Is America On The Verge Of Civil War?

10/21/20 08:56AM EDT

Below is a complimentary Demography Unplugged research note written by Hedgeye Demography analyst Neil Howe. Click here to learn more and subscribe.

Is America On The Verge Of Civil War?  - 4776360163 e8e3fcfd45 b

A new survey finds that 61% of Americans are concerned that we’re on the verge of another civil war. What's more, 52% have stockpiled or plan to stockpile food or other essential goods in preparation for social unrest, political violence, or a Covid-19 resurgence. (Engagious)

NH: At the beginning of October, we reported on surveys showing that Americans are increasingly anxious about a possible cycle of violence following the national election on November 3. (See "A Growing Share of Voters Say Violence May be 'Justified.'")

Here we fill in the picture by providing some more recent survey evidence.

Let's start with a new YouGov poll showing that Americans are split down the middle (51% disagree, 49% agree) over the statement: "As a result of the election, Americans will generally agree on who is the legitimately elected President of the United States."

On to the next statement: "America will see an increase in violence as a result of the election." Here 56% agree and only 33% disagree. There are no large differences by party affiliation.

Is America On The Verge Of Civil War?  - ab1

Is America On The Verge Of Civil War?  - ab2

The poll was commissioned by Braver Angels, a nonpartisan organization founded in 2017 and dedicated to bridging political partisanship and re-establishing civil discourse in America. (The name is a play off of Abraham Lincoln's "better angels of our nature.")

The group's explicit strategy is to establish conversations in local communities that can move people toward mutual respect rather than mutual hatred. Its emotional barometer reveals the magnitude of the challenge it faces.

Is America On The Verge Of Civil War?  - ab3

In my own recent commentary, I have suggested that the odds of a "hung" or legally contested outcome of the 2020 presidential election will be minimal if Joe Biden and the Democratic party wins the national vote by a substantial margin (let's say by at least 5 percentage points).

That's because, in this case, the Democrats won't have to wait for a gradual "blue shift" in the vote count; the final outcome will be quickly apparent even in most battleground states.

With Biden recently maintaining or widening his lead in the polls, this outcome--while by no means assured--seems increasingly likely.

But would a very clear "declared" victory by one party eliminate the risk of unrest or violence? Reduce, yes; but eliminate, no. Let's face it: With neither side trusting the electoral process, even a very clear and lopsided victory is not about to persuade the other side to accept defeat gracefully.

As we saw in our last report, 66% of Democrats are "very concerned" about foreign government interference (versus only 15% of Republicans). They are also concerned that Republicans will try to declare victory early to pull the plug on mail-in ballots.

On the other side, 80% of Republicans think that mail-in ballots are "not secure" (versus only 12% of Democrats). Two-thirds of Republicans believe that at least 1% of the votes cast in 2016 were fraudulent, and many of these no doubt believe that Trump actually won the popular vote.

In other words, both sides have already prepared their grounds for outrage.

Pew's latest survey gives us some further perspective here. A large share of voters say they will be "angry," not just "disappointed," if the other candidate wins. That's true for 54% of Biden supporters and for 31% of Trump voters.

Back in 2016, interestingly, the anger balance was reversed: A higher share of Trump voters said they would be angered by Clinton's victory as the reverse.

Is America On The Verge Of Civil War?  - ab4

Also, according to Pew, slightly more than half of all voters today see politics as a "struggle between right and wrong." This jibes with several other surveys showing that voters overwhelmingly believe--much more than in other recent elections--that the 2020 election "really matters" for the country.

More ominously, the vast majority of voters believe that victory by the other side "would result in lasting harm to the country." 89% of Trump voters believe this, as do 90% of Biden voters.

Lasting harm? Yikes. Hard to be polite and agree to disagree when you think your country will never recover from the other side's victory.

Is America On The Verge Of Civil War?  - ab5

Is America On The Verge Of Civil War?  - ab6

OK, that sets us up for the final numbers worth mentioning. These two questions were asked in a poll conducted by Engageous, an opinion research firm. (I have known Richard Thau, CEO of Engageous, for many years and can vouch for his methodology and objectivity.)

The first question is this: "I'm concerned that the U.S. could be on the verge of another Civil War. Agree or disagree?"

