“Civil War” Movie Reactions: “Can That Really Happen in America?”

The movie Civil War, being released April 12th, depicts a civil war in America taking place in the not-so-distant future. The movie has people talking about how likely such a terrifying scenario actually is. 

If you haven’t yet seen the trailer, here it is: 

How likely is a civil war? 

Fears of civil war in America didn’t start with this movie. Extreme polarization has had this idea floating around the zeitgeist for a while now. Many people say such a thing is possible — even likely

Stephen Marche’s book The Next Civil War: Dispatches from the American Future has the following publisher’s description

The United States is coming to an end. The only question is how. 

As Toronto-based novelist and culture writer Marche observes, the U.S. is riven by sectarian conflict that cannot help but end, at some point, in violence. By his projections, the inevitable civil war will be uncommonly vicious, pitting neighbor against neighbor.

If you search for “civil war” on social media, you’ll find many people who think a civil war is either possible or likely.

A 2022 survey found that 40% of Americans thought a civil war was “at least somewhat likely” in the next ten years. 

“A full-scale civil war is pretty remote.”

If we’re serious about understanding the likelihood of a civil war, we should listen to people knowledgeable about political violence and how countries’ internal rifts tend to play out. 

Thomas Zeitzoff specializes in political violence and extremism. We asked him for his thoughts on the Civil War trailer: 

A full-scale civil war is pretty remote. Between civil war and peaceful coexistence, there’s a large swath of outcomes. I think the more realistic worries for U.S. democracy are the legalese maneuverings that use the law and politics to break democracy.

A major reason people think a civil war is likely is due to surveys that seem to suggest that many Americans are willing to engage in political violence. Some analysis has estimated that as many as 40% of Americans support political violence

But 2022 research by Sean J. Westwood and colleagues found that such estimates were vastly overstated. In a 2024 report summarizing their research, they wrote, “Fewer than 4% of Americans support violent crimes like assault or arson against political opponents, with minimal difference between Democrats (3.5%) and Republicans (3.8%).” 

A 2024 paper by another academic team supported this lower estimate — they found that the number was somewhere around 3%. 

Three percent is admittedly a lot of people in a country of 330 million, but much less scary than FORTY PERCENT.

Stronger than many suggest 

We asked political violence researcher Sean J. Westwood for his thoughts on people’s fears of widespread violence: 

Americans are increasingly divided along partisan lines, but it’s important to recognize that we have no evidence for substantial support for partisan violence among either party in the general public. There are factions outside of general society who support partisan violence, but they haven’t polluted the minds of typical Americans. 

There are deep cracks in American democratic life, but our democratic foundation is stronger than many in the media and academia suggest.

Thomas Zeitzoff has written about the dangers of pundits claiming we’re headed toward a civil war. He argues America doesn’t exhibit the factors that scholars associate with the onset of full-scale civil war. 

Zeitzoff also says that thinking something will come true can make it more likely to come true. In a social media post in 2022, Zeitzoff wrote, “Like a bank run, repeatedly saying that we’re headed towards a civil war, can be a self-fulfilling prophecy (increasing the risk for violence).” Overly pessimistic narratives can result in a feedback loop of fear, hysteria, and aggression — which can help create the very things we’re scared of.

Zeitzoff encourages academics to offer “sober analysis backed by evidence” and to “not indulge in sensationalist claims that we are likely headed towards a new civil war.”

Political scientist Josh Kertzer has also criticized those who speak like a civil war is likely. Kertzer wrote, “I know a lot of civil war scholars, and… very few of them think the United States is on the precipice of a civil war.”

What does the director say? 

Alex Garland, the director of Civil War, has said that the movie isn’t meant to make a specific statement about American politics. He’s explained that the movie contains a message about extreme divisiveness and our insistence on “talking and not listening”:

Garland rather passionately pointed out that Civil War is trying to create a conversation about political divisiveness in general that vilifies the other side; ratcheting up rhetoric into an ethical debate which makes it easier to see others as evil — and once somebody is considered morally wrong, their opponents can justify all sorts of extreme measures to stop them.

“Why are we talking and not listening?” he asked. “We’ve lost trust in the media and politicians. And some in the media are wonderful and some politicians are wonderful — on both sides of the divide. I have a political position and I have good friends on the other side of that political divide. Honestly, I’m not trying to be cute: What’s so hard about that? Why are we shutting [conversation] down?”

Fears are understandable

America has a major toxic polarization problem. Understandably, people are concerned about how bad things might get. But we can think about worst-case scenarios without speaking as if those scenarios are certain or likely. We can discuss our concerns while seeing the downsides to being overly pessimistic and highly certain. 

The future is, of course, unknown. We don’t know how our divides will play out. A 2020 paper on polarization put it this way: “On one hand, polarization may be on a self-reinforcing upward trajectory… on the other hand it may have recently reached the apex of its pendulum swing.”

Our future depends on what all of us do together. We all play a role in building a less toxic and more stable America. We can demand less contemptuous and polarizing behaviors from leaders, activists, and people in the media. We can strive to disagree with our political opponents in better, healthier ways. 

If you’re concerned about our divides and where they may lead, we hope you see the importance of joining the movement to overcome our toxic divides. 

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