The first anniversary of the insurrection on Capitol Hill seems like a good moment to discuss the prospects of America and civil war.

The first time I saw the idea that America might be heading towards complete political breakdown was in an article by Peter Turchin in his Cliodynamics journal, back in 2013.

At the time it was right at the distant edge of mainstream opinion, or beyond it. Turchin is also a slightly controversial figure. He is an evolutionary biologist by background who decided to test whether the kinds of models that biologists applied to animal populations might also apply to human societies. He concluded from extended research, first in pre-industrial societies, later in post-industrial, that they could.


Turchin drew on the work of Goldstone—now a collaborator—and what Goldstone called “structural-demographic theory”. He’s published his models and his data, which basically encode a theory of change based on shifts in population, income levels, assets and wealth, and on political instability and the structure of political elites and how they respond to social and political unrest.

(Source: Peter Turchin/ Cliodynamics)

Historians tend to hate him, because they think he’s saying that history is predictable (he’s not); journalists tend to get a little dewy eyed, for much the same reason. Indeed, he had to publish a swathe of corrections to one recent high-profile piece about his work.

Socio-political instability

In 2013, he applied his model to the United States, comparing it to both the Antebellum period in the USA and the English Revolution, and concluded:

The core of structural-demographic theory is concerned, as its name implies, with how the effects of demographic processes on political instability are channeled through social structures… In contemporary America, forces driving structural-demographic dynamics have been even more complex and include internal population growth combined with overseas immigration, globalization, increased labor participation by women, and changing cultural attitudes (which I proxied by real minimum wage). The end result, however, was the same in all three cases… A growing gap between labor supply and labor demand and falling real wages were followed by elite overproduction, intraelite competition and conflict, and increasing sociopolitical instability.

I have written elsewhere that one of the tests of the value and credibility of futures work is whether its underlying theory of change is borne out by events (and if not, why not).

Suffice to say that on the basis of such a strong claim about the future, and a coherent theory of change sitting behind it, I (and others) have been following the change in American politics since 2013 using Turchin’s hypothesis as a testable model.

Moving into the mainstream

It was holding up well before the ‘insurrection’—Mitch McConnell’s known as the ‘gravedigger of American democracy’ in some circles for a reason. But since then it has moved into the mainstream.

Sightings in the last 12 months include the Brookings Institution; Foreign Policy (“three factors come into play, and the US exhibits all of them”); and RAND, via NBC News. This is not a full list. The political scientist Barbara Walters, associated with the CIA, has a book coming out on the subject next week, which is already attracting a lot of attention. There is even a long and detailed Wikipedia page on the subject.

(Photo: Joe Frazier. Trump. Free Speech Rally, Portland, 2017, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia.)

The services oath

So perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprise to see some former members of the US military pop up in the Washington Post to suggest that the Armed Forces needed to prepare for such an eventuality.

All service members take an oath to protect the U.S. Constitution. But in a contested election, with loyalties split, some might follow orders from the rightful commander in chief, while others might follow the Trumpian loser. Arms might not be secured depending on who was overseeing them. Under such a scenario, it is not outlandish to say a military breakdown could lead to civil war.

They therefore urge the Pentagon to remind members of the US Armed Forces of their oath—which is to uphold the Constitution:

The Pentagon should immediately order a civics review for all members — uniformed and civilian — on the Constitution and electoral integrity. There must also be a review of the laws of war and how to identify and deal with illegal orders… No service member should say they didn’t understand whom to take orders from during a worst-case scenario.

Making things worse

At The Atlantic, late last year, the Irish writer Fintan O’Toole supplied a perspective on some of this. He drew on his own experience in Ireland, growing up in the south as the Troubles erupted in the North. His father came home one day in 1972, after Bloody Sunday, and told the family to prepare for civil war. His father wasn’t alone in this.

But as he says, the very belief that a civil war might start makes things worse:

Once that idea takes hold, it has a force of its own. The demagogues warn that the other side is mobilizing. They are coming for us. Not only do we have to defend ourselves, but we have to deny them the advantage of making the first move. The logic of the preemptive strike sets in: Do it to them before they do it to you. The other side, of course, is thinking the same thing. That year, 1972, was one of the most murderous in Northern Ireland precisely because this doomsday mentality was shared by ordinary, rational people like my father.

‘Civil strife’

The article is largely an extended review of Stephen Marche’s book, The Next Civil War, in which Marche claims that America “is already in a state of civil strife, on the threshold of civil war.” Marche’s underlying model is an insurrection that is quelled by the military—but with such violence that it fuels a continuing cycle of insurgency.

Since O’Toole is a good writer and a reflective thinker, he observes some of the issues about taking this view of America’s future as being inevitable. One can see flashpoints, certainly, but not necessarily mechanisms.

Unlike conventional warfare, there isn’t much theory about civil war. The German theorist Hans Magnus Enzensberger observed this in a 1994 book called Civil War. “The atavistic”, says Enzensberger, “meets the unprecedented.”

Political violence

And part of O’Toole’s argument here is that political violence in the United States is endemic and has been through much of its history. It isn’t “unprecedented.” This isn’t just down to the absurd levels of gun use and gun ownership; racism, land theft, and forms of aggressive capitalism have also played their part. As he says:

Arguably, the real problem for the U.S. is not that it can be torn apart by political violence, but that it has learned to live with it… In this context, feverish talk of civil war has the paradoxical effect of making the current reality seem, by way of contrast, not so bad. The comforting fiction that the U.S. used to be a glorious and settled democracy prevents any reckoning with the fact that its current crisis is not a terrible departure from the past but rather a product of the unresolved contradictions of its history.

Turchin doesn’t think that civil war is “fore-ordained”, and says so specifically. And some of the factors that increase ‘political stress’ in his model are starting to reverse—notably, real wage levels are starting to increase again.

A ‘bigger sort’

We have already seen military figures, during the Trump Presidency, remind the President that their oath is to the Constitution, not to the Commander in Chief. Secession by States is hard, even if the American political system is clearly broken. Equally, democratic systems tend not to work if one of the main parties no longer recognises their mechanisms and use judicial mechanisms to impose minority views. We could well see an increase in violence, whether ‘political’ or not.

One shorter-run consequence might be the continuation of the ‘big sort’, at a state level, where people move to places where local laws and politics are more amenable. Of course, this does nothing to reduce political polarisation—in fact, it seems to accelerate it.


This article is also published on my Just Two Things Newsletter.