Transcript for Why an expert in political violence is worried about civil war in the US
- Hello, and welcome to the FiveThirtyEight Politics Podcast. I'm Galen Druke. In the wake of the January 6 attack on the Capitol, academics and journalists have increasingly considered the possibility of future political violence in America. And polls suggest it's something Americans are worried about. 62% of respondents in a recent UMass poll said they're at least somewhat concerned about violence in the 2024 presidential election.
Our guest today has gone a step further. Barbara F. Walter is a political scientist at UC San Diego, who has spent her career studying foreign civil wars. In her new book, How Civil Wars Start and How to Stop Them, she writes, quote, "We are now closer to a Civil War than any of us would like to believe." It's a bold suggestion, and today we're going to interrogate. Sure, America is polarized, but is it headed towards war?
Joining us today is Barbara Walter. She's a political science professor at the University of California San Diego, and her new book is called How Civil Wars Start and How to Stop Them. Welcome to the podcast.
- Thank you.
- So you worked on the Political Instability Task Force, which is a project sponsored by the US government that studies domestic conflicts abroad. And as part of that task force, academics and data analysts created a predictive model-- something we're familiar with here at FiveThirtyEight-- for when these kinds of conflicts occur. What were you looking at to predict something that complex as a civil war abroad?
- So the task force brings in people like me to help them brainstorm about factors that might matter. So I've been studying civil wars around the world for the last 30 years. I've read all of the qualitative studies, all the quantitative studies.
And so they bring people like me in, and they say, well, what do you think could matter? What have the studies found? And so we included things like poverty, income inequality, what we call ethnic heterogeneity, how ethnically and religiously diverse a country is, topographical features of a country, the size of a country, the population. So over 50 different variables that people have considered potentially important. And we talk about why they're important, if, in fact, they are important. And then the data analysts use this information to craft and to maintain their model.
One of the surprises were that two factors came up again and again as being the most predictive, and it wasn't the ones that people expected. The first was this variable called anocracy. That's a political science term for a country whose government is neither fully democratic nor fully autocratic. It's something in between.
You could think of it as a partial democracy, as a weak democracy. Fareed Zakaria has called it an, illiberal democracy. So it's somewhere in this middle zone.
The second factor, that was even more predictive, was whether a country's population had begun to organize itself politically, not along ideological lines-- so not left, right, conservative, liberal, but really, at least one party was organizing around identity-- so race, religion, or-- or ethnicity, and then that party sought to gain political power in order to exclude everyone else.
So a really classic example of what we call ethnic fractionalization happened in the former Yugoslavia. So after the Soviet Union collapsed, Yugoslavia suddenly had the ability to hold competitive elections. It attempted to rapidly democratize.
And you saw former communists like Slobodan Milosevic who knew that he could never win an election in Yugoslavia by running as a communist. Yugoslavs hated communists. They were not going to vote for him.
And he was ambitious. He wanted political power. And so he thought about, what are the ways that he can convince Yugoslavs to vote for him? And he realized that Serbs were the largest ethnic group in Yugoslavia. And he was ethnically Serb. And so he gravitated towards ethnic nationalism, and he started crafting a narrative.
- So there's a lot that I want to get into there in terms of that idea of an anocracy or a partial democracy and factionalism. But first, you know, how good are these models at predicting the outbreak of a civil war, in the sense of, how often might countries have these two factors but actually not experience a civil war?
- That's a great question. So-- and again, what-- the data analysts on the task force have said that if you have these two features, that you are at about a 3.4% annual risk of civil war. That sounds very small, but for-- it's actually not. If your country finds itself in this middle zone and it has these ethnic factions and it doesn't do anything to change that, after 30 years, the risk of civil war is enormous.
And the way I think about it is it's very similar to smoking. If I were to start smoking this year, my risk of dying of lung cancer this year is very small. If I continue to smoke for the next 30, 40, 50 years, my risk of dying from lung cancer or something related to smoking is much, much higher. And so what I find really helpful about these risk factors is, if we know about them beforehand, we do have time to make the changes that will lower the risk.
- There are some other factors, reading the research on how civil wars start-- some other factors that researchers have pointed to as being strongly related to the outbreak of civil war, like extreme poverty or political instability-- you know, even things like-- you mentioned rough terrain that would enable rebels to hide easily, certain ways to finance, you know, rebel militias and things like that.
And I was reading the research of, you know, two professors at Stanford-- David Leighton and James Fearon, who you cite in your book. Have we moved on from thinking that those are important factors to starting a civil war, or are they still relevant?
