It began a few years ago, when prominent democracy rating organizations started downgrading the United States, putting its institutions on par with Panama, Argentina, or Romania.
In retrospect, that seems like the good news. Last year, the international security and intelligence expert Greg Treverton predicted the breakup of the union in a piece titled Civil War Is Coming. And early this year, in a book titled The Next Civil War, journalist Stephen Marche outlined America’s many future deadly paths. “People retreat into tribes,” he warned, “Once the stability of power goes, it’s easy to come up with excuses to murder your neighbors.”
A few days later, my friend Barbera Walter (a UCSD professor) published a hugely successful new book called How Civil Wars Start. It centers largely on how the US has begun to follow the same dangerous path as Bosnia, Syria, and Lebanon. To be clear, she’s careful to say that the risk of breakup is small (let alone neighbor killing neighbor). Still, the specter she raises is dire—something akin to Northern Irish-style Troubles.
Even the more restrained predictions, like those from Carnegie fellow Rachel Kleinfeld, sound pretty awful: sporadic but regular electoral violence by half-organized mobs—not unlike the January 6 insurrection.
I have a different take. For those who don’t want a long post full of minutiae, here’s the tl;dr:
- Talk of a US breakup is nonsense
- But there are real risks of regularized, serious political violence
- Even so, I personally put those risks much lower than most of the people I just mentioned
- Especially the risk of an organized right-wing insurgency—my own view is that risk is minute
- That’s important, because a different risk level and a different diagnosis implies different solutions and priorities—because you don’t avert the next pandemic by prepping for the zombie apocalypse
- Meanwhile, the backstory on things like the democracy downgrade should make you worry that the only thing that has degraded is the credibility of the rating organizations
- For America, the greater risk (in my mind) is not violent insurrection, it is the quiet erosion of democratic norms (an actual degrading of American democracy) that never becomes violent, because it almost never makes sense to rebel
- Even then the big story to me is the recent robustness of our institutions
- Those of us who fear the specter of right-wing machinations—be it violence or state capture—should be vigilant, but also try to be suspicious of ourselves and our worst fears, for humans are perennially biased judges of our rivals
As falsely confident as that all sounds, however, you should think of this post as me working out my thoughts, rather than my final say. I don’t think social scientists have debated this enough. Maybe too many of our friends are on the other side of the argument. I think it’s possible to publicly disagree and be nice. And, just as my position has evolved reading these articles and books over the past few weeks, my opinion will probably change again.
Even so, my reactions are rooted in the way that political economists and psychologists think about conflict in general—something I’ve been writing a book about, called Why We Fight. It’s about the reasons for wars, when they happen, and why they often do not. It’s not just about America. It’s about the common logics that link conflict at every level, from gangs to villages to ethnic groups to countries—my attempt to boil down a century of social science for a general audience. Those decades of work have lessons for the United States today. So here we go.
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Tiny risks can and should be electrifying
In the early 2000s I went to hear a group of eminent macroeconomists and financial historians debate the future of the US financial system. Someone in the audience asked a question: “What’s the risk of an Argentina-style financial meltdown in the United States?” The answer still sticks with me to this day. “Exceedingly unlikely,” came the response, “but that’s a terrifying answer, because for the first time in decades the answer isn’t ‘zero’.”
That’s a nice analogy for how I feel. In their books, Marche and Walter both walk us through a series of imaginary future events—a mix of terror attacks, misunderstandings, and political opportunism that cascade until a well-organized extremist group has driven the country to mass fear and tense polarization. (Walter’s is the better researched and more level-headed take of the two, and the one I recommend to readers.) These accounts are chilling to read because the sequence is plausible. The risk is not zero, and like an Argentina-style financial meltdown, that is deeply frightening.
But how worried should we be? The odds are hard to assess. Is it one in a million? In a thousand? In a hundred? In twenty? Few authors give us a specific risk or organized insurgency and endemic mob violence, but their books seem to put them on the higher end. That’s serious. (As Walter points out in her book, even if you think that the risk of a civil war is 3% this year, then just like the miracle of compound interest, the probability of a war over the next decade explodes to huge levels.)
