You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.

We Are Living in the Age of Civil War

Intra-nation conflicts are on the rise—and no, the United States is not immune.

We are living in an age of civil war. Civil wars were almost nonexistent until the twentieth century. Except in a handful of cases—the American and English civil wars, the French Revolution—it was rare for citizens to mobilize soldiers to fight for control over their government. This didn’t mean that violence didn’t break out. Average citizens engaged in all sorts of brutality against one another; they assaulted strangers, neighbors, spouses, children, and members of their community. They just didn’t tend to fight over political control.

This changed after World War II. Since 1946, more than 250 civil wars have broken out around the world, and, after a dip in the 1990s, their numbers continue to increase. There are now almost 50 percent more civil wars than there were in 2001. Today, civil wars are being fought in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Yemen, Chad, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Nigeria, Pakistan, Somalia, South Sudan, Mali, Ethiopia, the Central African Republic, and elsewhere. In India and Malaysia, smaller intrastate conflicts have the potential to develop into something much worse. Even countries we thought could never experience another civil war—such as the United States and the United Kingdom—are showing signs of unrest. We are, it turns out, living in the age of civil war.

This rise in civil wars comes at a time when all other types of interpersonal violence are declining. All other types. Human beings are less likely to commit murder, rape, or sexual assault than at any time in modern history. (While some attention was given to rising U.S. homicide rates in 2020 and 2021, the decline over the past 30 years remains stark.) And they are less likely to kill people in other countries outside their own; international wars have declined over time. The only type of violence that has not declined is civil war. Human beings may be less willing to kill each other over lots of different things. But they are more willing to kill each other over politics.

The civil wars that have been emerging in the twenty-first century are different from those in the past. These new civil wars tend to be smaller, more decentralized, and predominantly ethnic or religious in character. Militias are becoming a bigger part of these wars, but so are paramilitary forces, terrorist organizations, and gangs and cartels. They also don’t start the way most people think they do. They rarely start as big, explosive fights between an organized rebel group and government soldiers wearing formal uniforms. Instead, they start with pockets of anger in outlying places that build slowly over time. Leaders of these movements—people who are almost always more extreme than the average citizen—require years to organize, which they do in secret meetings, hidden from view. It took three years for Mexico’s Zapatista movement to grow to just 12 members, and more than six years for a group of 30 Tamil teenagers to form the Tamil Tigers of Sri Lanka. Al Qaeda leaders sheltered with tribes in the desert of Mali for years before they joined the rebellion there. Here in the United States, it took a small group of wealthy plantation owners and merchants in Charleston, South Carolina, decades of fearmongering and propaganda campaigns to convince the white working class to support secession.

Most people don’t even know that a violent movement is growing. This is especially true if it is happening in a big country with lots of people and good places to hide. By the time people hear about rebels or insurgents or terrorists or guerrillas—whatever they happen to be called—it is often too late. Extremists intent on violent insurrection are already mobilized, trained, and ready to fight. Ask almost anyone who has lived through a civil war, and they will tell you that they didn’t see it coming. They are surprised when their country descends into civil war.

Even after isolated acts of violence turn into more sustained attacks, people often remain blind and in denial. The citizens of Sarajevo could hear the sound of bombs detonating in the nearby towns and still believed their lively, cosmopolitan city would be spared. “We were watching like it was happening in the Congo,” said Esad Taljanović, a dentist in Sarajevo. “We were so naïve.” They see the first violent attacks as isolated events and not part of a larger phenomenon that goes far beyond the individual who detonated a bomb or demagogues spewing hate. But once attacks begin, life changes rapidly. People start viewing their neighbors, colleagues, and fellow citizens with suspicion. They take sides. The trip to the market becomes a terrifying act of courage, a calculated risk. A new and terrifying normal emerges.

People keep asking me if the United States could experience a second civil war. A few years ago, I would have said no. I have spent decades researching how and why civil wars start, and, until as late as 2016, the United States had none of the underlying conditions known to lead to war. I didn’t think American citizens would fight another war. But that has changed. Over the last six years, all of the warning signs for civil war have emerged in the United States, and they have emerged at a surprisingly fast rate.

