Barbara Walter

Between Cold and Hot Civil War

Air Date: March 14, 2022

UC San Diego political scientist Barbara Walter discusses American political tribalism and civil unrest.


HEFFNER: I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. I’m delighted to welcome today’s guest Barbara Walter. She’s author of the new book “How Civil Wars Start and How to Stop Them.” And she’s a political scientist at the University of California, San Diego. Welcome Barbara.


WALTER: Thank you very much for having me.


HEFFNER: You’re welcome. We’ve often described the state of American, U.S. politics in the last decade as a cold civil war, which has largely been attributed to the intensification of polarization and tribalism. Can we start there and understand if that’s an acceptable framework to launch our conversation today?


WALTER: It’s a great way to start it. And I would add that polarization, political polarization and tribalism are very, very different things. They do happen to exist both, today in the United States. But political polarization for those of us who study political violence is not really dangerous. Tribalism is dangerous.


HEFFNER: And the distinction you would draw is that it is a polarization upon the basis of tribe, on the basis of ethnicity, or in the case of the U.S. on the basis of zip code or political party affiliation?


WALTER: No, in the United States, it has, it doesn’t really matter about zip code and political affiliation. It’s when at least one…. Let me take a step back. So I study all civil wars that have happened since 1946 around the world. And in fact, I hadn’t really started studying the United States until about five years ago. And we figured out, the people who study this figured out that two factors in particular are highly predictive of whether a country is likely to experience instability and political violence. The first is what we call anocracy, which is a fancy term for partial democracy. But the second one is this tribalism variable. We call it ethnic factionalism and it’s really important because people often conflate it with people being on different sides of the political spectrum, or people living in a city versus in the country. But it’s really about identity politics

HEFFNER: But that’s, that’s what I mean when I say polarization, which is intent on dehumanizing the other political party. And that’s why I’m continuing to use that word. Is that not a kind of polarization that is on the basis of denigrating another tribe?


WALTER: Yeah. Yeah. And actually the denigration comes afterwards. The denigration is just a tool. It comes after a group in society begins to form a political party around ethnicity, or religion, or race. And actually if all three of those come together, we call it a super faction and those are particularly dangerous. It’s when a party forms around identity lines and then they seek political power not to share it or not to, you know, have their turn in office, get elected out, come back in. They seek political office to hold onto it, to exclude everybody else. Now that’s a hard thing to do. And usually what you see around the world historically, is that there are individuals who form these groups. You need elites to do this. That these don’t don’t form organically from the ground up. They come from the top down. And the people who form these groups, we call ethnic entrepreneurs. They want political power. Think about Slobodan Milosevic in the former Yugoslavia. But there are lots of contemporary examples of this Bolsonaro in Brazil is an ethnic entrepreneur, Modi in India is an ethnic entrepreneur. And what they figured out is if they can somehow convince people from their ethnic group that they’re under threat, that they have to support this particular leader, because he’s one of them and he’s going to protect them and defend their interests, then that is actually quite an effective way to get into power. The problem is that they have to somehow convince your average person to support this ethnic, nationalist agenda. You know, average Yugoslavs were not enamored with Milosevic. He was a former communist. They actually didn’t, they hated communists and they didn’t particularly like him. So he had to convince them that he was worth backing. And the way that they do this is by manufacturing threats, through fear mongering, by capturing the media. Milosevic did it through capturing state-run radio and state-run television, and then just crafting this, this constant barrage of listen, if you don’t back me as Serbs, the Croats are going to get it into power. And then the Croats are going to throw you out of power. And, and they could potentially do worse. So, so what you were just taught talking about, which was you know, where you’re really, I don’t know if you said, you’re showing other people as a threat, that’s a tool of the ethnic entrepreneurs to get more people on their side.


HEFFNER: The ethnic entrepreneurship, right? This is a kind of newfangled idea derived from a cold civil war, more than a hot civil war that we’d study historically, in the sense that the ethnic entrepreneur is dabbling in..




