‘Civil war’ warnings risk undermining efforts against political violence

One year after the January 6 uprising, experts warn of catastrophic political violence, while political commentators summon the specter of the 1860s and cast sensationalist headlines about a second American Civil War. “The unimaginable has become reality in the United States. … [T]he fundamental truth is that the United States could be on the brink of [a civil] war today”, read one of these argument.

The emerging cottage industry of speculation and alarm specifically about a civil war in the United States worries us. The form and content of this debate – covered in venues as traditional as NPR — runs the risk of misframing an urgent problem for a non-specialist audience. Rather than wondering whether the United States will experience another civil war, commentators should ask: what kinds of risks of political violence does the United States face? What forms could this political violence take? Who could perpetrate this violence, and which communities will be most affected? The refocus on political violence allows us to envision the real risks ahead for the country, to work alongside the many groups that are already actively trying to repel illiberal violence and protect its most likely victims.

Civil war scholars generally understand the concept as one specific manifestation of violence among others. Although researchers can to disagree on the specifics, they largely agree 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 each other beyond a certain threshold of losses on the battlefield. For an expert audience, the violence of the civil war is not unilateral violence – when an armed group targets civilians or the government without organized retaliation – is also not simply unidirectional state repression. This is not indiscriminate terrorism aimed at the population, nor even systematic and targeted campaigns of violence against minorities or specific groups. On the contrary, to qualify as a “civil war”, the violence must be part of an actual struggle against the country’s central government or a significant effort at secession.

Civil War scholar Barbara Walter, who has been a prominent voice in this debate, has taken care of Remark she wants to avoid “an exercise in fear”. When she warns of a civil war, she’s not pointing to something resembling the American Civil War – still the most destructive war in the country’s history – but rather something with the intensity of the unrest in the US. Northern Ireland or Italy. years of lead. “The next war will be more decentralized, fought by small groups and individuals using terrorism and guerrilla warfare to destabilize the country,” Walter Recount Voice‘s Zack Beauchamp, adding that “we are closer to this type of civil war than most people realize”.

In our own job, we studied the political violence that can occur in the absence of civil wars, or alongside them. Our preoccupation with the framework proposed by Walter and others – and with the “civil war Where not” titles – is that it misses the wide range of other types of political violence that the United States has not only experienced historically, but is currently experiencing. Sharp 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 disproportionately affect specific sectors of the population while leaving absolutely no trace on other sectors. Political violence can also normalize easily and slowly over the years. It is precisely this normalization that scholars of the Civil War seek to guard against when they sound the alarm, as traffic signs from the weakening of democratic institutions to the growing polarization of society indicate that political violence may be on the rise.

We believe that the question “civil war or not” is simply the wrong question to ask. When observers speculate about an impending civil war, they risk diverting the terms of our debate from resurgent currents of sub-national violence and repression, and towards a popular conception of civil war as a quite distinct and indisputable change in the nature of our lives. We do not believe that a clearly identifiable and explosive moment of crisis that suddenly breaks with current trends is imminent – ​​but to make people expect a spectacular and ultimate calamity could obscure the continuing slow boil of political violence. Focusing on the rates, forms, and targets of political violence provides an important nuance. Indeed, simply shifting the terms of our conversation to political violence – which includes, but is not limited to, civil war – allows us to view our current 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 Bombing in Oklahoma City), electoral violence (the 1898 Wilmington Coup), the assassinations civil rights activists, mob violence and riots (like the tulsa massacre), and interpersonal violence (including lynchings and hate crimes). Today, according to Washington Post, “dozens of religious institutions – including mosques, synagogues and black churches – as well as abortion clinics and government buildings, have been threatened, set on fire, bombed and hit by gunfire over the past few months. last six years”. CNN reports that in 2020, hate crimes in the United States reached the highest rates in 12 years, with blacks and Asians being the main targets. According to to research of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, “the number of domestic terrorist attacks and plots has reached its highest level since at least 1994” and “white supremacists, members of extremist militias and other violent extremists from extreme right were responsible for 66% of domestic terrorist attacks and plots in 2020.” The two researchers and US government officials ​name the growing threat from white supremacists, right-wing extremists and militias as “the biggest domestic terrorism threats in 2021 and likely 2022.” Together, these data suggest that political violence is on the rise and also tell us who are the most likely victims of future violence.

These forms of violence could become even more pervasive and could remain so for decades without ever reaching what academics or laypeople would call a civil war. They are worth naming and trying to tackle as such, not as relays to all-out conflagration – especially because international relations research tells us that preparing people to expecting a civil war could actually increase political violence. Canonical models indicate that rhetoric exaggerating the threat of violence – such as chilling claims about the outbreak of a new civil war or mass violence – can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Recent job demonstrates that exaggerated misperceptions about rivals’ support for violence can make groups more likely to support violence – in other words, if you think your political rivals are actively seeking civil war, you too can engage more in violent strategies. But, if today’s political violence has echoes in American history, so do transitions out of moments of crisis. Treating these forms of political violence as dynamic leaves open the possibility that Shares that Americans are taking now could reverse the course that the United States is on – especially because conflict research also shows us that even processes as extreme as genocide, ethnic cleansing, and lynching are never inevitable because they are ultimately based on the choices individuals make. When people choose differently, they can resist or disrupt violent processes. Choice after choice, a different, less violent policy can emerge.

A year ago, the United States lost the peaceful transfer of power – a main 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-headed about the forces threatening the country. When they do, however, they should avoid asking if the United States is on the brink of civil war and should instead ask who is in danger of what and from whom. That might be a bad catchphrase, but it’s a more comprehensive assessment of the threats the United States actually faces. The stakes are too high for Americans to be less than specific.

Anjali Dayal, Ph.D., is Assistant Professor of International Politics at the political science department at Fordham University At 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 the New America Political Reform Program. She was previously a research fellow at the Middle East Initiative at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard Kennedy School and was a Minerva/Jennings Randolph Peace Fellow at the United States Institute of Peace. Follow her on Twitter.

Megan A. Stewart, doctorate, is an assistant professor in the School of International Service at American University. She has published original research in peer-reviewed journals and her work focuses on civil wars, particularly the intersection between social transformation and political violence. In 2021, Cambridge University Press published his book, Governing for the Revolution. Follow her on Twitter.

Picture: US Air National Guard (Photo by Sgt. Matt Hecht)

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