Blake Fleetwood Gun Violence Original Politics

America’s Second Civil War is Underway

Gun violence is only one symptom of American democracy's terminal illness.

By Blake Fleetwood / Original to ScheerPost

The frightening epidemic of gun violence in the US has become a commonplace reality. Easy access to firearms is an obstacle that national politicians have not been able to overcome with more than lip service. But gun violence is merely one ominous symptom of a growing social collapse that directly threatens our nearly 250-year old system of democratic capitalism. 

We begin with this: There have been 260 mass shootings so far this year, and  2022 is projected to hit an all-time record.  Mass shootings, — four or more victims shot in a single incident — are becoming so frequent that we’ve become numb. Since the 1980s, the rate has increased 90 times – from 6 to 9 a year, to more than 900 projected for 2022.  And while mass shootings occur all over the world, the United States is sadly exceptional; with only 5% of the world’s population, the US has 31% of its mass shooters.  

Increased crime in large cities led  to the recall of San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin in the June election, and more recalls are looming for a dozen other progressive DAs over the issue of violent crime. Supreme Court judges are getting death threats. Thousands of Trump supporters violently stormed the Capitol building on January 6 to overthrow the results of the presidential election, a first in US history.

It doesn’t take long to connect the dots: greed by ruling American oligarchs has produced  a massive inequality over the last few decades.  This ruling elite will not allow the government to share even a little bit of vast newly created riches with the majority of Americans – people who find themselves priced out of the American Dream and cast into the American nightmare.

It is not a coincidence that this tenfold rise in mass shootings and other tumult coincides with record-level wage stagnation for the majority of Americans, without a college degree. This group lost 13% of their purchasing power between 1979 and 2017. Yet national income per head grew by 85%.

Salvador Ramos, the Uvalde killer, was working for $7.25 at a local Wendy’s. He had recently dropped out of high school. He had no chance of going to college. He had no health insurance. He had no hope and no future. This most recent school shooter would never be able to support himself, much less a wife and children. He was caught in a poverty trap, with no way out.

Ramos was not psychotic according to psychiatrists.“It drives me crazy when I hear politicians talking about mental health,” said a friend and professor of psychiatry at Columbia Medical School. “Going after mental health is a red herring. It won’t solve anything.  Psychotics suffer from hallucinations and are delusional. They are not angry. Ramos was not that. He was a loner, and obviously a very angry, confused adolescent male of which there are about a million in this country.”

According to a study of 200 mass shooters, one of the common traits of these gunmen is often a suicidal impulse that manifests outwardly, prompting them to blame others. Think of suicide by cop.

Gun Violence Archive — 2022 projected

The median household income In Uvalde, Texas is $41,683 (compared to the US median of $64,997). Uvalde has a poverty rate of 21% compared to the American poverty rate of half that –11%. The median rental costs of an apartment is $633 per month, and the median house value is $77,700.

Twice as many people in Uvalde do not have health insurance – 21.9% – as compared to 10.2% in the rest of the country, and only 17% have a college degree versus 40% of the national average.

Last year two economists from Princeton, Ann Case and her husband Angus Denton, (a 2020 Nobel Prize winner in economics), published an influential book, “Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism.”They dug into national health CDC statistics — prepandemic — and found that working age white men and women, without college degrees, were dying from suicide, drug overdoses and alcohol related liver disease at such rates that for three consecutive years, life expectancy had fallen for the first time in 100 years. The two professors documented 600,000 extra deaths beyond the predicted numbers. They called these “deaths of despair.”

The Princeton economists concluded from this economic and health data that something had gone profoundly wrong with Capitalism and the American Dream. 

In the last four decades white middle class men were losing their well-paying long-term jobs and dying off prematurely. And the cause, according to Case and Denton, can be directly tied to the loss of the middle class well–being and a growing inequality that is decimating the American majority.

In the decades between 1940 and 1980, America created the largest middle class and prosperity for all that the world has ever known. Capitalism and democracy thrived  under this rapidly growing middle class affluence. The American Dream was born. It was a  time when children could expect to  grow up to be healthier, more educated, happier, earn more, and live a better life than their parents.

