“How Civil Wars Begin”, a warning on the State of the Union

In the year since the sacking of the Capitol, discussions of a 21st century American Civil War have seeped from the margins into the general public. During the Trump presidency there were of course a number of books on the political divide; Yet they mostly discussed enlargement but (generally) peaceful differences (“Uncivil Agreement” by Lilliana Mason ”,“ Why We’re Polarized ”by Ezra Klein), or they focused mainly on historical roots. political violence (“The Field” by Joanne B. Freeman of Blood “,” Bring the War Home “by Kathleen Belew).

In contrast, predictions of an impending conflagration tended to come from circles that also celebrated it, on MAGA Twitter and its fellow talk shows, citing the paranoid fever dreams of the far right. The logic was hard to follow, but it often looked like this: snowflakes (ie liberals), although they are so weaklings that they are intimidated to wear “face layers.” (Ie masks), were physically preparing to make their way into a hellish landscape without gender-neutral toilet weapons and critical race theory.

Who wanted to honor such stupid scenarios with sober analyzes? “These prophecies have a way of coming true,” Fintan O’Toole recently wrote in The Atlantic, in a review of a new book by Canadian novelist and cultural critic Stephen Marche, “The Next Civil War”. O’Toole recoiled from Marche’s lamentations that catastrophe was inevitable, and his speculative accounts of what might precipitate collapse. Such visions do not only distract us from the chronic and less dramatic problems facing the country, argued O’Toole; doomsday premonitions are “flammable and corrosive” which makes people so fearful of each other that “the logic of preemptive strike sets in.”

When Barbara F. Walter started writing “How Civil Wars Start” in 2018, the few people who heard it was “a possible Second Civil War in America” ​​thought it was ” ‘an exercise in sowing fear, “she wrote in her acknowledgments,” perhaps even irresponsible “. This “same” gives you an idea of ​​Walter’s cautious inclinations. A political scientist who has spent her career studying conflicts in other countries, she approaches her work methodically, patiently collecting her evidence before presenting her case. She spends the first half of the book explaining how civil wars began in a number of places around the world, including the former Yugoslavia, the Philippines and Iraq.

Only a whimsical vignette about two-thirds of the way – imagining a morning of chaos in November 2028, with bombs exploding across the country as wildfires rage in California – made me think Walter was a “mailman. fear ”, or at least pimping to our most literal instincts. Then again, if things are as dire as she says they are, forcing us to see what a collapse might look like can arguably be the responsible thing to do.

Credit…Debora Cartwright

She suggests that we got here because of a “failure of the imagination”; our realm of possibilities was surrounded by the historical example of the Civil War, with its muddy embankments and its men on horseback. The range of his case studies implies that another drag on the American imagination has been an insistent exceptionalism – the belief that political collapse is something happening elsewhere.

Contemporary civil wars are in one sense common (Walter says there have been “hundreds” of them over the past 75 years), and in another sense rare. In any given year, only 4% of countries that “qualify for war” are actually one. “Civil wars start and escalate in predictable ways; they’re following a script, ”Walter wrote in his introduction, in what I thought was a bit of mechanistic hyperbole. As it turns out, she and other researchers have identified certain risk factors that are signs that things are starting to take a turn for the worse.

Walter has a political penchant for numerical data sets and scales. She says the United States is firmly in the “danger zone” of a “five point scale” measuring factionalism and a “21 point scale” measuring a country’s “political index”. , where full autocracy rolls a -10 and full democracy rolls +10. (We’ve gone from +10 to +5 in a few years, occupying what Walter and his colleagues call the not quite democratic and not quite autocratic zone of an “anocracy.”) Disturbing observations in a measurement system cold that presents itself as unquestionable, apparently non-partisan and scientific. The numbers also allow her to offer an empirical basis for her work as she heads to some blunt conclusions: “Today the Republican Party behaves like a predatory faction. “

Of course, nothing is more indisputable – and the book also has a chapter on that. Social media, for all its initial promises of interpersonal harmony, has become an effective machine for stoking rage, tearing people apart when they don’t bring extremists together. An ‘ethnic entrepreneur’ seeking to gain power by making fanatical appeals to a particular group does not need a particularly sophisticated disinformation campaign to make people feel fearful and hopeless, convincing them to turn against one. democracy that includes people they hate. It’s comforting to assume that autocracy must come with a military coup: “Now it’s being introduced by the voters themselves. “

America was lucky, says Walter, because “its first modern autocratic president was neither smart nor politically experienced.” She checks off the risk factors that have already been encountered here – factionalism, democratic decadence, lots of guns. There is also, crucially, a once dominant group whose members fear their status may elude them. It is not the oppressed masses that start a civil war, says Walter, but rather what she and her academic colleagues call “the sons of the soil.” Their privileged position was once so unchallenged and pervasive that they simply assume it is their due, and they will resort to violence to cling to power.

Walter’s serious advice on what to do seems well-intentioned but insufficient – although I’m not sure how much of it is her fault, given that the situation she’s exposed seems too inflamed to be. appeased by some advice in a book. “The US government should not give in to extremists – the creation of a white ethno-state would be disastrous for the country.” Thanks, Professor Walter. She proposes that the government “rather renew its commitment to provide for the needs of its most vulnerable citizens, white, black or brown.” That too sounds flawless – but she also makes it clear that the right-wing militias who plan to kidnap and assassinate government officials are zero-sum thinkers; they feel any benefit that might be shared by people who are unlike them as a serious loss.

While the non-worried are hampered by too little imagination, QAnon’s flowery fantasies show some Americans are beset by too much of the same. Walter mostly sticks to quoting the stock market in her field, but at one point, discussing Alex Jones’ sinister clowning, she reaches out to Voltaire: “Those who can make you believe nonsense can make you commit atrocities. ” Absurdities are by definition absurd, but Walter’s book suggests that it would be absurd to assume that they are irrelevant; It is only by thinking about what was once unfathomable that we can see the country as it really is.

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