40% strongly agree, and other 21% somewhat agree. As expected, the concern is greatest on the two ends of the ideological spectrum. Among very liberal and very conservative, an identical share, 52%, strongly agree.

Is America On The Verge Of Civil War?  - ab7

Is America On The Verge Of Civil War?  - ab8

"This is the single most frightening poll result I've ever been associated with," writes Thau in his press release.

The other question asked in the poll: Do you plan to stockpile, or have you already stockpiled, food and other essential goods in anticipation of social unrest tied to the election and/or a resurgence in Covid-19 in the coming months? 52% said yes, though when asked why most said it was to prepare for a resurgence in Covid-19.

The remainder mentioned either "social unrest tied to racial concerns" (19%) or "political unrest tied to the election (23%). As ever, the political extremes are most likely to agree--with 65% of very liberal voters who say yes to stockpiling and 57% of very conservative voters.

Is America On The Verge Of Civil War?  - ab9

By all accounts from retailers, private gun sales have surged since June. According to the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS), a good proxy for national sales, sales in the first 9 months of 2020 are up 41% over the first 9 months of 2019, which was already a record year. Shares of Smith & Wesson (SWBI) and Sturm Ruger & Co Inc (RGR), the two top U.S. manufacturers, have climbed by 131% and 59% since the beginning of the year.

In its most recent investors' call, SWBI reported that at least 40% of sales are to first-time buyers, more than double the usual share. Gun shops report that many of these buyers are blue-zone liberals.

So what will happen, post election?

2016 offers a suggestive if ambiguous precedent. In the runup to the Trump-Clinton election, the survival industry boomed along with anxiety about the outcome. (See "I Will Survive.") But following Trump's victory, the industry crashed and one renowned gunmaker, Remington, filed for bankruptcy. (See "The 'Trump Slump' Continues for U.S. Gunmakers.") 

Apparently, with Trump in the White House, red-zone fears of a blue-zone takeover (translation: gun control) were eased and red-zone sales shrank rapidly, far below what they had been during the Obama presidency.

That could mean one of two things. This time, after the election, a certain outcome will quell the anxiety and once again deflate the demand for survival gear--especially, if Biden is elected, from all the new blue-zone buyers.

Alternatively, a Biden victory could push red-zone sales back up indefinitely as tens of millions core of Trump supporters prepare to "stand back and stand by."

Anything resembling a civil war does not seem likely, at least not yet. But Americans do wonder how and when the two sides will peaceably de-escalate.

*  *  *


Neil Howe is a renowned authority on generations and social change in America. An acclaimed bestselling author and speaker, he is the nation's leading thinker on today's generations—who they are, what motivates them, and how they will shape America's future.

A historian, economist, and demographer, Howe is also a recognized authority on global aging, long-term fiscal policy, and migration. He is a senior associate to the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C., where he helps direct the CSIS Global Aging Initiative.

Howe has written over a dozen books on generations, demographic change, and fiscal policy, many of them with William Strauss. Howe and Strauss' first book, Generations is a history of America told as a sequence of generational biographies. Vice President Al Gore called it "the most stimulating book on American history that I have ever read" and sent a copy to every member of Congress. Newt Gingrich called it "an intellectual tour de force." Of their book, The Fourth Turning, The Boston Globe wrote, "If Howe and Strauss are right, they will take their place among the great American prophets."

Howe and Strauss originally coined the term "Millennial Generation" in 1991, and wrote the pioneering book on this generation, Millennials Rising. His work has been featured frequently in the media, including USA Today, CNN, the New York Times, and CBS' 60 Minutes.

Previously, with Peter G. Peterson, Howe co-authored On Borrowed Time, a pioneering call for budgetary reform and The Graying of the Great Powers with Richard Jackson.

Howe received his B.A. at U.C. Berkeley and later earned graduate degrees in economics and history from Yale University.

© 2021 Hedgeye Risk Management, LLC. The information contained herein is the property of Hedgeye, which reserves all rights thereto. Redistribution of any part of this information is prohibited without the express written consent of Hedgeye. Hedgeye is not responsible for any errors in or omissions to this information, or for any consequences that may result from the use of this information.