The book’s author, Barbara Walter, is a Professor at University of California, San Diego. She is a life member on the Counsel of Foreign Relations, which studies political events in foreign countries that may lead to conflict and possibly civil wars. She applied her knowledge and experience on how the civil wars start to recent events in the United States (US) and other major countries.
Personally, I am always intrigued by the world history – how kings, countries, dictators, and politicians rose to very high powers and then fell. I have closely witnessed authoritarianism in my birthplace, Punjab, India during 1980’s. I have also closely followed the Iraq wars, Afghanistan wars, and other conflicts in the middle east. US and India are very close to my heart and it is disheartening to see the rise of extreme ring-wing elements in both countries, not to mention that the trend is pretty much global.
The book starts with the far-right extremists group plotting kidnapping the governor in Michigan state during 2020. While FBI intercepted the conspirators before they could do any damage but the event showed that the seeds for a potential civil war are already being sowed in US. The book then discusses the patterns of how civil wars started in many countries, including Syria, Bosnia, Ukraine, Iraq, Northern Ireland, and Israel, etc.
One of the key patterns for the onset of civil wars is the political environment in a country. The chances of potential conflicts are minimal in a fully autocratic or fully democratic country but rise to maximum where the political environment is somewhere in-between the two. She calls countries with such environment as “Anocracy.” Freedom House, an US based think-tank publishes the “Polity Scores” of countries in which it assigns a number between -10 and 10 to each country showing different level of states between full autocracy (-10 score) and full democracy (+10 score). An Anocracy has a score between -5 and 5. Accordingly, Canada and Australia have a score of 10 (full democracy), Saudi Arabia and Bahrain have -10 (full Autocracy), and many countries in Africa have between -5 and +5 (Anocracy). US’s score has decreased from 10 to 8 in recent years, showing it coming closer to Anocracy.
Second key factor in ethnic nationalism is where a nation and nationality is defined in terms of ethnicity. As we have seen the rise of ethnic Hindu nationalism in India since Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power in 2014. Likewise, white nationalism is also rising slowly within US.
Third key factor is due to a local group losing its special status. The local people who have enjoying autonomous ruling, access to resources, etc. for centuries feel threatened as outsider populations start taking prime jobs and key resources. This caused the local people to take weapons in places such as Northern Ireland, Mindanao (Philippines), Assam (India), among others. Things often get fueled to a bigger scale if the religion of locals is different from the migrants. This leads to “Factionalism,” which leads to violent ways to protest, ultimately leading to civil war.
The fourth and final key factor for people to take weapons is when the hope to resolve the issues by any other means dies. For example, peaceful protests forcibly dealt by a government often create opportunities for armed conflicts.
While all of the above have been the primary factors for leading to a civil war, the 21st century has provided an extraordinary powerful new weapon to incite civil wars: Social Media. The social media provides very powerful platform to terrorists, far-rights groups, dictators and governments, among others. Facebook became the primary platform to spread hatred against Rohingya Muslims minority community in Buddhist Myanmar, leading to a genocide in 2017, in which thousands of Muslims were killed and hundreds of thousands were displaced. The rise of social media around 2010 coincides with the decline in democracies around the world. Since 2010, every year, the world made a step down from democracy and up towards anocracy and autocracy. V-Dem, a Swedish research institute, rates the democracies in world on a 100-point scale, which shows the decline in the extent of democracy in most of the countries in the world. Only exception was during early years was Africa, where social media didn’t become very powerful until 2018. Since 2018, even in Africa, the democrat scale has been coming down.
With 2016 election interference in the US, the pressure on social media companies is building up to monitor the content. However, it is probably in the least interest of the corporate offices to stop disinformation. Studies have shown that it is the extreme type of information (regardless of whether is true or false), which keeps people “engaged” on to these platforms and the platforms care most about keeping users “engaged.”
Initially, social media was considered to be a great platform for free speech, especially in autocratic countries where traditional media was controlled by the government, such as in middle east. In fact, the initial few risings against corrupt governments in middle east were termed as the Arab Spring and people started hoping that the world would move towards freedom and democracy with the help of social media. However, the tides were turned shortly after that when the governments and far-rights groups recruited agents to spread misinformation. Soon, it became such an effective tool for demagogues and far-right groups that many leaders of big countries became successful, mainly due to propaganda, hateful speeches and false information about their opponents via social media. The algorithms in Facebook and YouTube to keep the users “engaged” made the situation worse by auto-spreading violence-causing emotional content. A Facebook executive noted, “Right-wing populism is always more engaging.” This helped in the rising of Duterte in Philippines, Modi in India, Trump in US, Erdogan in Turkey, and Bolsonaro in Brazil, among others.
America came very close to civil war on January 6, 2021when the crowds stormed the Capitol based on false propaganda, mainly via social media, that the presidential election was stolen. That day, America’s democracy score fell to +5, the lowest since 1800. This was a very close encounter with what the country’s founding member, James Madison had feared that if the American democracy were to die, it would happen at the hands of a “faction.” Republican party’s makeup has completely changed in the last 17 years. Just as late as 2007, whites were as much likely to be Democrats as they were Republicans but today, 90% of the Republican Party is white! Likewise, India’s BJP party is officially a Hindu party where only a Hindu can head the party or hold primary political positions such as Prime Minister or Chief Ministers.
America’s premier spying agency, CIA, has been studying insurgencies in the world for decades (CIA is not allowed to analyze domestic issues) and they declassified a report in 2012 that defines three stages of an insurgency: Pre-insurgency stage, Incipient conflict stage, and Open insurgency stage. Based on the analysis, America entered the first stage in early 1990’s when local militias started forming throughout the country. In the first three years of Obama’s presidency (2008-11), the number of militias increased from 43 to 334!
During the second stage, the government becomes aware of groups behind the violent attacks but often dismisses them as random incidents from criminals, bandits etc. This is how Oklahoma City bombings and many other violent attacks and plots afterwards (there were more than 60 in 2020 itself) have been dismissed so far. So the country is actually now in the second stage and only a few steps away from the final stage when there will be a sustained violence. India is also currently in the the second stage although it has touched stage three in the past during open insurgencies in Assam, Punjab and Kashmir.
Another way to measure the current circumstances is based on the document, “The Ten Stages of Genocide” by the president of Genocide Watch, Gregory Stanton. The ten stages are: Classification, Symbolization, Discrimination, Dehumanization, Organization, Polarization, Preparation, Persecution, Extermination, and Denial. US is currently in stages five and six, where militia’s are getting organized and prepared for violent attacks. In India, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a Hindu nationalist, paramilitary volunteer organization, has been training people on how to use weapons and openly giving hate speeches against religious minorities.
The book ends stating that America has been lucky recently as the first modern autocratic president was neither very smart nor politically experienced. Also, many people from within the Republic Party helped avert the situation from getting worse. But Trump and Republican party have been constantly pushing out the moderates and whoever speaks against the leaders. American democracy score has since risen but it is still below the full score of 10. The militia powers and polarization continue to rise and many issues may resurface again during 2024 elections. No one can predict precisely if a civil war will happen for sure. South Africa was on the verge of civil war during mid-1980s but a shrewd president, F.W. Klerk and the opposition leader, Nelson Mandela, averted it via peaceful negotiations.
The author argues that while there is no single solution to extremism but regulating social media would help tremendously. The US government currently regulates media and journalism, so it makes sense to apply some of the similar principals to social media as well. This may not remove the extremists but will take the bullhorn from them so their voices stay limited.