A civil war in the US is unlikely because grievances do not necessarily translate directly into violence

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(THE TALK) The potential for violent extremism in America to spread into full-blown conflict across the country is a common topic of discussion these days.

A recent FBI report highlights an increasing risk of violence against government institutions, private organizations and individuals. The possible perpetrators: primarily “lone wolves”, but possibly also militias and other organized groups such as animal rights activists, anti-abortionists and white racists.

Claims that America faces the greatest risk of civil war since, well, the Civil War have recently received additional support from some political science experts.

But civil wars are rare occurrences.


Ahead of the 2020 election, I analyzed the risk of a so-called “Second American Civil War,” which some speculated could erupt on or around Election Day. I concluded that the risk was very low, but also emphasized the uncertainty of the time.

Despite the ugly Capitol riots of January 6, 2021, and the anti-racism protests of recent years, some of which have included riots, violent clashes, and the destruction of property, my analysis holds, and I’m not convinced America is likely to do so into civil war in the near future.

Before proceeding, I would like to emphasize that as a scholar of civil conflict, I am not discussing the manifestations of violence here on the basis of their underlying political ideologies, but rather in terms of empirical definitions of different types of political violence.

Complaint does not lead to violence

Researchers usually define civil wars based on a certain threshold of combatant deaths, often 1,000 or more.

In 2020, for example, only eight conflicts worldwide crossed this threshold. They took place in countries, including Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Nigeria, Ethiopia and Yemen, characterized by rampant poverty and underdevelopment, non-democratic or dysfunctional political institutions, and a long history of conflict along ethnic and religious lines.

When trying to gauge the likelihood of civil war, researchers first look at whether people are willing to engage in violence. Willingness is often attributed to anger and complaints about inequality or political marginalization.

Individuals or groups may have grievances about specific state or national policies or about other groups. As their anger grows, these people may not only use aggressive and demeaning language, but they may also become more accepting of the idea of ​​using violence.

Anger and grievance are probably the most highlighted topics in mainstream media and especially social media. Studies on social media have found that their algorithms are designed to amplify anger to appeal to broader groups.

However, aggrieved people are everywhere, even in the happiest countries in the world. Feeling offended and even using harsh and violent rhetoric does not mean a person is ready to take up arms against the government or their fellow citizens.

Risks of Joining a Rebellion

But even if they are willing, in almost all cases there will be no civil war unless these very angry people have the ability to organize and use violence on a large scale.

Joining a rebellion is extremely risky. You can die or be seriously injured. Your chances of winning are slim. If you don’t win, you still risk criminal prosecution and social alienation, even if you survive unscathed. You can lose your job, savings, even your home, putting your family at risk.

It doesn’t matter how angry you are, these considerations are usually prohibitively expensive.

All of these calculations are part of what economists call “opportunity cost.” Opportunity cost essentially measures how much you might have to give up if you were to engage in a particular activity, e.g. B. Rebellion.

In most countries affected by civil war, poverty, economic crisis and even food insecurity, these costs are relatively small. An unemployed farm worker in rural Mozambique has less to lose, at least economically, by joining an extremist insurgency than, say, Robert Scott Palmer, owner of a cleaning and restoration company from Largo, Florida.

Apparently willing to risk his livelihood by using violence against police during the Jan. 6 riots, Palmer was thwarted by another factor that matters greatly in determining the potential of a full-fledged rebellion — the government’s ability to use violence to punish and deter, and the opportunity or lack of opportunity for dissidents to organize and mobilize effectively enough to start a war.

For example, people who want to organize and rebel against the government will find it easier to do so in remote areas where the government cannot know or reach them. Tora Bora – the cave complex in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan – is an example of such a place. Insurgents can hide and train there, virtually unknown and untouchable to the Afghan military, which generally lacks the skills and capacity of its American counterpart.

The high level of US police and intelligence capacity means that opportunities for riots in the US are rare. Individuals who organise, arm themselves and decide to act against the government risk being discovered and thwarted before they can become a real threat.

Due to the low urban density of the US, such rebels, even if they organize successfully – for example in rural Alaska – will not be able to reach, let alone conquer, major cities, or threaten American sovereignty in any significant way.

“Increased Domestic Terrorism”

These slim odds suggest that a civil war in America is still unlikely. However, this does not preclude the occurrence of other forms of less intense violence. Concerns about rising violent extremism in the United States recently prompted the US Department of Justice to create a new domestic terror group.

It is possible that we are seeing an increase in the number of organized domestic terrorist attacks – similar to the British experience during their conflict with the Provisional Irish Republican Army or the US experience with Weather Underground in the 1960s and 1970s.

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More likely is an increase in so-called “lone wolf” attacks, such as the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church shooting, the 2016 Orlando nightclub shootings, or the 2010 Austin suicide bombing of a four-story building housing an IRS field office found. These may become more prevalent due to the proliferation of violent messages on social media and the “gamification” of violence, such as through competitive scoring among violent individuals identified by the FBI.

Because they often affect an individual, “lone wolf” attacks are harder to detect and prevent, increasing the opportunity for individuals to engage in violence. But the costs for this remain high.

Start at the top

What can be done to reduce the risk of violence?

A well-functioning and effective state security organization combined with a dynamic economy reduces the chances of conflict. But targeting factors that lead people to engage in violence could be another effective strategy.

This could start from the top.

The risk of radicalization is greatest when government leaders themselves attack state institutions to achieve short-term political goals.

Politicians and activists may disagree, but as they continue to reaffirm their faith in America’s political and legal systems, which remain among the best in the world at ensuring equal political participation, personal liberties and economic prosperity, this could go a long way in discouraging willingness to engage in anti-government or other forms of political violence.

This article was republished by The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article here: https://theconversation.com/civil-war-in-the-us-is-unlikely-because-grievance-doesnt-not-notably-translate-directly-into-violence-174456.

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