- Well, they are still important. So as you know, we have-- what we have are correlations. There have been studies that have looked, for example, at the role of extreme poverty, at the role of what we call, rough terrain, whether a country has lots of potential places for rebels to hide. And we've found relationships between those two.
What we don't yet know is why. So it is true that poorer countries tend to experience more civil wars. But we don't know if it's poverty per se, or if poverty simply tends to happen at the same time that poor governance does.
The World Bank, every year, puts out a world development report, where they identify one factor that they believe is preventing development in poor countries. And they had seen these studies that showed that poverty seems to lead to civil war, and once you have a civil war, you have another civil war, and your country becomes even poorer.
And so they asked Jim Fearon at Stanford, and they asked me to-- they commissioned us to do additional research. And both of us independently found that, when you included all of these measures of what we called good governance-- rule of law, et cetera, et cetera-- the result that-- poverty dropped out, in terms of significance. It was no longer significant. And what that indicates is that wealthy countries also tend to have higher quality democracy, and it's actually the higher quality democracy that appears to be driving whether you have political violence or not.
So having said that, economic variables do seem to still matter. So I talk in my book about downgraded groups, these groups that had once politically been dominant and they had either lost power or they're in the process of losing power. They're the ones that tend to initiate violence.
And there's been a few studies-- I'm sure there will be more. People are working on this topic all the time. That have looked to see if it matters whether, at the same time they're in political decline, whether they're also suffering economic decline. And that does seem to matter, that it exacerbates their-- their resentment and exacerbates their sense of decline. And those groups appear more likely to organize in order to change the system.
- All right, so that's some of the context from looking abroad. Now, of course, the big question here is, how likely do you think a second civil war in the United States really is?
- I mean, I think-- you know, I stick to the model. I think every year that we remain-- and I'll talk in a second about anocracy. Every year that we don't reform our democracy and make it stronger, every year that we have one of our two major parties just appealing to only one segment of our society-- the white, Christian population-- every year that those two factors continue to exist, our risk increases.
I can't tell you when a civil war is going to happen here or even if a Civil War is going to happen here. I can tell you what the risk factors are, and I can tell you that, if those risk factors don't go away, every year the risk will increase.
And so to talk about the United States-- you know, the US's democracy has been in decline, by every-- and every independent data set has found this-- has been in decline for the last five years. And in fact, one of those data sets, the one that does measure anocracy and the one that has been used by the task force, comes from the Center for Systemic Peace.
They downgraded the US's democracy for the first time in 2016 as a result of-- in part, international observers to the election deemed it free but not entirely fair. It got downgraded again in 2019 as a result of the White House not responding to subpoenas and refusing to hand over information to Congress. Congress is the main check on executive power here in the United States. And then by the end of the Trump administration, it downgraded the United States for the first time to an anocracy, to-- you know, it dipped into this middle zone for the first time since 1800.
Now, the Center for Systemic Democracy just issued its ranking of the United States, or its rating for the United States, for 2021, and it has increased it again. But it's still not considered a full democracy. And every other data set-- Freedom House, Varieties of Democracy, the Economist Intelligence Unit-- you know, all is showing weakening of America's democracy.
- I'm curious here, because for many, many years, these kinds of organizations have ranked the United States as having a strong democracy.
- Is this related to something that is longstanding-- like, the Senate is not proportional or the electoral college is not proportional. There's no direct popular vote.
Because, you know, the things surrounding President Trump-- in large part, the guardrails held. You know, there was ultimately a transition of power like you would expect in a democracy. And those other things-- you know, the Senate, the electoral college-- have been around forever.
So like, when these organizations are saying, the United States is not a democracy, and therefore, you know, that's one of the risk factors for starting a civil war-- should we just believe that wholeheartedly? Or you know, what is going on there? Like, why is America not a democracy?
- Well, none of them say that America is no longer a democracy. They'll say that the United States is a weakened democracy. It's a partial democracy. None of them say that America is no longer a democracy. So I want to make that clear.
What really has changed here in the United States is that we never had a party that was truly an ethnic faction. As late as 2008, white Americans were equally likely to vote for Democrats as they were to vote for Republicans. And that was in large part because the white working class ideologically was more attuned to the policies of the Democratic Party.
That changed when Obama was elected and the white working class began to gravitate towards the Republican Party. Today, the Republican Party is 90% white.
