Ideological Polarization and Civil War in the Developed World

I think we may be entering a time period in which violence approximating civil war is widespread across the globe, especially in Europe and the United States. The conditions producing these patterns are, as I will argue, similar to those prevailing in the Third World during the Cold War. My predictions flow substantially from two developments in global politics. First, polarization within societies has dramatically increased the resources of and provided succor for cross-national political alliances like the emergent GOP-United Russia-National Front axis. Second, territorial integrity has developed as an important coordinative equilibrium that I believe even leaders like Putin and Trump will be loath to undo. The first of these will increase the cross-state coordination between this “rightist international” at the expense of Western liberals. The second works to contain the drive to conquer territory, and forces conflict within states. In combination they suggest a coordinated effort on the part of these far-right groups to weaken and eventually undermine mechanisms of democratic accountability throughout the West. This process would likely be violent.

I. Polarization

Increased polarization is a Western, and not simply an American, phenomenon. In Europe, this polarization has been a function of many inputs: the refugee crisis has been the latest catalyst, but the roots go back at least to the economic adjustments enacted after the 2010 debt crisis and in some cases to the integrative forces unleashed by the end of the Cold War. These and other developments have facilitated the polarization of Europe along a liberal-illiberal dimension, with the center-left/center-right groups occupying one end and far-right groups the other. To ground readers, examples of the former would be both Labour and the Tories in the UK, Democrats and the pre-2016 GOP in the United States, etc. (Certainly the United States has never sustained a far left party, and my read is that across Europe, far-left groups are not as potent as in the past, the recent exception of Syriza in Greece notwithstanding. To the extent that this dimension can be mapped on to an integrationist one, far left and far right groups have been able to find common cause, as in the Brexit vote of summer 2016.)

What are the implications of this increased polarization? First of all, it creates the possibility of robust international alliances along new political dimensions. One might view the past seventy years of Western international politics as emerging from persistent electoral victories drawn from one end of this liberal-illiberal distribution. These victories — which were not exogenous of course, and relied explicitly in several instances on U.S. support — produced an alliance network that was extraordinarily robust, and which established preconditions for interstate peace and the European integration we see dissolving today. In explaining the stability of the Western political order, many have pointed to the liberal and consultative character of the institutions themselves, neglecting the relative ideological cohesion that also characterized the period.

So what did NATO do and how did it produce peace? Certainly the United States’ security umbrella played a key role here: revisionist states, principally the Soviet Union, knew that aggression would be met with the same. But the Western alliance network also tamed domestic political outcomes within European states. Of course these were linked: if the question of security was answered, it no longer needed radical “solutions” drawn from the recesses of racism and nationalism. So the alliance network deterred interstate war, but it also fenced in domestic political outcomes to head off attempts at renegotiation of the interstate bargain. (The exception of de Gaulle serves to illustrate the point.) NATO therefore served to structure and reduce the possibility of both international and domestic disagreements that needed to be solved through violent bargaining. We should take seriously the possibility that interstate peace is underwritten by ideological complementarity rather than liberalism and international governance. It is not at this time possible to disentangle the first from the second and third empirically, precisely because the networks of U.S. power after the second world war were successful at creating all three.

The primary ideological cleavages characterizing Western politics in the second half of the twentieth century therefore existed between states (or blocs) rather than within them. While a reversal of this pattern would be a new development in Western states, it would not represent a new development historically, as the primary ideological cleavages in many Third World states during the Cold War occurred within states rather than between them, at least to a first approximation. And these states politics’ were characterized in many instances by recurrent civil conflict, often sponsored by cross-border ideological compatriots and distant superpower funding: Guatemala, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Chile, Argentina, Angola, Afghanistan, Yemen, Vietnam, Indonesia, and I am sure others I am forgetting all experienced varying levels of political violence along this dimension. In understanding these cases of civil violence, it is difficult to know how much explanatory weight to assign to this specific ideological configuration and how much to assign to the variables that political scientists generally look to: GDP, ethnic fractionalization, repression, colonial status, etc. That the two groups of explanations have covaried closely for the time period during which we have collected good data means the task of adjudicating between them is treacherous. Still, as before, we should at least entertain the possibility that we know far less than we think we do; that the mass of our conclusions on the matter as a field may be a matter of historical happenstance rather than inferential quality.

