Unrest in America: An Interview with Barbara Walter

January 6th at the Capitol. Photo courtesy of Blink O’fanaye.

Riots in the nation’s capital were a wake-up call to many Americans who never envisioned an insurrection following a presidential election. Four people died, and many more had their vision of what the United States is, or could be, shattered.

Here, PVG senior editor Barbara Walter, a political scientist at UC San Diego whose book on civil war will be published by Random House later this year, is interviewed by KPBS radio about what the violence means for the future of democracy in the United States. The interview had been edited for length and clarity. You can listen to the full broadcast here.

When we last spoke in May of 2019, you felt we were getting close to a constitutional crisis and that democracy was threatened. What is your reaction to what happened yesterday as rioters broke into the Capitol?

Yesterday was actually surprising to me as well. We have seen America’s democracy decline since 2016, so that wasn’t a surprise. The US used to be considered a full democracy, similar to places such as Norway and Switzerland and Iceland. Now it’s considered a partial democracy—the same category as countries like Ecuador, Somalia, and Haiti. I don’t think most Americans know that. What happened yesterday dropped the U.S. even further on the democracy scale that scholars use to measure the level of democracy, and what was under attack yesterday was the cornerstone of our democracy: free and fair elections. So, the mob taking over the Capitol building was surprising because it was so extreme, but it’s part of a larger pattern that we’ve been observing over the last four years.

Words matter when we talk about these events. Given your expertise in political science, how would you characterize what happened yesterday? Was it an insurrection? Domestic terrorism? A coup?

I would characterize it as domestic terrorism. Terrorism is defined as the conscious targeting of civilians with violence for political purposes. The fact that some of these individuals were armed, and the fact that they placed incendiary devices in places, suggests that they—at least some of them—planned to kill civilians and/or government officials in an attempt to keep President Trump in power. That’s the definition of terrorism.

We have seen a rise in terror over the last few years, whether it’s in the form of mass killings in synagogues, or in other places. We’ve seen attempts to kidnap and put on trial the governor of Michigan. What happened yesterday is part of a string of terrorist attacks or plans to instigate terrorist attacks that we’ve seen over the last few years. Almost all of it has been instigated by the far right, and in fact, the Department of Homeland Security in 2019 deemed far-right domestic terrorism as the greatest threat to the United States.

What blame does social media deserve for fueling the divisions that we are seeing in this country right now?

There are two ways that social media could actually be, not only an accelerant of these divisions, but potentially a cause. The first is the recommendation engines—the algorithms that social media platforms have created to feed their users more and more material that is similar to material they’ve liked in the past. Social media companies do this because their business model depends on keeping people locked in for as long as possible. But there’s a psychological component to it: people tend to “like” information that taps into their emotions, and that tends to be stuff that makes them angry, outraged, resentful. And what the recommendation engines do is not just recommend more material like that, but more material that’s even more extreme. So, it pushes people to the extremes of the political spectrum.

The second way social media feeds divisions is that technology companies allow people to post more or less whatever they like on social media. They argue that this is necessary because they don’t want to censor anybody. But what social media companies do—and what they need to take responsibility for—is amplify information and disseminate it widely and very quickly. So, if you have a platform where people can post anything they want, and the most incendiary material tends to get the most attention, and the platform serves as a massive dissemination machine, then what they’re doing is they’re taking the most dangerous information and getting it into the hands of people who otherwise never would have seen it. And that’s a problem.

People who didn’t see what happened yesterday coming are unlikely to be able to imagine the possibility of a civil war here. But you say we’ve already seen things happen that are precursors to a civil war.

The reason most Americans can’t imagine a second civil war here is because they’re thinking about the first one. They’re thinking about Gettysburg and big, large conventional armies fighting on the battlefield. But that’s not the way it’s going to happen. What we’ve been seeing since 2010, is the rise of far-right militias. They began to grow when Barack Obama was first elected. And we’re seeing the rise of terrorist attacks; those began to grow in 2011, which was the year the census was released that showed that, for the first time, a majority of the children born in America were non-white. Many of us who study extremist groups think that this was a wake-up call to them that non-violent means of keeping America white were no longer working, and they needed to shift to more violent methods.

Since 2019, there’s been an increase in groups that call themselves “accelerationists.” These groups want to speed up the move to civil war, and they want to create radical change. The group we’ve all heard about is called the Boogaloo Boys, but the militia group in Michigan that tried to kidnap Governor Whitmer also wanted to start a civil war.

Ultimately, if civil war happens in the United States, it will be more like a Siege of Terror: more like what we saw in Northern Ireland or in Israel, where people learn to live with a fairly consistent stream of terrorist attacks by a number of extremist groups, some of whom coordinate, and some of whom don’t.

Based on your research, what will it take for the United States to prevent a civil war? Hhow do we chart a new course?

We know from past civil wars that there are two big risk factors. Countries that are partial democracies—we call them “anocracies” because they’re neither fully democratic nor fully autocratic—are most likely to experience civil war. The second big risk factor is whether a country’s population, whether its citizens, have broken down politically along racial, ethnic, or religious lines. The United States has both of those conditions currently.

We need to do two things. First, we need to strengthen our democracy, because full democracies don’t tend to have civil wars. We need to create stronger checks on the president. The executive branch in the United States is becoming more powerful relative to any other branch. That’s one of the reasons why our democracy has been downgraded. We need to secure our elections and our electoral process so that we really do have free and fair elections. We need to remove the barriers to voting that have been increasingly placed on certain citizens over the last few years. And then we need to reduce the influence of money in politics.

Second, we need to regulate big technology companies. It’s no coincidence that civil society has become more divided and angry, and social media has played a role in that. I’m not saying that technology companies need to regulate the content. I think they can let people post mostly what they want on their platforms. But they shouldn’t be allowed to give any type of information, whether it’s misinformation or disinformation, an almost instantaneous global audience. Technology companies should be regulated in terms of what type of content they then pass on to individuals, not only in this country, but around the world.

I’ve been speaking with Barbara F Walter, who is a University of California, San Diego political scientist. She’s writing a book expected to be published this year by Random House about how the U.S. Is heading toward a second civil war. Barbara. Thank you so much for joining us.

It’s my pleasure. Thank you.

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