.
T

he events of January 6, 2021 took most of us by surprise. Protesters breaking into and ransacking the Capitol building – it seemed more like something out of a movie or that could happen in another country, but never the U.S. One year on, the country seems more divided than ever on nearly every issue, the most alarming of which is continued division over the legitimacy of the most recent election and the very foundations of American democracy. 

How Civil Wars Start and How to Stop Them
| Barbara Walter | Crown | January 2022.

Amplified by social media, it seems this divisiveness is tearing the country’s very fabric asunder. This division has gotten so extreme that some are predicting a new civil war. More alarmingly, there are those who seem to be willing it into existence, looking with anticipation on a future where physical battle lines will be drawn along political or geographical boundaries. Is the U.S. really that close to a breakdown of society and outbreak of physical violence, or do concerns over the threat of civil strife overlook the resilience of American democracy?

In her new book “How Civil Wars Start”, University of California, San Diego Professor of Political Science Barbara Walter appears to be among those willing a civil war into existence. Walter answers with hyperbole a question frankly her book could – and for sake of quality should – have refrained from asking in the first place. 

“How Civil Wars Start” is really two books wrapped up into one and should be treated as such, rather than as a cohesive piece. The first half of Walter’s book is a fascinating and compelling answer to the titular question. It is a well-written, well-argued look at how civil wars come to be, successfully demonstrating how much civil war has changed from our popular imagination of the 19th century U.S. Civil War. Walter breaks down the causes and origins of civil wars, analyzing with clarity what is an often-opaque subject. While there is no singular answer, Walter tells us, there are patterns that appear across time and geography. 

According to Walter, civil wars rarely spark in a country with either a democratic or autocratic government. It is rather the transitory middle ground as country’s move from one toward the other where civil wars are most likely to begin. Here is the zone of maximal risk as institutions are fragile and interests of the powerful are in a state of flux. This unstable space creates opportunities for violence and “ethnic entrepreneurs” that seek to capitalize on the chaos for their own personal or factional interests. 

Factionalism further strains already fragile societies. Ethno-religious groups can arise in fragile societies out of fear or necessity. This is particularly the case, as Walter shows, when the structure of a society is defined at least in part along ethnic or religious lines – and when groups previously enjoying power are disenfranchised. One obvious example is the displacement of Sunnis from positions of power in Iraq in favor of Shiites, with the de-Baathification process providing fuel for horrific internecine violence. During transition periods, countries are more likely to experience the collision of factionalism/identity politics, disenfranchisement, and a stymying of activism/protest – this in turn makes civil conflict more likely. 

Walter’s analysis of civil wars and their causes is insightful and instructive. She compellingly identifies factors making civil war more likely, offering the international community a valuable tool for identifying risk. The book would have been far stronger had it stopped with this. 

Unfortunately, the second half of Walter’s book wildly overstates the threats to American democracy by applying models for genocide and insurgency to the U.S. case in what is at best a gross misdiagnosis. She transitions from a cogent analysis to hyperbole, suggesting that the country is on the verge of civil war. 

There are many today who conflate the contentious years of the Trump presidency as indicators of institutional decay in the U.S. Walter falls into this trap, characterizing those four years as indicative of societal decay and collapse from which there is no return—an opening of a Trumpian Pandora’s box that contains at best a mere modicum of hope for the future. 

At a macro-level, Walter argues that the foundations of America’s democracy are eroding, as evidenced by Trump’s attempt to dismantle the rule of law and his dismissal of presidential norms. She suggests that the rise of the alt-right and other fringe groups are indicators of the emergence of a nascent insurgency. Walter further argues that the country’s very real systemic issues of race, justice, law, and order sit on the scale of genocide—early to be sure, but nonetheless on the path. 

The problem is that while Walter does identify legitimate issues, the argument is taken to the extreme, becoming hyperbolic rather than serving as a starting point for legitimate discussion. Was Trump’s presidency an aberration? Certainly. But the institutions of American democracy, though stressed, remained intact. Despite concerns about isolated extremism in the military and law enforcement (likely unnecessarily magnified in this era of social media), there is little danger that those institutions will turn against the Constitution. Walter’s claim that structural racism embedded in these institutions is a precursor to genocide is misguided at best. 

Walter’s book is part of a recent trend of apocalyptic writing which seems to assume that democracies, particularly American democracy, cannot adapt or respond to new challenges. The risk is that the chyron crossing the bottom of the news screen is more focused on sensationalism. While questions about whether the U.S. could be on the brink of collapse will grab the lead, drier reportage on political progress on a given issue is of far greater importance but will rarely get much focus. We see this already today in how the media discusses the events of 6 January. Major media outlets regularly run articles and op-eds suggesting – as does Walter – that the U.S. was far closer to civil war and collapse on 6 January than most realize. 

