Friday, July 5, 2019

US Civil War - Picking a Model

In the first post in this series I laid out a couple of scenarios I see as plausible for inflection into a US civil war.

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3

Scenario 1

A second Trump term from 2020-2024  causes increasing low level left-wing extremist violence rationalized by hyperbolic "Trump will never give up the presidency" hysteria which then justifies a "resist at any cost" ethos. Violence levels should get going in 2021 -2024 via gradual ramp-ups.

I view this type of conflict as likely, but of insufficient magnitude for the "civil war" term.

Scenario 2: Revolt against Democratic Authoritarianism

A second Trump term is followed by a reactionary 2024-2028 Democratic president who pushes hard on authoritarian solutions such as gun control, border dismantlement and abortion defense. Censorship and quasi-criminalization of "hate" (political) speech triggers right wing extremists. Violence emerges as the right starts protests and starts becoming overtly violent against "counter-protesters". This may be justified as a reactionary response to perceived existential threats against most types of conservative public sphere participation.

I view this conflict vector as moderately likely. It should peak around 2026. Total violence levels should be moderate (probably similar in magnitude to 1960's / 1970's violence levels, albeit with more spatially concentrated outbreaks). The dynamics however, are more civil war like than  1960's/1970's political violence. I think this is the lower-bound Turchin envisions with his Structural Demographic intra-elite competition theory.

Scenario 3: Politicide by a Reactionary Right

After a 2020-2024 Trump presidency, things simmer during a Democratic presidency of 2024-2028, but things don't explode. In 2028 an oscillation back to an even more reactionary (populist/authoritarian) Republican president leads to significant radical left-wing violence which infects decent portions of what has hitherto been the center-left. There is a strong over-correction from the authoritarian right who justifies extra-legality as necessary and tacitly unenforceable by foes and an all-but gone political center.

I view this type of conflict as the most likely.  It is likely to have enough system energy to spiral into  "civil war" like dynamics. Violence occurs in 2028-2029, largely emerging from radical left wingers, but egged on and resonated by emboldened and frustrated right-wing extremists.


Only Scenario 2 and 3 warrant civil war analysis.  Both vectors seem to resemble ethnic based civil war conflicts (where ethnicity is interpreted broadly and includes identity fused politico-moral ideologies with strong adaptive group dynamics).

Scenario 2 Analysis

Revolt against Democratic Authoritarianism

Scenario 2 seems to resemble the gradual violence ramp ups Sambanis sees characterized in Nigeria. Democratic rule of law has a hard time cracking down on instigators due to its inherent penchant for equality under-the-law. An inevitable spiral into one-dimensional identity based criminality will worsen rather than weaken this basin trap. I think Tommy Robinson's recent conviction for contempt of court, based largely on his identity and its "proof" of intent, demonstrate this attractor basin.

This type of civil war will therefore largely involve confrontation over messaging mediums. This is akin to the low level civil war which preceded US independence. Journalists, outspoken B-celebrities like Kaepernick, Alyssa Milano, Steven Crowder, Candace Owens, Ana Navarro, etc. will be the main assassination targets. Social media offices may get a few rage-based suiciders.

Open conflict will largely be limited to protests. This fits in with a Sambanis riot vector. Government officials will usually be one step behind protest violence. This may be purposeful (e.g. Portland) or just due to incompetence and a few nefarious oversights (e.g. Charlotte). Families and communities will polarize. Commerce will polarize and identity will increasingly be a key to public sphere participation (e.g. Raverly, Master Card & Bank of America).

Dynamics are  "ethnic" in nature, but are more akin to Sambanis' anti-colonial or nationalistic strife vector and a polticide human dynamic.

Pluralism returns when:
  • people get sick of the limitations this causes on commerce and public sphere participation
  • the US settles on a mid-sized polity solution where a new balance of power is maintained via semi-formal group of states alliances, somewhat similar to pre-civil war North-South dynamics.
I would guess pluralism would return somewhere around mid 2030's

Scenario 3 Analysis

Politicide by a Reactionary Right

Scenario 3 violence inflection is around 2028-2029, and emerges from a violent reactionary right. The vector is less a series of riot based ramp ups and more a concerted nationalistic strife. Fighting is largely about "if you don't like this country - get out" and "fascist resistance". Because I suspect this would involve fewer years of ramp up, I suspect it will either be a momentary blip of violence, or a more serious political purge using the force of law backing up mob-based political oppression.

Outcomes are much more chaotic (in the technical sense of the word). But, if things do explode, they're much more likely to involve governmental force. Say, for instance, forcing California to capitulate its "illegal" sanctuary cities or potential border wall tear downs.

I would guess the ramp up and ramp down from this "civil war" would be much quicker and much more damaging to democracy as we know it.


Cederman, L. E., Wimmer, A., & Min, B. (2010). Why do ethnic groups rebel? New data and analysis. World Politics62(1), 87-119.

Lyall, J., & Wilson, I. (2009). Rage against the machines: Explaining outcomes in counterinsurgency wars. International Organization63(1), 67-106.