But after 1980, that Dream began to crumble for an increasing majority of Americans who began to lose hope in ever buying a house, getting a college education, having decent health care or holding a long-term job. Mass shooters largely fit into this majority.  An estimated 93% of these murderers do not have a college degree, according to a study of 200 shooters by The Violence Project . Another common trait of these shooters is a history of employment troubles.

The income share of the poorest half of Americans declined while the richest have grabbed more. In Europe, that didn’t happen according to the World Inequality Database. 

See charts below:

This resulting inequality has resulted in a rapidly growing epidemic of anti-social behavior over the last 40 years:

  • Gun deaths are at record levels, up 45% from the previous decade. In 2020 there were a total of 45,222 firearm deaths in the US.
  • Suicide rates have gone up more than 30% in the last 20 years. More than 1.4 million adults attempt suicide every year in America. And 45,979 succeeded in killing themselves in 2020. The highest rate of suicide is among middle class white men.  Suicides rose to the highest in the central part of the country. In 2020, 54% of people who died by suicide did not have a known mental health condition. 
  • Health risks for adolescents have shifted from pregnancy, alcohol, and drug use to depression, suicide, and self harm.
  • Drug overdose data from the CDC indicates that there were an estimated 100,306 drug overdose deaths in the United States during the 12-month period ending in April 2021, an increase of 28.5% from the 78,056 deaths during the same period the year before.

So what is causing this death-dealing environment? 

Seismic economic changes — exponential technological advancements, manufacturing’s labor-free innovations, and globalization – have produced unfathomable riches for a miniscule elite.

But these newfound riches have not been passed on to the majority of  middle class Americans. The opposite is true. Instead of a rising tide lifting all boats, this new affluence has only lifted a few boats while most are still stuck in the mud.

America’s middle class has been “dealt out of the promise of America,” as President Biden put it.  They have seen the American Dream slip away over the last 40 years. And they see no way out. They can’t afford a home, or college education, or health care. They can’t get a decent job that will pay a living wage. The basics of a good life have become luxuries, except for the richest few. This is especially true after the pandemic and our rising inflation. Most Americans don’t have money. They live on the edge. 

The majority are living paycheck to paycheck and there is no way they can amass the critical amount of capital to get them out of this no-win dilemma. 

This did not used to be true. The current  middle class stagnation is in sharp contrast to the 40 year period from 1933 to 1973 when average earnings for the middle class quadrupled. Spurred on by government investments and a political will, the Gross Domestic Product grew by 5% annually, creating a broad American middle class. But during the same past period, the percentage of wealth owned by the top 1% experienced a sharp decline from 48% to 22% of the country’s total wealth. 

Since the beginning of the 20th century, our democracy and prosperity has been intrinsically tied to the expectation of a healthy, growing middle class prosperity, but it doesn’t exist anymore. There is only one giant and increasingly desperate underclass and a tight-knit elite that keeps getting richer.


Images from the civil war (top) juxtaposed with images from the January 6 insurrection (bottom)

Much has been written lately about American democracy and capitalism and how our free market political system is in danger. Billionaire investor Ray Dalio, founder of the giant hedge fund Bridgewater Associates, unleashed a tweetstorm warning that America is “on the brink of a terrible civil war” because of widening inequality.

Barbara F. Walter, a political scientist from UC San Diego agrees. For the last two decades she studied and predicted civil wars around the globe for the CIA.

Her new book, “How Civil Wars Start,” sounds the alarm on the increasing likelihood of a second Civil War in the United States.

Economic elites have created a pernicious partisanship that has served to divide and trivialize this angry majority – making it less able to effectively articulate its needs. 

If this state of affairs and political fracture continues unabated, Walter maintains, it may certainly turn into a second civil war. 

“A civil war today won’t look like America in the 1860s, Spain in the 1930s, or Russia in the 1920s. It will begin with sporadic acts of violence and terror, accelerated by social media. It will sneak up on us and leave us wondering how we could have been so blind.”

Walter is not alone. Stephen Marche in The Guardian writes: “The next US Civil War is already here – we just refuse to see it.”

An alarming survey by the conservative American Enterprise Institute found that 39% of Republicans support the use of violence to achieve their political goals. Many speak openly of civil war. A recent poll found a plurality of Americans (46%) believed a future civil war was likely, 43% felt it was unlikely, and 11% were not sure. Younger people, Republicans and those residing in the South, Central/Great Lakes, were firmer in this belief of a coming conflict than those in the East. Blacks and Hispanics also had a greater belief in a coming civil war than whites.