Now, what makes it-- what makes that dangerous here in the United States is that they now know they don't have the votes to win if the United States essentially is, truly, a one-person, one-vote country. If we have a really strong, healthy liberal democracy here in the United States, the Republican Party, as it is currently configured, cannot win elections anymore. And in fact, it's going to get harder for them to win elections as long as they embrace only this one subset of the population because whites are declining as a proportion of the population, relative to everyone else.
So that's what's different, is we suddenly have a party that doesn't benefit from democracy anymore, that doesn't want democracy, that's doing everything they can to cement in advantages that will lead to minority rule, and that hasn't happened before.
- There's a lot there that I want to unpack. I mean, I think-- maybe the data shows different things. But looking back to, in Pew data, how white people identified between the two parties, in 1994, 51% of white people identified as Republicans. 39% of white people identified as Democrats.
In 2019, according to the same Pew data, 53% of white people identified as Republicans. 42% of white people identified as Democrats. You actually don't see a big change in how white people identify between the two parties over time.
There's a little bit of an increase around 2007, 2008 because the Republican Party was doing so poorly under Bush with the failure of the Iraq War and the response to Hurricane Katrina, that the Republican Party was just doing worse across all demographic groups.
And then you look at more recent elections, like in 2020, even 2016. We see that Republicans are gaining ground with the largest minority group in the country, Hispanics, and that actually, race was less of a predictor-- has become less of a predictor across the last couple elections, of how people will vote, and education has become more of a predictor.
So if we're looking long-term and we're saying, like, fractionalization of the two parties, like, increasingly is what could cause a civil war in America, I don't actually see it in the data.
- So I mean, I actually think that gives us hope. Latinos, in many respects, should find a home in the Republican Party. They are more conservative on social policies.
10 years ago, the Republican Party said, you know, we should go after Latinos. That is our area of growth, and that would be a group that would feel quite at home in the Republican Party. Yes, there was-- some Latinos gravitated to the Republican Party in the last election, but the numbers are quite small, really quite small. I think because it was surprising, people like to make a big deal about it.
But the fundamental challenge for the Republican Party remains is, how do you continue to cater to your base which is very, very important to you. They are white evangelicals. And also cater to non-whites who many of your base, not only do they not want in the party, they don't want in the country. And that is a real problem.
- So it seems, in some ways you ascribe a certain intention to Republican voters, that they see the country is getting more diverse and therefore they want to end democracy. From polling, it looks like the majority of Republicans truly believe that the 2020 election was fraudulent because Trump and other high profile Republicans lied to them.
And so, perhaps perversely, they think that addressing that fraud, although largely nonexistent, is the Democratic thing to do. What makes you believe that Republican voters are actually thinking, hey, let's end democracy to keep white people in power. Is that a broad swath of the Republican Party is thinking that way?
- So I'm really glad you brought up this question. This is a really important question. The way that experts think about it is there's really two players in this game on the Republican side. There's the Republican leadership, the Republican elite, and there's Republican voters, your individual citizens.
And they have different motivations. The Republican leadership wants to stay in power. They want to gain power. You know, average Republican voters oftentimes they want to take care of their families, they want to take care of themselves. They love their country. They want to do what's right. The leadership is where I place the blame.
We call people like this outside the United States ethnic entrepreneurs. They are using ethnicity the way Milosevic used ethnicity to catapult themselves in power they are using fear. They are using the creation of false threats to convince average citizens to support them, and average citizens believe what they're being told.
- So you describe kind of the two factors that we're still talking about here are a country being an anachronistically or not a full democracy and then having factionalization instead of polarization. And you describe the difference between polarization and factionalization as being-- polarization usually relates to policy issues. You disagree over government spending. Factionalization pertains to identity.
You know, again, in thinking about like how America has or hasn't changed that might bring it closer to political violence, identity appeals have been so common across American politics throughout history. And likewise today, I mean, I think we do still have policy debates that divide people, on COVID measures, public spending, and social programs, inflation, education, abortion, tech. I'm curious if we really have changed so much that the policy issues are no longer dividing people and it's all you're this identity, you vote for that person. And if you're this other identity, you vote for this other person.
- Yeah so again, historically we know that-- that factions, identity factions, can be quite troublesome. We also have something called a super faction. So when parties not only divide along ethnic identity, but they divide along religious identity, and then they also divide along an urban rural split. So when you have really a country-- in every way-- almost every way that people would identify themselves where they live, what they worship and you know what their racial identity is. If everything splits along these lines so that there's no real intermingling at all, those are the most dangerous factions. And of course, that is also what we have seen here.
- Is identity politics always bad for a democracy? Because when you look at American politics, identity politics are rampant and have been for a long time on both sides of the aisle.
