31% of U.S. voters think a second Civil War is likely

A recent poll shows a third of Americans think another civil war is likely. How worried should we be?

The United States is as divided as it has been in decades. 55% of Americans think the country is less united today than it was when Trump took office and 13% of Americans have ended a friendship over political issues. Our disunity extends to where we decide to live, with many areas of the country becoming ever more politically homogeneous.


While you can question if the country was ever really united, there is little doubt that between significant partisan disagreement on fundamental moral issues and our increasing hostility towards members of the other side that the country is in a precarious spot. 

It might not be surprising then that when Rasmussen Polling asked people “How likely is that the United States will experience a second civil war sometime in the next five years?” 31% of respondents said they thought it was likely with 11% saying it was very likely.

The same poll found that 59% of Americans are concerned about violence from those who oppose Trump’s policies and that 53% of people fear those who dislike how the media portrays the president will also resort to violence.

It isn't even across all demographics, however. 37% of Democrats polled said that a new civil war was likely, making them slightly more concerned than Republicans (32%) or non-affiliated (26%) respondents. The pollsters also state that “Women and those under 40 are more worried about a possible civil war than men and older voters are.” The data also suggests that white Americans are less concerned than Americans of other races about violence breaking out.

How accurate is this polling data?

Rasmussen Reports is one of the more prestigious American polling companies. It has been rather accurate over its history, with only a few minor slip-ups here and there. There is no reason to think this data is inaccurate.

However, it is often criticized for having a skewed methodology and conservative bias. Nate Silver of Five Thirty-Eight has pointed out that most of the population is unlikely ever to be contacted by Rasmussen because of their methods, which include only calling landline telephones. This is why they are also assumed by the Five Thirty-Eight crew of having a slight Republican sampling bias when comparing polls.

Others, such as Jonathan Chait, have pointed out that the wording of some questions Rasmussen asks naturally incline the person polled to answer as though they were a conservative. Since how questions are worded can influence how people will answer, this is an important critique. 

What are the experts saying?

Former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich has mused that while a second civil war isn’t likely, an attempt to impeach Trump would probably lead to serious social unrest.

Iowa Congressman Steve King, however, suggested that “America is heading in the direction of another Harper's Ferry. After that comes Ft. Sumter" on his twitter feed. It does seem that even if a second civil war isn’t too likely, there is an agreement that an increase in unrest is probable.  

So, should I try to move to Australia now or what?

In many ways, this belief has the traits of a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you really think that violence by the other side is imminent you are going to act accordingly. As history shows us, this can often include preemptive acts of violence. 

Such actions can make the situation spiral out of control in a hurry. The mere fact that so many people think this is a possibility might make the event more likely. 

On the other hand, things looked a bit more precarious in the lead up to the Civil War than they do now. Political violence in Kansas over the slavery question lead to open warfare and made national headlines for years before Lincoln’s election. In 1856, A southern Congressman beat a Northern Senator with a cane on the Senate floor over his objections to slavery. Two years after that a brawl took place in the House over similar issues.

It got worse during the election of 1860. The runner-up was Southern Democratic candidate John Breckinridge, who was known to be sympathetic to secessionist ideas and later served as the Confederate Secretary of War. Even before the votes were cast, General Winfield Scott advised President James Buchannan that at least seven states would secede if Lincoln won and that the army should be deployed.

All of this took place within living memory of the Nullification Crisis, which nearly ended in civil war itself. 

While we are currently enduring an era of increased political violence, none of the events mentioned above have modern equivalents. Likewise, while states like Texas, California, and South Carolina have toyed with the possibility of secession in response to government policies they don’t like, this is mostly grandstanding and none of them have taken any practical action towards this end.

We also tend to mock the people who say that this is likely.

Alex Jones, an influential conspiracy theorist, predicted that members of the Democratic Party would start a civil war on July 4th, 2018.  Twitter, as expected, has made a rather funny joke of his insane rating. A whole meme has appeared with people describing their second civil war experiences in the style of letters from the 1860’s. Others made fun of Jones’ prediction, by complaining that they didn’t get an invite. 

It should also be remembered that just because people think something is likely doesn’t mean it will come to pass. After all, many people thought a war against the Soviet Union was going to happen at some point. While the poll results above seem high, they are similar to the ones seen ten years ago when Obama was president. It might be the case that some people just always worry about large outbreaks of violence.

America is clearly divided right now. Our ever-decaying political discourse and strained institutions have led a plurality of Americans to think warfare is imminent. While this may be hysteria, the fact that so many people think we have gotten to that point is problematic in itself. Historically, the future has been hard to predict and these sentiments might be proven correct or dismissed next week.

In the meantime, trying to prevent a war through empathy might be a good path to take. 

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Freud is renowned, but his ideas are ill-substantiated

The Oedipal complex, repressed memories, penis envy? Sigmund Freud's ideas are far-reaching, but few have withstood the onslaught of empirical evidence.

