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Political Scientist Warns Of A Second Civil War After Capitol Riot

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Barbara F. Walter, a political scientist at UCSD, has been sounding the alarm about a rise in political violence. She explores how rioting at the Capitol could implicate a Second Civil War.

Speaker 1: 00:00 The riots of the nation's Capitol were a wake up call to many Americans who never thought something like this could happen here. Four people died including one woman from San Diego and after windows were broken offices, vandalized and Confederate flags were carried into the Capitol. We're left. Wondering what does yesterday's deadly riot say about the future of our democracy? Barbara F. Walter, a political scientist at D has been sounding the alarm about a rise in political violence. She's writing a book expected to be published this year by random house about how the us is heading toward a second civil war, Barbara. Welcome. Thank you very much. It's great to be here. You know, when we last spoke in may of 2019, you felt we were getting close to a constitutional crisis and that democracy was threatened. Uh, first, what is your reaction to what happened yesterday as writers broke into the Capitol?

Speaker 2: 00:54 So yesterday was actually surprising to me as well. Um, we have seen America's democracy decline since 2016. Um, so that wasn't a surprise, you know, the U S used to be considered a full democracy, like places like Norway and Switzerland and Iceland. And it's now considered a partial democracy in the same category as countries like Ecuador, Somalia and Haiti. And I think most Americans don't know that what happened yesterday dropped the U S even further on the democracy scale that scholars use to measure the level of democracy. Um, and what really was under attack yesterday was the, the cornerstone of our democracy, which is free and fair elections. So it was surprising because it was so extreme, but it's part of a larger pattern that we've been observing over the last four years.

Speaker 1: 01:50 And, you know, so words matter when we talk about these events, uh, given your expertise in political science, how would you characterize what happened yesterday? Was it an insurrection, domestic terrorism, a coup I mean, how would you define that?

Speaker 2: 02:03 I have a characterize it as domestic terrorism. Terrorism is defined as the conscious targeting of civilians, um, with violence for political purposes. And the fact that some of these individuals were armed the fact that they placed incendiary devices in places suggest that they at least some of them, um, planned to kill civilians and or government officials, um, in an attempt to keep president Trump in power. And that is the definition of, of terrorism. And we have seen a rise in terror over the last few years, um, whether it's the form of mass killings, um, in synagogues or, um, in various places, um, we've seen, um, you know, attempts to kidnap and put on trial. Um, the governor of Michigan, the attempt there was probably to convict her of treason and kill her. Um, so this is part of a string of terrorist attacks or plans to instigate terrorist attacks that we've seen over the last few years. Almost all of it has been coming from the far right. And in fact, the department of Homeland security in 2019 deemed, um, far right domestic terror as the greatest threat to the United States. Um, and I think this is simply, um, a very clear and obvious continuation of that.

Speaker 1: 03:30 What blame does social media deserve for fueling the divisions that we are seeing in this country right now?

Speaker 2: 03:36 Oh, that's a great question. So I actually think there's two ways that social media could actually be not just an accelerant of these divisions, but potentially a cause. Um, the first is the recommendation engines. Those are the sort of the algorithms that people talk about, um, that, um, social media platforms have created to feed their users. It's more and more material that is similar to material that they've liked in the past. And social media companies do this because their business model is based on keeping people, um, uh, locked into their phones for as long as possible. But what tends to happen is, um, there's a psychological component to it. People tend to like material information that they receive online that tends to be more emotional, that taps into their emotions. And that oftentimes tends to be stuff that makes them angry, outraged, um, resentful, and what the recommendation engines do is not just recommend more material like that, but it's more material that's even more extremely like that.

Speaker 2: 04:49 So it pushes people to the extremes of the political spectrum. So that's one way. And the second way social media feeds divisions is that, um, technology companies allow people to post basically whatever they like on social media. Um, and they've argued that this is necessary because they don't want to censure censor anybody, but what social media companies do and what they, I believe need to take responsibility for is they amplify this information and they disseminate it widely and very quickly. So if you have a, uh, a platform where people can, um, post anything they want, and in fact, the most incendiary material tends to get the most attention. And then they serve as a massive dissemination machine. Then what they're doing is they're taking the most dangerous information and they're getting it into the hands of people that otherwise never would have seen it. And that's a problem, you know, people

Speaker 1: 05:58 Who didn't see what happened yesterday, coming are unlikely to be able to imagine the possibility of a civil war here, but you say we've already seen things happen that are precursors to a civil war.

