How Civil Wars Start

BOOK REVIEW by Willard Manus

Is America in the midst of a civil war?

Some pundits scoff at the notion, calling those who disagree with them alarmists. One of their pet targets is Barbara F. Walter, a political scientist and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She is also the author of a new book, HOW CIVIL WARS START (And How to Stop Them).

Walter pinpoints exactly how and why civil war has broken out in America. Her research and conclusions have upset her enemies, motivated them to smear her personally, even threaten her with violence. To her credit, she hasn’t stopped speaking out whenever she can in newspaper and tv interviews.

The gist of her position is spelled out HOW CIVIL WARS START. “Like all Americans, I was shocked by what happened on January 6,” she writes. “But it was, at the same time, deeply familiar. President Trump’s defiance after losing the 2020 election reminded me of other presidents, from Nicolas Maduro, who in the months before Venezuela’s 2015 election declared he would not relinquish his post no matter the outcome, to Laurent Gbagbo, who refused to concede after Ivory Coast’s 2010 election because he claimed it was stolen. A part of me did not want to accept the implications of what I was seeing...This is America, I thought, we are known for our tolerance and veneration of democracy.

“But this is where political science, with its structured approach to analyzing history as it unfolds, can be so helpful. No one wants to believe that their beloved democracy is in the decline, or headed toward war: the decay is often so incremental that people often fail to notice or understand it, even as they experiencing it. If you were an analyst in a foreign country looking at events in America–-the way you’d look at events in Ukraine or Ivory Coast or Venezuela–-you would go down a checklist, assessing each of the conditions that make civil war likely. And what you would find is that the United States, a democracy founded more than two centuries ago, has entered very dangerous territory.”

Walter calls the United States “a factionalized anocracy that is quickly approaching the open insurgency stage which means we are closer to civil war than any of us would like to believe. The siege on the Capitol has made it impossible for the government to dismiss the threat that far-right groups pose to the United States and its democracy. January 6 was a major announcement by at least some of the groups–-such as the Oath Keepers–-that they are moving toward outright violence...The attack on the Capitol could very well be the first of a series of organized attacks in an open insurgency stage. It targeted infrastructure. There were plans to assassinate certain politicians and attempts to coordinate activity. It also involved a large number of fighters, some of whom have combat experience. At least 14 percent of those arrested and charged are thought to have connection to the military or law enforcement.”

Civil wars look entirely different from past civil wars, Walter states. “Those who wage war against their governments in the 21st century tend to avoid the battlefield entirely....Instead they choose the strategy of the weak: guerrilla war and terrorism. And, increasingly, domestic terror campaigns are aimed at democratic governments.”

Here is how all-out civil war in the USA can be prevented, she believes:

–establish an independent and central elections management system (to eliminate voter suppression and/or manipulation).

–re-examine the electoral college system, which exacerbates the urban-renewal divide by giving small states disproportionate power in the Senate.

-bolster the rule of law and fix problems of governance that create the conditions that extremists exploit.

–undo fifty years of declining social services, invest in safety nets and human capital across racial and religious lines, and prioritize high-quality education, universal healthcare, and a higher minimum wage...Investing in real political reform and economic security would make it much harder for white nationalists to gain sympathizers and would prevent the rise of a new generation of far-right extremists.

-the government should arrest, prosecute and seize the assets of existing far-right extremists. It should pursue a strategy called “leadership decapitation” which involves imprisoning the leader or leaders of a terrorist group to hasten its collapse.

-make it harder for outsiders and extremists to sow distrust and division on social media. Social media must be regulated if factionalism is to be reduced.

-the threat of climate change must be addressed lest natural disasters like heat waves, wildfires, hurricanes and droughts tear at our social fabric.

Walter’s insightful and challenging book should be read by anyone interested in preventing a civil war from destroying our democracy.