Goodbye American Democracy, Hello Civil War?

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By Bernd Debusmann,

“The United States is coming to an end. The question is how.”

That is the opening line in a book entitled “The Next Civil War” by a Canadian essayist, Stephen Marche, who interviewed historians, political scientists, military officers and law enforcement officials about the prospect of violence tearing the United States apart.

He found that the country is descending into the kind of sectarian conflict once considered unthinkable in the world’s most enduring democracy and largest economy. Yet, political violence has been on the rise and “the American system has become a case study of paralysis.”

The outlook is bleak, according to Marche. “If the American Republic falls, democracy as the leading political system in the world falls. If democracy falls, the peace and security of the global order falls. No one will escape the consequences.”

Just a week after the publication of Marche’s harrowing look into a dark future, the American political scientist Barbara F. Walter spurred debate about the dire state of the nation with the release of her own book, “How Civil Wars Start and How to Stop Them.”

Civil wars ignite and escalate in ways that are predictable, they follow a script, Walter writes, and comes to a dire warning: “We are closer to civil war than any of us would like to believe.”

Only a few years ago, talk of a second American civil war was confined to the darkest corners of the Internet but the two books, and debates they sparked, highlight how mainstream the concern has become in the year since followers of Donald Trump stormed the Capitol in Washington to stop the peaceful transfer of power from a Republican president who lost to the Democrat who won, Joe Biden.

Some of the Trump militants who took part in the assault sported T-shirts that left no doubt about their aim: “MAGA Civil War, January 6, 2021.” Online retailers suspended their sales after the turmoil but for those who are proud of their participation, there is new merchandise: T-shirts with a silhouette of the Capitol and the legend “Battle for Capitol Hill VETERAN.”

Neither Marche nor Walter are fear-mongers and they took different routes to arrive at their dark conclusions — Marche through interviews prompted by the unexpected electoral victory of Trump in 2016; Walter through decades of study of civil wars in foreign countries.

A professor of International Relations at the University of California, San Diego, Walter serves on an advisory panel run by the Central Intelligence Agency called the Political Instability Task Force. It monitors countries around the world and predicts which most at risk of sliding into civil war.

In her book, she cites examples from Iraq, Syria, Yugoslavia, Ireland, Sudan, Sri Lanka, Rwanda, South Africa and the Philippines.

Walter drew her conclusions from a vast dataset whose measures include a 21-point “polity score” that ranges from -10 (fully autocratic) to +10 (fully democratic). The political science term for countries in between, with scores of -5 to +5, is “anocracies”, more familiarly known as partial democracies. Their citizens enjoy some elements of democratic rule, such as elections, but also have leaders with autocratic leanings.

The task force looked at a wide range of variables, including poverty ethnic diversity, population size, inequality and corruption to help researchers make predictions. To their surprise, the best predictors of instability were not poverty or income inequality but a polity score in the middle.

Living in a partial democracy, Walter and her colleagues found, makes citizens more likely to pick up a gun and begin to fight.

Picking up a gun is easier in the United States than in any other country. Lax gun laws have resulted in more guns in civilians hands than people: According to the National Shooting Sports Foundation, a gun trade association, there are 434 million firearms in private possession. (The U.S. population stands at 330 million.)

For much of American history, the country merited the top score of the index but in the years of the Trump presidency it fell to a 5, ending two centuries as the world’s oldest continuous democracy. “That honour is is now held by Switzerland, followed by New Zealand and then Canada,” Walter writes.

Small wonder that America’s democratic decline has been followed with particular concern in Canada, which shares a 5,500-mile border with its southern neighbor.

“The American polity is cracked, and might collapse. Canada must prepare,” said a January headline in the Globe and Mail, Canada’s most widely-read newspaper, over a lengthy analysis by Thomas Homer-Dixon, a political scientist and head of the Cascade Institute, a research centre at Royal Roads University.

Homer-Dixon’s forecast for the U.S. is every bit as bleak as those of his Canadian colleague and Walter but he pins a date on his prediction of turmoil: “By 2025, American democracy could collapse, causing extreme domestic political instability, including widespread civil violence. By 2030, if not sooner, the country could be governed by a right-wing dictatorship.”

That timeline assumes a disputed 2024 presidential election with Trump as a candidate. “Perhaps Democrats squeak out a victory and Republican states refuse to to recognize the result. Or conversely, perhaps Republicans win but only because Republican state legislatures override voting results; then Democratic protesters attack those legislatures.”

The 21st century Cassandras agree that a new civil war would be very distinct from the 1861–1865 civil war in which 620,000 people died. Then, the conflict pitted large armies of uniformed combatants against each other. A war today would probably feature acts of sabotage, cyber attacks, ambushes’ kidnappings and hit-and-run raids.

According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, an advocacy group, there are close to 200 armed right-wing militia groups in the U.S., some of whose members played prominent roles in the attack on the Capitol.

Much of the reporting and analysis on these dire predictions has been in left-leaning mainstream publications, including the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, and The New Yorker. But early in January, a widely-respected columnist for The Wall Street Journal, William Galston, weighed in with similar worries.

He did not use the term civil war but instead referred to “It Can’t Happen Here,” Sinclair Lewis’s 1935 novel which describes the rise of an American dictator in a way similar to the ascent to power by Adolf Hitler in Germany. He read the novel with bemused interest, he wrote, but did not think it had practical significance in the U.S..

“Over the past year, I’ve started to wonder,” he wrote.”I’m torn between fear of complacency and fear of alarmism. Was the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol the result of a singular confluence of events or a harbinger of worse?” His conclusion: America’s antiquated electoral laws increase the chances of political violence at the next presidential elections.

If the political parties fail to take steps to avoid it , “political violence could deal constitutional democracy in America a fatal blow.”

Bernd Debusmann is a  former columnist for Reuters who worked as a correspondent, bureau chief and editor in Europe, Latin America, the Middle East, Africa and United States. He has reported from more than 100 countries and lived in nine. He was shot twice in the course of his work – once covering a night battle in the center of Beirut and once in an assassination attempt prompted by his reporting on Syria. This analysis was originally published in Medium.

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