Opinion | Will America Descend Into Another Civil War?

It’s no secret that many on the right are both fantasizing about and planning civil war. Some of those who swarmed the Capitol a year ago wore black sweatshirts emblazoned with “MAGA Civil War.” The Boogaloo Bois, a surreal, violent, meme-obsessed anti-government movement, get their name from a joke about a Civil War sequel. Republicans increasingly throw around the idea of armed conflict. In August, Representative Madison Cawthorn of North Carolina said, “If our election systems continue to be rigged and continue to be stolen, then it’s going to lead to one place and that’s bloodshed,” and suggested he was willing, though reluctant, to take up arms.

Citing the men who plotted to kidnap Gov. Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan, Walter writes that modern civil wars “start with vigilantes just like these — armed militants who take violence directly to the people.”

There are parts of Walter’s argument that I’m not quite convinced by. Consider, for example, America’s status as an anocracy. I don’t dispute the political science measures she relies on to show the alarming extent of America’s democratic backsliding. But I think she underplays the difference between countries moving from authoritarianism toward democracy, and those going the other way. You can see why a country like Yugoslavia would explode when the autocratic system holding it together disappeared; new freedoms and democratic competition allow for the emergence of what Walter describes as “ethnic entrepreneurs.”

It’s not clear, however, that the move from democracy toward authoritarianism would be destabilizing in the same way. As Walter acknowledges, “The decline of liberal democracies is a new phenomenon, and none have fallen into all-out civil war — yet.” To me, the threat of America calcifying into a Hungarian-style right-wing autocracy under a Republican president seems more imminent than mass civil violence. Her theory depends on an irredentist right-wing faction rebelling against its loss of power. But increasingly, the right is rigging our sclerotic system so that it can maintain power whether the voters want it to or not.

If outright civil war still isn’t likely, though, it seems to me more likely than a return to the sort of democratic stability many Americans grew up with.

Marche’s book presents five scenarios for how this country could come undone, each extrapolated from current movements and trends. A few of them don’t strike me as wholly plausible. For example, given the history of federal confrontations with the far right at Waco, Ruby Ridge and the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, I suspect an American president determined to break up a sovereign citizen encampment would send the F.B.I., not an Army general relying on counterinsurgency doctrine.

Yet most of Marche’s narratives seem more imaginable than a future in which Jan. 6 turns out to be the peak of right-wing insurrection, and America ends up basically OK. “It’s so easy to pretend it’s all going to work out,” he writes. I don’t find it easy.

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