In contrast to the ideological coherence of Western states during the Cold War, now consider the radical divergence of public opinion within these states today. In a poll taken in late 2016, nearly twice as many Republicans viewed Vladimir Putin favorably than did Barack Obama. In a January 2017 poll, three quarters of GOP voters approved of Trump’s handling of Russian election interference; only eleven percent of Democrats did. This is of course layered on top of the well-documented polarization that has taken place within the U.S. Congress since the end of the Cold War. The pattern continues overseas. The victor in UKIP leadership elections in late 2016 listed Putin as a personal hero. Similarly National Front supporters in France have long had favorable attitudes towards Putin and his style of leadership. For right wing parties in the West today, it is much easier to construct political coalitions between countries than it is within them. It is a grim irony of history that, on the cusp of 2017, rightist international alliances appear much more robust than their leftist counterparts.

II. Territorial Integrity

It is no longer profitable to annex territory today, but neither it is necessary to do so in order to reap the political benefits of control. The first of these facts is the product of long-run trends in resistive capacity — nationalism, as well as increases in education and communication — that were evident as early as 1919, and certainly by 1945. The second is illustrated by the behavior of the two superpowers during the Cold War, wherein the networks established by the United States and Soviet Union in the wake of the second world for the most part shunned the formal-legal control that had characterized their colonial predecessors. The structure of the United Nations in large part reflected the desire of the superpowers to exert influence over other states without having to formally control them. By this estimation, the recent filibuster expedition aimed at the annexation of Crimea was not necessarily indicative of a new trend in form. Instead, in a possible example of life imitating art, the 2015 Norwegian television series Okkupert provides a blueprint in which Norway, in a post-NATO Europe, finds its leadership hostage to Russian agents demanding an effective — but superficially deniable — capitulation to Moscow.

Several uniquely contemporary developments have also lowered the cost to informal control. The most incredible of these is the ability of remote foreign actors to insinuate themselves into the electronic communications of political groups, as Russia did in the 2016 election. Whether this intervention “determined” the result of the election — a preposterous counterfactual standard of evidence that would be impossible to meet — it certainly represents an escalation in the ability of foreign actors to control domestic political outcomes. It should be noted, too, that democracies find themselves uniquely vulnerable on this front, as autocrats have no mechanisms of accountability that are institutionally analogous to free elections.

To hacking could be added the influence of global propaganda networks and their subsidiaries. Russia Today provided ubiquitous coverage of the 2016 U.S. election, and Breitbart News, a roughly analogous organization, is poised to insert itself alongside RT in a multitude of European elections in the coming years. Both work in tandem, if not actual coordination, with an army of internet “trolls” spreading disinformation.

So, then, there is no reason for the emergent far-right axis to formally subsume other states, which lessens the likelihood of interstate conflict returning with its ascendance. Taking over the leadership of new states and incorporating them ideologically will be sufficient. Having done so, this rightist international would then face a dilemma: it would either need to substantially weaken mechanisms of democratic accountability within its member states, or face the perpetual threat of reversal at the ballot box. It would likely be a bit much to ask of an explicitly illiberal group to respect votes at the expense of power.

I suspect that restricting the types of groups to which the franchise is extended will be easier than the destruction of the vote itself. This was a feature of the immediate postwar period in Europe, with millions of individuals shipped across the continent to different countries where they would pose less of an electoral (in Western Europe) or repressive (in Eastern Europe) dilemma. In Eastern Europe and within the Soviet Union these population transfers were complementary to the intra-war logic of famine and murder that had already eliminated many groups that might oppose the state.

