right and the left are fighting for. The problem with warfare is that destruction is not a side effect; it’s the whole point. The classic strategist Clausewitz once described war as “politics by other means;” in present America, politics is now treated as war by other means. Treating politics like war is strategically silly for both sides and morally indefensible for the country as a whole.

First, not losing, rather than decisively winning, is the primary objective of war. George Washington taught us this lesson. Convincing the British that fighting was no longer worth the cost was more important to securing independence than defeating the Red Coats in battles. Insurgents in Vietnam and Afghanistan understood this lesson and sought to prolong conflict in order to wear down the other side. “Winning hearts and minds” is a catchy adage, but the most successful military campaigns focus on demobilizing enemies instead of mobilizing supporters.

Not long ago, voter mobilization was the go-to strategy for winning elections, but today, voter demobilization has become conventional. Already, every attack ad, cable news interview, and press release is about the misdeeds of the enemy and why no moral person can possibly support them. Scandal after scandal is concocted in order to exhaust as much of the general public as possible. This was foreshadowed in 2016. President Trump flipped Wisconsin in 2016 and won 3,000 fewer votes than 2012 GOP nominee Mitt Romney. Clinton received over 200,000 fewer votes than Obama in 2012, making Wisconsin a textbook case of victory through demobilization.

While many recognize that the toxic “us versus them” rhetoric is bad, few are eager to stop it. Encouraging citizens to withdraw from civic participation works well if you are situated at the political extremes. Beyond voter demobilization, citizen demobilization is pursued by stigmatizing opponents and removing them from the political battlefield. Campus activists are especially familiar with the “cancel culture” tactics, but by using the levers of social media and mass outrage, supporters, especially of progressive, “revolutionary” candidates like Bernie Sanders, aim to tear down the support of other figures instead of widening the base of their own. The vast majority of citizens would rather keep to themselves than get caught in the verbal crossfire. Radical invectives succeed in alienating moderates and removing obstacles from the path to power.

How is this a problem? If people want to stay home and not vote, why should we care? As I have written before, civic engagement and democratic survival are intimately connected. If a majority of people do not participate in the selection of a governing regime, a democracy cannot exist. By definition, government by the few and not the many is an oligarchy. The logical conclusion of partisan warfare is the destruction of democracy.

Second, military victories often seem decisive in hindsight, but nearly always come at high costs. Americans often celebrate prevailing in World War II but forget its enormous cost. Europe was so dilapidated by the end of the war that the U.S. government spent $12 billion on the Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe, which is $127.3 billion in today’s dollars. Total war is expensive because it requires the effort to both destroy and rebuild the other side.

The rhetoric of each party’s leadership is well-known to be hostile, and these sentiments are shared by the party’s rank-and-file. Pew Research shows a majority of both parties believe that the opposing side does not share their goals and values. The same study also reports that a majority of Republicans see Democrats as immoral and unpatriotic, and a majority of Democrats believe Republicans are close-minded. A sense of mutual decency is almost entirely lacking, and a path toward reconciliation is nowhere to be found.

World War II was a total war fought with a strategy for peace. What came after Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan was a rules-based world order based on post-war reconstruction and democratization. But what comes after the two-party system? If, for instance, the American right eradicates the American left, then what? Neither side has articulated a vision for what the American political landscape looks like in the future universe where one side wins and the other side surrenders. Instead, we just keep fighting and fighting and promise to sort it out later.

Third, a war fought without an endgame will persist indefinitely. The American experience in Afghanistan and Iraq teaches us what happens when war is waged without a vision of what comes next. The result of fighting for the sake of fighting is more fighting. Continuous warfare for no discernible outcome breeds exhaustion and wears down the public’s willingness to participate. When surrender is inconceivable and victory is right around the corner, we become stuck in a quagmire.

Fourth, the end of a war does not guarantee the end of warfare. World War I did not “end all war,” which is why the term “World War” applies to two separate historical events. The most trafficked analogy for partisan warfare refers to the American Civil War. Today, we face an internal geographic split in values systems and new, unfamiliar technology that can amplify the destruction of conflict. However, the end of the Civil War did not resolve the problems that started it. Violence persisted after Appomattox and led to the first presidential assassination in American history. Systemic oppression continued into the next century and the century after that. Fratricide may have kept the Union as one, but it did not heal the divisions within.

War is costly. Sometimes, the necessities outweigh the costs, but most often, they do not. The most notable just wars — the Revolution, the Civil War, World War II — ended with a new hope that a better, more secure future is possible. Admirable leaders — Washington, Lincoln, Roosevelt, and Truman — knew not only how to fight wars but how to end them. However, the critical challenge posed by this era is not fighting or ending a war but avoiding it.

A second civil war seems far-fetched. Most of us have never experienced widespread violence and cannot fathom how quickly a situation can go from bad to worse. A quick glance around the world shows what humans are capable of. Any war fought between factions of society will harm all and benefit few. The only way to win this war is to never have to fight it.

2 replies »

  1. Has the esteemed author of this work never explored the realities of realpolitik in diplomacy, in this case politics? Should there not be a full-fledged effort to win as many voters as possible by any reasonable means necessary, necessarily at the expense of the other party, how should American politics be conducted? To distress over some social media users yelling at each other by making it seem as though America is “at war” politically without presenting some sort of utopia alternative just reeks a false sense of superiority over the political experts that exist on both sides and have accomplished actual legislative feats. Also, to argue that politics in America is heading for a quagmire lacks the knowledge that it has been a quagmire since the formation of two opposing parties. Although the argument that democracy is becoming more oligarchical is a good one and well-founded, it is overtly false that opposing parties have not put forward their ideal version of America should they be in control. Lastly, the writer would be better served focusing on the future implications of movements like those of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, rather than reducing them based on his own shortsightedness, as in calling the former’s campaign one of “tearing down other candidates” rather than putting forward a complete and holistic plan for its potential administration.


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