We know the warning signs that a country is heading to civil war. The same patterns emerge whether you look at Bosnia, Ukraine, Iraq, Syria, Northern Ireland, Israel, or the United States in the 1860s. Between 2017 and 2021, I served on the U.S. government’s Political Instability Task Force, a group comprising conflict scholars and data analysts. One of the jobs of the task force was to come up with a model that helped to predict which countries around the world were likely to experience political instability and violence. The model had included every variable we thought could increase a country’s risk of civil war: variables such as poverty, income inequality, ethnic diversity, the geographic and population size of a country. To the task force’s great surprise, only two factors came up highly predictive. The first was whether a country’s government was an anocracy. Anocracies are governments that are neither fully democratic nor fully autocratic; they are something in between. You can think of them as partial democracies, illiberal democracies, or hybrid regimes. It is in anocracies that most civil wars occur.

The second condition is ethnic factionalization. The anocracies that tend to go to war are the ones where citizens have organized themselves politically around identity rather than ideological positions. Their political parties are based on the ethnic, religious, or racial identity of their members, and they seek to rule at the exclusion and expense of others. Ethno-nationalism during times of partial democracy is a combustive mix.

We also know who tends to start civil wars, especially ethnic civil wars. It’s not the weakest, poorest, or the most subjugated groups in a country. Instead, it’s the groups that were once politically dominant in a territory but have lost dominance or are in the process of losing it. Serbs started the war in the former Yugoslavia. They had dominated both government and military positions for decades during the Cold War and stood to lose the most power when the country began to democratize. Iraq’s Sunnis had held most of the key positions in Sad­dam Hussein’s government and military for decades before being forced out of power by the United States. They, too, started a civil war. Citizens of eastern Ukraine had a pro-Russia native son in power as president until 2014. Once President Viktor Yanukovych fled, so too did their favored position, and demands for secession soon followed. Want to know where civil war is most likely to break out? It’s in a partial-democracy, riddled with identity politics, where the once politically dominant group is in decline.

The January 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol was a window into what has been brewing beneath the surface of the United States for years. Democracy in the United States has been weakening since at least 2016. The 2019 report on the Global State of Democracy by the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA) found that the United States was one of eight countries around the world that had experienced the greatest widespread democratic erosion in the previous five years. (The other countries were Brazil, Hungary, Kenya, Poland, Romania, Turkey, and India.) A recent report by Freedom House announced that America’s democracy was “in trouble,” declining significantly in the past decade. And in 2020, the Center for Systemic Peace, a nonprofit organization in Virginia, downgraded America’s democracy to an anocracy for the first time since 1800 because a sitting president refused to accept the results of the election and attempted to overturn the results. (By the end of 2021, the United States was upgraded to a democracy as a result of the peaceful transfer of power and a new administration that respected the rule of law.)

The United States now also has, in today’s Republican Party, its first modern ethnic and religious faction. In 2007—one year before Barack Obama was elected—whites were just as likely to call themselves Democrats as they were to call themselves Republicans. But working-class white Americans moved their support to the Republican Party after Barack Obama’s first term and stayed there. Today, the Republican Party is more than 80 percent white, with a large base of evangelical Christians. America’s political parties have never been divided by race or religion. But one of America’s two big parties is now a quintessential example of an ethnic faction.

Why is this happening now? We don’t know yet, but we have hunches. The rise of social media is likely driving some of it. Open, unregulated social media platforms have made it easier for demagogues to use disinformation and misinformation to help get themselves elected—something that has happened in the United States, Britain, India, Brazil, and the Philippines. It has also made it easier for autocrats such as Vladimir Putin to meddle in foreign elections in ways that undercut trust and support for democracy and exacerbate societal divisions. But certain groups of citizens around the world are also becoming increasingly fearful and insecure as a result of the longer-term effects of globalization, technological advances, and shifting demographics. The United States, for example, will be the first Western democracy where white citizens lose their majority status as a result of immigration and low birth rates. This is projected to happen in 2045, but other countries will follow. Around 2050, white citizens will become a minority in Canada. This shift could happen in the United Kingdom and New Zealand in the second half of the century. Far-right, ethnically based parties in all of these countries have attracted membership by issuing ominous warnings about the end of white dominance, emphasizing the great costs—economic, social, moral—of such a transformation.

