Making a better future for the next generation in North Carolina.

Not Your Great Grandpa’s Civil War

Dec 6, 2023 | Book Review, Democracy, North Carolina, Politics, Public Safety | 0 comments

There are many potential futures we can disagree about, but I don’t know anybody who would wish a civil war on their children or grandchildren. Anyone who pays attention to the international news has seen the suffering from civil wars in the former Yugoslavia, Lebanon, Syria, Yemen, Sri Lanka, Congo, Columbia…the list goes on. They are sad histories of intimidation, torture, starvation, murder, rape, and refugees running for their lives.

So, it caught my attention when I heard an interview with Barbara Walter. She is an academic who studies civil wars. Walter related how she served on the CIA-sponsored Political Instability Task Force that analyzed how civil wars start.

The CIA, she said, was focused on every country in the world except the U.S. In fact, the CIA is legally prohibited from gathering domestic information. As the task force developed its analysis, though, Walter was struck by some of the similarity she saw between the indicators that a civil war was soon-to-happen and trends she saw in America.

When I heard Walters had written a book called How Civil Wars Start And How to Stop Them, I knew it was one I had to read. Is it possible our kids might have to endure a civil war in the U.S.? In this post, I will discuss her findings and next week, cover the trends that could make it happen in North Carolina.

How civil wars are different today

Walter makes it clear that civil wars today are very different from the American Civil War. They are not fought by opposing armies in set battles. Instead, they are waged by small armed groups in a hit-and-run fashion. As she writes, “The era of a single, regimented, and hierarchical fighting force in official military uniform using conventional weapons is over.”

Rather than targeting a nation’s military, they often choose civilian targets. These may include assassinations of government officials and their supporters, mass shootings, bombings of places where crowds gather, or the destruction of infrastructure like power stations.

How civil wars start

One of the best predictors of civil war according to Walter is whether a nation’s government has fallen into a middle zone between dictatorship and democracy – called “anocracy” by researchers at the Center for Systemic Peace. The dangerous zone of anocracy can be reached by dictatorships that try to democratize too fast or by democracies that begin shutting certain groups out of power.

Anocracies cannot simply suppress dissent as dictatorships can, and they are often too disorganized with internal divisions to deliver basic services — including security. In times when there is general discontent with a government that fails to deliver and particular ethnic or cultural groups are shut out from fair representation and power sharing, some will lose hope of peaceful change and take up arms.

A sign that things will go from bad to worse is when political parties become factions that are identified with ethnic or cultural groups rather than government policies. No longer liberal or conservative, they are simply the party of the whites or the minorities, the Christians or the non-believers. It becomes much easier to demonize political opponents based on their identity rather than their stand on political issues. Since the 1990s, 75% of civil wars have been fought between ethnic or religious groups.

Conditions are ripe for disorder when democratic governments are so divided they cannot meet their citizens expectations, and political parties are factionalized by regions, ethnic groups, or religions. At this point, Walter writes that political entrepreneurs step in to take advantage of the situation. They demonize their opponents and claim that only they can fix things.

What she calls “violence entrepreneurs” also step in to create incidents that makes people fearful for the safety of their families. The efforts of violence entrepreneurs and the political entrepreneurs reinforce each other. The more fearful people are, the more they cling to their type of people, and the more willing they are to give up their liberties in return for security.

Is North Carolina headed down this path?

The term “civil war” seems like overkill to me for what Walter warns us about. The use of political violence and intimidation in the service of political factions seems more on the mark. I don’t think we can deny some of that is already happening in the U.S. Anyone who follows the news has heard about death threats texted to election workers, mass shootings of people based on their ethnic identity, and church arsons.

What are the prospects things will calm down before our kids become adults in the 2030s and 2040s? What are the prospect that these isolated incidents will metastasize like a cancerous growth? I will be looking at the data for North Carolina in my next post.



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