Is the U.S. Headed Toward Civil War?
On the anniversary of the January 6 U.S. Capitol insurrection, many are asking whether increased political violence is in the United States’ future. In a new episode of the Talking Policy podcast, host Lindsay Morgan talks with Barbara Walter about her new book, How Civil Wars Start, and about the factors that increase the likelihood that countries will turn to violence, and their growing presence in American life. Walter, a leading authority on international security and civil wars who helps run the award-winning blog Political Violence At a Glance, is a professor of political science at UC San Diego and a research affiliate at IGCC.
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The release of your book, How Civil Wars Start, coincides with the grim anniversary of the January 6 Capitol insurrection. Do you think America is headed toward a civil war?
It’s showing signs of greater political instability and political violence. The U.S. government’s Political Instability Task Force, which I joined 2017, has identified two factors that best predict where political instability and civil war is likely to break out around the world. The first and most important is whether a country is what we call an anocracy—neither fully democratic nor fully autocratic. Countries most at risk of civil wars are those that are transitioning rapidly from one end of the political spectrum to the other. Think about Iraq in 2003, when the United States went in, toppled Saddam Hussein, and wanted to set up a democracy. It didn’t take long for Iraq to spiral into civil war. But it can also happen in the other direction, when a country is rapidly moving from democracy to something less democratic. Think about Ukraine just a few years ago.
The second thing is whether “ethnic entrepreneurs” emerge in these countries who mobilize citizens around ethnic, religious, or racial lines. Those countries are most at risk of civil war.
So I’m sitting on this task force and we’re studying countries around the world. And I start to realize that these two factors are emerging in the United States at a surprisingly rapid rate. The United States, for most of its history, has been considered fully democratic. Starting in 2016, one of the datasets that measures the level of democracy began to downgrade the United States. And in January of this year, for the very first time since the late 1700s, the United States was classified as an anocracy. We are now in that middle zone where the risk of political instability and violence increases. Then, in 2020, the United States was classified as factionalized, because our political system is increasingly polarized around identity.
In your book, you note that, today, Black, Latino, and Asian Americans more likely to vote Democrat, while roughly 60 percent of white voters vote Republican. In contrast, in the middle of the last century, the ethnic minority vote was split between the two parties and most white working class voted Democrat. Even in 2007, a year before Obama was elected, whites were just as likely (51 percent) to be democrats as republicans. Today 90 percent of the Republican Party is white. How did the U.S. get so divided?
I think it started when Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act. At that time, the Democratic Party had to make a choice about who they were going to embrace. The white population was starting to shrink, and the African American community was demanding more rights. If the Democrats embraced full voting rights for African Americans, they were going to become a fairly large block. So, the Democratic Party had to decide whether to double down on its Southern strategy, which was to maintain the support of Southern whites—a very important constituency for the Democratic Party—or support civil rights.
Johnson correctly assessed that the future of American politics was going to have to be more inclusive. When he signed the Civil Rights Act, he turned to his aid and said, “I think we’ve just delivered the south to the Republican Party for generations.”[i] And that’s exactly what happened. Republicans started making real political gains. Playing on racial identity is a strategy that has worked for them and continues to work for them. But we’re starting to see that break down because a majority of Americans are now Democrats. If you look at how America is going to change demographically, the Democratic Party is likely to capture new voters and the Republican Party is not.
Although many countries have cleavages along religious, ethnic, or other lines, civil wars are still relatively rare. What are the things that tip groups into violence?
Most people think that civil wars are started by the poorest groups in society, the most discriminated groups, the immigrants, the people who are abused. That’s generally not the case. Civil wars are often started by groups that political scientists call “sons of the soil.” These are groups who have historically been dominant politically and economically, but have either lost power or believe they will lose power. These are the groups that feel they’re the rightful heirs to a country. So in Northern Ireland, for example, the Catholics were heavily discriminated against by the Protestants and were angry because they felt it was their country, their land. They didn’t understand why they were second class citizens in their historic home.
What triggers them to shift to violence? Catholics in Northern Ireland were peaceful protesters for decades. The shift to violence happened when they realized there was no way to regain power by working within the system.
There are certain indicators that measure when these shifts happen. One is a loss in elections, or a series of losses, where it becomes clear that in a democracy, this group no longer has the numbers to win elections. The 2020 elections in the U.S., for example, were devastating to many, many whites. The Republican Party had unbelievably great turnout—they brought out millions of additional Republican voters. It was a Herculean effort, and yet they still didn’t have the numbers to win the presidency. That’s going to happen again, because the numbers are against them.
The second condition that tends to create a loss of hope are failed protests. Protests are an act of hope—people go out into the streets to express dissatisfaction because they hope the government will reform as a result.
So if people protest, it indicates that there’s still some belief that the system can work.
Right. I think the Charlottesville march ended up being evidence for white Republicans that working within the system wasn’t going to work for them. In Charlottesville, far-right groups came together, they coordinated, they marched, they chanted, “we will not be replaced.” These were people who thought they were doing the right thing and that there would be no consequences because this is “their” America. But not only did Charlottesville have no effect—for example, it did not cause radical change in U.S. immigration policy—it led to the arrest and deplatforming [from social media] of many of the participants. The same thing is happening to the insurrectionists.
What feeds loss of hope is a sense that working within the system doesn’t work and in fact makes life worse and harder. That’s when you begin to see extremists turn to violence to work outside the system.