Speaker 2: 06:11 Yes, yes. Um, so the reason why most Americans can't imagine a second civil war here is because they're thinking about the first one they're thinking about Gettysburg, um, and, and the big battles that happen then, and they're thinking about two big, large conventional armies, one in blue uniforms and one in gray uniforms, meeting each other and fighting on the battlefield. And that's just not the way it's going to happen. What we've been seeing over the last, um, um, you know, basically since 2010 is the rise of far right militias. They began to grow, um, uh, when Barack Obama was first elected, we're seeing the rise of terrorist attacks. Those began to grow, um, starting in 2011, um, why 2011, 2011 was the year that the census was released. And that census showed that for the first time, a majority of the children in America who were, were being born were nonwhite.

Speaker 2: 07:10 And, and, um, many of us who study extremist groups, things think that this was sort of a wake up call to them, that they had to, that, that, um, nonviolent means of keeping America white, where we're no longer working and they needed to shift to more violent methods. And then since 2019, there's been an increase in groups that call themselves accelerationist. And these are groups that actually want to speed up the move to civil war. Um, and they want to do that in order to create radical change. Um, the group that we've all heard about is, are, are called the, the Boogaloo boys. Um, but if you think back recently, the militia group in Michigan that tried to kidnap governor, uh Whitmer um, was also wanted to start a civil war, and that was their plan to do so. Um, so we have been seeing this and, and, um, you know, ultimately the type of civil war that, that we will see if it does happen will be more like a siege of terror. More like what, um, we saw happening in Northern Ireland or in Israel where people learn to live with, um, a fairly consistent stream of terrorist attack attacks by, um, uh, uh, you know, a number of extremist groups, some of whom coordinate some of whom don't coordinate. Um, and, and that's the type of civil war we're likely to see.

Speaker 1: 08:42 And based on your research, what will it take for the United States to prevent a civil war at this point? Uh, you know, how do we chart a new course?

Speaker 2: 08:52 Well, what we know from, um, from past civil Wars is that they're really two big risk factors, countries that are partial democracies. Um, we call them an opera seas. They're neither fully democratic nor fully autocratic. Those are the countries that are most likely to, to, um, experience a civil war. And the second big risk factor is whether a country's population, whether its citizens have broken down politically along racial, ethnic, or religious lines. And of course the United States has both of those conditions currently. And that tells us what we need to do to reduce the risk of civil war. So the two things are, we need to strengthen our democracy. We need to create stronger checks on the president. The executive branch in the United States has becoming more powerful relative to any other branch. That's one of the reasons why our democracy has been downgraded. We need to secure our elections and our electoral process so that we really do have free and fair elections.

Speaker 2: 09:58 We need to remove the barriers to voting that has been increasingly placed on certain citizens over the last few years. And then we need to reduce the influence of money in politics. So strengthen our democracy full democracies, don't tend to have civil Wars. Um, and then the second big thing is I do think we need to regulate big technology companies. I think it's no coincidence that, um, civil society has become more divided and more angry. Um, and, and I think social media has played a role in that. Um, I'm not saying that technology companies need to regulate the content. I think they can let people post mostly whatever they want on their platforms, but what they shouldn't be allowed to do is to give any type of information, whether it's it's, uh, misinformation or disinformation, uh, an almost instantaneous global audience. So technology companies should be regulated in terms of what type of content they then pass on to individuals not only, um, in this country, but around the world. So those would be my two biggest recommendations.

Speaker 1: 11:18 I've been speaking with Barbara F. Walter, who is a university of California, San Diego political scientist. She's writing a book expected to be published this year by random house about how the us is heading toward a second civil war. Barbara, thank you so much for joining us. It's my pleasure. Thank you.

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Maureen Cavanaugh and Jade Hindmon host KPBS Midday Edition, a daily radio news magazine keeping San Diego in the know on everything from politics to the arts.