Opinion: Civil war in the United States is far more likely than you think. In fact, it may have already begun.

When I was writing my first book, a history of the White House and the presidency, I came across a quote from John Adams. “Remember,” he wrote in December 1814, “Democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes exhausts and murders itself. There never was a Democracy Yet, that did not commit suicide.”  

In the 207 years since, we came close to proving our second president right. The United States barely survived a terrible civil war in the 1860s, when 2.5% of the population was killed, the equivalent to losing about 8.25 million Americans today. 

I’ve thought about that a lot in the past year, and on this first anniversary of the attack on the U.S. Capitol—the proud citadel of our democracy—this question hangs uneasily in the air: Is a civil war really possible? One of America’s most pre-eminent scholars on civil wars and how they begin offers this blunt answer: Yes. In fact, we’re closer to one in our country than most Americans think, or are willing to believe.

Walter knows her stuff

“No one wants to believe that their beloved democracy is in decline, or headed toward war,” Barbara Walter, a professor at the University of California at San Diego tells me, and writes in a new book out next week

But as an analyst “looking at events in America the same way you’d look at them elsewhere,  you’d 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.”

Walter knows her stuff. She also serves on a Central Intelligence Agency advisory panel, dubbed the “Political Instability Task Force,” that analyzes conditions around the world and using a predictive model, forecasts which countries may slide into civil war (there have been some 200 civil wars since 1946, she says). The CIA panel isn’t allowed to analyze the United States itself, but Walter has done so, and emphasizes that the analysis is hers alone. 

What’s eye-opening here is that when you look at the 200-plus civil wars since 1946 and their root causes, it sounds eerily like America right now. 

“People have a false impression that it is the most down-trodden, the poorest, the most discriminated against who tend to start civil wars,” Walter says. “In reality, that’s not true. The people who tend to start civil wars are what experts call ‘sons of the soil.’ These are citizens who had either been dominant politically and culturally but were now in decline, or who had once had power and had lost it. This group believes that the country belongs to them, that they have the right to be in power, and when they lose it, they find it incredibly disconcerting.” 

Walter adds: “They’re very resentful of groups that are ascendant, and they’re the ones who tend to mobilize and fight to try and re-establish control.”   

Political and cultural decline

As I’m listening to Walter, the images that immediately come to mind are of the torch-bearing white men marching through Charlottesville, Va., in August 2017, shouting “blood and soil” and “Jews will not replace us.” Remember them? The angry white men waving Confederate flags and a few Nazi swastikas? This is a bullseye example of the political and cultural decline of once-dominant groups that have sparked conflicts elsewhere.  

“It’s impossible not to see these patterns around the world that we’ve seen since 1946 evolving in our own country,” Walter warns. 

Here, I’ll point out a very important caveat. When you hear the term “civil war,” images of Union and Confederate forces slaughtering each other on blood-soaked battlefields like Antietam and Gettysburg come to mind.

But Walter says that sort of conflict isn’t what she’s talking about.

“Twenty-first-century civil wars aren’t like that,” she points out. “Civil wars today tend to be fought by multiple factions, militias, paramilitary groups. Sometimes they work together and are coordinated, sometimes they’re not. And their preferred methods are terror and sometimes guerrilla warfare. They’re not planning to meet the U.S. military in a conventional war.” 

By this definition, a civil war may already be underway in the United States. You can think of, prominent examples like the 1995 bombing of a federal building in Oklahoma City that killed 168 people, failed kidnapping plots two years ago involving Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, and, of course, last year’s attack on the Capitol. 

Biggest threat comes from the right

But beyond these high-profile events are countless groups that individually may not seem like much, but in the aggregate constitute a genuine national security threat. So much so that in October 2020, the Department of Homeland Security reported that “racially and ethnically motivated violent extremists—specifically white supremacist extremists (WSEs)—will remain the most persistent and lethal threat in the Homeland.” 

The data bear this out. “White supremacists and other like-minded extremists conducted two-thirds of the terrorist plots and attacks in the United States in 2020,” says a study by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-based think tank.  

What do these groups want?

She thinks groups like this know they can’t create a white America (“that ship has sailed”) but they could try and create what Walter calls “white ethno-states” by “targeting synagogues and black churches, in a campaign of terror designed to intimidate non-whites” and convince then to go elsewhere.   

Kidnapping plots foiled. The overturning of a free and fair election nipped in the bud. But for a few brave police officers here, a few seconds there, how different might things have gone? I think we’ve been lucky—so far. Americans need to understand that for all the threats we face today, the greatest, the most dangerous, the most insidious, is homegrown. It is the enemy within. I fear our luck may one day run out.  

Paul Brandus is a Washington-based columnist, author, broadcaster and keynote speaker. He has been a MarketWatch contributor since 2014.

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