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No Second American Civil War
The need for better public intellectuals, and separating signal from noise
I have a new op-ed in The Washington Post on why the United States will not see another civil war. It is going to be on the front page of the paper this Sunday, but is online now.
The article started with this thread, which led to the opportunity to write for the Post. I began thinking about this question after noticing how many smart people I talked to were arguing the opposite. As someone who has looked into the empirical literature on the topic, I thought they were wrong, and decided to put together a thread showing why. To put it in the simplest terms possible, only poor countries fight civil wars, and the U.S. is a rich country. The best predictor of civil war is not polarization, economic inequality, or any other indicator that looks bad in the U.S. right now, but weak state capacity and non-functioning institutions. Say what you want about the United States, but law enforcement works, and that applies to everything from the local police to the FBI and the military.
Another motivation for getting into this topic was seeing the work of Peter Turchin cited by smart people I know. I’ve published in this field, and don’t remember ever coming across his name in the academic literature on civil war. And it’s easy to understand why, as he argues for a grievance based model of conflict, which is in tension with what nearly everyone who works with the data finds. Yet somehow, he gets more press coverage than anyone else in this area. See here for my thread on Turchin, and this Buzzfeed article, which presents Turchin’s theory and then closes by quoting civil war scholars who point out why he’s wrong.
There are two things I’d like to emphasize about the Post article, and the process that led me to publish it, not directly related to the arguments made.
First, one reason I moved away from doing purely academic work to more popular writing is that I found many interesting things in research papers that had no influence on the outside world. This led me to ask, what’s the point? The grievance/opportunity framework for understanding political violence is powerful, and the evidence for accepting that civil war, and I’d argue violence more generally, is caused by opportunity is quite compelling. Yet so much of our political discussion centers around an implicit grievance-based model of conflict. This is reflected not only in silly talk about a coming civil war, but also how educated people talk about various issues from the problems of the Middle East to crime in America.
For those with an interest in the marketplace of ideas, it is important to realize that you can do great work in academia that may be ignored for the rest of your life. The fact that there has been so much interest in me talking about the grievance/opportunity models in the context of understanding the prospects of a Second American Civil War, despite that framework and its findings being common knowledge among those who study the subject, shows that there is a lot of low-hanging fruit out there.
I’m quite confident that, when it comes to most topics in the social sciences, the marginal return to doing good research in academia is less than it is for taking what we’ve already learned and making it better known.
The implication is that those interested in making our society smarter should go work for think tanks or otherwise try to become public intellectuals rather than go into academia, and those already in academia should spend less time talking to each other and more time engaging outside their field. Some researchers do this, but they are often doing a kind of clickbait research that is of low value. In addition to Turchin, see American University professor Allan Lichtman, who the media has been hyping as someone who has “called” every election since 1984. In fact, most of those elections haven’t been close, and among the few that have, he has flip flopped on whether his predictions apply to the popular vote or the electoral college. We need better academics and researchers to do more to publicize what they have learned, and, since the marketplace of ideas is to a great extent zero-sum, this should involve attacking the ideas of those who use poor methods.
Second, my op-ed shows the value of stepping back from the news and trying to understand politics and American society through a more theoretical lens grounded in the social sciences. I understand why people look at social media and observe political discourse and think a civil war is possible or likely. But being an informed observer means having the ability to separate signal from noise. From the perspective of the question of how much political violence we are likely to see in the United States in the coming years, things like people shouting at each other on Twitter, militias parading around with guns, and anti-fa smashing out windows are noise.
This doesn’t mean that they are unimportant! As the op-ed points out, political polarization has serious consequences. This has been clear in the Covid debate, in which even masks, the most low-cost precaution imaginable, have become a partisan signifier. Since on this topic I’m pointing out where the right is wrong, I’ll highlight a similar, though less consequential, failure on the left. Local authorities in places like Portland and Seattle have not been willing to fulfill the most basic role of government and protect innocent people against rioters and looters, and it seems like this is at least in part because they do not want to be on the same side as Trump.
Yes, America has serious problems, and there do not appear to be many solutions on the horizon for our broken political culture. I hope we focus more on this issue, and waste less time on fantasies like a second civil war.