CIVIL WARSCivil War in the U.S. Is Unlikely Because Grievance Doesn’t Necessarily Translate Directly into Violence

By Ore Koren

Published 14 January 2022

Claims that America is at the greatest risk of civil war since, well, the Civil War, recently received additional support from some experts in the field of political science. But civil wars are rare events. But even if a civil war in America is unlikely, this does not preclude the occurrence of other forms of less intense violence. Concerns about increased violent extremism in the United States recently led the U.S. Justice Department to establish a new domestic terrorism group.

The potential for violent extremism in America to erupt into full-fledged conflict across the country is a common topic of discussion nowadays.

recent FBI report highlights an increasing risk of violence against government institutions, private organizations and individuals. The possible perpetrators: primarily “lone wolves,” but potentially also militias and other organized groups such as animal activists, anti-abortionists and white supremacists.

Claims that America is at the greatest risk of civil war since, well, the Civil War, recently received additional support from some experts in the field of political science.

But civil wars are rare events.

Before the 2020 election, I analyzed the risk of a so-called “Second American Civil War” that some speculated might ignite on or around Election Day. I concluded the risk was very low, while also emphasizing the uncertainty of the times.

Despite the ugly Capitol riot of Jan. 6, 2021, and anti-racism protests of the past few years, some of which included rioting, violent confrontation, and property destruction, my analysis has held, and I remain unconvinced that America is likely to descend into civil war in the near future.

Before proceeding, I want to stress that, as a scholar who studies civil conflict, I discuss the manifestations of violence here not on the basis of their underlying political ideologies but in relation to empirical definitions of different types of political violence.

Grievance Doesn’t Translate Into Violence
Researchers usually define civil wars based on a certain threshold of combatant deaths, often 1,000 or more.

In 2020, for example, only eight conflicts crossed that threshold worldwide. They happened in countries – including Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Nigeria, Ethiopia, and Yemen – experiencing rampant poverty and underdevelopment, nondemocratic or dysfunctional political institutions, and a long history of conflict along ethnic and religious lines.

When trying to assess the likelihood of civil war, researchers first look at whether people are willing to engage in violence. Willingness is often attributed to anger and grievances over inequality or political marginalization.

Individuals or groups may have grievances with specific state or national policies, or with other groups. As their anger grows, these people may not only use aggressive and demeaning language, but also become more accepting of the idea of using violence.

Anger and grievances are probably the most frequently highlighted issues in the mainstream media, and especially in social media outlets. Studies of social media outlets have found that their algorithms are designed to amplify anger to appeal to wider groups.