Doomsayers Are Everywhere, But Is Our Democracy Truly on the Skids?

Critics see a U.S. in deep trouble, even headed toward civil war, but their analysis appears highly flawed

The 2020 protests in Lansing against Michigan’s COVID restrictions are a warning sign that a civil war may be coming, claims political scientist Barbara F. Walter. Image Credit: Scott Olson/Getty Images

Is America headed for a democratic breakdown? Last year in a special report, Freedom House’s president declared, “Our democracy is in trouble,” citing our legacy of slavery, Jim Crow laws and racial disparities in our justice system. Taking another tack, former President Barack Obama claimed at Stanford last month that the Russian invasion of Ukraine represents a global wave of authoritarianism that we barely avoided here, insinuating a comparison between former President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Some see America as slipping into some kind of quasi-authoritarian system, while others see it sliding dangerously into civil war. Spenglerian pessimism is a conditioned reflex in the Age of Trump.

Still, thoughtful introspection about our political status is prudent. Is our democratic system really eroding? Are we heading for political instability or worse? Using social-science tools, two recent studies attempted to diagnose our supposed decline, but their findings seem skewed and often at odds with common sense.

In the annual freedom ratings compiled by Freedom House, the U.S. government-supported think tank, the U.S. has dropped 11 points over the last 10 years and is now ranked with democratic upstarts Romania and Panama. Freedom House justifies the reduced score by citing “rising political polarization and extremism, partisan pressure on the electoral process, bias and dysfunction in the criminal justice system, harmful policies on immigration and asylum seekers, and growing disparities in wealth, economic opportunity and political influence.” The blame for our alleged fall from grace, according to its analysts, lies mainly with the Republican Party and what they believe are its persistent efforts to undermine democracy by attempting to overturn elections and prevent minorities from voting.

Shifting Standards

Freedom House might be right that the U.S. has fallen well behind democracy honor-roll members such as Finland, Norway and other Western European countries. But throughout most of the post-Cold War era, the U.S. routinely received the report’s highest scores for political freedom and civil liberties. During those years, Freedom House didn’t see flaws with our voting system or treatment of minorities as major issues undermining democracy, although those problems were certainly present.

Despite its negative conclusions, Freedom House is positively giddy about our democratic prospects compared with political scientist Barbara F. Walter, who specializes in political unrest and civil wars. Her book, “How Civil Wars Start,” came out in January and it made the New York Times best-seller list for a week. It argued that the U.S. has become an “anocracy”— a partial democracy and a form of government prone to civil wars.

On the so-called Polity Score, calculated by political scientists, the U.S. until recently had received the highest democracy rating, +10, much like stable Switzerland. But our ranking rapidly slipped after Trump’s surprise election victory in 2016. After the 2021 U.S. Capitol riot, we dropped to +5, which is in the anocracy category and comparable with the state of our nascent republic in the 18th century.

Walter concludes that our impressive run as a stable democracy is over. If you can follow her logic, Trump—“the first modern autocratic president,” as she calls him—literally has set the country back more than 220 years in its political development.

The Coming Civil War

But that’s not the worse news. The consequences of being an anocracy—which we are, trust the social science—is greater susceptibility to civil war. Walter believes that all the warning signs are there and they follow a predictable pattern. Rising indicators such as factionalism, which she claims is now as high here as it is in Ukraine and Iraq, and political violence puts us on this path. She highlights 2020’s “unrest in Michigan”—protests in Lansing against COVID restrictions and the alleged plot to kidnap the governor— as a powerful warning sign. “One of the first attempts to instigate a civil war happened here,” she says.

Looking backward, Walter traces the steps to our potential civil war, according to a Central Intelligence Agency model: The 1990s were our “pre-insurgency” stage, with Ruby Ridge in 1993—the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s deadly confrontation with a survivalist family­—and the growth of the militia movement. With the right-wing extremist Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 we entered the stage of “incipient conflict.” Now, as she puts it, “we are a factionalized anocracy that is quickly approaching the open insurgency stage.”

Despite her confident language, a look at her methodology raises some doubts. She derives her analysis from the long-running Political Instability Task Force. Contracting with political scientists, the CIA started the project in the 1990s and canceled it in 2017. The task force heroically sought a formula to predict when and where instability would occur around the globe. Its promoters claimed that its data-based model had predicted various episodes of regime instability, but it missed big events such as the Color Revolutions of the 2000s in the former Soviet Union and the Arab Spring in 2011.

Ignored in Washington

The project made Herculean efforts to code indicators of instability and test its model against past events, but never delivered as promised. Moreover, its main conclusion appears to be a truism. If Country X is already democratic, it will likely remain stable. If it comes under stress and starts resorting to authoritarian measures, it moves toward being an anocracy. Is it an anocracy because it is unstable, or unstable because it’s an anocracy?