Minorities, both ethnic and religious, within Western states will take the first hit. In particular, it seems to me that the one clear point of cooperation will be the effective removal of Muslims from Western political life. This would be a relatively straightforward step in both the United States and Western Europe, because it is a policy that groups even outside the far-right (mostly on the center right, but also in the less tolerant corners of the irreligious left) are susceptible to being convinced of, especially in the wake of terrorist events, which are likely to increase. Frankly I even now cannot bring myself to speculate as to the exact form that this program might take, but I caution that, as with much of the next decade or so, it is likely to be worse than the average reader suspects it might be. Lest one find warnings about removing Muslims from political life overly dramatic, such is the explicit policy platform of several individuals closely linked to the Trump administration, including Milo Yiannopoulos, an editor at Breitbart News and associate of Steve Bannon, Trump’s chief strategist. In the United States, the removal (or extensive marginalization) of African Americans from the electorate would prove a death blow to the Democratic Party’s electoral chances in national elections and would serve to entrench the far-right leadership in power. Steps towards this end are evident in the weakening of the Voting Rights Act and the proliferation of voter ID laws, and should be expected to accelerate in scope and speed in the near future.

Liberals within these states — and to be clear, I mean here those that respect the rights of speech, religion, assembly, and the vote — will face a dilemma that is clear in the abstract, even if it may not present itself as such in the breach. At some point the consolidation of the rightist international may present a rapid shift in the ability of liberals to contest elections, at which point the policies described above will not be revisable within the bounds of extant political institutions. By this point casual, public violence will likely have become firmly stitched into the fabric of these states. Formal institutions will not offer mechanisms for redress within themselves.

III. Moving Forward

In a very real sense, the culpability of liberalism in our contemporary troubles is clearer than in the interwar period, even if its sins are less. Much blame, a good deal of it fair, has been heaped on the Democrats for their failure to provide a coherent narrative of politics in the 2016 election. This is true as far as it goes.

But it’s here that I’ll abandon any sense of ideological evenhandedness. The current crisis is the United States’ fault, and history will find the Republican party of the past forty years culpable in whatever comes next. Many political commentators have expressed — or feigned — a great deal of shock to find that free trade has gutted unskilled workers in the United States. I confess I find their surprise either deeply disingenuous or simply moronic. A basic competence in political economy would tell us to expect that international trade absent redistribution should produce precisely this; I learned it my first week of graduate school. I’ve lectured on it to undergraduates. We have known this at least since the 1930s, when Bertil Ohlin published his and Eli Heckscher’s model of trade; John Ruggie outlined the correct political response to this basic fact of economic adjustment in 1982 — provide state institutions to soften the blow of economic integration — which is precisely the time the modern Republican party began dismantling the networks of “embedded liberalism” that did precisely this.

To the extent that the Democratic Party has played a structural role in the unraveling of American institutions, it is nested in their utter failure to resist the deconstruction of the state, then compounded by their inability to lay blame where it was due. Although I have long resisted this conclusion, I have become convinced that the American left’s focus on identity politics at the expense of the larger institutions that might ameliorate the very real challenges facing minority groups played a large role in this failure.

The administration of Donald Trump as it is so far constructed stands poised to accelerate rather than arrest the trends that bought us the result of last November’s election. The repatriation of a few thousand jobs is, frankly, a cruel sop when weighed against the unraveling of public education, the removal of healthcare, the inaccessibility of higher education, and tax cuts for the richest Americans. In this sense the Trump agenda has a real flavor of a Marxist “heightening of the contradictions.” Even if one isn’t willing to impute to Trump this level of ideological machinery, Steve Bannon, who has regularly praised Lenin, stands a ready culprit.

I am not sure what the best way forward is. Assuming that elections in the coming years are reasonably fair, as to serve the new GOP the possibility of electoral defeat, I worry that Democrats would use a victory to carry out political retribution against those complicit in enabling Trump’s soft authoritarianism. While accountability is important, raising the stakes of national politics further is an invitation to greater violence. For this reason it may be preferable for the next election to hinge on institutional rather than ideological fealty. Someone like Evan McMullin, who is clearly conservative but has been brave and consistent in speaking out against Trump’s demagoguery, would fit the bill.

Ok, to wrap up, because this has gone on far too long. Our empirical studies of civil conflict do not allow us to disambiguate the possibility that we are entering a time period in which the probability of civil war in the developed war is relatively high. If international waves of civil conflict are produced by the presence of both domestic ideological polarization and cross-national alliances between the tail ends of these polarized societies, we would have observed largely the same patterns over the past seventy years as we have. Civil war in developed societies may be more likely than we believe.

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