You describe in your book the moment of lost hope in Northern Ireland, where the Catholic community, faced with Protestant provocation and the brutality of British troops, stopped believing that nonviolent means could achieve their goals. And that was the beginning of the violent era of the IRA.
But when I think about the Republican base in the U.S., which I know is diverse in its own right, and includes people of different income and education levels, I find myself wondering whether this community’s grievance is being manipulated or manufactured by politicians who have an interest in stoking that resentment? What do you think?
It’s not manufactured at all. One of the interesting things about sons of the soil across the world, is that they don’t see their privilege. To them, the fact that the country’s official language is their language is the way it should be. The fact that they celebrate their holidays is the way it should be. They don’t see their privilege, but they do see their own social decline. They see other groups in society who are doing better than them, and that creates a lot of resentment.
In the United States, the lives of the white working class have not improved in terms of income, in terms of the outcomes for their children, in terms of employment levels, in terms of home ownership. They’ve been suffering disproportionately from the opioid crisis. Their grievances are real. And they look at the rich coastal cities, and they see people who don’t look like them who are benefiting enormously from the new economy and they are resentful.
Ethnic entrepreneurs take advantage of this situation. They realize there’s a disaffected group, and they know that if they play on ethnicity, they can get support that will catapult them into political power. The classic example of this is Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia. He was a member of the Communist Party when Yugoslavia disintegrated, and went from being in political power to facing competitive elections. And the Yugoslav citizens who were now independent of the Soviet Union didn’t love the communists.
He was really very savvy. He realized that demographically, there were more Serbs in Yugoslavia than any other ethnic group, so by fearmongering, he convinced them to vote as a bloc against the Croats, who he said would slaughter the Serbs if they gained power. If the grievances weren’t real on some level, then mouthpieces like Milosevic wouldn’t gain any traction. But people like Milosevic are playing on something that does exist. They just amplify it and exaggerate it and manipulate it.
That’s exactly what Trump did. He was in a very crowded group of Republican politicians in 2016. Nobody thought he had a chance. Then he started talking about immigrants taking American jobs. That catapulted him to the forefront of Republican candidates—it was a message that resonated. Once he figured out that it worked, he was very entrepreneurial about exploiting it.
You write about social media as being an accelerant to polarization. What’s the problem with social media, and what role is it playing in the U.S.?
The 20th century was the century of democratization. It reached a peak in 2006 and reversed after that. V-Dem called 2020 the year of autocratization, because every year since 2006, more democracies have declined than have become more democratic. So we are in a period of democratic backsliding. And it’s not even the new, fragile democracies that are withering away. It’s the most liberal democracies. The United States, the UK, Belgium.
Why are these once powerful liberal democracies declining? I think a lot of it has to do with the amount of misinformation and disinformation that is being spread and amplified on social media. People can put whatever they want on social media for the most part, and I actually don’t think we should censor content. What we shouldn’t be doing is creating algorithms that take the most incendiary, most hateful messages and put them in front of the biggest possible audience.
On social media, if you “like” a kitten being pet by a police officer, you will be fed something about the Police Benevolent associations. And if you look at that, you will be directed into far-right content related to the police. It happens very quickly. And social media companies—and Facebook is the worst of them—know this is happening. And they’re not changing their algorithms, because this is the business model that makes them the most money.
You write that James Madison and Alexander Hamilton feared that factionalism would undermine American democracy. But they thought it would take the form of property owners protecting their wealth. What you show is factionalism that’s identity-based, not class-based. At the same time, people don’t have a primordial instinct to kill each other. Grievance must be stoked, and look the person doing the stoking—watch their bank accounts. Are they motivated by identity stuff? Or is it about protecting their wealth? Were Madison and Hamilton right?
I think they were right. It’s either about protecting their property or their power, which often go hand in hand. I’m sure there are individuals who are stoking racial division here in the United States who are true believers. They believe that white Americans have a right to this country. They believe the ideals that white people hold are better. But I think those people are the exceptions.
I was really moved when I read the story of Berina and Daris—Bosnians living in Sarajevo, who were educated, had great jobs, a diverse group of fun friends, and then watched as their world disintegrated around them. And they didn’t really realize what was happening until it was already well underway. I could see myself in that story. It was disquieting and sobering. We are living in fraught, uncertain times. What can ordinary Americans do, and are there any reasons to be hopeful?
I do think there is hope. There’s hope on many levels. The single most important thing that we as a country can do is to regulate social media. Don’t make it easy for people to place incendiary information in the hands of your citizens who are increasingly getting all of their news online.
What can we as individual citizens do? Listen, the power of voting is really important. In a good year, maybe half of Americans vote. Voting matters a lot, turnout matters a lot. If you could increase turnout across the board—Republicans, Democrats—if you had 90 percent of Americans voting, we would have a very, very different Congress. Individuals can knock on doors; the local ground game is really, really important. Turn out to vote yourself and convince others to go out to vote, especially young people, who are going to have to live with these policies for a long time.
Learn more about IGCC’s Future of Democracy initiative.
[i] Specifically, Lyndon Johnson said: “We [the democrats] have lost the South for a generation.” https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/the-press-office/2014/04/10/remarks-president-lbj-presidential-library-civil-rights-summit
The music featured in the IGCC podcast is courtesy of Gato Loco de Bajo.