Likewise, the project failed to identify the fundamental causes of instability and, therefore, according to political scientist Michael Desch, had little impact on Washington policymakers. In the end, it probably didn’t outperform traditional analytic work that emphasizes deep knowledge of a region.

For political analysis, sophisticated models can’t substitute for getting the facts right. Unfortunately, “How Civil Wars Start” stumbles by highlighting the alleged 2020 conspiracy to kidnap Michigan’s governor by several men egged on by FBI informants. This was such a blatant case of entrapment that last month a jury refused to convict. It wasn’t a serious effort to instigate a civil war, much less kidnap an official.

Moreover, Walter’s narrow focus on white nationalist incidents misses the broader context. You can start tracing domestic violence tendencies wherever you chose. Using Walter’s methodology, you might begin with the radical terrorist movements of the 1970s, proceed through Washington Beltway sniper John Allen Muhammad’s terror campaign to incite a race war in 2002, and come to the Black Lives Matter- and Antifa-inspired riots in 2020, which included months of attacks on federal facilities and police. This would make at least as compelling a case for an incipient civil war.

A False Alarm

The U.S. has no shortage of violent domestic extremist events in its history. It has experienced serious waves of terror, as in the late 1960s and 1970s by the Weather Underground and the Black Liberation Army. This period also featured massive urban riots and political assassinations. In 1971 and 1972, the FBI recorded 2,500 bombings in the U.S.—so many that the public became desensitized to them. The Polity Score might rate the U.S. as having been less vulnerable to civil war then, but that calculation seems highly questionable.

If Walter overstates our current tendency to political violence, at least she’s in strong company. Last year, after the Capitol riot, raising the alarm about right-wing terror was all the rage, with the U.S. intelligence community rating domestic violent extremism as an “elevated threat.” But we never saw the anticipated right-wing violent backlash.

As it turns out, no Americans died in right-wing terror attacks in 2021, according to the New America think tank. Nearly four years ago, George Hawley, a political scientist and extremist-movement expert, said he believed that the white nationalist movement was already declining. Given how swiftly right-wing groups disappeared after the Capitol riot, perhaps Walter and other analysts overstated their threat in the first place.

Unrealistic expectations for our democratic system underpin both Freedom House’s and Walter’s analysis. For all its faults, the system has worked well enough at promoting the interests of the majority, defending and advancing minority rights, and redressing serious injustices. For one thing, access to voting has greatly expanded, as is clear from statistics on participation and minority representation in elected positions.

Are We Really More Divided?

Polarization is here to stay, but it is hard to say it is worse than before. The politics of the U.S. has always been rough and tumble, with the two main sides in our political divide pulling no punches. Extremists largely have been marginalized, although they gain temporary strength from time to time.

Last year’s Capitol riot has caused great dismay about our democratic future, but it looks like an anomaly. The wild plan by Trump and some loyalists— but not his vice president­­ and senior Cabinet officials—to send the 2020 election back to contested states had no chance of success. The riot was unscripted, as the FBI concluded, and may have foiled a Trump team’s plan to delay the election certification. Although the plot certainly defied our democratic norms and sense of fair play, it wasn’t more outrageous than the Democrats, the media and senior intelligence officials promoting the Russia collusion conspiracy theory as a pretext to impeach the president.

Far from showing that this is a nation in the throes of authoritarianism, these episodes suggest that power still is highly contested. Moreover, the charge of authoritarianism is based much more on Trump’s style than substance. What authoritarian subjects himself to two years of intense investigation by his own Justice Department, is blocked by his own Defense Department from withdrawing from Syria and Afghanistan, and turns down a golden opportunity such as the pandemic to increase federal powers. Journalist Glenn Greenwald is right in seeing Trump’s presidency as more of a continuation of the American political tradition than a strong-armed break from it.

Three Signs To Look For

In short, we are far from being an anocracy, but threats to our democratic well-being are always possible and could come from either side. Here are three potential warning indicators:

  • Rising political violence. We need to track this with more objectivity. It is not simply a right-wing phenomenon, although attacks from those on the right have received much more attention. The New York City subway attack last month by a Black racist might be the action of a lone nut, or part of a growing pattern. But public authorities equating extremism with terrorism, as this story by a terrorism expert does, would be a step in the wrong direction.
  • Anti-system movements gaining traction. The Proud Boys, Black Lives Matter and their ilk failed due to overreach or ineptitude. We might not be so lucky if one of these groups gains competent and charismatic leadership. Fortunately, the main political parties still focus on competing in and winning elections, and to do so, they need to marginalize their radical fringes. Our Electoral College and majority-takes-all system are sources of stability.
  • The curtailing of basic liberties in the name of security. Free speech is the hallmark of American democracy. Obama and others believe that the government needs to regulate social media so what they see as disinformation isn’t circulated, including by demagogues or foreign powers. Former intelligence agencies heads endorse this view; they fear that Congress will curb Big Tech’s monopoly power to censure information. Threat exaggeration isn’t just a tactic of authoritarian governments.
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