Mind & Brain
  • Sigmund Freud stands alongside Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein as one of history's best-known scientists.
  • Despite his claim of creating a new science, Freud's psychoanalysis is unfalsifiable and based on scant empirical evidence.
  • Studies continue to show that Freud's ideas are unfounded, and Freud has come under scrutiny for fabricating his most famous case studies.

Few thinkers are as celebrated as Sigmund Freud, a figure as well-known as Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein. Neurologist and the founder of psychoanalysis, Freud's ideas didn't simply shift the paradigms in academia and psychotherapy. They indelibly disseminated into our cultural consciousness. Ideas like transference, repression, the unconscious iceberg, and the superego are ubiquitous in today's popular discourse.

Despite this renown, Freud's ideas have proven to be ill-substantiated. Worse, it is now believed that Freud himself may have fabricated many of his results, opportunistically disregarding evidence with the conscious aim of promoting preferred beliefs.

"[Freud] really didn't test his ideas," Harold Takooshian, professor of psychology at Fordham University, told ATI. "He was just very persuasive. He said things no one said before, and said them in such a way that people actually moved from their homes to Vienna and study with him."

Unlike Darwin and Einstein, Freud's brand of psychology presents the impression of a scientific endeavor but ultimately lack two of vital scientific components: falsification and empirical evidence.

Psychoanalysis

Freud's therapeutic approach may be unfounded, but at least it was more humane than other therapies of the day. In 1903, this patient is being treated in "auto-conduction cage" as a part of his electrotherapy. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The discipline of psychotherapy is arguably Freud's greatest contribution to psychology. In the post-World War II era, psychoanalysis spread through Western academia, influencing not only psychotherapy but even fields such as literary criticism in profound ways.

The aim of psychoanalysis is to treat mental disorders housed in the patient's psyche. Proponents believe that such conflicts arise between conscious thoughts and unconscious drives and manifest as dreams, blunders, anxiety, depression, or neurosis. To help, therapists attempt to unearth unconscious desires that have been blocked by the mind's defense mechanisms. By raising repressed emotions and memories to the conscious fore, the therapist can liberate and help the patient heal.

That's the idea at least, but the psychoanalytic technique stands on shaky empirical ground. Data leans heavily on a therapist's arbitrary interpretations, offering no safe guards against presuppositions and implicit biases. And the free association method offers not buttress to the idea of unconscious motivation.

Don't get us wrong. Patients have improved and even claimed to be cured thanks to psychoanalytic therapy. However, the lack of methodological rigor means the division between effective treatment and placebo effect is ill-defined.

Repressed memories

Sigmund Freud, circa 1921. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Nor has Freud's concept of repressed memories held up. Many papers and articles have been written to dispel the confusion surrounding repressed (aka dissociated) memories. Their arguments center on two facts of the mind neurologists have become better acquainted with since Freud's day.

First, our memories are malleable, not perfect recordings of events stored on a biological hard drive. People forget things. Childhood memories fade or are revised to suit a preferred narrative. We recall blurry gists rather than clean, sharp images. Physical changes to the brain can result in loss of memory. These realities of our mental slipperiness can easily be misinterpreted under Freud's model as repression of trauma.

Second, people who face trauma and abuse often remember it. The release of stress hormones imprints the experience, strengthening neural connections and rendering it difficult to forget. It's one of the reasons victims continue to suffer long after. As the American Psychological Association points out, there is "little or no empirical support" for dissociated memory theory, and potential occurrences are a rarity, not the norm.

More worryingly, there is evidence that people are vulnerable to constructing false memories (aka pseudomemories). A 1996 study found it could use suggestion to make one-fifth of participants believe in a fictitious childhood memory in which they were lost in a mall. And a 2007 study found that a therapy-based recollection of childhood abuse "was less likely to be corroborated by other evidence than when the memories came without help."

This has led many to wonder if the expectations of psychoanalytic therapy may inadvertently become a self-fulfilling prophecy with some patients.

"The use of various dubious techniques by therapists and counselors aimed at recovering allegedly repressed memories of [trauma] can often produce detailed and horrific false memories," writes Chris French, a professor of psychology at Goldsmiths, University of London. "In fact, there is a consensus among scientists studying memory that traumatic events are more likely to be remembered than forgotten, often leading to post-traumatic stress disorder."

The Oedipal complex

The Blind Oedipus Commending His Children to the Gods by Benigne Gagneraux. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

During the phallic stage, children develop fierce erotic feelings for their opposite-sex parent. This desire, in turn, leads them to hate their same-sex parent. Boys wish to replace their father and possess their mother; girls become jealous of their mothers and desire their fathers. Since they can do neither, they repress those feelings for fear of reprisal. If unresolved, the complex can result in neurosis later in life.

That's the Oedipal complex in a nutshell. You'd think such a counterintuitive theory would require strong evidence to back it up, but that isn't the case.

