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The Red and the Blue

A Harvard professor worries about America's coming civil war.

12:00 AM, May 12, 2006 • By DEAN BARNETT
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D. QUINN MILLS is worried. The respected Albert J. Weatherhead, Jr. Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School fears that America may be headed toward calamity.

Convinced that two straight elections which he characterizes as "tied and disputed" have gone to the Republicans and that good-faithed, but fatigued, Democrats have "exhausted all other legal options," Mills cautions that a third straight cliffhanger marred by Republican skullduggery could well result in a civil war. By which he means a real, honest-to-goodness Civil War, except this time around it won't be the Blue and the Gray but the Blue and the Red. To warn America about this gathering storm, Mills has written a novel titled Blue! Red! (available online here) and is conducting a sparsely attended online seminar on the subject for the Harvard community.

An often compelling read about a polarized electorate heading to explosion over a contested presidential election in 2008, Blue! Red! nevertheless sometimes veers into the realm of the unintentionally hilarious.

Even though the book begins with the mandatory disclaimer that it "is a work of fiction and that any resemblance to real persons is purely coincidental," the plucky Democratic candidate in the book is a female senator ("Sheila Brinton") whose husband was once president of the United States. Senator Brinton shows a lot more intestinal fortitude than the previous Democratic candidates for president who, in the book's retelling, meekly allowed themselves to be cheated out of the presidency.

"I want to keep fighting," Senator Brinton declares. "I want the Presidency with every fiber of my being - I want it for the Party, for our people who've been beaten down . . . I'm afraid that if I concede now, and I run again next time, they'll steal the election again. If they steal election after election, we have no choice but to not accept it. I'll not back down; I'll not concede like those soft men who were candidates before me conceded."

Strangely, Blue! Red! foresees the college football bowl games becoming the site of armed conflict between rabid partisans (with Republicans naturally being the aggressors). A newswoman in the novel grimly reports:

Without anticipation by security forces, hundreds of people made their way into thefootball bowl games with placards and streamers favoring John Cox or Sheila Brinton.

When fans in the stands began to cheer for opposing candidates, fights broke out. Unfortunately, some fans snuck weapons in under their clothes so the fights have escalated into knifings and multiple shootings.

As a result, every bowl game today has been canceled while authorities evacuate the stadiums and police struggle to get the fighting under control. Thousands of Brinton supporters have fled the stadiums with angry mobs of Cox adherents in pursuit, often overtaking laggards and beating them.

In other words, Mills seems to believe that the Chick-fil-a Peach Bowl could be the 21st century's Antietam.

In Mills's forecast, the Rose Bowl takes on particular significance. "The Granddaddy of Them All" features a Big 10 Champion from a Red State and a Pac 10 champion from a Blue State; the game is played in an empty arena lest violence erupt amongst the politically obsessed boosters, alumni, and students. In spite of the emptiness of the cavernous Pasadena stadium, the Rose Bowl becomes an event of intense national interest as the two squads serve as surrogates for the battling presidential candidates.

OF COURSE it's hard to imagine that the general public would care so deeply about the Rose Bowl in a year when it's not the national championship game. But there are even more fanciful aspects of Mills's grim scenario. First and foremost being that only the most extreme left-wingers consider the 2004 election disputed.

Which isn't to suggest that Mills's project is without any merit. Even if he overstates, the case, he correctly observes that some Americans have lost faith in the reliability of their election system. While institutions such as the Wall Street Journal have railed about the dangerous deficiencies in the system for over a decade, even after the Florida debacle of 2000, state and federal governments led by both parties have failed to meaningfully address the system's flaws.

And there's nothing inherently wrong with contemplating worst case scenarios. Although the suggestion of a second civil war will no doubt strike most people as implausible in the extreme, it's at worst a harmless intellectual exercise.