Everyone wants an explanation for the mounting tension inside American society. Many have even begun to use the term civil war. Barbara Walter presents her book, How Civil Wars Start and How to Stop Them, as that explanation. Liberal pundits give the book rave reviews saying that it describes what is happening in America today.
However, a clear understanding of the problem is not easy to deliver. Unfortunately, this book makes the whole panorama more confusing.
Walter’s work should not be titled How Civil Wars Start but How to Start a Civil War. The misnamed book aggravates the current standoff that divides America. It does not explain the profound causes but rather repeats the liberal narrative that only increases polarization by blaming conservatives for the present problems. It often reads like a leftist playbook on how to discredit its opposition.
There are three main problems with How Civil Wars Start.
Follow the Political Science
The first is its appeal to authority. The subliminal message throughout the 320-page tome might be “follow the science.” In this case, it is political science.
The book is overwhelming in its citation of the political science establishment. Readers are assured and constantly reminded that all conclusions are backed up by decades of research focused on hundreds of civil wars. Experts from official-sounding peace institutes (in Sweden, for example) testify by crunching the numbers and analyzing the trends. A number-based rating system calculates the likelihood of civil war that indicates how close America is to conflict.
The text is not only numbers, analysis and heavy reading. The author interweaves the highly emotional personal stories of central characters who appear and reappear throughout the book, telling how their countries descended into civil war. She has met these acquaintances over her years of studying conflict. The insertion of these anecdotal stories makes the text flow and gives it that human touch that data alone lacks.
There is nothing wrong with citing data and inserting personal stories. No one disputes that the data does allow sociologists to reach some of her conclusions—but not all of them. In addition, political science is an inexact human science that cannot be determined with mathematical precision. The author omits other ethical and moral factors that must be considered. She even neglects to define civil war.
However, red flags go up all over the place when the “scientific” data fit all too well with leftist narratives and agendas.
Working Inside the Wrong Boxes
That is the second problem with How Civil War Start. It tries to fit everything into pre-determined boxes divorced from real life.
Prof. Walter’s universe reduces all conflicts to one cause: the loss of status of a once-dominant group. Conflicts happen when factions form. Fighting breaks out when people are left behind and oppose the modern and postmodern trends of the world.
From her perspective, the problem is not the left’s agenda that destroys the nation’s social fabric and threatens everyone. She argues that the cause is the left-behind opposition and factions. Anyone with strong convictions or principles is consigned to a once-dominant group that feels threatened. Any disagreement with social transformation is automatically a matter of lost status. Universal consensus inside a democracy is the best way to avoid civil war.
Below the surface of this reasoning is the class struggle explanation of history with the oppressed rising against the oppressors. Hence, the author accepts the Marxist interpretation of the Russian, Chinese and other communist revolutions by finding their cause in the status loss of the ruling classes and not the anti-natural ideology that killed tens of millions of people from both the ruling and working classes.
An Amoral World Where There is No Right or Wrong
Prof. Walter’s analysis expresses an amoral worldview where there is no right, and the only wrong is belonging to factions and left-behind status structures. Sometimes factions enter into horrific ethnic or tribal conflicts that must be condemned. However, it is wrong to insinuate that all people who favor good and oppose evil, fighting for sound principles, morals or the common good, represent selfish interests that oppress others.
Thus, one cannot say that opposition to abortion is not a moral position for good but merely a defense of a Christian-based power structure that is losing its status to an increasingly immoral society. From this skewed perspective, any opposition to Communism or Socialism is not a principled defense of order but a status-driven struggle of a decadent and tottering bourgeois class.
Such conclusions fit nicely into Dr. Walter’s neat little boxes, but they do not correspond to reality. They do not address the concerns of Americans worried about the fraying moral fiber and anarchic direction of the country. Her perspective seems oblivious to any processes of social decay.
This line of thinking stigmatizes and paralyzes those who stand up for moral values. It amounts to an academic green light for those progressives who seek to overthrow “old status structures” (morals) and install their socialist utopias.
The American Civil War on the Horizon
With the ground prepared by the “political science,” the author devotes the second part of her book to applying her boxed conclusions seamlessly to the perspective of an American civil war. Instead of presenting something original, she merely repeats the dominant liberal media narrative inflaming the nation. For example, the critical race theory method of interpreting American history through the prism of race.
In the author’s view, America is threatened by a white left-behind minority factionalizing the nation. No other issues matter in this lopsided “analysis.” It is no coincidence that the book’s index mentions former President Trump on no less than 33 pages, and the January 6, 2021 “Capitol Insurrection” is referenced 19 times. Meanwhile, the progressive groups that held America hostage in the summer of 2020, trashed American cities, declared themselves sovereign (CHAZ) and caused $2 billion in damage are hardly mentioned as raw material for a civil war. Black Lives Matter gets five sympathetic references, while Antifa is cited once as “a loose affiliation of leftwing activists.”
Representing the Full Agenda
All the talking points of the left line up nicely with Dr. Walter’s boxes. For example, she turns immigration into a racial problem explained by the coming white minority, which irrationally feels threatened by millions of illegal non-white immigrants pouring over the border. This class-struggle explanation is the only one tolerated.
Immigration segues into ecology. She warns that the world will soon be moving into an “unprecedented period of human migration, in large part due to climate change.” Over 140 million “climate migrants” can be expected, and need to be welcomed, from the Third world nations by 2050.
She calls for regulation of big tech and social media despite the bona fides liberal orientation of these companies. “Open, unregulated social media platforms turned out to be the perfect accelerant for the conditions that lead to civil war.” Thus, a cancel culture on those opposing leftist narratives is the only way to stop wrong messages from proliferating.
America needs “an independent and centralized [electoral] management system,” which would establish “a standard procedure for designing and printing ballots and tabulating votes accurately and securely.” The organic system that has served the nation for decades is suddenly questioned, and she presents Canada as a model.
As might be expected, government involvement is the only secure way to avert civil war and restore confidence in democracy. Thus, a build-back-better program of social safety nets, investment in education, healthcare, increased minimum wage and social programs will “outbid” the promises of the extremist and lead to better times. Just in case that does not work, the government should “arrest, prosecute, and seize the assets of insurgents, making it harder for them to operate.”
Such a ridiculously flawed indictment does not stop civil wars; it incites them.
What Causes Civil Wars
Civil wars don’t start because of left-behind social structures or strong factions. They begin when unifying principles and moral rules break down. People cease sharing the things they love in common.
Prof. Walter’s cold and secular vision excludes God and a moral law. It has no unifying principle beyond maximizing the license and pleasure from the unbridled passions and resisting the beneficial restraints of ordered liberty ordained by God. When conflicts arise, the left uses class struggle narratives to blame social structures rather than personal responsibility for evil choices.
Indeed, civil wars start when society finds itself morally decadent and with weakened organic social structures like family, community, and church that provide harmony, stability and unity.
Thus, a much more effective way to stop civil wars is through a moral regeneration of society based on traditional Church teachings and proposed by Our Lady at Fatima. Wars are, after all, the punishment for sin. Nothing can shatter the unity of a virtuous citizenry, upright leaders and a God-fearing people. However, all such solutions are outside of Prof. Walter’s neat leftist boxes.
John Horvat II is a scholar, researcher, educator, international speaker, and author of the book Return to Order, as well as the author of hundreds of published articles. He lives in Spring Grove, Pennsylvania, where he is the vice president of the American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family and Property (TFP).