Studies claiming to prove the Oedipal complex look to positive sexual imprinting — that is, the phenomenon in which people choose partners with physical characteristics matching their same-sex parent. For example, a man's wife and mother have the same eye color, or woman's husband and father sport a similar nose.

But such studies don't often show strong correlation. One study reporting "a correction of 92.8 percent between the relative jaw width of a man's mother and that of [his] mates" had to be retracted for factual errors and incorrect analysis. Studies showing causation seem absent from the literature, and as we'll see, the veracity of Freud's own case studies supporting the complex is openly questioned today.

Better supported, yet still hypothetical, is the Westermarck effect. Also called reverse sexual imprinting, the effect predicts that people develop a sexual aversion to those they grow up in close proximity with, as a mean to avoid inbreeding. The effect isn't just shown in parents and siblings; even step-siblings will grow sexual averse to each other if they grow up from early childhood.

An analysis published in Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology evaluated the literature on human mate choice. The analysis found little evidence for positive imprinting, citing study design flaws and an unwillingness of researchers to seek alternative explanations. In contrast, it found better support for negative sexual imprinting, though it did note the need for further research.

The Freudian slip

Mark notices Deborah enter the office whistling an upbeat tune. He turns to his coworker to say, "Deborah's pretty cheery this morning," but accidentally blunders, "Deborah's pretty cherry this morning." Simple slip up? Not according to Freud, who would label this a parapraxis. Today, it's colloquially known as a "Freudian slip."

"Almost invariably I discover a disturbing influence from something outside of the intended speech," Freud wrote in The Psychopathology of Everyday Life. "The disturbing element is a single unconscious thought, which comes to light through the special blunder."

In the Freudian view, Mark's mistaken word choice resulted from his unconscious desire for Deborah, as evident by the sexually-charged meanings of the word "cherry." But Rob Hartsuiker, a psycholinguist from Ghent University, says that such inferences miss the mark by ignoring how our brains process language.

According to Hartsuiker, our brains organize words by similarity and meaning. First, we must select the word in that network and then process the word's sounds. In this interplay, all sorts of conditions can prevent us from grasping the proper phonemes: inattention, sleepiness, recent activation, and even age. In a study co-authored by Hartsuiker, brain scans showed our minds can recognize and correct for taboo utterances internally.

"This is very typical, and it's also something Freud rather ignored," Hartsuiker told BBC. He added that evidence for true Freudian slips is scant.

Freud's case studies

Sergej Pankejeff, known as the "Wolf Man" in Freud's case study, claimed that Freud's analysis of his condition was "propaganda."

It's worth noting that there is much debate as to the extent that Freud falsified his own case studies. One famous example is the case of the "Wolf Man," real name Sergej Pankejeff. During their sessions, Pankejeff told Freud about a dream in which he was lying in bed and saw white wolves through an open window. Freud interpreted the dream as the manifestation of a repressed trauma. Specifically, he claimed that Pankejeff must have witnessed his parents in coitus.

For Freud this was case closed. He claimed Pankejeff successfully cured and his case as evidence for psychoanalysis's merit. Pankejeff disagreed. He found Freud's interpretation implausible and said that Freud's handling of his story was "propaganda." He remained in therapy on and off for over 60 years.

Many of Freud's other case studies, such "Dora" and "the Rat Man" cases, have come under similar scrutiny.

Sigmund Freud and his legacy

Freud's ideas may not live up to scientific inquiry, but their long shelf-life in film, literature, and criticism has created some fun readings of popular stories. Sometimes a face is just a face, but that face is a murderous phallic symbol. (Photo: Flickr)

Of course, there are many ideas we've left out. Homosexuality originating from arrested sexual development in anal phase? No way. Freudian psychosexual development theory? Unfalsifiable. Women's penis envy? Unfounded and insulting. Men's castration anxiety? Not in the way Freud meant it.

If Freud's legacy is so ill-informed, so unfounded, how did he and his cigars cast such a long shadow over the 20th century? Because there was nothing better to offer at the time.

When Freud came onto the scene, neurology was engaged in a giddy free-for-all. As New Yorker writer Louis Menand points out, the era's treatments included hypnosis, cocaine, hydrotherapy, female castration, and institutionalization. By contemporary standards, it was a horror show (as evident by these "treatments" featuring so prominently in our horror movies).

Psychoanalysis offered a comparably clement and humane alternative. "Freud's theories were like a flashlight in a candle factory," anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann told Menand.

But Freud and his advocates triumph his techniques as a science, and this is wrong. The empirical evidence for his ideas is limited and arbitrary, and his conclusions are unfalsifiable. The theory that explains every possible outcome explains none of them.

With that said, one might consider Freud's ideas to be a proto-science. As astrology heralded astronomy, and alchemy preceded chemistry, so to did Freud's psychoanalysis popularize psychology, paving the way for its more rapid development as a scientific discipline. But like astrology and alchemy, we should recognize Freud's ideas as the historic artifacts they are.

Photo by Alina Grubnyak on Unsplash
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