How Civil Wars Start
Three factors come into play, and the United States demonstrates all of them.
Until quite recently, a civil war seemed all but impossible in the United States—something of the past, for most citizens, not of the future.
But the Capitol insurrection on Jan. 6 and the rise of violent domestic extremism have set off alarm bells about the potential for another descent into internal war. That may seem far-fetched, but there have been literally hundreds of internal conflicts around the world—in countries from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe. And more depressingly, in many ways, the U.S. Civil War never actually ended and may indeed be ramping back up.
Even with U.S. President Joe Biden in firm control, recent events make the risk of wider political violence painfully obvious.
Civil wars are unique in their specific causes, the ways they escalate from clashing interests to violence and the ways they de-escalate, but all civil wars share at least three features in common. First, most civil wars follow some prior conflict (often a previous civil war or, more accurately, the highly skewed and politicized memory of a past civil war). The new belligerents nor the issues need not be exactly the same as the old. Most often, a charismatic leader spouts a narrative about past glory or humiliation that suits their ideology, political ambitions, or even flows from simple historical ignorance.
Second, national identity is divided along some critical axis, such as race, faith, or class. All countries have fracture lines and cleavages, but some divides are deeper than others. Even initially minor cleavages may be exploited by domestic or foreign actors committed to redistributing wealth or power. For example, the Soviet Union (and now Russia) has successfully devoted serious resources to destabilizing the United States and its allied democracies by intensifying existing cleavages.
Although necessary, these first two features—a prior war and deepening cleavages—are not sufficient to spark civil war. For that, you need a third element: a shift from tribalism to sectarianism. With tribalism, people begin to seriously doubt whether other groups in their country have the larger community’s best interests at heart. In sectarian environments though, economic, social, and political elites and those they represent come to believe that anyone who disagrees with them is evil and actively working to destroy the community. Enemies of the state come to displace the loyal opposition, with those having been inside another tribe seen as the most disloyal. It’s akin to how some religions treat apostates and infidels. Often, it is apostates, the former adherents of the faith, that are targeted more readily over infidels, those who had always been on the outside. It is hard not to see echoes of this dynamic at play as Republicans condemn other Republicans over their loyalty (or lack thereof) to former U.S. President Donald Trump
Indeed, the United States now displays all three core elements that can lead to civil breakdown. If one described them—fractured elites with competing narratives, deep-seated identity cleavages, and a politically polarized citizenry—without identifying the United States by name, most scholars of civil war would say, “Hey, that country is on the brink of a civil war.” How did we get here?
The whole story of the United States’ long descent into civil war is too long to tell here, but several main causes stand out. To begin, after the failure of former President Ronald Reagan’s trickle-down economics and the end of the Cold War (which undermined the Republican Party’s national defense appeal), Republicans had a choice to make. They could either compete with good ideas or resort to emphasizing respect for authority over critical thinking, restricting voter franchise, and making it easier to convert wealth into votes.
The Republican Party chose the easier path. It’s been a minority party nationally and in many so-called red states for more than two decades, but its representation in Congress and the White House has stayed at around over 50 percent. And once you start taking short cuts to win, you really can’t stop. The GOP knows it could lose everything in a fair fight (one-person, one-vote), so it built a powerful infrastructure to tilt the local, state, and federal playing fields.
To make matters worse, as house speaker from 1995-1999, Newt Gingrich innovated a brilliant and democracy-destructive strategy for enabling his party to keep punching above its popular weight in the electorate: Just say no. Whereas Reagan considered someone who agreed with him 80 percent of the time to be a friend (not a traitor), Gingrich’s strategy forbade compromise, which is essential for any working democracy. Either Gingrich got everything he wanted or he refused to play. As former Senate majority leader, Sen. Mitch McConnell mastered Gingrich’s playbook.
In time, the tribalism that naturally divided the two parties began to escalate into sectarianism. The gridlock across the federal government became yet another argument for shifting power to more conservative states. It also convinced many U.S. citizens that the solution to gridlock was a strong authoritarian leader. Democrats too were caught in this vicious process, unable to maneuver and compromise to move forward. With the legislative branch locked, executive orders by the president became a mainstay of policymaking. During his time in office, Trump issued 220 orders in just four years; former Presidents Barack Obama, George W. Bush, and Bill Clinton issued 276, 291, 254 respectively in their eight years in office.
Neither the escalation to sectarianism nor the rise of more authoritarian national executives would have been possible without a severely damaged information space. The 1990s also saw the rise of cable news and the ongoing shift from broadcasting to narrowcasting. In the old world, professional journalism supported a shared conception of reality. In the new disconnected world, there are multiple competing versions of reality (“alternative facts”), and journalists and journalism—key pillars of a functional democratic process—became unfairly seen as biased to one side or the other. Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News was the pioneer of co-opting a journalistic facade to support a specific political agenda, helping to expand the power of conservative minorities.
However, narrowcasting and Fox News are not the end; they’re only the beginning. The information space has been further compromised by powerful foreign adversaries and omnipresent tech companies. Consider that, during the Cold War, the Russian KGB’s biggest disinformation success was to convince U.S. allies and adversaries alike that the AIDS virus had been manufactured in the United States to kill Black and LGBTQ+ individuals. (Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev later admitted and apologized for that one.) That lie, and its destructive impact, took six years to come to fruition. But since the end of the Cold War, active measures have helped enable the accession of an anti-NATO U.S. president, Britain leaving the European Union, “pizzagate,” and QAnon. But the speed and success of Russia’s disinformation campaigns could never have been possible without the internet and, more specifically, Google and Facebook.
So is the United States on the brink of a civil war? A damaged and undemocratic information space makes all the difference as elites jockey for airtime and media space to further divide the electorate in the hopes of securing electoral power over rivals. In each sphere, knowledge is increasingly untethered to reality or history.
In a conflict like this, no one wins. Just consider the tragic case of former Yugoslavia, which started its descent in the later 1980s, succumbing to large-scale political violence in the 1990s. The real way to “make America great again” is to clean up the information space and make it shared (a return to broadcasting over narrowcasting). Once everyone can again agree on the facts, policy disagreements won’t destroy the United States, but they will make its democracy stronger. But if sectarianism continues, more violence is inevitable.