Civil War Expert: How To Save & Strengthen U.S. Democracy

A white woman wearing all black stands on the TED stage in front of an attentive audience.

Good Good Good is in Vancouver this week covering TED2023. This article is part of our ongoing, exclusive coverage of the conference, with more interviews and stories to come. Follow along here all week, or on social media with our hashtag #GGGatTED.

While it may initially come off as dramatic or despondent, there’s a pretty strong likelihood that you or someone you know has assumed the worst about the United States in the last few years: That our democracy is on the brink of collapse.

While we likely won’t be sucked into a big, fiery, fascist hole in the ground in the next few minutes, there is real credibility to those concerns. 

Whether it’s mounting social injustices, inequities in voting rights, or the censorship of diverse media, many of us have felt the deep impact of political divides — and fear what else they may lead to. 

Barbara F. Walter, an expert on civil wars, and the author of the book “How Civil Wars Start And How To Stop Them,” took to the stage at TED2023 in Vancouver to affirm our worries, and hopefully, quell them a little, too.  

“I’m going to talk about a threat that most people don’t want to think about,” she began her TED Talk. “It’s too frightening, and it doesn’t seem real. That threat is civil war.” 

A white woman with blond hair, wearing all black, delivers a talk on the TED stage.
Barbara F. Walter speaks at TED2023: Possibility. Photo courtesy of Gilberto Tadday / TED (CC-BY-NC-ND 4.0)

While it might seem like a scary way to start a lecture, Barbara is a lover of peace, and that’s the hope that drives her work. 

Since 1946, over 250 civil wars have broken out around the world — and that number is increasing exponentially. In her talk, Walter provided additional context: “There are now almost 50% more civil wars than there were in 2001,” she said. 

Walter knows what she’s talking about; she has been studying civil wars and democracy for more than 30 years. She’s interviewed leaders at the top of these wars — and has been interrogated by them. 

She also served on a task force for the CIA called the Political Instability Task Force, whose goal was to develop “a model to help the U.S. predict which countries were likely to experience ethnic conflict and civil war.”

And the data is actually really good at predicting civil war. Walter and other experts on the task force came up with 38 factors that they predicted would be the best indicators if a country was headed for civil war.

As it turns out, just two of the factors were “highly predictive” of a civil war — and they might sound a bit too familiar for those of us in the United States.

Is the U.S. at risk of a civil war?

A white woman with blond hair and a black outfit speaks in front of an audience.
Barbra F. Walter speaks at TED2023: Possibility. Photo courtesy of Gilberto Tadday / TED (CC-BY-NC-ND 4.0)

There are two key predictive factors for civil war.

Some of the task force’s potential predictive factors for civil war might seem obvious, like higher levels of poverty and income inequality, or extreme discrimination against a particular group of people. Those factors, though, weren’t actually the best predictors of conflict, Walter shared on the TED2023 stage. 

To the experts’ surprise, it came down to two main factors. First, whether or not a country was an anocracy.

“Anocracy is just a fancy term for partial democracy,” Walter explained. “It’s a government that’s neither fully democratic nor fully autocratic — it’s something in between.”

Hungary is a good example of an anocracy; it holds democratic elections, but whoever is elected can then “basically do whatever they want,” Walter said.

The second factor of predicting civil wars: Whether citizens in an anocracy form political parties around identity rather than ideology.

“So rather than joining a party because you were liberal or conservative, capitalist or communist, you joined a party because you were Black or white, Christian or Muslim, Serb or Croat,” Walter said.

If a country displayed both of these factors, the task force put it on a watch list for being at a high risk of political violence — and the list was shared with the White House.

In the weeks before January 6th, the U.S. was officially classified as an anocracy.

The task force discussed countries around the world, but the U.S. never made it onto this watch list. Why? Because the CIA is not legally allowed to monitor the U.S. or its citizens, and in Walter’s words “that’s exactly the way it should be.” 

Walter, though, as a private citizen, saw both of these factors emerging rapidly in the U.S. She also knew that since 2016, the U.S.’s democracy had been downgraded three times, the most recent of which came after former President Trump refused to accept the results of the 2020 election and actively attempted to overturn them.

“Between December of 2020 and early 2021, the United States was officially classified as an anocracy,” Walter said. “If the task force had been allowed to monitor and study the United States, it likely would have considered it at high risk of political instability and political violence.”

In other words: the task force would have predicted the political violence that ensued on January 6th.

Once-dominant groups that are in decline are the most likely to start a civil war.

You may also be surprised to learn who are the folks that declare or start a civil war. We’ll give you a hint: it’s not the poorest or the most oppressed.

“The people who tend to start civil wars, especially ethnically-based civil wars, are the groups that had once been politically dominant but are in decline,” Walter said.

In the U.S., for example, Walter explains how the rise of militias has been driven “primarily by white men who see America changing in ways that directly threatens their status.”

These militias were the ones who led the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on January 6th. 

Although Walter points to clearly unsettling — and, sadly, unsurprising — facts about the current status of democracy in the United States, she also explained that we already have the blueprint to strengthening and maintaining democracy — and preventing a civil war. 

How to prevent the collapse of American democracy

The U.S. is in the midst of a transition from a country with a majority-white population to one that will soon be majority non-white. And the stakes are high: other countries will follow our lead.

