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The Threat of a Civil War and Hope for the Future

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Care Can't Wait coalition rallies at the US Capitol. A line of people - mostly women of color - in front of the US Capitol with a banner reading "Care Can't Wait."

A riff on how civil wars start—and how to stop them.

Liberal pundits are buzzing about the new book by Barbara F. Walter, How Civil Wars Start: And How To Stop Them. Walter is an international security expert whose specialty is understanding the conditions that lead to civil wars. In How Civil Wars Start, she mines knowledge accumulated on the international front to make the case that there’s a very real possibility of serious civil strife or even a civil war in the U.S.

The book reads easily but if you’re tight on time there’s also a well-narrated audible version you can listen to while walking the dog and doing the dishes. I highly recommend either/or, though I feel compelled to give you a trigger warning. Walter makes a very strong case that we’re in very big trouble. In fact, if you buy her argument, the trouble is so big it clearly requires concerted action across government, the private sector, and civil society at a scale we’ve rarely seen.

Beyond the hair-on-fire sensibility the book left me with, I also found it extremely clarifying, particularly on the issue of what international experts like Walter describe as anocracy. Anocracy is the space in between democracy and autocracy, kind of a halfway point or transitional state. This, she argues, is a space the U.S. now occupies.

Hovering between democracy and autocracy

In an anocratic state, nations become vulnerable to the outbreak of civil wars because, in a nutshell, anocracy is a state of extreme instability. In terms of process, it is a condition that democracies fall into as the broad consensus for government by all of the governed collapses, on one side of the equation. On the other side, nations rise out of autocracy as the power of the autocrat is eroded by challenger factions or foreign intervention, as in the case of Iraq after the Iraq War. Either way, the likelihood of civil war increases in sync with the speed of change.

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This part of her thesis is commonsensical. In that middle place governments are unstable and unifying national themes lose their coherence, exposing all manner of cultural and political fault lines that, in turn, drive factional infighting and competition. Political instability and economic insecurity go hand in hand, raising the stakes and the level of possible rage even higher. Additionally, people in unstable social, cultural, and political situations assuage anxiety by looking for new explanations for the mess they perceive themselves to be in, making them vulnerable to conspiracy theories and what international experts on the subject of reactionary social movements call ethnic entrepreneurs.

Donald Trump fits the definition of an ethnic entrepreneur to a T. He exploited racial, ethnic, and gendered resentment and channeled it toward his enemies in order to gain power. Taking the role of entrepreneur literally, he monetized that resentment, both through campaign fundraising and by using the power he acquired to corrupt politics and create financial opportunities for his family and allies. In fact, under Trump corruption became so ubiquitous as to appear endemic and unsolvable, leading many voters to disengage from government (including liberals who reject public health agencies and authorities, as in the COVID context). This distrust makes it easier to shrink government to the point where coalitions of the very rich can completely take it over, a point at which all of us with money in the market, including through IRAs and 401Ks, end up with real stakes in keeping autocratic governments and markets stable, and, as well, in not appearing to be enemies of the authoritarians.

A time of opportunity as well as danger

But before we get to the point of looking over our shoulders for those, now for us, who may turn against us, consider the crisis of democracy as a time not just of danger but also of opportunity. Reaching for those opportunities may be the best way to mitigate the dangers.

Yes, it is true that our government is unstable and relatively weak and unresponsive. Ethnic, racial, gendered, and religious rage has been ignited and is dividing the public, making majorities more difficult to cobble together. In light of all of this, the possibility of civil war seems obvious. But we should remember the words of Mark Twain who once said, “history doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes.” The difference between repetition and rhyming is a space of possibility.

To whit, people tend to learn better through demonstration than through discourse. These times are demonstrating the value of collective action and of majorities; the necessity of protecting democratic institutions; and the ever-present danger that results from tyranny over minorities in a democratic state, not just for the minorities but for the very possibility of government by the governed.

These times are demonstrating the value of collective action and of majorities; the necessity of protecting democratic institutions; and the ever-present danger that results from tyranny over minorities.

As history is a good teacher when looking for the reason in the rhyme of the present, let’s consider how we got here. In the U.S., the process of erosion of the democratic consensus was most triggered by the elite-manipulated racist reaction to the changes brought on by the Civil Rights Movement. The Civil Rights Movement, in turn, created part of the context for the rise of second wave feminism, second generation queer liberation, and, importantly, the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act which removed race-based immigration limitation measures and sped the progress of racial demographic change.

The initial anxious and angry reaction to these changes, felt as sudden and jarring among conservative white voters, inspired neoliberal elites to deploy the racist Southern Strategy, culture wars, and other means of exploiting anxiety and turning it to rage. Thus the rise of the U.S. far-right and our fall to anocracy go hand in hand, making this a case where correlation and causation do, in fact, go together.