Could they be right? After all, a few years after I attended that talk, America did indeed experience a financial disaster. The collapse of the housing and mortgage market brought on a two-year downturn we now call the Great Recession. It was really, really bad for a lot of people.
At the same time, the crisis never approached the level of Argentina. Also, the US federal policy response was terrific, and a few years later the American economy reached new heights. When the next challenge arrived—a two-year pandemic—people suffered but the economy was surprisingly resilient.
This captures how I feel about violence. An insurgency or a civil war is not the most likely risk. (Not even close, in my mind.) And so our response as a society should be calibrated accordingly. Because if there are cracks in the ceiling you do different things than if the building is on fire. For not all violence and political instability is the same.
Let’s be clear: What are we talking about?
As esoteric as I plan to get, I do not want this to turn into a semantic debate about the meaning of “civil war”. Still, different people are talking about very different events, which isn’t helpful.
A lot of people I know are just worried about “very bad things”. When I explain to them why I don’t think there will be serious violence, one common response is “ok, but what about Republican machinations and the erosion of democracy?!” To which I respond “yes, exactly” and wonder how we got distracted by the topic of conflict, which is pretty different. To me it’s characteristic of a generalized anxiety on the center and left, partly deserved, partly exaggerated, that clouds our judgment, distorts our responses, and fails to look at things from the other side’s point of view—the number one thing you have to do for good strategic thinking. I’ll come back to that.
For now let’s deal with the question of war. Most people hear the term “civil war” and imagine prolonged, large-scale violence; ravaged cities; maybe even the dissolution of the state. That’s not so far from the academic definitions. These vary from scholar to scholar, but almost always require (1) the government and an organized armed group to (2) kill a whole bunch of each other in battle over (3) long stretches of time.
Marche and Treverton seem to forecast those terrible level of violence (although it’s a little hard to tell). Others predict something more modest. Though Walter’s comparisons include catastrophes like Syria or Bosnia, where annual deaths sometimes exceeded six figures, she seems most worried about violence of Northern Irish levels. There, the fight between a fairly well-organized insurgent force and the British government measured deaths in the dozens or hundreds per year, over decades. That’s violence of a different scale than civil war. Some call these episodes “civil conflicts” to distinguish them from the larger variety. Obviously we should take them seriously, for they are pretty awful.
Then there’s a whole other category of violence, potentially on the same scale of death as civil conflict, but not so coherent or organized. They involve mobs and insurrections and terror attacks, any one of which might be organized by a ringleader, but none of which are very coordinated over time. There’s no insurgent group or organized leadership behind it all. That’s the risk Kleinfeld mostly points to—an America of occasional riots and killings. They’re not masterminded by any particular cabal, but they may share political roots and follow similar scripts.
These distinctions—let’s call them wars, conflicts, and sporadic violence—matter because they have different causes and different solutions. They also have different chances of coming about. I mean, we’re already in an America with a significant amount of sporadic violence. And, like Kleinfeld, I think that some political trends or a change in law enforcement could make that violence slightly more routine.
Since a lot of the recent violence has come from very right-wing groups, I also worry that academics (who are mainly centrist and leftists) are prone to misperceive the threat and risk levels. Thoughtfulness and discipline restrain us, but we are human. Like most humans, we misjudge and misconstrue the actions of our rivals. A common pattern in sectarian and ethnic conflict is a spiral of fears, based not on what a reasoning enemy would do, but by the actions of the bogeyman in our mind. It leads to distorted thinking and conclusions.
Distortions like these, I fear, are responsible for the claims that American democracy has declined.