- Well, I mean identity politics is so tricky, because how do you get consensus, right? Like if you care about issues, then you can negotiate over those issues. If it really is about identity, then first of all, the elites know they have a locked in constituency, right? If you're a Serb, and you buy into this narrative that Serbs have to stick together otherwise they're going to be slaughtered by the Croats the way they were slaughtered in World War II, then you have nowhere else to go.
And then your leaders basically have carte blanche to be as inflexible, as tough as possible, because they aren't going to lose their constituency. And so that I think is why identity politics is so different, because you believe that you have to stick together, and then that gives your leaders the opportunity to essentially do whatever they want knowing that you won't leave.
- So I want to talk a little bit about the nuts and bolts of how all of these factors would potentially come together in this nightmare scenario. How does a civil war usually begin?
- So I have a chapter in the book called When Hope Dies, and it really starts from the argument that most people don't want war. Nobody-- there are a few people who understand that they'll benefit from war, and they won't pay the costs of war. Milosevic didn't have to fight. He was protected by his security guard. He was going to gain all the rewards of the war because he was going to be president.
But most-- your average citizen is going to pay the cost of war. They don't want it. And so they will push to pursue all sorts of nonviolent means to change the system. They'll protest. They'll engage. They'll go to the polls. They will vote. They will hope that the system-- that they'll have enough votes to win the next election so that they can gain their policies through the polling booth rather than through fighting.
And you saw this, for example, in Northern Ireland. The Irish in Northern Ireland were deeply unhappy with being part of Northern Ireland since it was formed in the 1920s. They did everything. They protested. They had marches that were modeled after the US Civil Rights movement. They had work strikes. They were avid voters. They did everything, and nothing had an effect.
So I talk about two periods or two events that lead people to lose hope. And when these two events happen, the more extreme elements in a group start to have an easier time recruiting people. So the provisional IRA existed during all of these years of non-violent protests. They were a fringe group. Most Irish Catholics didn't support them. It was only after they realized that nothing else was working that they began to gravitate towards them. And these two factors are a series of failed elections.
So if you see that you just don't have the votes, then you begin to lose hope that you can ever win an election. And I do think the 2020 elections were devastating towards Republicans and the Republican leadership. They had historically high turnout. I think higher than the last 120 years, and they still lost by almost 8 million votes. So what do you do in a situation like that? That's hard evidence that you don't have the votes.
And then the second thing I talk about is non-violent protests. That is usually the path that people take to try to affect change. They go out into the street. They have placards. They make their wishes known. And if the government refuses to negotiate, even if you have mass protests year after year after year-- and in fact, even worse if the government sends soldiers that then mow down peaceful protesters. This has the effect of radicalizing people pretty quickly. And that's when you tend to see a shift to violence.
- So on the election piece, I'm curious. It seems at this point there's a good chance Republicans win the national popular vote in the House this fall. If that were to come to pass, do you think that would be sort of moving us in the right direction towards people having more trust and faith in our democracy.
- Well, that's an awesome question, because the reason they will have won in the House and the Senate if that happens is because they have instituted all these very undemocratic measures. They have, for example, increased gerrymandering to ensure that there's safer districts. And so in some respects, that might placate the Republicans, because they have gained power. The interesting thing is it's not going to placate the left who's going to feel like they're increasingly living-- they're a majority who's living under minority rule.
- Although, to be clear, I said House national popular vote specifically, because that would mean that even gerrymandering--
- Oh, the popular vote. Oh, OK. I'm sorry.
- Even any-- the Senate, for example, which again that's not the House and the Senate. There aren't all 50 states up every year so we can't really use that as a measure. But President Biden is pretty unpopular for policy reasons, frankly. We see that in the polling. And so, in some sense, would a policy based backlash that kind of brings Republicans into power through a popular vote majority be something that would in the framework that you're talking about create a healthier environment?
- Yes, absolutely. If the Republicans win the popular vote, again, that's hard evidence that they have support. You know, it would be problematic if they were able to come to power, for example, because the results of elections in certain states were overturned. If you had them come to power with undemocratic features. But if they are coming to power fair and square, that's exactly what people like me who study this would say that will lower the risk.
- In terms of what we're actually talking about when we say a civil war. I think a lot of people probably envision what happened in the first American Civil War, but what specifically are you talking about. Because we have had political violence in this country, sadly, for a long time. We've had terrorist violence from the KKK. We've had political assassinations. We've had anti-government extremists, violent anti-government extremists. Things that in large part law enforcement takes care of it. So what would happen now that would kind of start a civil war that law enforcement wouldn't be able to control?
