Barbara Walter, a political scientist at UC San Diego, has studied civil wars for 30 years. She understands the script they follow: how they ignite, how they escalate, how they end.
The storm clouds she sees gathering now are over the United States.
“If you were an analyst in a foreign country looking at events in America – the same way you would look at events in Ukraine, Ivory Coast or Venezuela – you would go through a checklist, assessing each of the conditions who are waging civil war. probably,” writes Walter in a new book. “And what you will discover is that the United States, a democracy founded over two centuries ago, has entered very dangerous territory.”
Dangerous because Americans, overwhelmed by seismic cultural, economic, and demographic shifts, are increasingly distrustful of their government and each other. Dangerous because disinformation spreads widely and takes root via social networks. Dangerous because factionalism is rising, and hope is not.
The book, “How Civil Wars Start: And How to Stop Them,” was published last month by Crown and reached number six on the New York Times bestseller list for nonfiction.
It has caught the attention of national news outlets — the Times, the Washington Post, CNN — and the attention of U.S. lawmakers concerned about the erosion of common ground in a country struggling with the coronavirus, inflation , immigration and other crises.
“Like those who spoke clearly about the dangers of global warming decades ago,” editor David Remnick wrote in the New Yorker, “Walter delivers a grave message that we ignore at our peril.”
The message was met with disbelief when she started writing it five years ago. A first presentation at the School of Global Policy & Strategy at UC San Diego, where she is an expert in international security, “completely bombarded”, in her words. People were shaking their heads. They rolled their eyes.
A civil war here? Don’t be ridiculous.
Walter kept looking at the research, however – and there are plenty of them, datasets gathered over decades by academics around the world – and it told him that what’s happening here isn’t all that different from which unfolded in the prelude to modern civil wars in places like Bosnia, Ukraine, Iraq and Mozambique.
She paid attention to a key predictor of civil war: the Polity Score, which assesses how democratic a country is. It ranks nations on a scale of -10 (most autocratic) to +10 (most democratic). The countries in the middle, between -5 and +5, are known as anocracies, and this is where most civil wars occur.
The United States became a +10 in 1829 and remained there for most of its history, with significant declines in the 1850s (the pre-Civil War era) and 1960s (the Civil Rights era). ).
Last year, following election upheavals, street protests and a disjointed and politicized response to the pandemic, the United States fell to +5. It was no longer the oldest continuous democracy in the world.
Travel to hotspots
Walter, 57, grew up in Yonkers, NY, one of three children born to European immigrants who had lived through World War II. The dinner table was a place for lively conversation about history and politics.
As a graduate student at the University of Chicago in the late 1980s, she found herself drawn to problem solving. The central concern in international security then was the Cold War, a problem which, by and large, had already been resolved.
Instead, she began to take an interest in the civil wars. Academics had mostly dismissed them as skirmishes between ethnic groups that hated each other. They would always hate each other, it was thought, and what was interesting about that?
But Walter and other researchers began to analyze various risk factors for conflict and noticed patterns. She’s been to hotspots – the West Bank, Northern Ireland, Zimbabwe, Syria – and seen the dynamics at work. She was interested not only in the study of civil wars, but also in their prediction.
In 1996, she came to San Diego from New York, where she had been a fellow at Columbia University’s War & Peace Institute. Her husband, Zoltan Hajnal, is also a professor of political science at UCSD.
She was busy: classes, academic papers, lectures, political briefings and consultations, a blog titled Political Violence @ a Glance. And in 2017, she got busier.
She was invited to join the Political Instability Task Force, a group of academics and data analysts convened by the CIA to monitor volatility around the world. The idea is to anticipate where violence might erupt so that the United States can respond effectively.
What she saw disturbed her. Warning signs that the task force had identified in other places were also emerging in the United States, she said. And she thought the American public should know.
Her book begins with one such warning sign, the 2020 plot to kidnap Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer by an anti-government White Nationalist militia group. The book also explores the January 6, 2021 insurrection at the United States Capitol aimed at preventing Joe Biden’s certification as President.
Both events were alarming to her, Walter said, but not surprising.
Modern civil wars are not fought on gigantic battlefields like Gettysburg or Antietam. They are led by decentralized militias using guerrilla tactics: bombings, assassinations, terrorism.
They are generally not started by poor people or immigrants. They are the work of once-dominant groups that are losing their status and power – groups that believe the country is theirs by right and are willing to use whatever it takes (eroding constitutional guarantees, weakening government institutions, deploy violence) to maintain their grip.
“Where is the United States today? she asks in the book. “We are a fractional anocracy that is rapidly approaching the stage of open insurrection, which means we are closer to civil war than any of us would like to believe.”
In her office on campus, Walter has on one wall a painting she painted about fifteen years ago. It features the word “PEACE”, turned on its side. A little hard to read, but recognizable. He talks about possibility.
His book does it too, in its last chapter: “Preventing a Civil War”.
She cites South Africa as an example. By the late 1980s, it seemed ripe for civil war. His white minority government, facing mounting pressure from a black majority tired of race-based restrictions, maintained power through enforced segregation and violence.
But the country was pulled out of the abyss. Economic sanctions imposed by the United States and other countries have put pressure on an economy already in recession. A new president eased apartheid, restored freedoms and freed Nelson Mandela and other political prisoners.
Walter said South Africa was much closer to civil war than the United States is now, which gives him hope. South Africa had been an anocracy (+4 on the Polity Score) for several decades; the United States entered this dangerous middle zone a year ago. (And it’s not there anymore, it hit a +8 in a chart this year that factored in the courts and Congress’ refusal to accept former President Donald Trump’s false claims about a stolen election. )
So if South Africa could reform, she says, so can the United States.
One of the reforms she advocates for in the book: A centralized, independent election management system that sets standards for the design and printing of ballots and counts votes accurately and securely. Currently, the United States’ scattered approach to elections is riddled with inconsistencies and partisan manipulation, fueling doubts about the integrity of the results.
She also urges measures that would increase voter turnout; decrease gerrymandering and the influence of special interests; reintegrate civic education as a subject in schools; confront domestic terrorism; and regulating how social media spread misinformation and promote factionalism.
“The question for America moving forward is whether voters can be persuaded that their democracy works,” Walter writes, “and whether leaders will choose to reinstate its safeguards.”