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America is ‘closer to civil war than any of us would like to believe,’ CIA adviser says

Violent insurrectionists loyal to Donald Trump tried to break through a police barrier at the Capitol in Washington on Jan. 6, 2021.Julio Cortez/Associated Press

One of the world’s leading experts on political violence and terrorism is sounding the alarm on the state of democracy in America, warning that the country is increasingly on the path to being caught up in the throes of a second civil war.

Barbara F. Walter, a political science professor at the University of California at San Diego, has served on an advisory panel run by the Central Intelligence Agency for the past several years that aims to predict where in the world a “civil war, political violence, and instability is likely to break out,” she said in an interview with CNN on Sunday, where she discussed her new book out January, “How Civil Wars Start and How to Stop Them.”

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The Political Instability Task Force is not legally allowed to examine what is happening within the United States — rendering it “blind to the risk factors that are rapidly emerging here,” she tweeted in November.

But Walter, who has been studying civil wars and conflicts in places like Northern Ireland, Ethiopia, and Syria for the last three decades, applied international research and the metrics used to evaluate democracies in other countries to America. What she found was that the nation is “closer to civil war than any of us would like to believe,” according to a passage from the book published by the Washington Post.

“No one wants to believe that their beloved democracy is in decline, or headed toward war,” she writes in the excerpt. “If you were an analyst in a foreign country looking at events in America — the same way you’d look at events in Ukraine or the Ivory Coast or Venezuela — you would go down a checklist, assessing each of the conditions that make civil war likely. And what you would find is that the United States, a democracy founded more than two centuries ago, has entered very dangerous territory.”

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The two best predictors of whether violence is likely to break out are based on if a country is an anocracy and if “ethnic entrepreneurs have emerged in a country that are using racial, religious, or ethnic divisions to try to gain political power,” Walter said on CNN. She described an anocracy as a “fancy term for a partial democracy.”

“The amazing thing about the United States is that both of these factors currently exist,” Walter continued. “And they have emerged at a surprisingly fast rate.”

Such partial democracies are three times as likely to “experience civil war as a full democracy,” she tweeted on Monday. “And a country standing on this threshold — as America is now — can easily be pushed toward conflict through a combination of bad governance and increasingly undemocratic measures.”

The day following the deadly Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol, Walter spoke with KPBS, the public broadcasting station in San Diego, about the events that unfolded. At the time, she said it was “surprising because it was so extreme” but noted that the actions taken by loyalists to Donald Trump were emblematic of a “larger pattern that we’ve been observing” since he first took office in 2016. She characterized the attack as “domestic terrorism.”

“What happened [on Jan. 6] dropped the US even further on the democracy scale that scholars use to measure the level of democracy,” Walter told the station. “What really was under attack yesterday was the cornerstone of our democracy, which is free and fair elections.”

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Three retired military generals recently penned a joint op-ed in the Washington Post where they raised alarm over their shared concern “about the aftermath of the 2024 presidential election and the potential for lethal chaos inside our military,” following the turmoil last year.

“In short: We are chilled to our bones at the thought of a coup succeeding next time,” the generals wrote.

If the government was applying the same predictive techniques it uses to evaluate other countries to America, Walter said on CNN, “we would put that country likely at risk” of civil war, and added she believes the US is “pretty close to being at high risk.”

“Once a country is at high risk, the task force puts it on what we call a watch list — countries that the agency wants to watch very closely because they believe sometime in the next few years, that country is at high risk of descending into instability or political violence,” Walter said.

For the first time in history, the United States was added to a list of “backsliding democracies” in a report released by the Stockholm-based International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance in November. Meanwhile, a poll published by the University of Virginia Center for Politics earlier this fall found that just over half of Trump voters and roughly 40 percent of those who voted for President Biden “at least somewhat agree that it’s time to split the country.”

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Walter said on CNN that the “United States has been declining as a democracy for the last five years on every measure,” and specified that the main metric used by the task force to predict political violence comes from the Polity dataset, which has classified the country “for the very first time as an anocracy.”

“It is certainly not considered on par with countries like Switzerland or Canada or Denmark or Japan,” she said. “We are no longer considered the world’s longest democracy. That ended in January of 2021.”


Shannon Larson can be reached at shannon.larson@globe.com. Follow her @shannonlarson98.