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Rumors of war


A new book by a political scientist who advises the CIA on threats to democracy and risks of civil war in other countries argues that the United States no longer qualifies as a legitimate democracy, and the the threat of another civil war in the USA is now significant:

Barbara F. Walter, a political science professor at the University of California at San Diego, serves on a CIA advisory panel called the Political Instability Task Force that monitors countries around the world and predicts which of them are most at risk of deteriorating into violence. By law, the task force can’t assess what’s happening within the United States, but Walter, a longtime friend who has spent her career studying conflicts in Syria, Lebanon, Northern Ireland, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Rwanda, Angola, Nicaragua and elsewhere, applied the predictive techniques herself to this country.

Her bottom line: “We are closer to civil war than any of us would like to believe.” She lays out the argument in detail in her must-read book, “How Civil Wars Start,” out in January. “No one wants to believe that their beloved democracy is in decline, or headed toward war,” she writes. But, “if you were an analyst in a foreign country looking at events in America — the same way you’d look at events in Ukraine or the Ivory Coast or Venezuela — you would go down a checklist, assessing each of the conditions that make civil war likely. And what you would find is that the United States, a democracy founded more than two centuries ago, has entered very dangerous territory.”

Indeed, the United States has already gone through what the CIA identifies as the first two phases of insurgency — the “pre-insurgency” and “incipient conflict” phases — and only time will tell whether the final phase, “open insurgency,” began with the sacking of the Capitol by Donald Trump supporters on Jan. 6.

Things deteriorated so dramatically under Trump, in fact, that the United States no longer technically qualifies as a democracy. Citing the Center for Systemic Peace’s “Polity” data set — the one the CIA task force has found to be most helpful in predicting instability and violence — Walter writes that the United States is now an “anocracy,” somewhere between a democracy and an autocratic state.

U.S. democracy had received the Polity index’s top score of 10, or close to it, for much of its history. But in the five years of the Trump era, it tumbled precipitously into the anocracy zone; by the end of his presidency, the U.S. score had fallen to a 5, making the country a partial democracy for the first time since 1800. “We are no longer the world’s oldest continuous democracy,” Walter writes. “That honor is now held by Switzerland, followed by New Zealand, and then Canada. We are no longer a peer to nations like Canada, Costa Rica, and Japan, which are all rated a +10 on the Polity index.”

Joshua Keating’s satiric series in Slate “If It Happened There” featured US news stories written up in the manner in which they would be covered by the American media if the stories were happening in another country. Walter’s CIA panel is apparently required by law to avoid even writing up this story in the first place. (I mean I can understand why we don’t want the CIA involved in analyzing and possibly rigging the USA’s own elections — that after all is the FBI’s job — but it’s still kind of amusing, in an End Times sort of way).

I haven’t read Walter’s book, but I found this part of her analysis intriguing:

She also labels the U.S. as an ‘anocracy’ – a category between a democracy and an autocracy, after a slide based on factors in its criteria during the four years of the Trump administration – with the U.S. falling from a score of 10 to a score of 5.

That put the nation far behind its traditional peers.

This somehow reminds me of the scene in A Charlie Brown Christmas where Lucy is playing the role of a therapist, and tells Charlie Brown that she must identify exactly what he’s afraid of, so that she can label it.

I hadn’t heard of this term before, which Borges’s Infinite Library aka the Internet defines thusly:

Anocracy or semi-democracy is a form of government that is loosely defined as part democracy and part dictatorship, or as a “regime that mixes democratic with autocratic features.” Another definition classifies anocracy as “a regime that permits some means of participation through opposition group behavior but that has incomplete development of mechanisms to redress grievances.” The term “semi-democratic” is reserved for stable regimes that combine democratic and authoritarian elements. Scholars have also distinguished anocracies from autocracies and democracies in their capability to maintain authority, political dynamics, and policy agendas. Similarly, the regimes have democratic institutions that allow for nominal amounts of competition. Such regimes are particularly susceptible to outbreaks of armed conflict and unexpected or adverse changes in leadership. The operational definition of anocracy is extensively used by scholars Monty G. Marshall and Benjamin R. Cole at the Center for Systemic Peace, which gained most of its dissemination through the polity data series. The data set aims to measure democracy in different states and retains anocracy as one of its classification methods for regime type. Consequently, anocracy frequently appears in democratization literature that utilizes the polity-data set. Unlike traditional democracy, semi-democratic regimes, also known as hybrid regimes, are known for having guided democracy instead of liberal democracy. Semi-dictatorial regimes have dictatorial powers with some democratic values, and despite being authoritarian, have elections. In a closed anocracy, competitors are drawn from the elite. In an open anocracy, others also compete. 

Something that I’ve been thinking about lately is that the history of Mexico under the PRI may be of increasing relevance to we gringos, who of course know essentially nothing about it (I include myself in this category, although at least I know what the PRI is, unlike 99.93% of the non-Mexican-American portion of the populace).

The idea that Trump and Trumpism represented an illegal immigration of caudilloism north of the border got some attention five years ago, but was largely forgotten once a Trump presidency became a reality as opposed to an obviously absurd hypothetical. For most of the 20th century Mexico would seem to have fit the definition of an anocracy pretty well, so that’s another good reason to maybe learn a little something about the political history of the nation on our southern border.

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