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Thomas JacobsOctober 13, 2022
The U.S. Capitol in Washington on Jan. 6, 2021. (CNS photo/Stephanie Keith, Reuters)

My father was a U.S. diplomat with the good fortune to be posted to Paraguay, the same country in which he and my mother had served in the Peace Corps in the 1970s. The dictator Alfredo Stroessner had been deposed in 1989, and we were there in the early years of the country’s new democracy. I was in eighth grade in 1996, when General Lino Oviedo, fired from his position as army chief by Juan Carlos Wasmosy, the country’s first civilian president since before the dictatorship, began to barnstorm the country, threatening a military coup.

How Civil Wars Startby Barbara F. Walter

320p $27

The coup was thwarted. Because at 14 one cares very little for his father’s role in such episodes, I had to look up the history later to recall precisely how. However, I can recall to this day the stories of Oviedo’s rambling hourslong speeches to the populace, told in a mixture of Spanish, German and the native Guaraní.

A civil war in the 21st century does not look like the civil wars of even the latter half of the 20th.

In her book How Civil Wars Start: And How to Stop Them, Barbara F. Walter, the Rohr Chair in Pacific International Relations at the University of California San Diego, offers a handy guide for interpreting this episode. Walter is an expert in civil wars, and a member of the Polity Project at the Center for Systemic Peace, a collection of scholars and researchers who “had taken civil war data from around the world and built a model that could predict where instability was most likely to occur.”

Years of research and analysis tell us that “one of the best predictors of whether a country will experience a civil war is whether it is moving toward or away from democracy. Yes, democracy.” Researchers spend considerable energy cataloging and categorizing countries’ systems of government, rating them on a 21-point scale from -10 (autocracy) to +10 (democracy). For a full autocracy, think Saudi Arabia or North Korea. For a stable democracy, think Denmark, Canada and the United States...whoops. More on that below.

The middle zone, between -5 and +5, is what experts call “anocracies.” It’s a political science term of art, clunky at first, but one that made increasing sense as the book made its case. Anocracy describes governments moving toward either end of the spectrum—though of course, many occupy that middle zone for years and even decades without moving in one direction or the other. Importantly, it is the movement as such that serves as the best predictor of civil conflict, not the score or the direction. Countries becoming more or less democratic are at greater risk of civil war, and so anocracy can be seen as the necessary but not sufficient criterion for political violence.

The first half of the book lays out the political science, with each of the major predictors of civil war getting its own chapter, building sequentially on the foundations of the last. The chapters are driven by an explication of the familiar civil conflicts emblematic of these risk factors, even in their specificity.

According to Walter, the United States is "no longer the world’s oldest continuous democracy.”

In the chapter “The Rise of Factions,” Walter describes how aspiring autocrats cultivated racial and ethnic resentments that culminated in brutal ethnic violence in the former Yugoslavia and in Rwanda. In “The Dark Consequence of Losing Status,” she describes how a sudden change in the power of a specific ethnic group can be more inflammatory than a sustained structural imbalance. For example, in Syria, Sunni Muslims realized that they were being boxed out of power by Shiite Muslims, while the inverse occurred in neighboring Iraq. Ditto the Muslim population of Mindanao in the Philippines and the Abkhazians in Georgia.

In “When Hope Dies,” Walter explains how, despite literally centuries of British occupation, the Provisional Irish Republican Army only came to be in the 20th century, when the Catholics finally lost hope that the British military would protect them against Protestant violence.

My only quibble in reading this was with the use of political science jargon. Terms like “ethnic entrepreneurs” turn out to mean almost the opposite of the plain language—not upstart small business-owning immigrants, but racist demagogues.

The second section of the book addresses the question any likely reader would presumably be asking: Is it going to happen here?

While this section of the book is unlikely to move the politically calcified, it is impossible to read in the light of the still-unfolding January 6 Committee hearings in Congress and not be terrified.

But the United States is a democracy, you’ll protest. Sadly, no. Our score on the autocracy-democracy scale slid considerably during the Trump years, as that administration, its enablers in Congress and sympathetic statehouses sought systematically to dismantle democratic institutions. In the wake of Trump’s attempts to overturn the results of the 2020 election, the United States slid down to a +5.

In Walter’s words: “The United States became an anocracy for the first time in more than two hundred years. Let that sink in. We are no longer the world’s oldest continuous democracy.” We entered anocracy at a time when the political parties have coalesced less along ideological or policy agendas than along racial, ethnic and religious lines.

As Walter makes clear, this is not a both-sides problem. This is a problem with the Republican Party, which enabled a racist demagogue to pursue an ethnic-nationalist agenda—the Muslim ban, the detainment of children across the U.S.-Mexico border—and is now, in plain sight, engaging in a second round of systematic, multi-level, extralegal attempts to subvert future elections to secure the rule of its largely white Christian party. If this paragraph makes you uncomfortable, I suggest poring over Walter’s 46-page bibliography. All of the data, all of the research and all of the current reporting back up these claims.

There is one remaining aspect to the argument. A civil war in the 21st century does not look like the civil wars of even the latter half of the 20th. It is best described as a state of sustained racialized insurgent violence, not unlike the diffuse acts of terrorist cells such as Hamas.

How does a country prevent a civil war? “Bolster the rule of law, give all citizens equal access to the vote, and improve the quality of government services.”

Recall that in 2020, antigovernment white nationalists sought to kidnap and execute the Democratic governor of Michigan. Later, Kyle Rittenhouse, a minor, traveled across state lines and then used an AR-15 rifle, a weapon of war, to murder two unarmed protesters. Earlier this summer, parade-goers celebrating the Fourth of July in Chicago were mowed down by a man who was also armed with an AR-15 rifle.

And lest we forget, on Jan. 6, 2021, a mob of Trump supporters—led, we now know, in premeditated paramilitary formation by white supremacist militias like the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers—stormed the Capitol, assaulted police officers and sought to hang the vice president. To this day, almost every single elected Republican at any level of office in the country has made the minimization and denial of this meticulously documented event the cornerstone of their political agenda.

Perhaps when Walter describes a three-part escalation of insurgency, and puts the United States at approaching the middle stage, the reader finds the sense of urgency not proportionate enough to what is already happening.

As for how to prevent a civil war, that part turns out to be remarkably easy: “Bolster the rule of law, give all citizens equal access to the vote, and improve the quality of government services.” Easy, that is, if you ignore the fact that D.C. is dysfunctional, corrupt and structurally unrepresentative of the populace.

General Lino Oviedo, to his limited credit, was instrumental in the military coup that overthrew the truly despicable Stroessner. My friends—8 years old in 1989—remember the night well: grandparents trying to keep them quiet as they huddled behind couches, tanks rumbling through the streets, a neighbor shot in his yard because he refused to obey curfew.

After public protests derailed Wasmosy’s appeasement offer of another cabinet position, Oviedo ran for president. He had the right idea—after all, one of the best predictors of violent civil conflict is whether the country has already had one. Why not reinvent himself and exploit old grievances and a weak government? That’s the playbook.

Oviedo was leading in the polls when he was charged with plotting the coup and sentenced to 10 years in prison.

Imagine that. 

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