Why you should be wary of accounts of democratic decline
Back in the halcyon days of 2015, democracy raters like the famed Polity project gave the United States a score of 10—the highest rating, one it had enjoyed for a century and a half, since the end of Reconstruction. Then Trump got elected, and America’s score fell to 8—a level not seen since the dark days before the US Civil War. I’m not sure why exactly it came down to 1860 levels in 2018. Possibly it was worries about voting rights and Russian meddling. Questionable, but we’ll let it pass, because things got only weirder from there.
In 2019, after the failed impeachment of Trump, America fell even further—to a 7. Finally, on January 7, within hours of the insurrection, Polity hastily announced a drop to a 5.
This is important for a few reasons. First, “5” means “no longer a democracy”. Rather, it marks the upper echelon of a range of flawed and partial democracies that have been given the awful name of “anocracies”.
A second reason the downgrade matters is because political scientists also run predictive models of civil war, and some of those models say that the risk of war is greatest in this anocratic realm. So it has direct bearing on our big question.
Before we get to these models, we should ask if this downgrade is even real. This is something a lot of political scientists wondered as the democracy scores plummeted.
According to The Polity Project, the US is no longer a democracy.
Why does that matter? Why is the Polity Project wrong?
— Paul Poast (@ProfPaulPoast) January 8, 2021
On this topic, once again I must insist that Polity be more systematic in its coding. Is US suddenly less democratic than during the period during which a African Americans were disenfranchised (til 1965) or than it was DURING THE CIVIL WAR!!! https://t.co/y7DeRbwpQi
— Ben W. Ansell (@benwansell) January 7, 2021
They asked good questions, like “Why is America in 2019 less of a democracy than in 1965 or even 1860?” Presumably, Polity was thinking the same, because around the same time they downgraded Trump’s America to an 8, they made adjustments to the previous two centuries, dropping America down to 8 in the Nixon years as well. Otherwise, the US enjoyed a perfect 10. (Even in the Jim Crow era, when southern legislatures passed egregious laws to disenfranchise blacks.)
(Recently, Polity released a whole new version, and now America receives 8s, and 9s through much of its history. So now the US in 2020 is merely below its previous low, in 1865, when much of the country was under military occupation.)
As puzzling as this was, it was not nearly as strange as some of the modern contrasts. The same political scientists looked at the present-day poster children for democratic rollbacks, like Hungary. How did the downgraded US compare to those sad stories, they wondered? Amazed, they saw Hungary held (and still holds) a perfect 10! That is higher than France’s 9, and higher than the United Kingdom’s 8 (earned by Brexit).
Now, we can all agree that Trump tried many underhanded tactics to preserve and strengthen his power, and we might even concur that America’s democracy is more fragile now than it was six years ago. It’s fine for the democracy score to notch down. But below America in 1865? To rate it as half the democracy that is Hungary? It doesn’t add up. You know else has a 5? SOMALIA.
It’s hard to escape the suspicion that a collection of mostly American, British, and Western European scholars have one set of standards for rating other countries, and one for their own—especially when their nations are run by right-wing politicians. Maybe there’s a better explanation, but it’s hard to know, because as far as I know these changes were never really explained or peer-reviewed. It’s not a good look for my profession.
This should make us cautious about predictions of war
Treverton, Marche and Walters all point to conflict forecasting models to ground their claims. One of the most famous is a series of regressions published in 2010 by scholars that the CIA convened for their Political Instability Task Force, or PITF. They coded up an indicator for major instances of political stability—collapse of the state, genocide, sudden shifts from representative government to an autocrat by coup, or a revolutionary war. You needed to have pretty serious violence to qualify. Northern Ireland only counted as a “ethnic war” from 1971–82 (meaning most years of the Troubles didn’t make the cut).
One of the most powerful predictors of major instability was being an anocracy. Lots of academics quarreled over this finding, but my reading is that the correlation between imperfect democracy and large-scale war has more or less held up. Caution is warranted: You can never take a correlation (let alone anything that shows up in a prediction model) and say it causes conflict, but theoretically the connection makes a lot of sense. I go into this in my book in more detail, but democracies and the rule of law make it a lot easier to find a peaceful bargain and hold it, even amidst big shifts in rivals’ power, because it’s a flexible and predictable form of deal-making.
