Across America, whispers softly speak about whether there’s an undeclared civil war. Well, maybe yes, maybe no, but what are the signals? What about January 6th hand-to-hand combat on the steps of the nation’s capitol with 136 (injured) police officers, was it civil unrest or incipient civil war?
Those questions are answered by Barbara F. Walter, Professor of Political Science/University of California/San Diego, who works with a CIA task force and recently gave a TED talk: Is the US Headed Towards Another Civil War?
As explained in Dr. Walter’s speech, civil wars are surprisingly common throughout the world. Since 1946, there have been 250 civil wars. But America hasn’t had one in over 150 years. When it did, 1861-65, it was brutal with 620,000 dead which is equivalent to the total fatalities of the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the Mexican War, the Spanish-American War, WWI, WWII, and the Korean War combined.
Unexpectedly, civil wars happen out of the blue catching people at work, on vacation, or shopping at the local mall totally by surprise. Barbara Walter, an analyst of civil wars for over 30 years, interviewed a family that experienced the Bosnian civil war of 1992: Berina Kovac, a mother living in Sarajevo: “In the months and weeks leading up to the civil war, life seemed normal; She went to work. She took weekend holidays with her husband. They went to the weddings of their friends. But then one night in March of 1992, when she was home with her newborn son, the lights suddenly went out. And then, she said, you started to hear machine guns.”
Dr. Walker has interviewed members of Hamas on the West Bank, ex-Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland, FARC in Columbia, observed from the Golan Heights Syria’s civil war, driven the streets of Zimbabwe during the military coup against Robert Mugabe and been interrogated by Myanmar’s junta. In 2017, the CIA asked Barbara Walter to serve on The Political Instability Task Force with a goal of creating a model for what ingredients foretell of ethnic conflict and civil wars. Fascinatingly, predicting civil wars is very possible. Solid data exists as to when and where conflicts will break out. You’ve just got to know where to find it.
There are 38 different factors that lead to civil war. Some are obvious like income inequality. But only two factors are highly predictive of an upcoming civil war:
1. Whether a country is an anocracy is the first and most predictive factor. An anocracy is “partial democracy,” meaning a government that is neither fully democratic nor fully autocratic. It’s something in-between, e.g., Hungary today, where they hold democratic elections, but whoever wins can do whatever they want to do; that’s an anocracy.
2. Whether citizens in these anocracies form political parties around identity rather than around ideology is the second key factor. In other words, instead of joining a party because you are liberal or conservative, a capitalist or communist, i.e., an ideology, you join because you are black or white, Christian or Muslim, Serb or Croat, or worship a personality, i.e., an identity.
If countries have those two features, The Task Force categorizes those countries as high risk of political violence and candidates for civil war and inclusion on The Watchlist, a formal document that is sent to the White House.
During The Task Force meetings that Dr. Walker attended, they discussed countries of the world, but never the US because the CIA is not legally allowed to monitor the US or its citizens. Therefore, it can never be put onto The Watch List.
Nevertheless, as a private citizen not representing The Task Force, she clearly sees the danger factors, flashing brightly, emerging at a surprisingly fast clip right here in the United States of America. It’s getting dangerous, fast.
For starters, US democracy has been downgraded three times in the past six years: (1) in 2016 because international election monitors considered the 2016 election free but not fair because of Russian meddling (2) in 2019 because the White House refused (anocracy) to comply with Congress requests for information (3) 2020 when Trump refused to accept his loss and actively attempted to overturn the results. Thus, the US qualified for The Watch List as an anocracy before the occurrence of January 6th but not listed and sent to the White House, as heretofore explained.
Moreover, it is also known who starts civil wars. It is not the poorest people or the most oppressed by government. The initiators of civil wars are groups that were politically dominant but in decline. Hmm.
For example, Iraq’s Sunnis held key positions under Saddam Hussein. When the US toppled Saddam, they also threw Sunnis out of positions. Thereafter, Sunnis started the civil war. This has happened with established political parties in Yugoslavia and elsewhere around the world as former dominant political parties’ revolt to the point of full-fledged civil war.
Whereas, in the US, militias have arisen primarily of white men that feel threatened by the changing identity of the country by “others” with dark complexions. A perfect setup for identity politics. These white men predominated the march on the capitol on January 6th. Demographic change is the determining force for them as the country is rapidly changing to a majority of non-whites, like what’s occurring in Europe.
Along parallel lines, as a significant catalyst, if climate change continues to cause citizens from the global South to migrate north, all the English-speaking white-majority countries will continue to experience the same dynamics. According to Barbara Walter, how the US handles this dynamic is closely watched by its allies in the world.
Going forward, Americans can (1) allow this dynamic to tear the country apart or (2) they can use it to come together to fight back by creating a truly multiethnic, multi-religious democracy. How can this be done?
It’s imperative to address the two big risk factors that lead to civil war, i.e., anocracy and identity politics. In that regard, the rule of law is fundamental to addressing the issue. It must be firmly established and firmly executed as a check on anocracy. And assure equal access to every citizen’s right to vote and improve the quality of government services.
Business interests can play a crucial pivotal role. Past instances of inchoate civil war have been short-circuited by business interests coming into play to fight anocracy. Thirty years ago, it looked like South Africa was headed for civil war as Black South Africans protested White apartheid. The business community stepped into the fray and demanded real democracy because years of economic sanctions pressured their bottom lines. They chose profits over apartheid which brought immediate reform in South Africa.
