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Q&A with Barbara F. Walter, author of ‘How Civil Wars Start,’ on the prospect of open civil conflict breaking out in the US

A violent mob loyal to Donald Trump stormed the Capitol in Washington on Jan. 6, 2021.John Minchillo/Associated Press

Barbara F. Walter, a political science professor at the University of California at San Diego, has spent over three decades studying civil conflict. In her new book, “How Civil Wars Start: and How to Stop Them,” Walter examines the rise of violent extremism on a global scale and warns of the increasing likelihood of a second civil war breaking out in the United States.

“January 6, 2021 was a gift to the American people,” she tweeted on the one-year anniversary of the insurrection at the Capitol. “It made it impossible for the country to ignore or deny the cancer that has been growing out of the public eye for years. We can fix this!”


Walter, who previously served on an advisory committee to the Central Intelligence Agency that aims to predict where political instability and violence is likely to break out, shared with the Globe by e-mail some of the findings of her research — and what a modern civil war would look like.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

1) In your book, you write that the United States is “closer to civil war than any of us would like to believe.” How did you reach that conclusion?

“I’m a quantitative social scientist who studies civil wars. That means that I don’t study just one civil war in one country. I study all civil wars that have occurred over the last 80 years (and there have been over 200 of them). There has been an enormous amount of data collected by scholars on the factors that lead to civil war — so we know what things tend to put countries at greater risk of civil war.

“In addition, between 2017 and 2021, I served on the Political Instability Task Force run by the US government. The Task Force included political scientists, economists, anthropologists, and data analysts. The task of the Task Force was to put together a predictive model that would help the US government predict where around the world political instability and political violence was likely to break out. The Task Force included over 50 variables in the model — variables that the experts thought might matter, like poverty, income inequality, the ethnic diversity of a country, the size of a country, etc. Only two factors turn out to be highly predictive: anocracy and ethnic factionalism.”


2) What is an anocracy? What does it mean when a government is defined as such?

“Anocracy is a term that political scientists use for a government that is neither fully democratic nor fully autocratic, it is something in between. You can think of it as a partial democracy, weak democracy, illiberal democracy. It turns out that it is in this middle zone — between democracy and autocracy — that most civil wars occur. The second factor was whether a political faction had emerged in an anocracy that was based on ethnic, religious, or racial identity, and that faction then had the goal to gain power in order to exclude everyone else.”

3) What are some of the more notable examples in recent history demonstrating that the country is heading down the path toward a civil war?

“The US’s democracy has been weakening since 2016. It was downgraded first in 2016, then again in 2019, and then finally again after the January 6th attack on the Capitol, when it was classified as an anocracy for the first time since 1800.


“And then, one of America’s two big parties — the Republican Party — has become a faction based on race. As late as 2008, white Americans were equally likely to be a Democrat as a Republican. Today, 90 percent of the Republican Party is white, and it is doing everything possible to disenfranchise those who don’t vote Republican.”

4) Why do you think that countries around the world are growing more vulnerable to the risk of civil war breaking out?

“I think that this is a larger phenomenon around the world (the decline of democracy and the rise of ethnic nationalism) because of the emergence and power of social media. I have a chapter in the book that talks about the recommendation engines of social media being the accelerant for all the risk factors of civil war.”

5) How at risk is the United States at breaking out into a civil war? What are some of the warning signs we should be looking out for?

“We know that countries that have those two risk factors — anocracy and ethnic factionalism — are at about a 4 percent annual risk of civil war. This seems small, but it’s not because it’s cumulative over time. If the US doesn’t change these two conditions, then after 30 years it will be at over a 100 percent chance of civil war. It’s like smoking. If I start to smoke today, my risk of dying of cancer this year is low. But if I continue to smoke, it will eventually be very high.”


6) What would a modern civil war look like?

“The next civil war will look nothing like the last civil war. 21st-century civil wars tend to look much more like insurgencies — often fought by multiple factions, militias, and paramilitary groups — sometimes working together, sometimes competing. And they tend to use unconventional methods such as terrorism and guerilla warfare. It will look more like Northern Ireland and the 1st and 2nd intifada than Gettysburg.”

Shannon Larson can be reached at Follow her @shannonlarson98.