WHAT HAPPENS TO THE UNITED STATES NEXT?
‘They all say the same: I didn’t see it coming’.
These are the words of University of California professor Barbara Walter, author of ‘How Civil Wars Start’ (Penguin 2023), gleaned from many years studying how civil wars start across the world, in academia and for the US government.
Civil wars don’t usually start the way we imagine, perhaps via unsustainable inequalities. Instead, there are two recurring factors: the existence of anocracy and the emergence of political parties grounded in identity, not ideology.
Anocracy is a posh way of talking about a partial democracy, one where elections and the transition of power, the rule of law, free speech, the media and other indices of communal health are compromised. Civil wars do not tend to take place either under authoritarian rule or in a functioning democracy, but in the grey or ‘middle’ zone between. And countries are especially at risk in the transition from authoritarianism to democracy, shown so sadly in Iraq’s history following the toppling of Saddam Hussein two decades ago.
It is when this transition is combined with the development of a politics based round group identity rather than shared ideology that civil violence is most likely. And especially when one dominant ethnic group suspects its socio-economic hegemony is coming to an end. This is why the civil wars of the post-Yugoslavian era were started by the Serbs and in Iraq by the Sunnis.
Barbara Walter points to the US, her own country, and asks questions most of us would rather not address. The United States’ own democratic standing has been downgraded, becoming an anocracy for the first time in more than two hundred years, according to the Center for Systemic Peace – partly because of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election and the Capitol Hill insurrection in early 2021. And the dominant white majority will at some point this century become a minority. There are plenty of signs already that some are not taking this prospect well and feel an existential threat stoked by what Barbara Walter calls ‘ethnic entrepreneurs’ – people who exploit ethnic based nationalism, sowing violence which they can then build on to promote their own nefarious careers.
The growth of social media and the amoral algorithms that poison and divide people is making it worse for the US and other western democracies. But in some parts of the world social media has already had devastating consequences. The genocide of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar during 2016-18 was driven in large part by lies deliberately circulated on Facebook; despite pleas to Facebook to address this specific hate speech, the company, in Walter’s words ‘turned a blind eye’.
Civil wars are accelerating in number right now. Though it feels alarmist to talk about civil war in the US, there are reasons to be concerned by the growth in civil conflict, political polarisation and extremist language, especially online. The election year of 2024 is likely to be one of the most turbulent in US history. Some Christians have been radicalised; more so, in some cases, than the wider population. Those who cannot comprehend how this has happened must nevertheless hope and pray that the churches of the United States, so diverse in their expression but owing one loyalty to the Lord Jesus Christ, renounce hateful partisanship and encourage the gift of listening to people who think differently as the antidote of love.
We don’t have to agree with one another, but a country worth living in is one where we carry each another when we need to.
Not everyone who reads this across the world may love the USA, but for many of us it is a country dear to our hearts and we want its people to flourish as responsible world leaders in an era of democratic backsliding.
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