Lyall, J. (2009). Does indiscriminate violence incite insurgent attacks? Evidence from Chechnya. Journal of Conflict Resolution53(3), 331-362.

Sambanis, N. (2004). Using case studies to expand economic models of civil war. Perspectives on Politics2(2), 259-279. 

US CIvil War - Models of War

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3

A quick literature review shows a  couple of ways to classify civil war types
  1. economic, including resource predation
  2. ethnic
  3. coups
  4. genocides
  5. politicides
  6. self-determination (similar to my mid-sized polity bifurcation idea the other month)
 Sambanis' excellent paper on civil war suggests some feedback and feedforward between different aspects of civil conflict. For instance, an attempted coup may or may not start a civil war and a civil war may or may not start genocide or politicide.

I'd also add, that my own thinking (from a cultural multi-level selection frame) suggests we may have to distinguish civil wars of supremacy, like those focused on genocide or politicide, from those which are ostensibibly supremacist but are more aligned toward bifurcation into stable mid-sized polities.

Near the end of his paper, Sambanis gives a list of some vectors out of which civil wars emerge;
  1. violent anticolonial movements
  2. international wars
  3. occupations
  4. coups
  5. proxy wars fought in a third country
  6. riots
  7. intercomunal (ethnic, religious or ideological) fighting
  8. nationalistic strife


Here's a list of quotes from the Sambini paper. It should give people a flavour of things. His paper seems to take a systems (multi-scale perspective) and to be aware of process issues, including complex emergence and (probabilistic) structural attractor basins.

"Finally, both Collier & Hoefller and Fearon & Laitin find that democracy does not significantly reduce the risk of civil war and that ethnic fractionalization does not increase it—although, according to CH, ethnic dominance increases risk. CH and FL seem to agree that countries in the middle of the democracy-autocracy spectrum and those with political instability are more prone to civil war"

"Thus, we come back to the distinction between micro- and macro-level research on civil wars that I made earlier. It is true, as argued by Stathis Kalyvas in an earlier issue of this journal, that motives for violence vary wildly at the micro level and that micro-level and macro-level determinants of civil war often do not directly correspond to one another. But analysis at different levels of social conflict will necessarily reveal different causal patterns."

"The disjuncture between micro-level actions and macro-level identities that Kalyvas expertly demonstrates implies one of two things: the variation at the micro-level is irrelevant to the question of civil war onset, or civil war is such an aggregate concept that it is not useful as an analytical category. Supposing the latter, if civil war includes coups, riots, gang violence, crime, and genocide, are we right in analyzing civil war as distinct from all these other forms of violence? If what we are trying to explain is the outbreak of civil war, then the process of interest is that by which divergent incentives and myriad personal calculations generate civil war rather than another type of violence. The theories proposed by CH and FL assume that civil war is a distinct category of violence and try to explain when and where civil wars are likely to occur. But these theories can partially explain many forms of violence—even organized crime—and are not specific to civil war. We must therefore consider a wider array of both micro- and macro-level theories, including ones that explain how emotions, ideology, revenge, or coercion can interact to produce collective action that culminates in a civil war."

"Thus, terrorism, coups, and riots may be leading indicators of civil war (and may precipitate civil war), yet we must explain why in some countries we observe those forms of violence without also observing violence escalation into civil war. A general theory of political violence must explain how and why we shift from one form of violence to another, and it must analyze civil war as part of a dynamic process."

"quantitative studies of civil war fail to account for the effects of low-level violence that typically precedes war, reducing both income and growth by reducing investment and encouraging capital flight. This is particularly true for studies using data sets that code civil war onset during the year that deaths cross the 1,000 threshold (as is common in the literature), even though armed conflict may have been occurring for several years."

"that may be irrelevant if the civil war was motivated by religious difference and fueled by repressive government policies. The opportunity-cost argument does not apply well to “volunteer forces” such as the Irish Republican Army (IRA) that are more concerned with ideology than with looting."

"Some analysts classify wars fought by ethnic groups as ethnic wars.80 Others argue that ethnicity is just a cover for economic motives,81 personal hostilities,82 criminality,83 or an assortment of other objectives that are not truly ethnonationalist at their core.84 But even though many conflicts can become ethnicized after they start, and ethnic mobilization can be used by political elites to support nonethnic rebellions, it may be significant that ethnicity is mobilized in some wars but not in others. After all, many rebel groups are organized within ethnoreligious parameters (in Burundi, recruitment follows tribal lines; in Lebanon, recruitment and alliance patterns follow religious lines ). A common-sense definition of ethnic war is a war fought between ethnic groups over issues that relate to ethnicity. It does not matter whether ethnic identity can be manipulated by elites pursuing private goals; the fact that ethnicity lends itself to manipulation and can be used to motivate collective action is in itself significant"

"I have been arguing that we cannot understand the causes of civil war without looking both below civil war (at individual level violence) and around it (at different forms of organized political violence)"

"For many countries caught in a conflict trap, civil war is a phase in a cycle of violence. By isolating civil war in quantitative studies, we choose to focus on an event rather than a process, and we discard a lot of useful information that explains how we end up having a civil war"