HEFFNER: In the threat of cleansing, but not actually undertaking …




HEFFNER: Or embarking on ethnic cleansing.


WALTER: That is absolutely true. You know, and if you look at all the cases where this strategy has been pursued, ideally it would work without violence, right? You would, you would just, you would create enough fear that people keep voting for you, and can keep you in office. And then you don’t have to worry about losing power. But it does sometimes turn to violence. If that entrepreneur sees that he doesn’t have the votes to get into power or his strategy isn’t working. Milosevic was the one who started the war in Yugoslavia. And he had been elected president of Yugoslavia. He started the war because Slovenia and Croatia, and then Bosnia declared independence. And so he saw his territory getting smaller and smaller and smaller. That’s a loss of power to him. And he was simply not going to accept it. And so he switched from this cold war, as you called it, strategy, to a hot war strategy. Which was okay, you know if you are going to, if you are going to go your own way and try to leave my powerful you know, influence, then I’m going to turn the military and I’m going to turn my supporters on you.


HEFFNER: George Conway tweeted something that I thought was worth sharing with our viewers. He went through all the years since 2015, and he said “In 2015 we thought it could never happen here. In 2016, it’s not happening here. 2017, What’s  happening here as a question mark? 2018, what’s happening here isn’t very good. 2019, it could happen here. 2020: It might be happening here. 2021: It almost just did happen here. 2022: It could still happen here.” Now, the “it” he’s referring to is the sliding to anti-democratic or undemocratic norms. Not necessarily civil war, cold or hot, but my question to you is, among the scholars we’ve hosted Jason Stanley.




HEFFNER: There, there are different schools of thought in terms of whether the escalation of that tribalism could actually materialize as a hot civil war in the U.S. and based on your book and scholarship, do you see that as a possibility?


WALTER: Yeah. And I’ll put it in context. So between 2017 and 2021, I served on this task force put together by the U.S. government. It was called the task force on political instability. And our job was to come up with a predictive model for the U.S. government to help them predict where around the world, countries might devolve into political violence. They wanted to have this information so that they could observe them you know, who knows what. If it began to unravel probably they would, they would have some interventions if the country was strategically important or not. Anyway. So we did this model. We included all sorts of things that we thought could put a country at risk of political violence: poverty, income inequality how diverse, ethnically diverse a country was. And the two that mattered, really the only two that mattered were anocracy, whether a country was partial democracy and this ethnic factionalism. Now, if countries had both of those factors, the government, the U.S. government put them on a watch list and observed them. And if you look at the United States today and what’s happened over the last five years, these two factors, by the end of the Trump administration, were here in the U.S. It’s the whole reason I wrote the book, that I knew this from, you know, my time on the task force, my decades of looking at civil wars. The task force wasn’t allowed to look at the United States. We were not allowed to talk about the United States. But as a private citizen this is what I saw. So if the task force was looking at the United States, by the end of 2020, and certainly by January 2021, we would have been put on this watch list. And we know that countries on this watch list that have those two factors have about a four per percent annual risk of civil war.


That sounds small. It’s not small. Every year that that a country has those two factors, every year that it doesn’t strengthen its democracy and become a full, you know, powerful democracy, every year, that one or of its political parties remains this sort of tribal party that risk goes up. So if those two factors still existed after 30 years, the probability of civil war would be over a hundred percent. So when people ask me, how close are we? I was, my response is that every year that we remain complacent about the weakness of our democracy, every year that we see a Republican party that continues to double down and represent only, you know, essentially one religion and one race in this very multi-religious, multiethnic country, the risk will continue to increase.


HEFFNER: And this is a stark difference in your mind, compared to the American political parties of the last half century or the last close to, you know, century of American political activity? You find the present circumstances to be an anomaly or uncharacteristic of the last hundred years of American politics?