So, who — and what — is to blame for this toxic brew?

Democrats want to blame Donald Trump for the savage insurrectionist threats to democracy, while Republicans want to blame Democrats for the violent riots in the streets and for the increase in lawlessness.

But the underlying blame for America’s perilous state – a cold civil war — clearly lies in the burgeoning inequality that has grown rampant over the last 40 years. Consider: 

  •  Since 1978, real earnings for ordinary people, the 68% majority without a college degree, have declined.
  • 46 million Americans say they cannot afford health care. Even after the Affordable Care Act, 28 million Americans are left uninsured.
  • The poverty rate today is about 11%, not much improved from the 1973 rate
  •  Today 61% of Americans can’t afford $1000 for a minor emergency: an unexpected medical expense, or a broken transmission.
  • 75% of Americans think the country is on the wrong track.
  • Compared to other industrialized nations, America’s spending on health care, housing and education has been miserly. To reach the level of Canadian or European basic living standards, America needs to more than double its level of public spending. As a result, Americans are much sicker, less educated, poorer and more unhappy than citizens of all other industrialized countries.
  • The top 1% own more wealth than the bottom 92%.

These feelings of betrayal — rage and polarization — among America’s majority middle class — the Left and the Right – have been smoldering for decades, long before Donald Trump even appeared on the political scene. 

The Occupy Wall Street protesters of a few years ago and the middle-class blue-collar workers who delivered the 2016 presidency to Donald Trump, are strikingly similar in their predicament. Both groups believe that the government isn’t working for them, that they are getting the shaft. They both want their fair share. But because of America’s outdated two-party political structure, the two sides have never been able to channel their common grievances into unified demands.

Divide and conquer wins again.

Both the left and the right believe the whole system is rigged against them: the courts, elections, the economy, Big Pharma, the media, all of it. They believe that the system in place is controlled by a corporatocracy of greedy, corrupt, malicious, wealthy elites and the media who prey on them. The result is a twisting of our democratic institutions in favor of the wealthy. 

The majority of Americans – Black, white and Hispanic – who don’t have a college education, now fall into an underclass, with virtually no power or influence. 

They don’t count. 

This is not a secret. Former President Jimmy Carter said that the US is now “just an oligarchy with unlimited political bribery.”

This great inequality is not anyone’s fault. Inequality has been allowed to increase under Democratic Presidents like Clinton and Obama and Biden and under Republican presidents Reagan, Bush Sr., Bush Jr. and Trump. 

The only way to  safeguard our democracy and democratic capitalism is to address the concerns of “the vast majority of Americans” for whom there is a disconnect between the realities of their lives and what goes on in Washington.

So, one must ask: What do Americans want? More gun control, universal medical care, a woman’s right to reproductive freedom, money and lobbyists out of politics, eliminating the tax loopholes that favor billionaires, better schools, fair voting laws, and a lower defense budget? 

Well, in short, yes. 

All the polls show it, (by 70% margins) but none of these desires, however popular,  hold much sway among the economic establishment in Washington. So concludes a recent study by Princeton University Professor Martin Gilens and Northwestern University Professor Benjamin I Page.

Capitalism is not the villain. Capitalism run amok with political power is. Businessmen and politicians are doing what they have always done. It’s just that the rules of the game changed rapidly. The top 10 percent got very rich, very quickly, and the middle class found itself in a sharp decline: increasingly ignored, irrelevant, and forgotten.

But any government that cannot keep its majority safe and secure, in other words, “keeping the trains running on time” – will inevitably lose its legitimacy.

Of course, we have never had a true democracy in the strict sense, even though America has had many democratic elements throughout its history. America ranks either 25th or 36th (University of Wurzburg) of all countries in fulfilling democratic ideals. The Economist calls the United States a “flawed democracy” while the German university scholars call America “A Deficient Democracy.”

The top democracies, in order, are Norway, Iceland, Sweden, New Zealand, Canada, Finland, and Denmark.  Not surprisingly these countries rank among the happiest countries in the world. The US ranks 16th. 