Still, I can’t see how we apply this to the United States. First, as we just saw, there arguably wasn’t a drop to anocracy.
Second, and more importantly, I don’t want to use any global forecasting model on America. They were calibrated on the Somalias and Guatemala and Rwandas of the world. Only one advanced democracy ever entered these calculations—the UK, for one decade. So, just as I wouldn’t want to use a meteorological model from Ohio to predict the weather in Delhi, I’m not sure I want to use collapsed states to predict what happens in the advanced democracies. They’re out of the relevant sample.
Last, these models are not even trying to predict the thing that most people think might even happen in the Unites States—sporadic violence at least, Northern Irish-style Troubles at worst. We don’t have predictive models for these risks at a national scale, partly because so few advanced democracies experience these events. And even where we do have good models, they don’t work very well. As I’ve shown in some of my own work, it’s really, really hard to predict conflict.
So, let’s put the global predictive models aside and turn to a more promising place: theory and history.
Insurgency happens when an organized faction decides violence is their best path forward
Most enemies prefer to loathe one another in peace. War is really costly. It kills, destroys economies, and weakens your country to enemies. As a result, all sides have huge incentives to avoid violence. That’s why most rivals don’t fight. For every thousand ethnic groups, gangs, religious sects, political factions or nations who hate one another, maybe one in a thousand end up in prolonged violence. Because it just doesn’t make sense.
A potential insurgent group is no exception. It is really, really hard to up against a behemoth of a state. Intelligence services will hunt you down and jail or kill you. You live clandestinely and poorly, full of hardships. This is why even the most disaffected groups try to avoid sustained violence.
Of course, insurgencies do happen. There are few reasons you might still choose to rebel against all odds.
- One is because you don’t bear all the costs of the violence. You might not care about the civilians killed, for instance. (Still, this just makes war less bad. Not attractive. So it’s not enough.)
- Another is that you are David and the government is Goliath, and the government totally underestimates you. There’s just too many Davids around. So you need to do something bold to show you are worth negotiating with. (Though again, this can explain a few brazen attacks and not a long drawn-out war—which you’re both keen to avoid. So, we are still not all the way to war.)
- One reason you will fight is that you think your enemy, the government, will hunt you down and kill you no matter what. You are convinced that they can never make a peace deal otherwise. So, rationally, you might as well keep waging war.
- Another is your ideology. If compromising with a powerful foe is unthinkable, then you will fight for your principles. You’ll bear enormous costs for them. This is pretty rare, but it occurs.
- Another motive is righteous anger and vengeance, usually because your government foe did something terrible to you. Maybe they rounded up all the men in your village and killed them. You want to punish and overthrow the wrongdoers. Damn the costs.
- A final reason is that you’re fooled. Some powerful person, protected from harm, is egging you on for their own political purposes. They feed your misperceptions and passions. Your movement will be mowed down, but it serves some villain’s larger purpose.
This is a simplification. I go into these, and the game theory and psychology behind them, in my book. They’re the accumulation of decades of social science. They are also why Treverson and Marche and especially Walter have a point worth weighing. We can look at this list and easily imagine an extremist American group that fits. The FBI finds individuals and small groups like this all the time.
As it happens, I am skeptical that any one of them is so ideological, righteous, or fooled to try to sustain violence. It really is rare. And if they were, I don’t see any that are so well-organized that they would last past their first or second attack. But suppose they did exist. Would that be enough for war?
