The January 6th 2021 riot at the U.S. Capitol coincided with the publication of a general-audience book by Barbara Walter about How Civil Wars Start. A rapid best seller, the book portrayed a hypothetical scenario of near-future civil war in the United States. Though well-intended —meant to raise awareness of empirical predictors associated with political violence — it added to a growing national obsession with the possibility of a “second civil war.”
Rhetoric by academics and others can affect radicalization and recruitment into extremist groups. In recent years, journalistic coverage of the topic of future civil war in the United States has increased, including the breathless, the critical, and the satirical. Such coverage had already begun a couple of years earlier and still continues. As a result, emerging polls have shown that a significant portion of the American public is coming to actually expect another civil war.
Operating in the narrative landscape: lessons learned
Warnings from counterinsurgency scholarship, particularly from the long fight against Al Qaeda and its offshoots, provide a useful backdrop here. One of the most crucial lessons from this fight was the need to avoid multiplying enemies. Words and actions that play into harmful narratives tend to drive moderates and extremists together.
On numerous occasions, U.S. politicians, pundits, and soldiers have unintentionally handed rhetorical ammunition to the enemy. George W. Bush called the war on terror a “crusade.” Samuel Huntington described conflict fault lines between Islam and the West as a “Clash of Civilizations.” Such words reinforced Al Qaeda’s “war on Islam” narrative, and generalizations and stereotypes alienated many observers. Other tactless moves like the wearing of “pork-eating crusader” patches by deployed soldiers, support for corrupt Middle Eastern governments, and the use of secret detentions reinforced those same themes and ignored narrative landmines.
As one set of authors noted wryly, “One strategy for dealing with [terrorist] master narratives is to avoid reinforcement through communication and other behavior that tends to support them. This would appear to be obvious, but appearances can be deceiving.” Similarly, as a recent guide to countering extremism advocated: “Avoid reinforcing the themes emphasized within the target terrorist narratives.”
All rhetoric can impact the narrative landscape. Even well-intentioned warnings of civil war may inadvertently strengthen actors intent on starting civil war. To understand why, I next discuss common themes in the narratives that such groups hold.
Accelerationism in America
An astonishing diversity of armed and organized illegal paramilitary groups in America buy into a common thesis called “accelerationism.” These groups include fundamentalist millenarians, violent extremist libertarians, and white supremacists, many of whom cannot be lumped together ideologically. Originally coined for a Marxist economic argument, accelerationism now captures the supposed need to hasten a civil war that adherents firmly believe is coming.
In general, as war appears to be increasingly inevitable, making a first strike can become a rational move. January 6th witnessed significant participation from accelerationists like the Boogaloo Boys, Proud Boys, and Oath Keepers. Some saw themselves as the “tip of the spear” for a conflict they believed was following hard on the heels of the 2020 elections. Another rioter testified afterward that for him, January 6th was a modern-day storming of the Bastille.
Public scholarship and discourse may not impact extremists locked into their own echo chambers, but they do impact the recruiting pool. When that discourse portrays civil war as likely, it strengthens one of the most crucial components of accelerationist narratives. The unintended result is to make it easier for extremists to sell the message: civil war is coming, so get ready.
Vivid narrative tends to stick better than nuanced statistics
Unlike other fields like economics and psychology, pop-science summaries of political science work are in short supply. More efforts to bridge the gap between academia and the public sphere are desperately needed. I applaud Walter’s work on this basis. However, it is also crucial to understand how the transmission to public consumption can strip out all emphasis on nuance, conditionality, and limitations. As Erica De Bruin noted as part of a symposium on public scholarship, “Once ideas are published, . . . it is difficult to control how they will be used.”
Although Walter’s book spoke of numeric risk factors and specified a 3.4% annual risk of civil war for countries meeting the conditions for war, that careful precision was generally lost as readers latched onto the book’s narrative portrayal instead. Recent political turbulence may have primed readers to anticipate conflict, but more likely this resulted from how the brain processes compelling narrative differently from other material.
Compared to statistical evidence, narrative can be processed more easily, making persuasion more likely. Narrative has a more powerful impact on affect and intention, or feeling and doing something about the topic. The more immersive the narrative, the stronger the effect. For policymakers in a position to be able to take action to prevent political violence, motivation to act is a positive. For the rest of the U.S. public readership, doing something may look more like “prepping for the apocalypse.”
Just like Al Qaeda in its heyday, armed accelerationists in America are strategic actors who take advantage of narrative ammunition handed to them. When the public starts to believe civil war is likely, the salience of the topic increases. This makes it easier for armed groups to peddle their solution.
None of us want to inspire citizens to join the proliferating private militias in America or committing lone wolf attacks. Before publicly speculating about civil war, we might ask ourselves questions like, “How might armed groups take advantage of this prediction?”, or “What might the average person — or the marginalized person — do in response to what I’m saying?”
On a positive note, a narrative perspective lends itself to pro-active approaches, not just restraint. For instance, it would suggest lending support to alternative narrative approaches and a variety of initiatives meant to depolarize the populace and strengthen national unity.