But even our “flawed” or “deficient” democracy, lasting nearly 250 years, is a blip in human history.  It will not survive if it does not deliver the goods to the majority and fails to address the basic needs of its citizens. Most people don’t really care much about political ideology like free speech or an independent court system. They care about what’s in it for them.

Average citizens are angry and left out, increasingly willing to blow up the system to see what happens. Disgruntled Americans voted left for change in 2008 (Obama) and then did a 180 degree turn, and moved right for change in 2016 (Trump). And then they reversed themselves again rejecting Trump in 2020. Three times, middle class Americans were bitterly disappointed with the little that they got: more politics of platitudes, while inequalities mushroomed.

Recent mass protests and strikes — teachers, GM workers, Amazon employees, and Kaiser healthcare workers — all embody the unhappiness of a disgruntled middle class. Since 2010, young adults, ages 18-39, overall opinion of capitalism has deteriorated to the point that capitalism and socialism are tied in popularity among millennials and Gen Z-ers. 

No wonder 50 million people believe that the 2020 election was “stolen.” And in a sense, they are right. Elections have been rigged for a long time by massive amounts of money and corporate lobbyists. Torrents of “dark money,” raised by both establishment parties, prop up a system that rewards the rich and decimates the poor and middle class. Surely there is something wrong with the fact that anonymous Corporate PACs spent $400 million last year to buy – or rather, influence – our elections. And all this bribery — the buying and selling of laws — is all perfectly legal after the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision in 2010.  

The  long antiquated electoral college is a major scandal. Two recent presidents, George W. Bush (2000) and Donald Trump (2016), were not elected by popular vote. The Senate certainly does not reflect the views of most Americans. How could it?  A senator from Wyoming with a population of 291,116 has the same vote as a senator  from California who speaks for 18,832,065 people. Thus Wyoming’s political power is magnified 65 times in the Senate.

What about the fundamental principle of one man, one vote?

This is why courts, the Senate and the House and even the presidency, have not been able to operate in a way that reflects the needs and wants of the majority. 

American politics has been dominated by an elite economic oligarchy for quite some time, and has led to the political disenfranchisement of huge swaths of ordinary people both from the left and the right. It is truly a system where the majority can make a valid claim of “taxation without representation.”

And where is that money going? This year the profits of big corporations reached a 70-year high. The ratio of CEO pay to average workers expanded from 21-to-1 in the 1960s to 351-to-1 now. During the pandemic, inequality has accelerated – 130 new billionaires were born and the fortunes of America’s 745 billionaires increased to $5 trillion dollars, – while life continued to brutalize much of the rest of the population. Working Americans as a whole lost $3.7 trillion in wages during the same period.

This latest re-engineering of America  – the “Third Industrial Revolution” – and this vast new wealth has resulted in a dystopian nightmare for the majority. It has not “trickled down” and has triggered a dangerous time bomb that has broken the Golden Age promise of universal progress and dreams of middle class upward mobility.  

Democracy and free market capitalism cannot survive such inequality. Every dominant  civilization believes in the hubris that it is the last and best stage of human development and that it will endure forever. This is a fantasy. Advanced societies collapse with bewildering speed: the Mongols,  the Greeks, the Romans, the British, the Chinese, the Mayans, the Incas, and the Soviet Communists.

Strongman populism all too often replaces democracies and free markets in times of disequilibrium. Authoritarian rulers persuasively  justify their contempt for liberal niceties by claiming they represent the people against corrupt and out-of-touch economic and political elites. 

If America with its boundless wealth cannot untie this Gordian Knot, a populist backlash from inequality will slowly kill democracy and democratic capitalism as we know it. And all the King’s horses and all of the King’s men will not be able to put it back together again.

Blake Fleetwood
Blake Fleetwood

Blake Fleetwood was formerly a reporter on the staff of The New York Times and has written for The New York Times MagazineNew York MagazineThe New York Daily News, the Wall Street JournalUSA Today, the Village Voice, Atlantic, and the Washington Monthly on a number of issues. He was born in Santiago, Chile and moved to New York City at the age of three. He graduated from Bard College and did graduate work in political science and comparative politics at Columbia University. He has also taught politics at New York University. He can be reached at

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