In 2016, democracy rating organizations began downgrading the United States, some scoring American institutions below that of El Salvador, then Nigeria, then Iraq. Then, following the Jan. 6 insurrection last year, articles and books began predicting something scarier: another civil war.
The most sensational accounts foretold a national breakup, neighbor killing neighbor. The more level-headed ones warned of something still dire: a far-right insurgency waging a long campaign of bombings and attacks. The disturbing evidence emerging from the Jan. 6 congressional hearings merely underscores such concerns.
These worries are understandable but flawed. After a career studying civil wars small and large, organized violence in the United States strikes me as extraordinarily unlikely. Worse, focusing on civil war dangerously distracts Americans from the real risks.
That is my op-ed for USATODAY, published Sunday. There was a surge of articles and books this past year. A piece by Karen and Gregory Treverton, a book by Stephen Marche, and Barbara Walter’s bestseller. I see things differently.
Now, those prophesizing war have a point. If you take civil conflict from recent history, you find a chillingly familiar list of initial conditions: politics hardening along identity lines; a surge of armed groups; an erosion of institutions. Ethnic polarization and democratic backsliding are especially persistent predictors of state collapse.
But apply this to the United States with care. The data driving these results comes from predicting massive acts of violence – genocide or revolutionary wars – almost all from low- and middle-income countries. It’s dubious to use these models to predict a different phenomenon – low-scale insurgency – in America or other rich, advanced democracies.
America’s democracy numbers also don’t add up. In 2015, raters like the Polity Project gave the United States a perfect score of 10 – one it had enjoyed for decades. Then Donald Trump was elected president, and America’s score fell to 8.
In 2019, after the failed impeachment of Trump, Polity’s score fell further to 7. Finally, on Jan. 7, 2021, immediately following the insurrection, Polity announced a drop to a 5, meaning “no longer a democracy.”
Political scientists woke up, as rapid plunges to this level are persistently correlated with outbreaks of civil war.
But this slide is suspicious. It would mean that American democracy today is several points below that of 1859, on the eve of the Civil War, and when a majority of adults were barred from voting. It would put present-day U.S. institutions on par with other 5’s, like Haiti and Somalia. Meanwhile, countries like Hungary – the poster nation for democratic backsliding – maintain a perfect 10.
This defies credibility. One suspects that it’s the democracy raters who have become politicized, not American institutions. The backslide is surely exaggerated. So, then, are predictions of civil war.
The fact is, even societies with hardened identities rarely erupt in conflict. One study looked at every ethnic pairing in Africa and Eastern Europe in the late 20th century and found no more than 1 in 1,000 turned violent in a given year.
So, yes, if you trace back from a civil war you find polarized politics, or a surge of protest and arms. But trace back from periods without war and you will find a lot of the same conditions. These are not automatic forerunners of violence.
Here’s why: As a general rule, enemies prefer to loathe one another in peace. That’s because war – especially civil war – is disastrous. It kills people, destroys economies and weakens the country to outside enemies. This gives all sides huge incentives to avoid violence.
For anyone who doubted these horrific consequences, the events of Jan. 6, 2021, offered a painful reminder. This may be why far-right movements and violent political acts have declined since the insurrection.
Because of these costs, most political factions don’t fight. An extremist militia in the United States would be no exception. Few things are harder than launching an insurgency against a powerful state. Intelligence services will hunt you down. Justice systems will jail you. You will live clandestinely, full of hardships. This is why even the most disaffected groups are often dissuaded from violence. Better to use politics by normal means.
Those who do see violence ahead for America often point to the Troubles in Northern Ireland – a rare example of insurgency in a wealthy democracy. I draw comfort from this comparison. Northern Ireland was far more polarized and factionalized than America today. It also had a decades-long history of a well-organized, clandestine armed movement with broad public sympathy.
Naturally there are parallels to America today, but the differences in scale and seriousness are vast.
Another key difference is the state response. British forces had limited intelligence and were indiscriminately violent. When a Catholic boy in Derry threw a flaming bottle of fuel, the British military would sweep in and arrest half the neighborhood, beating (even killing) a few. Insurgent leaders joked that the British state was their best recruiter.
U.S. security services are less partisan, more targeted and restrained. The FBI disrupts most militias before they lay their first bomb. And if a far-right fundamentalist does demolish a building, federal agents don’t round up all the Proud Boys for 20 miles and beat them up. They mount an investigation and see the perpetrator prosecuted.
I would be worried if U.S. military and federal intelligence and law enforcement agencies showed more polarization. But they’ve been strikingly resilient. So, in many ways, has America’s electoral system. In 2020, the vast majority of Republican election administrators upheld Joe Biden’s victory.
But there are still real risks here in the United States. Do you know who else noticed the resilience of the electoral system? Trump’s most ardent supporters. That’s why the worrying activity now is not restive militias – it is a shortsighted but determined slice of the Republican Party who are filling election administration offices with partisans willing to trade democracy for short-term political gain.
Even then, however, don’t anticipate a civil war. There would surely be protests and angry confrontations. This could instigate sporadic violence in the streets. But a Northern Ireland-style insurgency? That’s unlikely. We shouldn’t ignore the risk. But nor should we exaggerate it.
Instead of focusing on a lone riot, I would prefer that the congressional committee broaden its investigation, heading off furtive efforts to co-opt elections and ensuring that federal agencies continue to be led and staffed by professionals who put country ahead of party.
Frightening but rare events should not distract us from the real present danger.
If you want to see my longer take from earlier in the year, go here.