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Most Americans cannot imagine another civil war in their country,” Barbara F. Walter writes in her new book, How Civil Wars Start (New York: Crown Publishing, 2022). “They assume our country is too resilient and robust to devolve into conflict, too wealthy and advanced … (and) that our powerful government would quickly stomp out the rebellion…. They see the Whitmer kidnapping plot, or even the storming of the U.S. Capitol, as isolated incidents: the frustrating acts of a small group of violent extremists. But that is because they do not know how civil wars start.”

Walter does, and that is why her book, written in a publicly accessible style, is important.

In it, Walter who is the Rohr Professor of International Relations at the University of California at San Diego, is inquisitive, interpretive, historical, and comparative as she blends scholarly substance with soulful narration. She makes an unimaginable prospect imaginable—unless we make an about-face from the increasingly polarized and incursive environment that characterizes America’s politics today.

civil wars start

And while the term “progressive” is not listed in the book index, she identifies two longstanding Progressive priorities as deterrents. I will add a third. But before identifying and discussing those focal points, I will cover reasons why Walter believes another American civil war is not only possible, but (perhaps) otherwise inevitable.

Let me start with a word that Walter references frequently in the book, entrepreneur, a term that seems misplaced in a book like hers. Provocateur appears to be a better fit. That word, borrowed from the French with Latin origin (provocare), means to call forth. An entrepreneur, on the other hand, is an industrious person in the quest to create something new and valued. With French derivation (entreprendre), and with use traced to the mid-18th Century, entrepreneur once referred generally to a person undertaking a project. Today, though, we apply it narrowly to a select set of people in the business world. People like Bill Gates come to mind.

How might entrepreneur apply politically? “Entrepreneurs,” writes Walter (often ethnic entrepreneurs in civil wars), “make the fight expressively about their group’s position and status in society…. (They) work to convince citizens that they are threatened by an out-group and must band together under the entrepreneur to counter the threat. They also work to persuade those in their group that they are superior and “deserve” to dominate, often using incendiary language.”

Now, I see Donald J. Trump’s face rather than Bill Gates’ visage. As a political entrepreneur, Trump speaks expressively and emphatically to people by addressing their concerns and fears and stoking the fire of resolve. There are reasons why Trump has been (and still is) effective in speaking to people that way—a wide range of people, too, from the monied elite to people living hand to mouth. Included in those reasons is how Trump exploits (for political outcomes) matters of context in America today. Let us consider three interconnected circumstances, what I call The Three R’s, Race, Religion, and Residence.

Race: By 2045, Walter estimates, Caucasians will no longer be the majority population in America. Other Western countries will soon follow. Many Conservative Whites are concerned about losing status and privilege in a society that is becoming increasingly diverse and, with that, much different from what had been the accustomed status quo. Make America Great Again speaks loudly to their concerns, fears, and aspirations. Per Walter’s words, “their legacy is being stolen,” and it must be regained.

Religion. Christian sects across the country are engaged politically by taking stands and promulgating solutions. None of that is new because the movement that Jerry Falwell began (The Moral Majority) was launched over 40 years ago (1979). But there are new reasons for urgency. Conservative Christians see America moving in a liberal direction that contradicts religious principles they hold dear (e.g., mixed-gender marriage). Consequently, the American dictum of separating church and state is seen as less desirable today, and forging connections between church and state is now being openly discussed by those in office and candidates running for office. Teaching the Bible in public schools is an example.

Residence: Stagnate/declining populations across the U.S. are not growing because of limited in-migration. Those locations are becoming demographically sealed with people aging in place, and many sustaining residents prefer a Conservative view of society and the world. Conversely, growing areas of the country have an influx of newcomers, many of whom have different social profiles vis-à-vis native residents. The outcome is that growing populations often become multidimensionally diverse. In the South, for example, areas that had been traditionally Red politically are turning Purple.

America’s racial, religious, and residential profile is ripe for political entrepreneurs like Trump. Social media makes it easy to communicate and connect. The mass and niche media peddles commentary to like-minded people. Nonprofit associations raise funds and promote partisan stances. The alchemy is toxic. One reason, per Walter, is “what people like the most … fear over calm, falsehood over truth, and outrage over empathy.” The outcome is predictable. Wedges are inserted. Animus grows. The divide expands.

