How Civil Wars Start (2022), a recent book by Barbara F. Walter has been criticised by mainstream media that an alarmist approach is not helpful to an America in crisis. However, the Jan. 6 insurrection showed that what had been unthinkable before may come true. In any case, it’s a book worth reading as it is written by a political analyst who specialises in civil wars. Walter has been studying the patterns that occur right before the outbreak of civil war. Her analysis reveals that democracies have become weaker and populist politicians appealing to security and nationality instincts are having a heyday everywhere.
Ethnonationalist leaders have risen to pull citizens away from secular social ideals toward identity politics. They have done this, in part, to exploit the human tendency to band together and protect their own during times of rapid change and uncertainty. As factors like anocracy and factionalization increase-no longer just in former autocracies but also now in weakening democracies-so too do the number of places where civil war might erupt.
One of the most persistent predictors is anocracy (flawed democracy) rather than poverty or inequality. States tend to be most stable under full democracy (+10 to+6 on the polity scale) or full autocracy (-10 to -6). In between are anocracies that are less stable.
The patterns we are looking for when spotting potential civil wars are:
With the Jan. 6 insurrection, the US has been rated +5, down from +10 before the election of Trump in 2016 and within the range of flawed democracies. The second part of the pattern is factualization, the splitting off groups.
The second condition is factualization. This process can happen along different social variables: ideological, religious, ethnic or geographic. We have seen factualization in the US going on for the past decade or more. Which type is it? That’s the scary thing: all of them:
- Conservative vs liberal (ideological)
- Fundamentalist/Evangelical Christians vs everything else (religious)
- White vs multiethnic (ethnic)
- Rural vs urban (geographic)
For anyone dismissing Walter as alarmist, this should be food for thought. I have read many books on polarisation, and this is certainly one of the best. The alt-right has been using the metaphor of the red pill (from the movie The Matrix ) against liberals. Walter has a red pill for them too: the threat of civil war comes mostly from the right, not from liberals as the right often claims. Conservatives who are preparing for a civil war to counter the communist threat are the ones living in a simulation or bubble. The vast majority of radical groups are on the right or extreme right. Conservatives are also far more likely to spread fake news via social media.
According to Walter, the factualization is typically started by a g group that has lost status recently. White rural males have been among the highest losers in the past decades, compared to, say, an Indian, urban woman working for a tech company like Google. It’s therefore not surprising that the radicalization of the right has gone hand in hand with the manosphere, white males who have been losing status and have had an increasingly hard time on the mating market.
Another highly interesting finding: “Sons of the Soil” are the most frequent group to start a civil war:
Groups like the Abkhazians are what experts call “sons of the soil,” and many of the downgraded ethnic groups that go to war fit this mold . They are indigenous to a region or play a central role in its history. They think of themselves as the rightful heirs to their place of birth and deserving of special benefits and privileges. These groups are dominant because of majority status or because they inhabited or conquered the territory first. […] In one study of civil wars since 1800, ethnic groups that fall into the “sons of the soil” category rebelled at a rate of 60 percent, roughly twice the rate (28 percent) of those that did not. These groups are dangerous because they tend to be more capable of organizing a resistance movement, and their sense of grievance can be overwhelming.
“Sons of the Soil” might not make as much sense in the USA as in Abkhazia, however, the pattern is the same: white settlers who believe the country is theirs by birthright and immigrants, as well as multiculturalism, aren’t welcome. Where do these sons of the soil come from, and why are they conservatives rather than liberals? Nomen est omen. I have argued that these sons of the soil are evolutionary farmer (vs foragers and herder) types. Several thousand years of farming, especially irrigation farming would produce the kind of adaptations and instincts we see here at play. When threatened, ancient farmers couldn’t just leave their settlements behind and run away. They had to rally together and face the threat together. Sameness and conformity (e.g. language, clothes, etc.) helped to distinguish between friend and foe. We see such rallying in the rise of vigilantes and militias in the US.
Using Shalom Schwartz’s universal values we can easily locate the sons of the soil: security, nationalism, conformity, and tradition are their values and they tend to dislike diversity and novelty. Usually, these farmer types are anything but radical. They are good neighbours, value peace and stability and love law and order. It is the perception of threat that radicalises them and often drives them into the arms of populist leaders who know their playbook: invoke an external enemy and give them a sense of insecurity and pride in their nationality. The tragedy for these farmer types is that populist leaders do not generally provide what they long for most: stability. Farmer types who think that Trump brought stability are delusional. The country went from a +10 to a +5 rating within less than seven years.
Most people would understand why people in Abkhazia started a civil war, but it’s harder to understand why Americans would start one. Walter does a great job in explaining the pattern, I would be happy if my evolutionary framework could help mitigate the situation.
When in 2015 Syrian refugees crossed the border into Austria right in the area where I live, rumours started to spread very quickly. These rumours included refugees stealing, shoplifting and raping. None of the rumours turned out to be true. They were spread by the sons of the soil due to their heightened need for security and dislike of diversity.
There are evolutionary differences between us. Denial is the wrong strategy, the problems just won’t go away, but we can work on our differences.
For more on the forager-farmer framework check out my book: The Forager-Farmer Framework: A new perspective on personality, society and culture