How the Movie ‘Civil War’ Echoes Real Political Anxieties

One subject seems to be unifying the right and the left today: Disunion.

From the multiplex to social media, the prospect of America collapsing into armed conflict has moved from being an idea on the tinfoil-hat fringes to an active undercurrent of the country’s political conversation.

Voters at campaign events bring up their worries that political division could lead to large-scale political violence. Pollsters regularly ask about the idea in opinion surveys. A cottage industry has arisen for speculative fiction, serious assessments and forums about whether the country could be on the verge of a modern-day version of the bloodiest war in American history.

And “Civil War,” a dystopian action film about an alternative America plunged into a bloody domestic conflict, has topped box office sales for two consecutive weekends. The movie has outperformed expectations at theaters from Brownsville, Texas, to Boston, tapping into a dark set of national anxieties that took hold after the Jan. 6, 2021, storming of the Capitol.

Of course, the notion of a future civil war remains a mere notion. But, as another presidential election approaches, it has suddenly become a hotly debated one, reflecting the bipartisan sense of unease that has permeated American politics. In polls and in interviews, a segment of voters have said they fear that the country’s divides have grown so deep that they may lead not just to rhetorical battles but actual ones.

“I personally do not believe we will descend into a formal armed civil war,” said Maya Wiley, who ran for mayor of New York City in 2021 and now serves as the president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, a civil rights group that has fielded several polls on the topic. “But it’s in the air. It doesn’t surprise me at all that we’re seeing a very explicit fear of where things could go.”

Such fear has been stirred by the violence and chaos that subtly and overtly pervades American politics. Violent threats against members of Congress have reached record levels, as have reports of hate crimes in the country’s largest cities. The husband of Nancy Pelosi, the former House speaker, was beaten with a hammer in his home. The criminal trial of a former president unfolded in a courthouse while a man nearby doused himself with an accelerant and set his body on fire.

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