Warnings of ‘Civil War’ Risk Harming Efforts Against Political Violence
A year on from the Jan. 6 insurrection, experts warn of catastrophic political violence, while political commentators invoke the specter of the 1860s and throw out sensationalist headlines about a second U.S. Civil War. “The unimaginable has become reality in the United States. … [T]he basic truth is the United States might be on the brink of [a civil] war today,” read one such argument.
The emerging cottage industry of speculation and alarm specifically about a civil war in the United States worries us. The shape and content of this debate — covered in venues as mainstream as NPR — risks mis-framing an urgent problem for non-specialist audiences. Rather than asking whether the United States will have a new civil war, commentators ought to be asking: What kinds of risks for political violence does the United States face? What forms might that political violence take? Who might perpetrate this violence, and which communities will be most affected by it? Retraining our focus on political violence allows us to consider the real risks ahead for the country, to work alongside the many groups already actively trying to push back illiberal violence, and to protect its most likely victims.
Scholars of civil war typically understand the concept as one specific manifestation of violence among many. Although researchers may disagree on the particulars, they agree broadly that civil wars are conflicts within a country between the ruling government of that country and named, politically motivated armed groups that commit violence against one another above some threshold of battlefield casualties. For expert audiences, civil war violence is not one-sided violence — where an armed group targets civilians or the government with no organized retaliation — nor is it simply one-directional state repression. It is not indiscriminate terrorism aimed at the population, or even systematic, targeted campaigns of violence against minorities or specific groups. Rather, to be categorized as a “civil war,” violence must be part of a meaningful contest over the central government of the country, or a meaningful effort at secession.
Civil war scholar Barbara Walter, who has been a prominent voice in this debate, has been careful to note she wants to avoid “an exercise in fear-mongering.” When she warns of a civil war, she points not to something akin to the U.S. Civil War — still the most destructive war in the country’s history — but rather to something with the intensity of Northern Ireland’s Troubles or Italy’s Years of Lead. “The next war is going to be more decentralized, fought by small groups and individuals using terrorism and guerrilla warfare to destabilize the country,” Walter told Vox’s Zack Beauchamp, adding that “We are closer to that type of civil war than most people realize.”
In our own work, we have researched political violence that can occur in the absence of civil wars, or alongside them. Our concern with the frame Walter and others offer — and with the attached “civil war or not” headlines — is that it misses the wide array of other kinds of political violence the United States has not only historically experienced, but is currently experiencing. Crisp scholarly definitions belie the lived experience of political violence, which can be pervasive without ever rising to the level of civil war. And these forms of violence tend to fall disproportionately on specific sectors of the population while leaving absolutely no mark on other sectors. Political violence can also become easily and slowly normalized over the course of years. It is exactly this normalization that civil war scholars are trying to guard against when they raise the alarm, as warning signs from weakening democratic institutions to increasing societal polarization indicate that political violence could be on the rise.
We think the question of “civil war or not” is simply the wrong question to ask. When observers speculate about an imminent civil war, they risk steering the terms of our debate away from resurgent currents of subnational violence and repression, and toward a popular conception of civil war as an altogether distinct and incontrovertible shift in the nature of our lives. We do not think a clearly identifiable, explosive moment of crisis that suddenly breaks with ongoing trends is imminent — but priming people to expect a spectacular, ultimate calamity could obscure the ongoing slow boil of political violence. Focusing on the rates, forms, and targets of political violence provides important nuance. Indeed, just shifting the terms of our conversation toward political violence — which includes, but is not limited to, civil war — allows us to consider our present political crisis as more clearly continuous with other strands of American history.
In the past, Americans have faced indiscriminate violence or terrorism against civilians (such as the Oklahoma City Bombing), electoral violence (the 1898 Wilmington Coup), the assassinations of civil rights workers, mob violence and riots (like the Tulsa Massacre), and interpersonal violence (including lynchings and hate crimes). Today, according to the Washington Post, “dozens of religious institutions — including mosques, synagogues and Black churches — as well as abortion clinics and government buildings, have been threatened, burned, bombed and hit with gunfire over the past six years.” CNN reports that, in 2020, hate crimes in the United States rose to the highest rates in 12 years, with Black and Asian persons the primary targets. According to research from the Center for Strategic and International Studies, “the number of domestic terrorist attacks and plots increased to its highest level since at least 1994” and “White supremacists, extremist militia members, and other violent far-right extremists were responsible for 66 percent of domestic terrorist attacks and plots in 2020.” Both researchers and U.S. government officials point to the rising threat of white supremacist, right-wing extremists, and militias as “the greatest domestic terrorism threats in 2021 and likely into 2022.” Together, these data suggest that political violence is creeping upward and also tell us who the most likely victims of future violence are likely to be.
These forms of violence could become even more pervasive and could stay that way for decades without ever rising to anything either scholars or lay people would call civil war. They are worth naming and attempting to address in their own right, not as waystations to an all-out conflagration — particularly because international relations research tells us that priming people to expect a civil war could actually increase political violence. Canonical models indicate that rhetoric overstating the threat of violence — such as fear-inducing claims about the onset of a new civil war or mass violence — can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Recent work demonstrates that exaggerated misperceptions about rivals’ support for violence can make groups more likely to support violence — put another way, if you believe that your political rivals are actively seeking a civil war, you, too, may become more committed to violent strategies. But, if the political violence of today has echoes through American history, then so, too, do transitions out of crisis moments. Treating these forms of political violence as dynamic leaves open the possibility that the actions Americans take now could reverse the course on which the United States finds itself — especially because conflict research also shows us that even processes as extreme as genocide, ethnic cleansing, and lynching are never inevitable because they rest, ultimately, on the choices individuals make. When people choose differently, they can resist or interrupt violent processes. Choice by choice, a different, less violent politics can emerge.
A year ago, the United States lost the peaceful transfer of power — a core attribute of democracy itself. Democracy in the United States is at its most perilous moment in a hundred years, and analysts, journalists, and scholars should be clear-eyed about the forces that threaten the country. When they do so, however, they should avoid doing so by asking whether the United States is on the brink of a civil war and should instead ask who is in danger of what from whom. This might make for a poor tagline, but it is a more whole assessment of the threats the United States actually faces. The stakes are too high for Americans to be anything less than precise.
Anjali Dayal, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of international politics in the political science department at Fordham University in New York. She is the author of Incredible Commitments: How UN Peacekeeping Failures Shape Peace Processes (Cambridge University Press, 2021). Follow her on Twitter.
Alexandra Stark, Ph.D., is a senior researcher for New America’s Political Reform program. She was previously a research fellow at the Middle East Initiative of the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and was a Minerva/Jennings Randolph Peace Scholar at the United States Institute of Peace. Follow her on Twitter.
Megan A. Stewart, Ph.D., is an assistant professor at American University’s School of International Service. She has published original research in peer-reviewed journals, and her work focuses on civil wars, especially the intersection between social transformation and political violence. In 2021, Cambridge University Press published her book, Governing for Revolution. Follow her on Twitter.