As my mom used to say to my brother and me (after I blamed him for the fight): “It takes two to tango.” These groups would find it hard to sustain their principled, vengeful, or duped script if the other side wasn’t playing the role of clumsy state or repressive villain. It’s a little known fact: around the world, even when powerful domestic insurgent groups exist, governments find ways to avoid fighting them. It’s easier to let the stronger groups carve out their own highly-localized political space, sidelining and confining them, and focus your energies on eliminating the handful of weak, persistently violent individuals and splinter factions. So, sadly, I suspect there will continue to be armed rural militias, white supremacist marches, and other nasty events. Republican leaders will blanch and choke, many privately. But it won’t get persistently violent.
Letting a civil conflict happen isn’t in anyone’s interests. I expect the US government to go to great lengths to avoid prolonged violence. They already do a remarkably good job. That is why I don’t predict Northern Irish style violence. I don’t expect our forces to make the same mistake as the British.
What drove the northern Irish to insurgency?
Books have been written about this topic. I won’t try to say everything here. But I want to point out a few key differences between the cases.
One is that Northern Ireland was far, far more polarized and factionalized than the United States today, and the disenfranchisement was far, far more severe. (The historical treatment of blacks in the US is a better analogy than the travails of today’s American white working class.)
Northern Ireland also had a long history of a broad-based, well-organized, clandestine armed movement with a fairly large degree of public sympathy. There’s no comparison to American militias.
Those aren’t even the really important distinctions. To my mind, the most relevant difference is that the US government has proven to be extremely good at using intelligence and selective coercion to counter terrorist and insurgent threats.
Not so the British. One historian remarked that London knew more about their African colonies than the Ulster counties. So, when a Catholic boy in Derry or Belfast threw a flaming bottle of fuel, or when a bomb went off, the British Goliath would sweep in and arrest half the neighborhood. They had little intelligence apparatus, and were often indiscriminate in their violence. This was outrageous, and led many young men to vengeful action. The British government was their best recruiter, insurgent leaders joked. And there really seemed to be no deal on the table that did not include death, imprisonment, and continued disenfranchisement.
If you’re a young black man in the United States, this blanket treatment sounds vaguely familiar. But not if you’re a white rural militia member. The FBI has become extraordinarily good at catching those guys before they lay their first bomb or kidnap their first governor. And if someone does drive through a crowd or demolish a building, federal agent don’t round up all the Proud Boys for 20 square miles and beat them up. They mount an investigation and see the perpetrator arrested and prosecuted within months.
We should focus on how the state responds to sporadic violence
My fear: what if this intelligence and justice system gets clumsier and less targeted and effective? If the FBI starts treating white militia members like the Chicago police treats young black men on the corners of Englewood, that could be bad for political stability.
Even then, civil conflict would strike me as unlikely. The fact that black Chicagoans have never risen up in civil war against the government—in 1965 or in 2021—should reinforce a message we’ve already heard: it seldom makes sense to fight. Even when your principles are violated, your cause just, your treatment unequal, your streets awash in guns, and your enemy indiscriminate and clumsy and evil—prolonged insurgency is so hard and so costly you will try almost everything else first.
You might think, “Hey, these both sound pretty bad”. But think of a climate analogy. If you’re a Mayor, it’s the difference between learning you’re at risk for more severe thunderstorms, where a few flood zones are at risk, versus finding out you’re now squarely in the path of hurricanes every year. You do different things. And it’s totally unhelpful if the newspaper are writing that it doesn’t matter, because in a decade the city will be submerged in 50 feet of water.
Still, my hope is that the US government doesn’t go down this route. I don’t know exactly what they should do. American federal law enforcement is not my expertise. But if I had to bet on one investment, it would be making these counter-terror and investigatory forces bigger, better resourced, while also more transparent.
While we’re on the subject of an African American uprising….
There was a time not so long ago when armed militias with extremist views drove half of America mad with fright—the black militancy movements of the 1960s and 70s.
The government and a conservative white America was probably right to worry about these groups, at least to some degree. There were individuals and factions who advocated for sustained violence. This was a serious and legitimate law enforcement concern.