It is incumbent on citizens and those that they elect to ensure their democratic institutions remain strong. Calling both voters and representatives to account would be of far greater value than mis-applying models and declaring that doom is imminent. Populist demagoguery of the left or right flavors must be condemned, while bipartisanship should be praised. Otherwise, we risk charting a self-destructive path where social divisions which were once a matter of “live and let live” turn into irreparable fault lines, exploited by those who seek to profit by political agitation.

Indeed, a recent essay in War on the Rocks by Anjali Dayal, Alexandra Stark, and Megan Stewart makes this very point. They are that suggesting that the United States is on the verge of a breakdown is the wrong debate, and obscures underlying issues that are giving rise to the very notion that the country is about to tear itself asunder. 

That fixation masks very real and underlying challenges within the United States that, again, are the more pressing matters. Domestic insurrectionists, right-wing militias, ANTIFA and other left-wing violent groups represent a tiny segment of the population. Must they be dealt with? Absolutely – and to the fullest extent of the law. But fixating on these isolated groups while ignoring the underlying political challenges of which they are a symptom is a recipe for further disenfranchisement. 

This fixation is evident in how pundits and analysts characterize the support for former president Trump. Rather than attempt to understand the political grievances underpinning that support, observers simply call those supporters things like “racist” and “deplorables.” On the other side, critics of BLM and racial justice protesters have been more interested in labeling protesters as rioters and criminals than grappling with the social and racial injustices motivating these protests. American democracy is far more resilient than many believe but will only remain that way if citizens can see their neighbors as fellow citizens – and engage with their issues – rather than the enemy. 

Walter astutely presents the case that what most Americans understand civil wars to be is far from reality. It is not a function of organized armies in mono-chromatic colors split along defined geographical and political lines. Rather, it is a much more insidious threat and driven by the variables, factors, and entrepreneurs she outlines. While well-argued, Walter then goes too far, applying her model for civil war ineffectively to the case of the U.S. and presenting a much more alarmist case than reality supports.

About
Joshua Huminski
:
Joshua C. Huminski is Director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress, and a George Mason University National Security Institute Fellow. He can be found on Twitter @joshuachuminski.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.

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How Civil Wars Start ... and How They Don't

Photo via Pixabay.

February 5, 2022

The events of Jan 6 evoked images of civil war. Barbara Walter's new book "How Civil Wars Start and How to Stop Them" delves into the causes of civil war in a way which is very helpful, but then inappropriately imposes this model onto the U.S., writes Joshua Huminski in his latest book review.

T

he events of January 6, 2021 took most of us by surprise. Protesters breaking into and ransacking the Capitol building – it seemed more like something out of a movie or that could happen in another country, but never the U.S. One year on, the country seems more divided than ever on nearly every issue, the most alarming of which is continued division over the legitimacy of the most recent election and the very foundations of American democracy. 

How Civil Wars Start and How to Stop Them
| Barbara Walter | Crown | January 2022.

Amplified by social media, it seems this divisiveness is tearing the country’s very fabric asunder. This division has gotten so extreme that some are predicting a new civil war. More alarmingly, there are those who seem to be willing it into existence, looking with anticipation on a future where physical battle lines will be drawn along political or geographical boundaries. Is the U.S. really that close to a breakdown of society and outbreak of physical violence, or do concerns over the threat of civil strife overlook the resilience of American democracy?

In her new book “How Civil Wars Start”, University of California, San Diego Professor of Political Science Barbara Walter appears to be among those willing a civil war into existence. Walter answers with hyperbole a question frankly her book could – and for sake of quality should – have refrained from asking in the first place. 

“How Civil Wars Start” is really two books wrapped up into one and should be treated as such, rather than as a cohesive piece. The first half of Walter’s book is a fascinating and compelling answer to the titular question. It is a well-written, well-argued look at how civil wars come to be, successfully demonstrating how much civil war has changed from our popular imagination of the 19th century U.S. Civil War. Walter breaks down the causes and origins of civil wars, analyzing with clarity what is an often-opaque subject. While there is no singular answer, Walter tells us, there are patterns that appear across time and geography. 

According to Walter, civil wars rarely spark in a country with either a democratic or autocratic government. It is rather the transitory middle ground as country’s move from one toward the other where civil wars are most likely to begin. Here is the zone of maximal risk as institutions are fragile and interests of the powerful are in a state of flux. This unstable space creates opportunities for violence and “ethnic entrepreneurs” that seek to capitalize on the chaos for their own personal or factional interests. 

