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Joined: 25 Aug 2013
Age: 64
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09 Jan 2022, 12:11 pm

Is a Civil War Ahead? A year after the attack on the Capitol, America is suspended between democracy and autocracy.

The edifice of American exceptionalism has always wobbled on a shoddy foundation of self-delusion, and yet most Americans have readily accepted the commonplace that the United States is the world’s oldest continuous democracy. That serene assertion has now collapsed.

On January 6, 2021, when white supremacists, militia members, and maga faithful took inspiration from the President and stormed the Capitol in order to overturn the results of the 2020 Presidential election, leaving legislators and the Vice-President essentially held hostage, we ceased to be a full democracy. Instead, we now inhabit a liminal status that scholars call “anocracy.” That is, for the first time in two hundred years, we are suspended between democracy and autocracy. And that sense of uncertainty radically heightens the likelihood of episodic bloodletting in America, and even the risk of civil war.

This is the compelling argument of “How Civil Wars Start,” a new book by Barbara F. Walter, a political scientist at the University of California San Diego. Walter served on an advisory committee to the C.I.A. called the Political Instability Task Force, which studies the roots of political violence in nations from Sri Lanka to the former Yugoslavia. Citing data compiled by the Center for Systemic Peace, which the task force uses to analyze political dynamics in foreign countries, Walter explains that the “honor” of being the oldest continuous democracy is now held by Switzerland, followed by New Zealand. In the U.S., encroaching instability and illiberal currents present a sad picture. As Walter writes, “We are no longer a peer to nations like Canada, Costa Rica, and Japan.”

In her book and in a conversation for this week’s New Yorker Radio Hour, Walter made it clear that she wanted to avoid “an exercise in fear-mongering”; she is wary of coming off as sensationalist. In fact, she takes pains to avoid overheated speculation and relays her warning about the potential for civil war in clinical terms.

So much remains in flux. She is careful to say that a twenty-first-century American civil war would bear no resemblance to the consuming and symmetrical conflict that was played out on the battlefields of the eighteen-sixties. Instead she foresees, if the worst comes about, an era of scattered yet persistent acts of violence: bombings, political assassinations, destabilizing acts of asymmetric warfare carried out by extremist groups that have coalesced via social media. These are relatively small, loosely aligned collections of self-aggrandizing warriors who sometimes call themselves “accelerationists.” They have convinced themselves that the only way to hasten the toppling of an irredeemable, non-white, socialist republic is through violence and other extra-political means.

Walter makes the case that, as long as the country fails to fortify its democratic institutions, it will endure threats such as the one that opens her book: the attempt, in 2020, by a militia group in Michigan known as the Wolverine Watchmen to kidnap Governor Gretchen Whitmer. Like other scholars, Walter points out that there have been early signs of the current insurgency, including the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, in 1995, which killed a hundred and sixty-eight people. But it was the election of Barack Obama that most vividly underlined the rise of a multiracial democracy and was taken as a threat by many white Americans who feared losing their majority status. Walter writes that there were roughly forty-three militia groups operating in the U.S. when Obama was elected, in 2008; three years later there were more than three hundred.

Walter has studied the preconditions of civil strife all over the world. And she says that, if we strip away our self-satisfaction and July 4th mythologies and review a realistic checklist, “assessing each of the conditions that make civil war likely,” we have to conclude that the United States “has entered very dangerous territory.” She is hardly alone in that conclusion.

The backsliding was never more depressingly evident than in the weeks after January 6th, when Mitch McConnell, after initially criticizing Donald Trump’s role in the insurrection, said that he would support him if he were the Party’s nominee in 2024. Having stared into the abyss, he pursued the darkness.

Not so long ago, Walter might have been considered an alarmist. In 2018, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt published their Trump-era study, “How Democracies Die,” one of many books that sought to awaken American readers to the reality that the rule of law was under assault just as it was in much of the world. But, as Levitsky told me, “Even we couldn’t have imagined January 6th.” Levitsky said that until he read Walter and other well-respected scholars on the subject, he would have thought that warnings of civil war were overwrought.

Unlike Russia or Turkey, the United States is blessed with a deep experience of democratic rule, no matter how flawed. The courts, the Democratic Party, local election officials in both parties, the military, the media—no matter how deeply flawed—proved in 2020 that it was possible to resist the darkest ambitions of an autocratic President.

“We’re not headed to fascism or Putinism,” Levitsky told me, “but I do think we could be headed to recurring constitutional crises, periods of competitive authoritarian and minority rule, and episodes of pretty significant violence that could include bombings, assassinations, and rallies where people are killed. In 2020, we saw people being killed on the streets for political reasons. This isn’t apocalypse, but it is a horrendous place to be.”

The battle to preserve American democracy is not symmetrical. One party, the G.O.P., now poses itself as anti-majoritarian and anti-democratic.

We are a country capable of electing Barack Obama and, eight years later, Donald Trump. We are capable of January 5th, when the state of Georgia elected two senators, an African American and a Jew, and January 6th, when thousands stormed the Capitol in the name of a preposterous conspiracy theory.

“There are two very different movements at once in the same country,” Levitsky said.

The article is both illuminating and has a huge blind spot. It is spot on in being scared of where we are and and the fault of the right and the GOP that enables them. It was refreshing to read an analysis that opines that Hitler/fascism comparisons are incorrect.

The blind spot is the part I bolded. As oft mentioned here in PPR we have a variant of marxism on the left that believes America is irredeemably racist and fascist. They have used violence. There weapons are less lethal and they have been successful using legitimate, lawful means to spread their illiberalism such as gaining decision making positions in influential companies. In the last few years they have not needed to be lethal as the right. If the authoritarian GOP gains control of congress and the backlash leads to reversals of “left” cultural gains it is plausible that a reconstituted Antifa or a successor to Antifa will ramp up lethality.

The danger of bad future outcomes is guaranteed if both sides continue to operate with blind spots to the danger extremes on their ”team” present. If people see the light about the bad actors on their side we can add this era to list of times when America recovered from from crises that appeared to doom her.

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