OUR NATIONAL MOOD is currently characterized by two things: anger and anxiety. Many people are angry because of the Trump presidency and his ongoing contribution to political deterioration. Others are angry because his presidency did not continue. But a wider feeling, traumatizing all except the fringes, is anxiety stemming from concern about how our national political and governance situation is deteriorating.
A newly published book analyzes the causes of our deterioration and provides evidence for increased anxiety. How Civil Wars Start by Barbara F. Walter examines violent conflicts in countries around the world and uses those lessons to analyze the current political and social environment in the United States. She writes that “The warning signs of instability that we have identified in other places are the same signs that . . . I’ve begun to see on our own soil.”
Walter is a well known professor of international relations at the University of California at San Diego and she has carefully examined a range of violent clashes in countries like the former Yugoslavia, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, India, Northern Ireland, Myanmar, the Philippines, and multiple African countries. She also looked at nations where internal conflict did not reach civil war but presented enormous risk. Virtually all of this examined history is post World War II and provides lessons of how such conflicts now look different than what Americans think of as “The Civil War.”
In her review and analysis of the risks, Professor Walter uses an objective method of diagnosing the causes of such conflicts. That system was designed by scholars, is internationally used by experts, and is administered by the Center for Systemic Peace. They have found that the least likelihood of conflicts is in countries that function as democracies or autocracies. But there is ample evidence “that one of the best predictors of whether a country will experience a civil war is whether it is moving toward or away from democracy.”
The book provides details about the multiple countries where civil wars emerged in recent decades and how those events were predictable based on what experts had previously learned. For example, the 2003 Iraq war in which the United States deposed dictator Saddam Hussein and quickly attempted to install a democracy led instead to years of violent ethnic conflict among Iraq’s domestic groups. Researchers had predicted that “rapid democratization in a deeply divided country could be highly destabilizing.” This is not an argument against democracy but is based on evidence that complex state evolution does not happen quickly or easily.
There are also examples of movement away from democracy generating conflict. A familiar case is Northern Ireland, where experts believe that British authorities for years supported violence against Catholics that “not only destroyed Catholic’s faith in the possibility of reform, they delivered them into the open arms of the Provisional IRA.” As has been the case in other countries, this provoked citizens to become allies of violent extremist groups. Such civil wars are not fights between formal armies but involve assassinations, public bombings, and guerrilla fighting.
When 168 Americans were killed in the 1995 bombing of the Alfred Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City by Timothy McVeigh, it was seen as an isolated incident. What is now better understood is the ongoing radical themes that contributed to that and subsequent events. McVeigh was believed to belong to the radical Michigan Militia which is now bigger and more active.
One striking connection to the present is the fact that pages from a 1978 novel called The Turner Diaries were found in McVeigh’s truck after the attack. That book is called “the bible of the racist right” and it envisions “an Aryan revolution that overturns the US.government.” It was written by William Pierce, who led a neo-Nazi group. It is striking to learn that in mid-2020 The Turner Diaries was #46 on Amazon’s “Bestselling Literature” list. It was only after the January 6, 2021, Capitol attack that Amazon removed The Turner Diaries and similar books from its web recommendations.
That illustrates a development of the past decade that is easy to understand but currently impossible to manage. The huge expansion of social media has shown that, since 2013, the percentage of Americans who receive news from social media has grown from 23 percent to over 70 percent. While some of that news is accurate, the spread of false political and social information has dramatically increased.
The lessons from civil conflicts in other countries demonstrated that “unregulated social media platforms turned out to be the perfect accelerant for the conditions that led to civil war.” Professor Walter’s book contains multiple examples of how YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter were used to promote political and social violence around the world. It is now happening in the US, as radical groups can use social media to communicate more widely, target the demographics likely to be sympathetic, and cause “ever-diverging realities” that can tear society apart. That divergence is further supported by the internet’s provision of wide instructions about how to make bombs, buy weapons, and find targets.
Those internet paths are used to accelerate political radicalism by the wide distribution of misleading information.
That is clearly impacting the United States with potentially violent radicals on both the extreme left and extreme right. Members of antifa, a loosely organized left-wing group, have committed multiple violent acts. Professor Walter also points to the Socialist Rifle Association, and other entities including a Black nationalist militia that have grown in recent years. It appears in 2020 that radical left groups were responsible for approximately 20 percent of terrorist incidents in the US, a rising percentage. That still leaves the radical right as the predominant source of such incidents. Groups such as the Oath Keepers, the Three Percenters, and the Proud Boys have become more prominent and visible, including their participation in the Capitol riot that put some of them under arrest.
While even anxious Americans may not feel impacted by radical left and right groups, the book demonstrates that “most of the time, civil wars start with small bands of extremists . . . who care more deeply about power and politics than the average citizen.” As those groups trigger conflicts, people from the middle of society get drawn in to pick a side.
Americans have historically thought that, if necessary, dangerous radicalism could be tracked and diminished by the federal government. More recently though, an administration contributed to the expansion of such radicalism. Walter shows that, because of their targeted hostility, right wing terrorist groups historically rose in size during Democratic presidencies but not during Republican presidencies. The same was true of higher weapons purchases. Those patterns changed during the Trump presidency when right wing terrorist groups grew significantly as did the purchase of weapons. By August 2020, right wing terrorist attacks and plots reached an historic high in the US. The following January, during the attack on the Capitol, multiple signs and T-shirts worn by people in the crowd said: “MAGA Civil War January 6, 2021.”
While Donald Trump didn’t originate right-wing terrorism, he expanded it, politically exploited it, and led the country to a much higher risk of civil war. He defended the white nationalist demonstrators in Charlottesville as “very fine people” and referred to Black Lives Matter protestors as “terrorists.” He thought armed protestors in the Michigan capitol building were “very good people” because they wanted to abolish COVID restrictions. Professor Walter compares Trump to “other ethnic entrepreneurs before him” who “put the grievances of White, male, Christian, rural Americans into a simplified framework that painted them as victims whose rightful legacy had been stolen.”
Attitudes among Americans have dramatically changed in recent years. The book reports a recent survey showing that 33 percent of Democrats and 36 percent of Republicans feel “somewhat justified” in using violence. Those numbers increased from 8 percent among people in both parties in 2017. Professor Walter notes that, in the Federalist Papers, Alexander Hamilton feared that the greatest threat to the Republic “was not an outside adversary but a homegrown group ravenous for control.”
To address our current high risk, the book examines clear lessons from successful democracies that must be applied here if we want to save our country. For example, since 2000, two presidents have lost the popular vote but won the election because of the electoral college, which should be abolished to make all votes count. Prohibit serious gerrymandering that distorts the representation of communities and brings more extreme candidates to the forefront. Close fundraising loopholes and reinstate campaign finance rules. Criminalize domestic terrorism because we have no laws against that now. Regulate social media to improve its performance similar to the manner in which many other routine industries are regulated. Implement a national voting rights system that insures legal accessibility and accuracy.
Professor Walter acknowledges that risks the United States now faces are difficult. “No one wants to believe that their beloved democracy is in decline or headed toward war; the decay is often so incremental that people often fail to notice or understand it, even as they’re experiencing it.” But if you examine the conditions that make civil war likely, you would find “that the United States, a democracy founded more than two centuries ago, has entered very dangerous territory.”