Until January 6, Americans didn’t realize how domestic extremism had grown in the United States, and how it was connected to larger patterns of violence. We have been distracted by lesser threats and crises and by elites who want to keep us distracted. While we have been fighting smaller battles over face masks and cancel culture, violent extremist groups on the radical right have grown. Since 2008, more than 70 percent of extremist-related fatalities in the United States were committed by members of far-right or white-supremacist movements. Every form of political violence has increased in the United States over the last 10 years. Mass shootings are up and affect every part of the country: San Bernardino, Colorado Springs, Charleston, Chattanooga, Santa Barbara, Fort Hood, Newtown, Orlando, Jeffersontown, Pittsburgh, and Thousand Oaks. Hate crimes are increasing, and far more are directed at people than property. And the number of militia groups (most of them white supremacist and anti-government) has more than doubled since 2008. These are exactly the types of groups that have emerged to fight in the new twenty-first–century civil wars.

How serious is the threat? If the task force were to study the United States (which it is not allowed to do), it would have put the United States on a “watch list” at the end of 2020. Countries that are both anocracies and ethnically factionalized are put on a watch list to monitor. These countries have about a 4 percent annual risk of civil war. This number seems small, but it really is not. It means that every year that the country continues to have these two risk factors—every year it does not strengthen its democracy and create more inclusive political parties—the risk increases by 4 percent, to the point where the risk is extremely high. But the warning signs are also a gift. If you know the warning signs and you identify them early enough, there is time to change.

Strong, healthy democracies don’t experience civil war. They have the ability to manage change and contain the worst tendencies of human nature. The United States needs to reform its government to make it more transparent, more accountable to voters, and more equitable and inclusive of all citizens. Rather than manipulate institutions to serve a narrower and narrower group of citizens and corporate interests, the United States needs to reverse course, amplifying citizens’ voices, increasing government accountability, improving public services, and eradicating corruption. We need to make sure that all Americans are allowed to vote, that all votes count, and that, in turn, those votes influence which policies are enacted in Washington. Americans are going to regain trust in their government only when it becomes clear that it is serving them rather than lobbyists, billionaires, and a declining group of rural voters.

But we also need to address the problem of factionalism. Nothing abets and accelerates factionalism as much as social media. After January 6, people kept asking me: What should we do? Do we need better policing? Better domestic terror laws? Does the FBI need to aggressively infiltrate far-right militias? My first answer was always the same. Take away the social media bullhorn and you turn down the volume on bullies, conspiracy theorists, bots, trolls, disinformation machines, hate-mongers, and enemies of democracy. America’s collective anger would drop almost immediately, as it did when Donald Trump could no longer reach every American 20 times a day, every day. (As the journalist Matthew Yglesias noted on Twitter: “It’s kinda weird that deplatforming Trump just like completely worked with no visible downside whatsoever.”) The United States is where the social media industry was born, and it’s home to the five major tech companies that control most of the information that is spread on social media. The U.S. government regulates all kinds of industries—from utilities and drug companies to food processing plants—to promote the common good. For the sake of democracy and societal cohesion, social media platforms should be added to the list.

The United States is the first white majority country in the world to go through this grand demographic transformation, but it will not be the last. The world will be watching how we, as a multiethnic, multi­religious democracy, navigate this change. The declining white majority can choose to further weaken our democracy in an attempt to institutionalize minority rule, and continue to stoke racial fears. They may think that this is an attractive strategy that ensures that power will remain in their hands for generations. What they don’t realize is that this also leads them closer to civil war.