WALTER: Yeah. So if, if you look as recently as 2008, white Americans were almost equally likely to vote Democratic versus Republican. They were basically evenly split. And it had been like that for a very forever. And that began to change when Barack Obama came to power. You saw the white working class, whose ideological home is really in the Democratic party, the Democrats tend to pursue economic policies that are more favorable to the working class than the Republican party does. So ideologically, they were better served, at least economically, by being Democrats than Republicans. Barack Obama gets elected. The white working class begins to gravitate towards the Republican party, many way against their economic interests. And today the Republican party is 90 percent white. That is not the makeup of our country.


HEFFNER: Right. Of course, you know, there had been a political system where it was reverse, you know, in terms of a Democratic party, the Dixiecrats, the, you know, the older guard Republican party even after reconstruction that,




HEFFNER: …ostensibly supported racism, segregation. And there were of course Republicans after Lincoln, who continued to support those things too. But if we look at the larger picture of American politics, this is kind of a recreation of a dynamic, from the civil war era or the conditions that led to the first civil war in America. So you’re talking about something new, a specific phenomenon related to working class voters in response to the 2008 recession and the Obama presidency. But in fact, this is a recreation of age-old racial conflict.


WALTER: So, yes. You know, this is what we’re still seeing here is endemic racism in this country, which has existed since the founding of this country. What we are seeing is an element of white supremacy here, which has existed since the founding of this country. What is different today about any other time in our history is that demographics have radically changed. The United States used to be a you know, a heavily white majority country. That is not the case today. And in fact, by 2045, whites will be in the minority. So what has changed is the growth of the non-white, non-Christian population. And what we’re seeing now, which is different, is we are having one of our two main parties make the decision that they’re going to only appeal to this declining white population, which will soon be a minority. That has never existed in this country because whites never had to grapple with the fact that they were soon to become a minority.


HEFFNER: And yet, Barbara, we’re looking at, according to public opinion surveys, but also according to the voting patterns and the electoral output of 2020 and 2016, starting really in 2016, a large new addition of that electorate, Hispanic Americans or Latinos, increasingly are supporting that party. The party that is flirting with more dictatorial powers and denying the what’s left of democracy within our three branches and checks and balances. So how do you read a growing piece of the electorate, especially in the south and Texas and Florida, California, too, that is either sympathetic with some of the principles or values that Trump brought into the arena, or capitalized on through the anti-Obama sentiment, or they’re ignoring it because they like other aspects of that party’s personality or politics, or rhetoric?


WALTER: So certainly some Latinos gravitated towards the Republican party in the last election in 2020. And that was a popular story with the media, because it was the one big surprise of 2020, why some Latinos were voting for Trump, despite his racist rhetoric. But the numbers are actually quite small. And, you know, I don’t know.  I think we place too much weight on it. The way I think about it is that Latinos in the United States, their natural home, at least socially is the Republican party. There should be many, many, many more Latinos voting for the Republican party. Socially, they’re quite conservative. They’re very religious. The Democrats really aren’t you know, the natural place for them. They’re voting democratic because the Republicans have essentially shunned them in the last few elections. But the way I look at it is, you know, this was a lost opportunity for the Republican party. And Republican leadership, you know, back during the Bush era was very, very clear that they should be tapping into this population. That this was a population that they could fairly easily gain, and it could grow the party. And it was imperative that their strategy include Latinos. And what you saw was Trump and the more conservative elements that were still catering towards the more racist white elements of the Republican party, refusing. So, it didn’t surprise me, and it didn’t surprise many political scientists that some Latinos moved to the Republican party. You know, they’re not entire comfortable in the Democratic party. But the reality is still over two thirds of Latinos vote for the Democrats and the Republicans are really not doing a whole lot to cater to them.


