Subscriber OnlyBooks

How Civil Wars Start: Flawed democracy and its threat to US

Barbara F Walter envisions terrorist attacks by white nationalist groups on US officials

How Civil Wars Start
How Civil Wars Start
Author: Barbara F Walter
ISBN-13: 978-0241429754
Publisher: Viking
Guideline Price: £18.99

Is the United States on the verge of civil war? That is the disturbing conclusion of How Civil Wars Start. Barbara F Walter, a political scientist specialising in foreign conflicts, turns her attention to her own country. Whether you agree with her diagnosis partly depends on whether you are convinced by her general theory of how civil wars begin.

The US is hardly mentioned until after the book’s halfway point. Its first half focuses on the factors Walter identifies as leading to civil war. She draws on a broad range of examples in places such as Indonesia, Iraq, Northern Ireland, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Ukraine and the former states of Yugoslavia.

Walter argues that civil wars follow similar patterns. An underlying discontent spreads among people who feel their power or status has been “downgraded”. Extremist leaders look for opportunities to factionalise their nations along ethnic lines. In recent years such “ethnic entrepreneurs” have use the “accelerant” of social media: its algorithms amplify the most extreme views while its ability to quickly spread misinformation is a boon to “charlatans, conspiracy theorists, trolls, demagogues and anti-democratic agents”.

The central contention is that civil wars are most likely to occur in countries that exist in a “middle ground” between democracy and autocracy known as “anocracy”. Here she relies on the widely used Polity Score, which ranks countries according to a 21-point scale where -10 is a full autocracy, +10 is a full democracy, and anything between -5 and +5 is an anocracy. The US dropped into that middle territory for the first time in over two centuries when it became a +5 after the pro-Trump insurrection at the US Capitol on January 6th, 2020.


The Polity Score offers false objectivity. The numbers appears to provide quantitative accuracy but they are necessarily derived from a host of subjective assumptions. The score certainly yields some strange results for US history, seeing a dip during the period of reconstruction following the civil war – a radical experiment in biracial democracy – and a boost in 1877 when reconstruction ended.

Complex histories

The general laws that Walter claims to have discovered also fail to capture the complex histories of specific conflicts. For example, she claims that the Provisional IRA emerged because Catholics “gave up hope” in 1969 when the British army proved its lack of neutrality. Needless to say, that is an oversimplification.

Walter assumes that civil wars originate in endogamous factors when in fact they often result from exogamous ones. Surely the recent conflict in Ukraine has more to do with Russia’s desire to annex Crimea than with any rapid effort at democratisation. Ignoring exogamous factors lets great powers off the hook. Even today, many civil wars have their origins in the hasty boundaries drawn by European empires.

Walter draws heavily on the work of the Political Instability Task Force, to which she belongs. It advises the CIA, which has a long history of overthrowing democratic governments. Tellingly, Walter sees the civil war in Iraq as resulting from too rapid democratisation rather than from the US invasion itself. How Civil Wars Begin can be read as symptomatic of a US foreign policy establishment that has turned its attention away from manipulating the rest of the world to find that the chickens of political instability have come home to roost.

The biggest weakness in Walter’s analysis is her failure to provide a clear definition of “civil war”. How does a civil war differ from a war of national liberation, a war of secession or from lesser forms of internal political violence? She claims that the US might experience a form of civil war new to the 21st century. Yet her admission that no US group has a clear territorial claim or could mount a plausible challenge to state power undermines her attempt to draw lessons from other conflicts in which both factors were present.

Walter envisions an American civil war beginning with a series of co-ordinated terrorist attacks by white nationalist groups on elected officials. This is not difficult to imagine after January 6th, which nearly resulted in the assassination of several Congresspeople. But Walter is perhaps too ready to indulge the fantasies of white nationalists reared on the apocalyptic Turner Diaries. Just because they want to foment civil war does not mean that their terrorist acts will split the country into two warring camps.

Democratising reforms

Even if that scenario remains thankfully far-fetched, Walter is certainly right to be alarmed. The sheer quantity of guns in circulation means the US is likely to see yet more political violence. And, to her credit, she places the increasingly anti-democratic features of American politics into a global perspective that is all too rare. And no one should argue with her observation that “America’s extremists are becoming more organised, more dangerous, and more determined, and they are not going away”.

Walter offers a sensible list of democratising reforms to stave off further political conflict: forming an independent electoral system; bolstering voter rights; eliminating extreme gerrymandering; reducing the influence of money in politics; improving civic education; neutralising domestic terrorism; rooting out white supremacists in the police; regulating social media; and expanding social welfare. Unfortunately, such reforms in the US would require substantial Democratic majorities in Congress that are unlikely to materialise. The Republican Party has no interest in democracy.

Indeed, the biggest danger to American democracy remains Republicans’ continued manipulation of political institutions. We remember the violence of January 6th, but perhaps we have forgotten the phone calls Trump made to the Georgia secretary of state asking him to overturn the results of the election. Though Trump’s entreaties were refused, Republicans have been busy electing state officials who will be willing to do Trump’s bidding in 2024, and they are passing laws making it easier for them to do so.

Though deeply anti-democratic, all of this is perfectly constitutional because states run their own elections and presidents are chosen by an archaic electoral college. American democracy is in danger not only because of recent backsliding but also because of the democratic deficit inherent in its long-standing institutions.

Daniel Geary is the Mark Pigott assistant professor of US history at Trinity College Dublin