“These countries are going to be looking to the United States to see how we manage this demographic shift,” Walter said. “Americans can allow this transition to tear us apart, or we could use it to come together to show the world how to manage this change, and in the process, create a truly multi-ethnic, multi-religious democracy.” 

The second option would be preferable, please and thank you. 

And the good news is: it’s entirely achievable. Walter laid out two ways we can do it. 

A white woman with blond hair and a black outfit speaks to an audience.
Barbra F. Walter speaks at TED2023: Possibility. Photo courtesy of Gilberto Tadday / TED (CC-BY-NC-ND 4.0)

Encourage both lawmakers and businesses to strengthen democracy. 

When it comes to addressing anocracy, “we have to improve the rule of law,” Walter explained. This means ensuring equal access for every citizen to vote, reducing corruption, and improving the quality of services provided by the government.

But doing all of that is challenging, and takes time. Acknowledging this, Walter explained how businesses can step in to fill the gap and help speed things along. She posited: Corporations have the opportunity to lead the way by putting pressure on governments to make changes that align with the will of the people.

While that might raise a red flag to some folks who are concerned about corporate lobbying, Walter used South Africa as a case study to show how businesses can push politics forward at the agenda of democracy, albeit also at the agenda of profit. 

“The business community stepped in and demanded real democracy. They did this because they had been suffering under years of crushing economic sanctions, and eventually they had to choose between apartheid and profits, and they chose profits,” Walter explained. “When they went to the government and said ‘we will no longer support you,’ the apartheid regime knew it could no longer survive, and reform happened quickly.” 

To help address the other factor — identity politics — businesses have the opportunity to invest in better health care, higher minimum wages, and more, “so that they create a group of people that are hopeful about the future, and less vulnerable to the calls by extremists to ‘burn the system down.’”

Regulate social media and social media algorithms.

Currently, social media algorithms are designed to elevate the most incendiary and divisive content, as the most extreme ideas are given preferred status in algorithms, pushing them to people’s feeds who may not otherwise see them. 

While Walter emphasized that she doesn’t believe in censorship, or limiting free speech, she said that algorithms must be regulated so that they don’t give preference to these extreme ideas.

“Let people put whatever they want on social media,  but do not allow the algorithms to amplify the messages by bullies, hate-mongers, conspiracy theorists, and enemies of democracy,” Walter said. “If we take away their bullhorn, their influence will decline.”

In other words, we must give the best ideas — the ones that naturally resonate with users — the space to succeed on social media, rather than pushing them aside with an algorithm that favors extreme ideas. 

There is hope for U.S. democracy.

In her years of work in this area, Walter has interviewed people who have lived through a civil war, “and they all say the same thing: ‘I didn’t see it coming.’”

We have the benefit of foresight here: We have the data to back up these predictive factors for civil war and political violence (and, arguably, proof and hindsight from what happened on January 6th). 

“There’s no reason why we, the democracy-loving people of this world, can’t create our own playbook to prevent civil war,” Walter said. “To do that, we have to be brave enough to fight for real democracy, strong democracy. Because only by fighting for democracy can we ensure we will truly get peace.”

A white woman with blond hair in a black shirt speaks on a stage.
Barbra F. Walter speaks at TED2023: Possibility. Photo courtesy of Gilberto Tadday / TED (CC-BY-NC-ND 4.0)

And there are some signs of hope in the fighting-for-democracy arena: specifically, Walter looks at the November midterm elections. 

She called it a “really, really good sign” in that one, all of the folks who denied the results of the 2020 election (a.k.a. are anti-democracy) lost their elections.

And second, the group of voters that traditionally vote the least, turned out for the midterms in huge, historic numbers: Young people between the ages of 18 and 25. That good news multiplies, too — once you get a young person engaged in voting early, they tend to continue voting in future elections.

“That means turnout is going to improve, the type of person who votes is going to be more representative of the population,” Walter said. “That is a healthier and better democracy.”

Follow along with Good Good Good’s coverage of all of the best positive news, hopeful progress, and ways to make a difference — all from TED — all week long: Instagram | Newsletter | Website

Header image courtesy of Gilberto Tadday / TED (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)

Article Details

April 18, 2023 5:40 PM
An illustration of a chorus with a leader at the front

This Israeli & Palestinian youth choir has sung together since 2012. Now, their voices are stronger than ever

Amid violence, loss, and devastation, this youth chorus made up of Palestinians and Israelis have found a shared humanity through music.
Refugees Quote Graphic: "No one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark." — Warsan Shire‍

51 Most Powerful Refugee Quotes for World Refugee Day

These quotes serve as a stark reminder of our shared responsibility to protect and support refugees.
A Black woman stands in front of a sign that says VOTE HERE in multiple languages

How To Be a Poll Worker — And 36 Other Ways To Encourage Voting

Whether you want to volunteer as a poll worker, join a political campaign you believe in, or support voting rights — this is your guide on how to make a difference.
Equality & Justice Helpers 2022

Helpers 2022: The People Who Made a Difference for Equality, Justice, and Government

Every year, The Helpers Edition of the Goodnewspaper highlights inspiring helpers in a number of categories. In this post we’re celebrating helpers in the Government & Justice category.

Want to stay up-to-date on positive news?

The best email in your inbox.
Filled with the day’s best good news.