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And “into that political morass,” Walter continues, “stepped the biggest ethnic entrepreneur of all: Donald Trump.” He had “already made a racist crusade of questioning Obama’s birthplace. (Then) he embraced identity politics explicitly and with gusto. He referred to Mexicans as criminals, spoke of Christian values…, called women “horse face” and other names (e.g., Senator Warren as “Pocahontas”), instituted a travel ban on Muslims, called African nationals “shithole” countries, and threatened to veto a defense spending bill to protect the legacy of Confederate generals on U.S. Army bases.

Reaction, of course, was swift and polarizing—those supporting Trump and endorsing what he stood for, on the one hand, and those incensed by his words and actions, hell-bent do fight against him and “it.” With lines drawn and sides taken – just as you would expect when social conflict emerges and matures – the only question is when and how it will be resolved.

And just when the systems and institutions of democracy needed to stand their strongest to withstand a fierce tug-of-war, creaks and cracks were on display—in the Executive Branch, in Congress, at the Supreme Court, in statehouses across the country, and locally, too. Democracy’s strength, per Walter, happens when three things are uniformly in place—the rule of law (equal and impartial application of legal procedure), voice and accountability (when citizens can freely select their government and can trust institutions to speak the truth and serve the public good), and government effectiveness (quality of public services undertaken without suppression and interference).

Progressives work aggressively to protect and strengthen those outcomes, and that work is especially important during a time when democracy’s systems and institutions are being penetrated with subversive intent. Walter believes that the incursion has gone to the point that America has become “a factionalized anocracy that is quickly approaching the open insurgency stage, which means that we are closer to civil war than any of us would like to believe.”

The key word in that quote is anocracy, which is a form of government that mixes elements of democracy and autocracy. As with the word entrepreneur, anocracy seems misplaced in a commentary about American politics because America is a democracy. Right? Walter questions that assumption. “There is evidence that Americans would support a more authoritarian government,” Walter concludes. She cites that 1 in 5 Americans polled recently have a negative view of democracy, and fewer than 5% said that they would not vote for a candidate if they supported/did something undemocratic, such as shutting down polling places. There is more. Surveys reveal that the belief that those in Washington “would do the right thing” stands at only 17%, while 59% do not have faith in the electorate. Nearly 20% see “Army rule” as a good thing.

Then there is where America stands on the Polity Project Scale. Countries are given scores along a continuum from fully autocratic (-10) to fully democratic (+10) based on how they perform on four primary factors—freedom of elections, constraints on the executive branch, institutionalized political participation, and openness regarding the recruitment and competition for the presidency. Following the January 6 siege, political scientists calculated the scale value for the U.S. at +5 [-5 to +5 = anocratic], which is the lowest score for this country since 1800. (NOTE: A more recent recalculation has improved the U.S. score to +8.)

At that point, (in January 2021), “The U.S. was an anocracy for the first time in more than two hundred years,” Walter writes, “We are no longer the world’s oldest continuous democracy. Switzerland, New Zealand, and Canada now hold that honor. And we are no longer peers to +10 countries, Canada, Costa Rica, and Japan.” Worse yet are the implications associated with scale results. “A partial democracy,” Walter conveys, “is three times more likely to experience a civil war than a full democracy.”

To lower those odds, protecting and strengthening democracy is necessary but insufficient. The second primary task to avoid civil war is addressing the sense of hopelessness felt by those left behind. Toward the end, Walter writes, “The Federal government should renew its commitment to providing for the most vulnerable citizens. We must undo fifty years of declining social services, invest in social safety nets and human capital across social and religious lines, and prioritize high-quality early education, universal health care, and a higher minimum wage.”

Again, what Walter describes are longstanding Progressive priorities. But while all Progressives agree with Walter’s preferences and many work energetically to achieve those outcomes, our country’s trendline is problematic. Democracy is very much at risk, and there is uneven commitment to America’s most vulnerable people. In both cases, it is that way because too many Americans prefer it that way.

That would be bad enough if it were not for a third factor in the mix. Too many Americans are contributory agents to the prospects of civil war, and I am not referring just to “Trumpers” and the like. I am also referring to people like you and me—Progressives and Liberals—friends, neighbors, colleagues, and family members.

In today’s political environment, it is not enough to be on the right side of change or even to work toward its advancement. We must also refrain from “fighting fire with fire,” which means using inflammatory rhetoric and engaging in pugilistic-like behaviors that contribute to unrest. Evidence is abundant and everywhere—in conversations, social media posts, Letters to the Editor/op-eds, campaign speeches, and more. For America’s sake, we need to be better.

That is why Walter’s book-closing words have great meaning: “It is the beginning of a remarkable new era when we will have the chance to live up to our founding motto—E Pluribus Unum—where out of many, we will become one.