Civil war scholars who have been studying the occurrence of civil wars over the past century have identified predictable patterns that lead to national conflict, including genocide and civil wars. Could America be heading to a second civil war? The possibility seems far-fetched, even ridiculous. In “How Civil Wars Start: And How to Stop Them,” scholar Barbara F. Walter discusses and connects these data and patterns to recent circumstances in the U.S. Walter makes a compelling case that the anger and division in America that has exploded since 2016 could very well lead to extreme violence.
Walter emphasizes that civil wars ignite and follow common patterns. The best predictor is when countries are quickly moving toward or away from democracy. This “middle zone” is where most civil wars occur. A “polity score” ranks a country between being autocratic or democratic on a scale of minus 10 (most autocratic) to plus 10 (most democratic). “Anocracies” is the term used to describe countries in the middle. These “partial democracies” are twice as likely to experience political instability or civil war.
A second key factor is “factionalism,” which occurs when political parties or leaders capitalize on ethnic, racial or religious divisions and try to exclude “the other” from power. Factionalism typically includes dominant leaders (“ethnic entrepreneurs”) who sow division and fear by demonizing those outside of their faction.
The appearance of factional political parties in an anocracy increases the risk of civil war by 30 times!
The factional ranking system ranges from five (strong democracy) to one (fully repressed). Experts have dropped the U.S.’s ranking to three, since, as Walter writes, “the Republican Party is behaving like a predatory faction” and strongly embracing white American grievances.
Another key factor leading toward rebellion is when a segment of the citizenry feels they are losing hope and status. “It’s not the desperately poor who start civil wars, but those who once had privilege and feel they are losing status they feel is rightfully theirs,” writes Walter. Roughly half of white Americans are categorized as racially resentful. When people feel that the faction that they identify with is losing power and have lost hope that the normal political process can reverse this, they often arm themselves for perceived protection. In America, gun sales soared after Barack Obama was elected president.
Walter calls social media “the perfect accelerant for the conditions that lead to civil war,” including multiple examples of how Facebook and other social media have greatly accelerated ethnic cleansing and violence globally. Social media has led to “democratic decay” around the world. Social media companies work to keep people on their platforms, not caring if content is true or harmful. Algorithms drive users to more extreme content. Social media “heightens the ethnic, social, religious, and geographic divisions that can be the first step in the creation of factions.”
Walter examines common tactics used by autocrats. Autocrats claim that government is a failure and compromise is bad. They try to convince citizens that what’s needed is strong leadership and “law and order.” “People will often sacrifice freedom if they believe it will make them more secure.” Once in power, wannabe autocrats work to cement their power by dismantling democratic institutions.
So, how close is the United States to civil war? Walter states that “we are a factionalized anocracy that is quickly approaching the open insurgency state, which means we are closer to civil war than any of us would like to believe.” Recent surveys show Americans are becoming much more willing to accept violence to achieve their political goals.
Walter provides many examples of why the U.S. polity index score has fallen from +10 in 2015 to +5 today, including the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection, conservatives driving gun sales to an all-time high in 2020, militias on the rise, new voter suppression laws and conspiracy theories such as QAnon taking hold. She also describes how our division has thrust Americans into two opposing factions. The Republican party is now 90 percent white, and racial resentment keeps growing as America moves toward being a minority-majority nation by 2045.
According to Walter, left-wing groups won’t start the violence because they “simply have less to lose in a changing world, and less to gain from violence.” But the threat of left-wing violence, pushed by right-wing media, keeps driving right-wing gun sales.
Walter provides additional data that experts use to measure the risk of violence in society, such as the CIA-developed list of phases that lead to insurgencies and Gregory Stanton’s 10 stages of genocide. She discusses the key risk of insurgent penetration into the police, military and intelligence services as well as the impact from declining working-class opportunities and other societal factors driving anger and fear. She explains that “a country does not need a large percentage of the population to be involved for a violent ethnic cleansing to occur.
Small numbers of heavily armed citizens — together with help from law enforcement and the military — are often enough.” The rest of the population just needs to remain passive, which can be achieved through intimidation.
Walter even provides a detailed example of how a new American civil war could work. It could consist of guerrilla warfare and terrorism to try to reset the social order of America. Steps could include turning Americans against the federal government, convincing moderates to accept the new status quo, intimidating minorities into silence and blocking new immigrants. They could try to convince Americans that we would be safer if socialists (liberals) could be purged and try to create a block of white ethno-states in the rural heartland.
But Walter also reminds us that civil wars are rare.
To reduce the chance of civil war, Walter writes, good governance is more important than a good economy. She provides a detailed summary of recommendations to lower the risk. Candidly, her summary comes across as a liberal wishlist: expanding voter rights, tossing the electoral college system, getting big money out of elections, improving public services, tackling climate change and many, many more. Being liberal-minded, I agree with most of her suggestions but don’t have much confidence in seeing them enacted anytime soon.
Most Americans don’t believe a civil war could happen here. But Walter’s well-written book makes a strong argument that the risk is real and that Americans need to pay attention and work to protect our democracy. Because, as Walter writes, “for now, one thing is clear: America’s extremists are becoming more organized, more dangerous and more determined, and they are not going away.”
Dave Gamrath is a longtime community activist who founded InspireSeattle.org and serves on multiple regional boards and committees.
Header image by Pixabay user Daniel Hannah.
Read more of the July 6-12, 2022 issue.