- So the type of Civil War we would see here in the US is the type of civil war that we are increasingly seeing around the world. It's sort of a 21st century type of civil war. And it is more like an insurgency. It tends to be decentralized. It's fought by multiple militias. Sometimes they're working together. Sometimes they're not working together. They're using unconventional tactics like guerrilla warfare, like domestic terrorism.
So you would see something where, for example, government buildings and infrastructure rather than soldiers were targeted. They don't want to engage the US military directly in any way. In fact, they want to evade detection. They want to evade engagement. They're going to have targeted assassinations of opposition leaders, of federal employees, who are, for example, like judges, who are not sympathetic to the cause. They're going to target minority groups if their goal, for example, is to try to create a white state.
So they'll use these unconventional tactics, and they'll do it in a decentralized way. The term for it that they actually use is called leaderless resistance and they would pursue that because if you're a weak actor going against a powerful government, which the United States is, then this is your only chance of success. And I actually don't think they would be successful in either toppling the federal government or creating these white ethnic enclaves, but I do think that they could inflict a lot of pain on the United States. They could really harm our economy for a long period of time, and it would be very costly to Americans for a fairly long time.
- For people who are concerned about this, what can be done to prevent a country from domestic conflict or civil war before it gets going?
- Well, again, I'm going back to the model. Full liberal democracies don't experience civil wars. Strengthen our democracy. Demand that our politicians both on the left and the right institute real reforms so that we are no longer at risk of violence. And then, of course, I do think the Republican Party at some point will have a reckoning. They know this. I'm not telling them anything they don't know. They understand that they cannot continue to cater to white Christian Americans and still survive as a party. And that's strictly demographics. Their constituency is declining, and if they want to survive, they're going to have to expand their tent.
- You mentioned there aren't any examples of liberal democracies even like backsliding and falling into civil war. Is that reason to believe that. It won't happen here? I mean, for all the things we've mentioned, I don't-- you said there's not really a dispute that America is a democracy.
- So I would say Ukraine is the first one that we're seeing. Ukraine was a relatively recent democracy, but it did backslide. It had a president who was very much like an Erdogan, an Orban. He had no interest in democracy. He was replaced by a reformist, and Ukraine's democracy increased a bit. But you had Russian speaking Ukrainians in Eastern Ukraine who were going to lose out as a result.
The deposed President had been from their region. He had pursued preferential policies towards them. They were also the manufacturing class that was losing its jobs when coal mines were being closed down, and they're the ones who rose up to say, listen, we are losing and we are going to fight to prevent it. And so I think Ukraine is an early example. And I think of all the liberal democracies, the US's democracy has slid the most. India is also on this path with Modi. So I think in some ways, we're a test case.
- This is a tricky question here kind of given the conversation that we've had, but can talking about the prospect of civil war ever be dangerous in the sense that it may make people more fearful and alienated from each other? And how do you weigh that risk, because if you tell Democrats, Republicans want to destroy the democracy, then they're going to be obviously fearful and alienated from perhaps all Republicans and see Republicans as an enemy as opposed to cohabitants of America.
- Yeah, I thought a lot about this, a lot about this when I was sitting in my office, and I'm trying to decide, do I bring what we know from these models to the American public? Do we bring what we know about 80 years of civil wars around the world to the American public? Could this create what we scholars call a security dilemma? And I made the decision to write the book really for two reasons.
One, not talking about it doesn't make it go away. I've been watching the far right organize. I've been watching the far right grow bigger and stronger. And then the second reason had to do with my interviews with all of these people who lived through these wars who said we didn't see it coming. We didn't see it coming, and by the time it broke out, it was too late to do anything.
I mean, that's the whole thing with risk factors. If you know what the risk factors are, you have time to change them. You have time to do something about it. And so I don't see this as creating the phenomenon. I see this as, oh, my gosh, this is what's happening. We need to know about it so we can do something about it.
- All right, well, thank you so much for joining me today.
- Thank you, Galen.
- I've been speaking with Barbara F. Walter. Her new book is called How Civil Wars Start and How to Stop Them. My name is Galen Druke. Claire Bidigare-Curtis is on audio editing. Nash Consing is on video editing, and Emily Venezky is our intern. You can get in touch by emailing us at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also, of course, tweet at us with any questions or comments. If you're a fan of the show, leave us a rating or review in the Apple Podcast store, or tell someone about us. Thanks for listening, and we will see you soon.
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