US is ‘closer to civil war than any of us would like to believe,’ a leading expert on civil wars says in a new book

Violent protesters, loyal to President Donald Trump, storm the Capitol, Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021, in Washington

Barbara F. Walter, a civil war expert, said the US is closer to violent conflict than many think.
In her new book, Walter identifies three factors that increase the likelihood of a civil war.
Her book, “How Civil Wars Start: And How to Stop Them,” was released earlier this month.

Barbara F. Walter has spent more than 30 years studying civil wars around the globe and, according to her new book, the US is a lot closer to one than most people think.

Walter – a political scientist and professor at the University of California, San Diego – is one of the world’s leading experts on civil wars. She’s a member of the Political Instability Task Force, a group of analysts that study data to predict where volatility and violence is most likely to break out.

In her new book, “How Civil Wars Start: And How to Stop Them,” which came out this month, Walter outlines three factors researchers have identified that presage civil conflict and explains in detail the ways in which the US exhibits those warning signs.

“Civil wars ignite and escalate in ways that are predictable; they follow a script,” Walter writes, adding that the same patterns have emerged in Bosnia, Ukraine, Iraq, Syria, Northern Ireland, and Israel.

She said one of the best predictors of civil war is if a country is moving towards or away from democracy. If a country is an “anocracy” – a term used to refer to countries that are not fully democratic or fully autocratic but somewhere in between – they are more likely than both full autocracies or democracies to experience violence.

Today, the US is an anocracy for the first time in more than two hundred years, according to Walter, who cites the Polity Project, a nonprofit that measures how democratic or autocratic a country is. Walter said the country’s recent slip on the democracy scale started with the 2016 election, which observers said was marred by politically driven rules and Russian interference.

The US slipped further on the scale during President Donald Trump’s term, when executive powers expanded and the president refused to cooperate with Congress’s first impeachment inquiry, Walter said. And then it slipped again, after the January 6 insurrection.

Another warning sign Walter points to is “factionalism,” a specific kind of political polarization.

“Countries that factionalize have political parties based on ethnic, religious, or racial identity rather than ideology, and these parties then seek to rule at the exclusion and expense of others,” she writes, adding that Trump especially catered to Americans along ethnic and religious lines with a focus on white evangelical Christians.

Finally, Walter points to a phenomenon known as “downgrading” as another predictive measure. Downgrading refers to a dominant group’s loss of status in society. She said researchers have found the “trajectory of a group’s political status” was the “most powerful determinant of violence.”

“People were especially likely to fight if they had once held power and saw it slipping away,” she writes.

Walter said downgrading can apply to all kinds of groups, “rich or poor, Christian or Muslim, white or Black,” but the key is that the group feels a “status reversal,” not just a political defeat.

She cites racial resentment among whites who believe Black Americans or other minority groups are now getting unfair special treatment. She also points to Trump’s focus on the grievances of working-class white people and his attempts to appeal specifically to those who feel they have lost something, as evidenced by his slogan “Make America Great Again.”

“Where is the United States today? We are a factionalized anocracy that is quickly approaching the open insurrection stage, which means we are closer to civil war than any of us would like to believe,” Walter concludes.

Walter explains that a civil war today might look different than in the past. She points to specific examples of violence, like the extremist plot to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and the insurrection at the Capitol as indicators that at least some groups are already willing to move towards violence.

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Politics, Civil War, Polarization, extremism

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