Is Civil War Looming, or Should We Calm Down?

In the view of Lilliana Mason, a Johns Hopkins University political scientist who studies polarization and political violence in America, the country could soon experience a conflagration “like the summer of 2020, but 10 times bigger.”

Even elected Republicans have been invoking the prospect of civil conflict. In December, before she was suspended from Twitter, Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia conducted a Twitter survey to gauge interest in a “national divorce” between Republican- and Democratic-leaning states. In August, Representative 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.”

Certainly Walter’s argument has skeptics. The Times columnist Michelle Goldberg, for example, points out that the list of contemporary anocracies that have fallen into all-out civil war consists without exception of countries transitioning from authoritarianism to democracy. “It’s not clear, however, that the move from democracy toward authoritarianism would be destabilizing in the same way,” she writes. “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.”

There is also good reason to doubt that a substantial share of Americans are willing to commit political violence. In a recent working paper, a team of researchers led by Sean J. Westwood of Dartmouth argued that polls showing otherwise are in fact “illusory, a product of ambiguous questions and disengaged respondents.” As it stands, political violence is quite rare in the United States, accounting for little more than 1 percent of violent hate crimes. “These findings suggest that although recent acts of political violence dominate the news, they do not portend a new era of violent conflict,” the authors wrote.

The Times columnist Ross Douthat agrees: “Despite fears that Jan. 6 was going to birth a ‘Hezbollah wing’ of the Republican Party, there has been no major far-right follow-up to the event, no dramatic surge in Proud Boys or Oath Keepers visibility, no campaign of anti-Biden terrorism. Republicans who believe in the stolen-election thesis seem mostly excited by the prospect of thumping Democrats in the midterms, and the truest believers are doing the extremely characteristic American thing of running for local office.”

Beyond public opinion, there are other limiting forces in American political life that make a civil war unlikely, William G. Gale and Darrell M. West of the Brookings Institution write.

  • Private, not public, militias: When Southern states seceded in 1860, they employed police forces, military organizations and state-sponsored militias. Today’s violent extremist groups, by contrast, wield no state-backed power.

  • No regional split: True, cities tend to lean Democratic and rural areas Republican. “But that is a far different geographic divide than when one region could wage war on another,” they write. “The lack of a distinctive or uniform geographic division limits the ability to confront other areas, organize supply chains, and mobilize the population.”

  • The federal justice system remains intact: “Although there has been a deterioration of procedural safeguards and democratic protections, the rule of law remains strong and government officials are in firm position to penalize those who engage in violent actions.”

As all these authors write, one can be skeptical of the civil war hypothesis and still be profoundly concerned about the state of U.S. democracy. “I know a lot of civil war scholars,” Josh Kertzer, a Harvard political scientist, tweeted recently, and “very few of them think the United States is on the precipice of a civil war.” But, he added, “The point isn’t that political scientists believe everything is fine!”

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