But the majority of voters in the U.S. were supportive of the Civil Rights Movement until around 1965, some of the changes the movement won have been blocked, and none are consistently enforced even now, more than 50 years later, making “sudden” in reference to these changes a bit of an exaggeration. What did suddenly change, at least in my adult lifetime, is the technologies of communication and work, and the increasing precariousness of workers from the middle class down, both shifts driven by neoliberal reforms pushed into law by their elite beneficiaries. That happened incredibly quickly and transformed the way we work, play, learn, get news about the world, and understand ourselves relative to others.

This abrupt transformation drove a lot of anxiety and also created the social media arena in which that same anxiety could be turned to outrage and that outrage could go viral. But we don’t direct much of our ire at the new technologies and the growing power of elites to mess with us, being frank, because most of us understand status threats through the lens of identity. The ethnic entrepreneurs took advantage of this and used it to steal our collective posterity.

Push government to soften crises’ blows

We should be casting a bright light on those ethnic entrepreneurs and the damage they did to the current and immediate projected base for authoritarian rule. Among Walter’s prescriptions for how to stop a civil war, one seems fit for our situation in that is both builds a bulwark against authoritarians and uses that space for democratization. That is, promoting good government and pushing governments to take action to ameliorate the most apparent crises of this time, build a politically independent civil service, and deploy it effectively. These actions need to contribute to a narrative of protection by making those actions directly attributable to government.

I know this seems unlikely given the opposition the Biden administration is facing, both from Republicans and a couple of members of the Democratic caucus who need no introduction to my readers. We can continue to demand this kind of action, though, and frame demands with our grassroots opposition as part of the public we are representing, both as de-escalation and communications strategies. But, as we do so, we need to be careful to avoid hot wire issues that can drive people away from us and consolidate the base for far-right politics. Here are a few.

Cosmopolitans—as in people like me and you who value diversity, wish for open borders, and think of ourselves as global citizens—tend to reject tradition in the context of these kinds of paradigm shifting conditions and often do so gleefully while casting all manner of shade on more parochial minds. But to those more parochial minds, tradition is a form of stability, driving nostalgia, as in Make American Great Again.

The higher up you go on the ladder of privilege among more parochial thinkers, the more that threats to tradition, and by association, social status, family, faith, and community, loom large. This seems to be because the more you have, the more you have to lose. That’s, I think, why the base for Trump in 2016 was one in which relatively well-off white voters were over-represented. And that, according to Walter, is indicative of a real threat. Civil wars, she argues, are usually started by groups that feel they have been downgraded in status by other ethnic factions. In our case, that group appears to be formerly conservative, now radicalized, white people, and increasingly some factions of Latinx people and Asian Americans, who believe they are being displaced by Jews, undocumented immigrants, Black people, and the liberals who ally themselves with them, or at least believe, quite legitimately, that liberalism is failing them.

In addition, in confusing and scary times, more people, particularly the traditionalists, tend to see authoritarian leaders as protectors. When you start to view someone as the protector of your family, faith, community, and social status, attacks on those protectors feel like attacks on your safety.

And, politically speaking, in this middle place autocracy can become more appealing to more people, and especially those who think they’re on the right side of the autocrats. This happens because authoritarian government is another source of stability. Moreover, when a nation has fallen from democracy to autocracy rather than vice versa, the appeal of democracy may seem pretty puny as it obviously failed to protect us from the current chaos.

We should move away from blunt demonization. Instead, be a clarifying and not just a clear voice.

For these reasons, at minimum, we should tread carefully. We should seriously consider the possible negative externalities that will result from the actions we take, keeping in mind of course that planning for negative side effects should prepare us, not paralyze us or make us so risk-intolerant that we stifle our creativity.

In communication, this suggests we should move away from blunt demonization. Instead, be a clarifying and not just a clear voice. Toward that end, it is helpful to see the problem we are facing as one made up mainly of circumstances, not of people. We people may be very problematic and we may, as well, be making circumstances worse as we react to them. But in order to change people at the scale necessary here, we need to consider how circumstances are arranging us such that we find ourselves at each others’ throats, then reframe arguments and diffuse unnecessary tensions so we can focus on the winnable fights.

By training our attention on the troubling circumstances we’re in, we can make progress from being clear in our communication to being clarifying, a mode that supercharges our ability to educate for change. Where that’s concerned, reading broadly is a big help. How Civil Wars Start: And How to Stop Them is a pretty good place to start.


© 2022 Scot Nakagawa


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