The business community can also help solve identity politics by investing in communities that have been left behind via globalization and trade agreements like NAFTA. And they can invest in better health care and higher minimum wages. Thus, recreating a working class middle-class that has hope for the future and not left defenselessly openly vulnerable to demagogic threats to tear down the establishment that caused their plight. In other words, the establishment needs to rescue the middle class instead of rejecting it with stupid thoughtless shallow policy decisions, e.g., shipping good-paying jobs to the lowest common denominator of wages elsewhere in the world. In other words, cancel neoliberalism’s globalization destructive forces.
Additionally, there’s a short-term fix that is easily overlooked but crucial for early success in combating civil war. It is necessary to regulate social media but not interfere with free speech. Which is an extremely delicate subject, but the focus is algorithms that broadcast incendiary, divisive information. Algorithm data makes non-human, often anti-humanity, decisions about what users want to see on a platform. “Hu, the Harvard researcher, argues that for many systems, the question of building a ‘fair’ system is essentially nonsensical, because those systems try to answer social questions that don’t necessarily have an objective answer.” (Source: Rebecca Heilweil, Why Algorithms Can Be Racist and Sexist, Vox, Feb. 18, 2020)
In an August 2019 internal memo leaked in 2021, Facebook admitted that “the mechanics of our platforms are not neutral”, concluding that in order to reach maximum profits, optimization for engagement is necessary. In order to increase engagement, algorithms have found that hate, misinformation, and politics are instrumental for app activity. As referenced in the memo, “The more incendiary the material, the more it keeps users engaged, the more it is boosted by the algorithm.” (Sources: TikTok is Prompting Users to Follow Far-Right Extremist Accounts, MediaMatters for America, March 26, 2021 -and- Study: False News Spreads Faster Than the Truth, MIT, March 8, 2018)
YouTube has been identified as spreading radicalized content. Al-Qaeda and similar extremist groups have been linked for recruitment videos and engaging with international media outlets. (Source: Murthy, Dhiraj. Evaluating Platform Accountability Terrorist Content on You Tube, American Behavioral Scientist, May 1, 2021)
“The U.S. department of Justice defines ‘Lone-wolf’ (self) terrorism as “someone who acts alone in a terrorist attack without the help or encouragement of a government or a terrorist organization”. Through social media outlets on the internet, ‘Lone-wolf’ terrorism has been on the rise, being linked to algorithmic radicalization. (Source: Lone Wolf Terrorism in America, Office of Justice Programs. November 2, 2022)
For clarification, according to Walter: People can put whatever they want onto social media, known as free speech, but it is crucial to inhibit algorithms that amplify hate speech across the country. This has been a key driver in America’s unwelcomed skirmish with a clear and dangerous threat of full-throttled civil war.
On a legal basis, algorithms are free to continue generating clicks like crazy which builds revenues for social media companies. Section 230 has its backside covered.
Section 230 Protective Shield
The Communications Decency Act of 1996, Section 230 states: “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.” Therein protecting media from liabilities or being sued because of third-party content and reducing a company’s incentive to remove harmful content or misinformation, allowing social media companies to maximize profits through pushing radical content without legal risks.
“The Supreme Court has passed up a closely watched opportunity to clarify the scope of the federal liability shield known as Section 230 that protects internet companies from most legal claims over content posted by users… In a pair of rulings Thursday morning, the justices rejected lawsuits seeking to hold tech giants like Google and Twitter liable for terrorism-promoting content on their platforms. And the court nixed the suits without issuing any sweeping pronouncements on the immunity provision that has come under increasing fire from Republicans and Democrats.” (Source: Twitter, Google Win Big at Supreme Court, Politico, May 18, 2023)
As recently as November of 2022, the US Senate Committee on Homeland Security stated: “Social media platforms have played an increasing role in the spread of extremist content that translates into real world violence, due in part to business models that incentivize user engagement over safety.”
The social networking megaphone (Internet) may be the single most provocative, yet most protected, contributor to full-throttle civil war even as social media companies claim efforts to filter as much as possible… with algorithms?
“In this report, we set out to lift the curtain and show how algorithms work in practice. We developed and tested algorithmic models in the areas of offensive speech detection and predictive policing. We quickly found that automated hate speech detection is unreliable.” (Source: Bias in Algorithms: Artificial Intelligence and Discrimination, European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights, 2022.)
According to Dr.Walter, every interviewee informed her: “They did not see it coming.” Nobody advertises the onset of civil war, no blaring sirens or blasting horns or ringing bells. It just happens.
Meanwhile, many people feel ill at ease, anxious, sensing something that they cannot put their finger on, things are not quite right, a national angst reflected by mass human behavior. According to an American Psychological Association poll, nearly 40% of Americans have considered moving to another country because of the political environment and 70% are stressed-out because of violence, mass shootings, and gun violence. The national psyche is weak and vulnerable at the same time as signs of anocracy and identity politics grow stronger.
Barbara Walter’s final words: “We have to be brave enough to fight for real democracy… because only by fighting for democracy can we ensure that we will truly get peace.”
Robert Hunziker lives in Los Angeles and can be reached at [email protected].
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