"In sum, organized violence is the result of four interacting factors: the demand for loot, the demand for political change, the opportunity to mobilize criminal or insurgent groups, and the mechanisms (relational, emotional, cognitive, or environmental) that characterize claim making and resource extraction. And there are important links between political and criminal forms of violence: while a strong state can deter the escalation of a conflict to violence, criminal and political violence can reinforce each other and thereby undermine a state’s authority and capacity."
Some of the most useful insights from the case studies discussed here come from analyses of the dynamics of conflict in countries where civil war did not occur despite a large number of risk factors...A strong state can afford to be accommodating or repressive, at low cost.134 But even accommodating policies may not effectively curb opposition if the state is weak and therefore cannot uphold its end of the bargain"

"Nondemocratic states can use selective repression more easily than democratic ones can to reduce the risk of conflict escalation. Thus, a government’s likelihood of using repression or accommodation—and the effects of these approaches—may be determined by state capacity and regime type combined. The conflict escalation potential of incomplete repression strategies may explain why democratization increases civil war risk. A democratic or democratizing regime cannot easily use repression, because the state’s enforcement apparatus becomes weaker as its activities become more transparent. The state is therefore less able to root out opposition in its early stages."

US Civil War - Thinking About Models

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3

For the last couple of years (2015 or so) I've occasionally mentioned my worries that the US might enter into some type of civil war. This idea gradually gains traction each year.  While some of this interest is likely due to click-bait dynamics and journalist's need for new topics of interest,  some prominent academics like Peter Turchin are also worried about it.

Here's a superficial take from the ground by Tim Pool that seems like mandatory viewing.

My old thoughts were based on backlash to Hillary Clinton authoritarianism, corruption, one-sided justice and the elevation of political cronyism on an international stage at the expense of US workers.  Whether or not a Trump figured emerged was rather beside the point back then.  The demonization of Romney as "the next Hitler" started to solidify my thinking around political multi-level selection dynamics. Turchin's book "Ages of Discord", obviously did nothing to dissuade my thinking. The emergence of severe Trump Derangement Syndrome supports an "attractor basin" interpretation of the spiralling social dynamics. The massive shift of left-wing politics to the far-left and the near total elimination of center-politics in popular discourse has given me few reasons to doubt the basin-based death spiral.  Right now, it's more an issue of time and severity.

Turchin's Jan 2017 bottom end prediction is 5 fatalities per million per 5 years sometime in the 2020's. That would mean about 1500 "civil war" deaths.

As we move forward in time, the main issue is how many US presidential turn-overs will be required for violence to really ignite? I think a Dem win in 2020 will energize but not spark things. The simultaneous removal of the wall and authoritarian based gun restrictions will certainly set things on a knife edge. I think Kamala Harris is a true existential threat here. But, I don't think things would really get going until you get a more strident pull back from the right during the next cycle. I have a hard time imagining someone more extreme than Trump, but that is almost assured. And, I doubt that reactionary figure would have many of Trump's Reaganesque economic foci or "luck".

But, because I think a 2020 Dem win is extremely unlikley, I think 2024 or 2028 will be the focal points. I suspect Trump Derangers will be extremely upset by Trump's 2024 win. Many extremists will rationalize violence as the only answer to the "inevitability" of a Trump takeover. Taunting such loons doesn't help. Nor can the activist media resist the siren call of these basins of lunacy.

What I suspect will happen is 2020 to 2024 things will heat up. In 2024 Dems will likely regain the White House and its symbolic importance. The only exception I can see is if Nikki Hailey decides to enter the fray (and survives the legacy hand-off set-up). Thus, I see the damn bursting in the 2026 midterms, or more likely in 2028.

A mid-term based explosion seems very unlikely. The violence cycle seems to me to be more about appearance than actual governance issues. In 2028 you'll either get a 2nd Dem presidential term, or a hard reactionary return/revolt back to (extreme populist) Republicans. Either way, this should be the tinder point.

If the Dem's get a second term and push hard on gun control, and the radical-authoritarian left decides to prevent all expression of opposition, then kaboom. I just don't see how this won't happen. The only hope is that the Wall is up so that the existential threat the right feels is posed against the nation is diminished. But, the second term will embolden the far-left to purge the populace of all its "racist" legitimization tools - protest will be considered "hate", social media will be forced to or choose to expel "hate", and Fox will feel the pressure of "fake news" and "incitement" legislation.  The damn will burst. Right wingers will not acquiescence, and the militias will get nasty and suicidal. The (just) demonization of targeted assassinations and street violence will be so hyperbolized, I suspect you'll have lots of far-right adjacents who, like the Swalwell gun poll, will choose to accept the label of insurgent rather than be coyed by it.

If reactionary Republicans push out a second term Dem in 2028, then I think progressives will go crazy. The main result here is just lots of street violence. The Proud Boys - Antifa ground marking pissing contest dynamic springs to mind. At worst, this would fold into 60's era "Days of Rage" type violence.

These two scenarios set up the models I think are most useful to look at for the potential/likely US "civil war".

Next Post - the models...