HOW CIVIL WARS START
And How to Stop Them
By Barbara F. Walter
THE NEXT CIVIL WAR
Dispatches From the American Future
By Stephen Marche
Last month, three retired generals warned that the U.S. military needs to start preparing for the possibility of internal breakdown over the 2024 election. “In a contested election,” they wrote, “some might follow orders from the rightful commander in chief, while others might follow the Trumpian loser. … Under such a scenario, it is not outlandish to say a military breakdown could lead to civil war.” Two new books suggest their concern is not misplaced.
The generals are likely familiar with the Political Instability Task Force (P.I.T.F.), a group of analysts that has been crunching enormous amounts of data in order to predict where conflict might erupt. Barbara F. Walter is a member of the task force who has spent 30 years studying civil wars around the world. Her new book, “How Civil Wars Start,” explains that studies have identified three factors that predict which countries are most likely to descend into civil conflict.
The first is whether a country is in transition toward or away from democracy. A data set known as the “polity score” rates every country on a scale from +10 (most democratic) to -10 (most authoritarian). Those countries in the middle — between +5 and -5 and therefore neither full democracies nor full autocracies, or what the experts call “anocracies” — are twice as likely as autocracies to experience political instability or civil war and three times as likely as democracies.
The second factor is what the P.I.T.F. calls “factionalism,” which in Walter’s definition arises when a political party is based on ethnicity, religion or race instead of ideology. According to a study of hundreds of countries over 70 years, the presence of anocracy and factionalism was the best predictor of where civil wars were likely to erupt. It’s in this zone, Walter writes, that “politics goes from being a system in which citizens care about the good of the country as a whole, to one in which they care only about members of their group.” These factions tend not to harden on their own. Frequently, what the researchers call an “ethnic entrepreneur” — for example, Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia or Omar al-Bashir in Sudan — stirs up fears within one group that they are under threat from another group and must band together.
Finally, Walter details a third factor: a dominant group’s loss of status. Called “downgrading,” this predicts which groups are most likely to initiate conflict: those experiencing not just political defeat, but “status reversal.”
The power of Walter’s model is that she does not need to reference the United States. One plots our nation automatically as one reads. (The United States currently has a polity score of +5, within the anocracy zone for the first time since 1800.) Her conclusion: “We are a factionalized anocracy that is quickly approaching the open insurgency stage, which means we are closer to civil war than any of us would like to believe.”
Walter’s otherwise harrowing book stumbles when describing how greater violence might erupt, focusing on fringe groups over likelier flash points. According to recent polling, only one-third of Republicans say they’ll trust the results of an election their candidate loses. With a strongman-in-exile who’s already got one violent insurrection under his belt actively stoking those dynamics, Walter’s concentration on extremists like the neo-Nazi Atomwaffen Division feels like a distraction.
“The Next Civil War,” by the Canadian essayist Stephen Marche, provides a more recognizable narrative of what a civil rupture might look like. Marche interviewed military officials, law enforcement, food supply experts, historians and political scientists to make “more than educated guesses” about a potential upheaval.
The book alternates between fictional dispatches from a coming social breakdown and digressions that support its predictions with evidence from the present. The effect is twofold: The narrative delivers Cormac McCarthy-worthy drama; while the nonfictional asides imbue that drama with the authority of documentary.
Marche’s first “dispatch” starts with a defiant sheriff reopening a bridge the feds have closed as structurally unsafe. The choice of a local law enforcement officer as an instigator is a well-informed one. The Claremont Institute has announced the creation of a “Sheriffs Fellowship” to urge local officials not to be “beholden to the centralized … bureaucracies of federal or state governments.” And the commander of the Oklahoma National Guard recently directed his members to ignore the Pentagon’s vaccine requirements.
If there’s a frustration in reading Marche, it’s that his book is negative to the last and therefore fails to capture the full complexity of our moment. After all, we recently did something few countries ever do: turn an autocrat out of office. The reality is that the threat has shifted. At the state level, legislatures are changing election laws to make a future coup more possible. At the federal level, the autocrats are storming government buildings from without rather than commanding them from within.
Yet as both books make clear, even the worst-case scenario isn’t civil war in the 1860s sense. Neither envisions armies massing across the Potomac. Instead, they predict a conflict more like the Troubles in Northern Ireland or the guerrilla war in Colombia — a normalization of political violence that endangers basic security.
This makes even the use of the term “civil war” a misleading one: first because it can turn the authors into Cassandras; second because (as Fintan O’Toole argued in his review of Marche’s book in The Atlantic) fears of civil war can precipitate one if both sides are encouraged to arm up and pre-empt an attack by the other.
What we need instead is that rare convergence of uncanny leadership from above and below that has marked this country’s previous existential moments: the Revolution, the Civil War, World War II, the civil rights movement. We need Republicans in Congress joining with Democrats to oppose the subversion of future elections (and Democrats passing voting protections alone if necessary); business leaders coming off the sidelines to make democracy a core value of their companies; news media telling unflinching stories about the threats facing our form of government; and neighbors talking to neighbors with empathy to bridge divides.
The two books have divergent takes on those possibilities. Walter nods to them by invoking Nelson Mandela and F. W. de Klerk as past examples of leadership averting a national implosion. Marche on the other hand views the future as hopeless. His prescription is not reform, but secession and disunion.
But solutions are not the point of these books. Marche’s agenda, as he explains, is to do for a second civil war what the 1983 television film “The Day After” did for nuclear war: scare the country into action. (He reminds us that Ronald Reagan credited “The Day After” with inspiring the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty with Russia.)
Both books provide a sobering vision of where we may be headed, and for that reason they should be required reading for anyone invested in preserving our 246-year experiment in self-government. Because whether we’re heading toward civil war, just instability and strife, or something different altogether, we’ve rarely been this divided as a nation.
Consider this observation from a local paper in Augusta, Ga.: “The differences between Red and Blue have been growing more marked for years, and the mutual repulsion more radical, until not a single sympathy is left between the dominant influences in each section.”
Except the actual quote didn’t say “Red and Blue.” It said “North and South.” And it was published Nov. 16, 1860 — 10 days after Abraham Lincoln’s election.