Factionalism further strains already fragile societies. Ethno-religious groups can arise in fragile societies out of fear or necessity. This is particularly the case, as Walter shows, when the structure of a society is defined at least in part along ethnic or religious lines – and when groups previously enjoying power are disenfranchised. One obvious example is the displacement of Sunnis from positions of power in Iraq in favor of Shiites, with the de-Baathification process providing fuel for horrific internecine violence. During transition periods, countries are more likely to experience the collision of factionalism/identity politics, disenfranchisement, and a stymying of activism/protest – this in turn makes civil conflict more likely. 

Walter’s analysis of civil wars and their causes is insightful and instructive. She compellingly identifies factors making civil war more likely, offering the international community a valuable tool for identifying risk. The book would have been far stronger had it stopped with this. 

Unfortunately, the second half of Walter’s book wildly overstates the threats to American democracy by applying models for genocide and insurgency to the U.S. case in what is at best a gross misdiagnosis. She transitions from a cogent analysis to hyperbole, suggesting that the country is on the verge of civil war. 

There are many today who conflate the contentious years of the Trump presidency as indicators of institutional decay in the U.S. Walter falls into this trap, characterizing those four years as indicative of societal decay and collapse from which there is no return—an opening of a Trumpian Pandora’s box that contains at best a mere modicum of hope for the future. 

At a macro-level, Walter argues that the foundations of America’s democracy are eroding, as evidenced by Trump’s attempt to dismantle the rule of law and his dismissal of presidential norms. She suggests that the rise of the alt-right and other fringe groups are indicators of the emergence of a nascent insurgency. Walter further argues that the country’s very real systemic issues of race, justice, law, and order sit on the scale of genocide—early to be sure, but nonetheless on the path. 

The problem is that while Walter does identify legitimate issues, the argument is taken to the extreme, becoming hyperbolic rather than serving as a starting point for legitimate discussion. Was Trump’s presidency an aberration? Certainly. But the institutions of American democracy, though stressed, remained intact. Despite concerns about isolated extremism in the military and law enforcement (likely unnecessarily magnified in this era of social media), there is little danger that those institutions will turn against the Constitution. Walter’s claim that structural racism embedded in these institutions is a precursor to genocide is misguided at best. 

Walter’s book is part of a recent trend of apocalyptic writing which seems to assume that democracies, particularly American democracy, cannot adapt or respond to new challenges. The risk is that the chyron crossing the bottom of the news screen is more focused on sensationalism. While questions about whether the U.S. could be on the brink of collapse will grab the lead, drier reportage on political progress on a given issue is of far greater importance but will rarely get much focus. We see this already today in how the media discusses the events of 6 January. Major media outlets regularly run articles and op-eds suggesting – as does Walter – that the U.S. was far closer to civil war and collapse on 6 January than most realize. 

It is incumbent on citizens and those that they elect to ensure their democratic institutions remain strong. Calling both voters and representatives to account would be of far greater value than mis-applying models and declaring that doom is imminent. Populist demagoguery of the left or right flavors must be condemned, while bipartisanship should be praised. Otherwise, we risk charting a self-destructive path where social divisions which were once a matter of “live and let live” turn into irreparable fault lines, exploited by those who seek to profit by political agitation.

Indeed, a recent essay in War on the Rocks by Anjali Dayal, Alexandra Stark, and Megan Stewart makes this very point. They are that suggesting that the United States is on the verge of a breakdown is the wrong debate, and obscures underlying issues that are giving rise to the very notion that the country is about to tear itself asunder. 

That fixation masks very real and underlying challenges within the United States that, again, are the more pressing matters. Domestic insurrectionists, right-wing militias, ANTIFA and other left-wing violent groups represent a tiny segment of the population. Must they be dealt with? Absolutely – and to the fullest extent of the law. But fixating on these isolated groups while ignoring the underlying political challenges of which they are a symptom is a recipe for further disenfranchisement. 

This fixation is evident in how pundits and analysts characterize the support for former president Trump. Rather than attempt to understand the political grievances underpinning that support, observers simply call those supporters things like “racist” and “deplorables.” On the other side, critics of BLM and racial justice protesters have been more interested in labeling protesters as rioters and criminals than grappling with the social and racial injustices motivating these protests. American democracy is far more resilient than many believe but will only remain that way if citizens can see their neighbors as fellow citizens – and engage with their issues – rather than the enemy. 

Walter astutely presents the case that what most Americans understand civil wars to be is far from reality. It is not a function of organized armies in mono-chromatic colors split along defined geographical and political lines. Rather, it is a much more insidious threat and driven by the variables, factors, and entrepreneurs she outlines. While well-argued, Walter then goes too far, applying her model for civil war ineffectively to the case of the U.S. and presenting a much more alarmist case than reality supports.

About
Joshua Huminski
:
Joshua C. Huminski is Director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress, and a George Mason University National Security Institute Fellow. He can be found on Twitter @joshuachuminski.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.