The problem is that some parts of the US government took a small, real risk and they overreacted, harassing and jailing peaceful civil rights leaders, and generally making it harder for black leaders to make the case that violence was not the answer. Fortunately, the nonviolent voices persevered, and America survived that era without anything approaching a civil war. But we do not have to tempt fate again.
America has proved amazingly resilient to political change
Rather than play up all the risks, however, I want to point to some of the resiliencies.
First, the last 70 years has seen one of the most dramatic shifts in norms and power in human history, and it was completely peaceful. Women, people of color, minority religions, non-heterosexuals, and other disadvantaged groups have gained more rights, more political influence, more labor market participation, and more wealth than any comparable period I can think of. Most industrialized and democratic countries managed this rebalancing of political power without much violence at all.
I’m also one of those people who looks at the Trump Presidency and sees an institutional system that, on balance, worked like it was supposed to. The founders were prepared for a demagogue with autocratic aspirations. It was their chief fear. And so Trump was able to accomplish relatively little. Republicans running for office felt they had to go along with him, no matter their private opinions. But conservative judges, military officers, boards of electors, attorneys general, editorial boards, and unelected officials mostly held the Presidency to democratic rules and principles.
That doesn’t mean I’m ignoring the counter trends
Some people are reading this and already getting mad. The counter examples spring to mind. I agree. I’m just trying to point out the positive side of the ledger. On the other side, a few things worry me.
It’s not the pushback against the massive empowerment of women and minorities. There certainly is a counter-reformation movement to match the massive reformation. (How could there not be?) I don’t agree with it, but that kind of political wrangling is normal.
What worries me are a few of the tactics. Restricting voting rights and gerrymandering are big, real concerns. Fortunately, I don’t think these efforts are as effective as I initially feared. (A lot of the latest political science suggests people overestimate how much they shape election outcomes.) But these efforts are burdensome, unfair, and discriminatory, and anger and anxiety over them is understandable.
More worrisome was Trump’s blatant and flawed effort to change the result of the election (and some politicians’ disingenuous attempt to undermine faith in the legitimacy and fairness of the system). This is not the first time, and Republicans are not the only party to have done so. But this time was far more serious.
What really worries me isn’t violence, it is a peaceful slide
The real risk, small but terrible, is that democratic erosion we talked about earlier. The last few years have seen slippages small and large: a President who made dishonesty even more routine than usual; the politicization of the administrative state; the historically high levels of polarization between the two parties; the woeful level of public trust in government getting worse; the rise of populism; and the utter failure of government to effectively address all manner of policy challenges.
Also, you know who noticed the resilience of American institutions in 2020? Trump supporters. When Trump contested the 2020 election, the vast majority of Republican election administrators—secretaries of state, county boards of elections, state judges, and so on—upheld Biden’s victory, no matter how pro-Trump they were personally. That’s why the most worrying activity at the moment is not white power marches or restive militias. It is the short-sighted but disciplined slice of the Republican party who are working to fill those offices with partisans who are more willing to trade democracy for short term political gain.
Together with another another demagogue running for President, and another contested election, and it’s easy to imagine something that would actually make the United States deserve a 6 or 7 on the Polity score.
In all likelihood, none of these events would prompt a civil war or lower-scale conflict. In a world where an election was overturned, there would be street protests and walkouts, apathy and anger. But no insurgency would arise. I doubt there would even be much sporadic violence. I say this for the same reasons that most groups never fight. No matter how unjust the situation, violence is just too awful to contemplate.
So, rather than spend time talking about a civil war, I want people focus on the undemocratic civil peace. We should not be complacent. I don’t know what the answer is. But I’ve seen two careful, well-argued pieces on what should be done. One is the article from Rachel Kleinfeld. She dwells on the tweaks that could reduce sporadic violence. The other is an excellent book by the presidential scholars Will Howell and Terry Moe. They propose more systematic changes to our institutions to reduce the incentives for populism. Highly recommended.
Thanks to Ethan Bueno de Mesquita, Paul Poast, Will Howell, and Barb Walter for comments.