HEFFNER: Let’s also be specific now in terms of particular events that precipitate a downward cycle for democracy. So we talk about the insurrection and that that was basically a test run of what could be you know, actual militia groups in full force rather than individual citizens who have affiliations with militia groups storming the capital. There’s also the fact that you said we are a partial democracy and inching towards less and less of that in our, you know, pie chart of self-government here in the U.S., right? So someone could win the election in 2024. Let’s just look at the plain fact that one party won more votes in 2020 and 2016. And they’re not represented in the Congress in both chambers, right? So, I mean, we already are very much a partial democracy. But we in 2024, for example, the actual constitution could support an anti-democratic election. But ,which could then incite unrest and a kind of more spasms of hot civil war. Or it could be through act of violence that actually overruns a process, whether it’s a democratic or anti-democratic process. I guess which are you more concerned about, the institutions that we have here creating more anti-democratic or uncivil outcomes or an outside event attacking a system that produces a democratic outcome?


WALTER: Alexander, I’m really worried about both of them. And, you know, when I think about the next election and I play through scenarios, so one scenario is, okay, a Democrat wins. Let’s say Biden wins again. Or if he doesn’t run Kamala Harris wins. You know, The Big Lie that the last election was stolen, that the system is rigged against white Americans still exists. And in fact, it’s getting stronger. If the Democrats win again, there’s a, you know, the Republican party is not going to accept it. They are going to, they’re going to claim that once again, the election has been stolen. And we know that one of the triggers of civil war is when a group that is in decline loses hope that they can ever compete effectively in the current system. And that’s when they begin to gravitate towards the more extreme elements of their group that have been claiming this and stating that violence is the only way to regain power. And so what you see is often violence emerging after a loss in election, or, or a series of losses in elections, where it becomes very clear to that group that they don’t have the votes to compete. And if you add to that a lie that says, even if you had the votes, it would be stolen from you, then there’s no reason to support that system or to continue to play within that system.


And you know, the 2020 election was devastating to Republicans. They invested heavily in the ground game. They had the highest turnout that they have had in decades. It was really quite astonishing how many Republicans went out and voted. And they still lost by almost 8 million votes. That is a sign that you can’t compete in this election. So if a Democrat wins, I don’t see them accepting the result. If a Republican wins, the, you know, the Republican leadership knows that in a democratic system where one person has one vote, they do not have the votes to win. And so all their incentives are structured to manipulate the system so that they can lock in minority rule for as long as they possibly can. And that means they’re going to try to unravel our democracy even more. They’re going to push us deeper and deeper into this anocracy zone. That’s really dangerous. And, and so I mean, I hate to (laugh), I wish I had a more hopeful message. I’m worried no matter who wins.


HEFFNER: Yeah. And that quest for permanent minority rule, it really is what you’re laser focused on. And it seems to be the political agenda but also the social or socio-cultural agenda too. If you’re going to leave us on a more hopeful note to begin this, we’re already into 2022.  But looking towards these midterm election cycle contests, obviously voting rights is a huge and important area to preserve the electoral opportunity for all people, so we each and all have the right to vote. But beyond voting rights, what prescriptively would you suggest based on the history that we look towards for some solution, or at least some temporary relief that we can temporarily have a firewall or firewalls?


WALTER: Yes. And there is something. People underestimate the power of peaceful protest. Politicians who want to unravel our democracy, or politicians who don’t want to reform, or can’t reform, they count on the complacency of voters. They count on voters not getting angry and going out in the street and demanding change. There is amazing research by, especially by a woman at the Kennedy school at Harvard, Erica Chenoweth, who has done study after study, on the effectiveness of nonviolent protests and she shows again and again and again in democracies, this is, and in non- democracies as well, it’s very, very effective.



HEFFNER: Let, let me, and let me just interrupt in the seconds we have left.

I want to encourage all of our viewers, Barbara, to take a look at your really important work on the history of civil war in the last half century and how we can avoid spasms of cold or certainly hot civil war. Political Scientist at the University of California, San Diego, Barbara Walter, stay well. And thanks for being with us today.


WALTER: Thank you, Alexander. I really appreciate it.


HEFFNER: A pleasure being with you.


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