UCSD political scientist who studies civil wars worries that U.S. is headed toward one

Author Barbara F. Walter at her home
Author Barbara F. Walter at her home in San Diego. Walters’ research tells her that what is happening here isn’t all that different from what unfolded in the prelude to modern civil wars in places like Bosnia, Ukraine, Iraq and Mozambique.
(Eduardo Contreras/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Barbara Walter, a political scientist at UC San Diego, has been studying civil wars for 30 years. She understands the script they follow: how they ignite, how they escalate, how they end.

The storm clouds she sees gathering now are over the United States.

“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,” Walter writes in a new book. “And what you would find is that the United States, a democracy founded more than two centuries ago, has entered very dangerous territory.”

Dangerous because Americans, awash in seismic cultural, economic and demographic change, are increasingly distrustful of their government and each other. Dangerous because misinformation is spreading widely and taking root via social media. Dangerous because factionalism is rising, and hope isn’t.

The book, “How Civil Wars Start: And How to Stop Them,” was published last month by Crown and reached No. 6 on the New York Times bestseller list for nonfiction.

It has garnered coverage by national news organizations — the Times, the Washington Post, CNN — and attention from U.S. legislators concerned about the erosion of common ground in a country grappling with the coronavirus, inflation, immigration and other crises.

“Like those who spoke up clearly about the dangers of global warming decades ago,” editor David Remnick wrote in the New Yorker, “Walter delivers a grave message that we ignore at our own peril.”

The message was met with incredulity when she began crafting it five years ago. An early talk at UC San Diego’s School of Global Policy & Strategy, where she is an expert in international security, “completely bombed,” in her words. People shook their heads. They rolled their eyes.

A civil war here? Don’t be ridiculous.

Walter kept looking at the research, though — and there’s a lot of it, datasets gathered for decades by scholars from around the world — and it told her that what is happening here isn’t all that different from what unfolded in the prelude to modern civil wars in places like Bosnia, Ukraine, Iraq and Mozambique.

She paid attention to a key predictor of civil war: the Polity Score, which assesses how democratic a country is. It grades nations on a scale from -10 (most autocratic) to a +10 (most democratic). Countries in the middle, between -5 and +5, are known as anocracies, and that’s where most civil wars occur.

The United States became a +10 in 1829 and has stayed there for most of its history, with significant dips in the 1850s (the lead-up to the Civil War) and the 1960s (the civil rights era).

Last year, in the wake of electoral upheaval, street protests and a disjointed, politicized response to the pandemic, the U.S. fell to a +5. It was no longer the world’s oldest continuous democracy.

Traveling to hot spots

Walter, 57, grew up in Yonkers, N.Y., one of three children born to European immigrants who had lived through World War II. The dinner table was a place for lively conversation about history and politics.

As a graduate student at the University of Chicago, in the late 1980s, she found herself drawn to solving problems. The central pre-occupation in international security then was the Cold War, a problem that by and large had already been solved.

She began looking instead at civil wars. Academics had mostly dismissed them as skirmishes between ethnic groups that hated each other. They would always hate each other, the thinking went, and what’s interesting about that?

But Walter and other scholars began analyzing various risk factors for conflict, and they noticed patterns. She traveled to hot spots — the West Bank, Northern Ireland, Zimbabwe, Syria — and saw the dynamics at work. She became interested in not just studying civil wars, but predicting them.

In 1996, she came to San Diego from New York, where she had been a fellow at Columbia University’s War & Peace Institute. Husband Zoltan Hajnal is also a political science professor at UCSD.

She was busy: classes, scholarly papers, conferences, policy briefings and consultations, a blog called Political Violence @ a Glance. And in 2017 she got busier.

She was invited to join the Political Instability Task Force, a group of academics and data analysts convened by the CIA to monitor volatility around the world. The idea is to anticipate where violence might break out so the U.S. can respond effectively.

Men accused of plotting to kidnap Gov. Gretchen Whitmer
This photo combination shows the men indicted by a federal grand jury for the plot to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. From top left, Kaleb Franks, Brandon Caserta, Adam Dean Fox, and bottom left, Daniel Harris, Barry Croft, and Ty Garbin.
(Uncredited / Associated Press)

What she saw unnerved her. Warning signs the task force had identified in other places were emerging in the U.S., too, she said. And she thought the American public should know.

Her book starts with one of those warning signs, the 2020 plot to kidnap Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer by a group of white nationalist, anti-government militias. The book also explores the Jan. 6, 2021 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol aimed at stopping Joe Biden’s certification as president.

Both events were alarming to her, Walter said, but not surprising.

Modern civil wars aren’t fought on massive battlefields like Gettysburg or Antietam. They’re waged by decentralized militias using guerrilla tactics: bombings, assassinations, terrorism.

They typically aren’t started by the poor or by immigrants. They’re the work of once-dominant groups who are losing status and power — groups that believe the country is rightfully theirs and are willing to use whatever it takes (eroding Constitutional safeguards, weakening government institutions, deploying violence) to maintain their hold.

“Where is the United States today?” she asks in the book. “We are a factionalized anocracy that is quickly approaching the open insurgency stage, which means we are closer to civil war than any of us would like to believe.”

Choosing peace

In her office on campus, Walter has on one wall a painting she did some 15 years ago. It features the word “PEACE,” turned on its side. A little hard to read, but recognizable. It speaks of possibility.

Her book does, too, in its final chapter: “Preventing a Civil War.”

She points to South Africa as an example. In the late 1980s, it seemed ripe for civil war. Its White minority government, faced with increasing pressure from a Black majority tired of race-based restrictions, maintained its power through enforced segregation and violence.

Nelson Mandela and his wife, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, as Mandela walks free from the Victor Verster Prison in 1990
Nelson Mandela and his wife, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, in 1990 as Mandela walks free from the Victor Verster Prison in Paarl, Cape Town, South Africa after serving 27 years in prison.

But the country was pulled back from the brink. Economic sanctions from the United States and other nations put pressure on an economy already in recession. A new president eased apartheid, restored freedoms, and released Nelson Mandela and other political prisoners.

Walter said South Africa was much closer to civil war than the United States is now, and that gives her hope. South Africa had been an anocracy (+4 on the Polity Score) for several decades; the U.S. just entered that dangerous middle zone a year ago. (And it’s no longer there, bumped up to a +8 in a tabulation this year that factored in the refusal of the courts and Congress to go along with former President Donald Trump’s false claims about a stolen election.)

So if South Africa could reform, she said, so can the United States.

One of the reforms she advocates in the book: An independent, centralized election management system that establishes standards for designing and printing ballots and tabulates votes accurately and securely. As it is now, America’s scattershot approach to elections is riddled with inconsistencies and partisan manipulation, fueling doubts about the integrity of the outcomes.

She also urges measures that would increase voting participation; decrease gerrymandering and the influence of special interests; reinstate civics as a topic in schools; confront domestic terrorism; and regulate the way social media spreads misinformation and encourages factionalism.

“The question for America moving forward is whether voters can be persuaded that their democracy works,” Walter writes, “and whether leaders will choose to reinstate its guardrails.”