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People walk in front of the U.S. Capitol near the Washington Monument in Washington D.C., on Jan. 6, 2022, one year after the attack on the Capitol.Kenny Holston/The New York Times News Service

In 1989, a few days after I arrived at Duke University in Durham, N.C., I walked from my dorm on the east campus through a tree-canopied residential neighbourhood to the local mall. By the time I walked back, it was dark, and there was nobody on the streets. Other students told me I was out of my mind.

I studied for two degrees in the United States in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and for a kid from Montreal the greatest culture shock was how much Americans worried about crime. Being on foot, in a city, at night, was seen as an inherently dangerous activity.

Since last fall, I’ve spent time in several U.S. cities. They all feel different from a generation ago, because they are. Walking around late at night in the beautiful historical districts of central Savannah, Ga., and Charleston, S.C., a voice inside my head kept saying, “This is risky.” Except it wasn’t.

I went to school in the U.S. at the peak of a crime wave. Fear of crime was not irrational. Since the 1990s, however, crime in the U.S. has been steadily falling. Things are getting better, not worse.

Which brings me to the new movie Civil War. It takes place in a near-future where the U.S. has fractured into warring states, order has broken down and gangs of heavily armed vigilantes are exacting street-by-street revenge on former neighbours.

It’s not a very good movie – save your $15; this umpteen-million-dollar production is built on a 59-cent script – but the premise underlying it, and the fear, is on a lot of minds.

I’d like to offer some reasons for optimism.

A lot feels broken in the U.S. these days. But feelings aside, a lot is also quietly working. Americans don’t get along on social media, but in the real world they appear to be getting along better, or at least less poorly, than ever. Turn off the TV and go outside, and it’s a lot harder to see a looming civil war.

Let’s start with crime statistics. By Canadian standards, the U.S. is still a high-crime place. But crime rates have been falling for three decades. There were about half as many murders in 2023 as during the worst years of the 1980s and early 90s.

There was a spike during the pandemic, but it’s reversing. Crime analyst Jeff Asher recently told NBC News that when the 2023 numbers are finalized, “we will have seen likely the largest one-year decline in murder that has ever been recorded.”

At a Donald Trump rally, every day is “American carnage.” On Mainstreet USA, not so much.

Next point of optimism: American politics.

Last week, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Mike Johnson, did something remarkable. Sorry, let me rephrase that: He did something normal.

The leader of the House allowed its members to vote on military and financial aid for Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan. That aid is supported by a majority of Americans, and a majority in Congress, yet it’s been held up by opposition from a minority in thrall to Mr. Trump.

The ex-president demanded that no aid go to Ukraine until Democrats agreed to tighten up the southern border; when Democrats agreed, Mr. Trump told his minions to refuse to take yes for an answer. Successful government today could be fatal to his electoral prospects tomorrow.

After months of going along, Mr. Johnson stepped up, and let the aid packages come to a vote. They passed with overwhelming majorities: 311 to 112 in favour of aid to Ukraine, 366 to 58 for Israel and 385 to 34 for Taiwan.

I believe this is what the kids call “adulting.”

I don’t want to downplay the dangers lurking in American politics. The electorate is deeply divided, and the two parties are beset by insurrectionists of the far right and far left.

It’s easy to pitch scripts about a future civil war. Fiction is flavoured with plausibility because so much of U.S. history was marked, and made, by political violence.

Start with the American Revolution, which historians today generally understand as a civil war. It was mostly fought between neighbours who, overnight, abruptly and violently divided into Patriots and Loyalists. (Canada is an unintended consequence, with Ontario and New Brunswick created for American refugees from that first American civil war.)

Slavery was ended through the barrel of the gun in the U.S. Civil War, but a few years later, via the barrels of other guns, Blacks in the South were disenfranchised and subjected to legal segregation.

And there is a long history of racial violence remaking U.S. geography and politics, from the destruction of the Black heart of Tulsa, Okla., in 1921, to the torching of many cities in the 1960s, to widespread rioting – which some on the left prefer to call uprisings – in the wake of what happened to Rodney King and George Floyd.

More than most societies, the United States of America has powerful ideals that hold it together. It also has historical divisions and impulses that pull it apart. I’m still betting on the former.