Barbara F. Walter, a political scientist at the University of California, San Diego, has interviewed many people who've lived through civil wars, and she told me they all say they didn't see it coming. "They're all surprised," she said. "Even when, to somebody who studies it, it's obvious years beforehand."
This is worth keeping in mind if your impulse is to dismiss the idea that America could fall into civil war again. Even now, despite my constant horror at this country's punch-drunk disintegration, I find the idea of a total meltdown hard to wrap my mind around. But to some of those, like Walter, who study civil war, an American crackup has come to seem, if not obvious, then far from unlikely, especially since Jan. 6, 2021.
Two books out this month warn that this country is closer to civil war than most Americans understand. In "How Civil Wars Start: And How to Stop Them," Walter writes, "I've seen how civil wars start, and I know the signs that people miss. And I can see those signs emerging here at a surprisingly fast rate." Canadian novelist and critic Stephen Marche is more stark in his book, "The Next Civil War: Dispatches From the American Future." "The United States is coming to an end," Marche writes. "The question is how."
In Toronto's Globe and Mail, Thomas Homer-Dixon, a scholar who studies violent conflict, recently urged the Canadian government to prepare for an American implosion. "By 2025, American democracy could collapse, causing extreme domestic political instability, including widespread civil violence," he wrote. "By 2030, if not sooner, the country could be governed by a right-wing dictatorship." As John Harris writes in Politico, "Serious people now invoke 'Civil War' not as metaphor but as literal precedent."
Of course, not all serious people. Harvard political scientist Josh Kertzer wrote on Twitter that he knows many civil war scholars, and "very few of them think the United States is on the precipice of a civil war." Yet even some who push back on civil war talk tend to acknowledge what a perilous place America is in. In the Atlantic, Fintan O'Toole, writing about Marche's book, warns that prophecies of civil war can be self-fulfilling; during the long conflict in Ireland, he says, each side was driven by fear that the other was mobilizing. It's one thing, he writes, "to acknowledge the real possibility that the U.S. could break apart and could do so violently. It is quite another to frame that possibility as an inevitability."
I agree with O'Toole that it's absurd to treat civil war as a foregone conclusion, but that it now seems distinctly possible is still pretty bad. The fact that speculation about civil war has moved from the crankish fringes into the mainstream is itself a sign of civic crisis, an indication of how broken our country is.
The sort of civil war that Walter and Marche worry about wouldn't involve red and blue armies facing off on some battlefield. If it happens, it will be more of a guerrilla insurgency. As Walter told me, she, like Marche, relies on an academic definition of "major armed conflict" as one that causes at least 1,000 deaths per year. A "minor armed conflict" is one that kills at least 25 people a year. By this definition, as Marche argues, "America is already in a state of civil strife." According to the Anti-Defamation League, extremists, most of them right-wing, killed 54 people in 2018 and 45 people in 2019. (They killed 17 people in 2020, a figure that was low due to the absence of extremist mass shootings, possibly because of the pandemic.)
Walter argues that civil wars have predictable patterns, and she spends more than half her book laying out how those patterns have played out in other countries. They are most common in what she and other scholars call "anocracies," countries that are "neither full autocracies nor democracies but something in between." Warning signs include the rise of intense political polarization based on identity rather than ideology, especially polarization between two factions of roughly equal size, each of which fears being crushed by the other.
Instigators of civil violence, she writes, tend to be previously dominant groups who see their status slipping away. "The ethnic groups that start wars are those claiming that the country 'is or ought to be theirs,'" she writes. This is one reason, although there are violent actors on the left, neither she nor Marche believe the left will start a civil war. As Marche writes, "Left-wing radicalism matters mostly because it creates the conditions for right-wing radicalization."
It's no secret that many on the right are both fantasizing about and planning civil war. Some of those who swarmed the Capitol a year ago wore black sweatshirts emblazoned with "MAGA Civil War." The Boogaloo Bois, a surreal, violent, meme-obsessed anti-government movement, get their name from a joke about a Civil War sequel. Republicans increasingly throw around the idea of armed conflict. In August, Rep. Madison Cawthorn of North Carolina said, "If our election systems continue to be rigged and continue to be stolen, then it's going to lead to one place and that's bloodshed," and suggested he was willing, though reluctant, to take up arms.
Citing the men who plotted to kidnap Gov. Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan, Walter writes that modern civil wars "start with vigilantes just like these — armed militants who take violence directly to the people."
There are parts of Walter's argument that I'm not quite convinced by. Consider, for example, America's status as an anocracy. I don't dispute the political science measures she relies on to show the alarming extent of America's democratic backsliding. But I think she underplays the difference between countries moving from authoritarianism toward democracy, and those going the other way. You can see why a country like Yugoslavia would explode when the autocratic system holding it together disappeared; new freedoms and democratic competition allow for the emergence of what Walter describes as "ethnic entrepreneurs."
It's not clear, however, that the move from democracy toward authoritarianism would be destabilizing in the same way. As Walter acknowledges, "The decline of liberal democracies is a new phenomenon, and none have fallen into all-out civil war — yet." To me, the threat of America calcifying into a Hungarian-style right-wing autocracy under a Republican president seems more imminent than mass civil violence. Her theory depends on an irredentist right-wing faction rebelling against its loss of power. But increasingly, the right is rigging our sclerotic system so that it can maintain power whether the voters want it to or not.
If outright civil war still isn't likely, though, it seems to me more likely than a return to the sort of democratic stability many Americans grew up with.
Marche's book presents five scenarios for how this country could come undone, each extrapolated from current movements and trends. A few of them don't strike me as wholly plausible. For example, given the history of federal confrontations with the far right at Waco, Ruby Ridge and the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, I suspect an American president determined to break up a sovereign citizen encampment would send the FBI, not an Army general relying on counterinsurgency doctrine.
Yet most of Marche's narratives seem more imaginable than a future in which Jan. 6 turns out to be the peak of right-wing insurrection, and America ends up basically OK. "It's so easy to pretend it's all going to work out," he writes. I don't find it easy.
Michelle Goldberg became an Op-Ed columnist for the New York Times in 2017 and was part of a team that won a Pulitzer Prize in 2018 for public service for reporting on workplace sexual harassment issues.