Barbara F. Walter '86 sits on stage with Bucknell President John Bravman.

Barbara F. Walter '86 Weighs in on Trump Indictment, US Civil War Probability in Bucknell Forum Finale

April 5, 2023

by Kate Williard

Barbara F. Walter '86 shared her expertise on the cause of civil wars — and how close the U.S. could be to political fallout. Photo by Emily Paine, Communications

On a historic day in United States history, Barbara F. Walter '86, the Rohr Professor of International Relations at the University of California, San Diego and author of New York Times bestseller How Civil Wars Start (and How to Stop Them), rounded out the Bucknell Forum as the final guest speaker to address "The State of American Democracy."

As the nation watched the first former president to be indicted on criminal charges surrender to federal courts, Walter joined Bucknell President John Bravman in a conversation in Trout Auditorium where she offered thoughtful commentary about what happens to nations where political dissent tips into civil disruption.

Citing the events of the day as a surprising "indicator of health," Walter dissected the nuances of exactly what it means for the country's highest ranking official to be charged. "If you're a democracy, and you make it clear that presidents are above the law — that they cannot be indicted, no matter what they do — that's going to attract every person who wants to use that position to make themselves ... as powerful as possible," she said. "Healthy, strong democracies are the ones that adhere to the rule of law; ones in which there are institutions in place that constrain the concentration of power."

Leading her discussion with details of how democracies can prevent abuse of power, Walter noted that Trump, who pleaded not guilty to the 34 charges brought against him, is an "individual who, through his whole career, has been ... savvy in his understanding [and] navigating of the law … who, when he became president, was a little less savvy because he ... didn't understand exactly what a president can or cannot do."

Key Factors that Lead to Civil War

Walter's expert opinion has been formed over three decades of study, and through her participation in the development of a predictive model for political violence. She worked as part of the CIA's Political Instability Task Force to analyze data from more than 250 civil wars that have occurred since World War II. They considered nearly 30 contributing factors — from per capita income and discrimination to rough terrain — and ultimately identified two that were the most likely to lead a country toward civil war.

"The first and most important factor is something that we call anocracy," said Walter. "Anocracy is a [partial] government that is neither fully democratic nor fully autocratic." Anocracies, she explained, occur when a democratic government is still able to hold free and fair elections, but the elected official then concentrates their power, making it "impossible … for the opposition to win."

The second factor is when citizens within an anocracy begin organizing around identity rather than ideology. "Rather than joining a political party based on whether you were a liberal or conservative, capitalist or communist, you were joining political parties based on whether you were Black or white, Muslim or Christian, Hutu or Tutsi, Serb or Croat," she said.

Walter shared that countries with both factors have around 4% annual risk of civil war. "That sounds like it's not a lot," she said, "but … every year that a country has those two factors, the annual risk rises by another 4%. So after 10 years, if the country fails to reform and strengthen its democracy, and its political parties refuse to cross racial, ethnic and religious lines, [the risk] becomes 40%."

The Polity Score

Digging deeper in the predictive work and her research, Walter explained the democratic scoring system — the polity score. The 20-point scale weighs the strength of democracy versus dictatorship between positive 10 (strong democracy) and negative 10 (strong autocracy). Anocracies lie between positive five and negative five. Governments experiencing civil war fall between negative one and one.

"Starting in 2016, the United States was downgraded from positive 10 to a positive nine," Walter said. The reason? International election observers (who, Walter noted, observe the elections of democracies all across the world) deemed the 2016 election to be "free, but not entirely fair. And that was in large part because Russia has been found to have meddled in that election."

In 2019, the U.S. was again downgraded to a positive seven after "the White House refused to comply with a request by Congress to provide information [and] respond to subpoenas."

One final downgrade occurred at the end of 2020 — to a positive five. "We had a sitting president who was unwilling to accept a loss in the election and was actively attempting to overturn the results."

At that point, Walter noted, America was no longer a democracy; the country was sliding toward anocracy.

The Road to Moderation

After the January 6 insurrection, Walter found a sense of relief at what she felt were signs of the American people "waking up."

Since the takeover of the Biden administration, the U.S.'s polity score has increased to positive 8, "because [we] had a peaceful transfer of power — Trump did leave the White House — and we had a new administration come to power that respects the rule of law and believes in democracy."

Walter suggested that the long-term solution for a strengthened democracy "has to come from the bottom up. It has to be [voter] turnout," she said. Instead of continued division, she says she sees a clear path to middle ground, with hope sparked by the surprise of the last midterm election. High overall turnout was bolstered by record numbers of young voters, "and that made the difference," she said.

She said she believes true moderation will result from higher turnouts. "If significantly more Americans voted, we would have a different makeup in Congress," she said. "The more extreme members of each party are the ones who [currently] tend to vote in a primary election. If we had much higher participation, by definition, we might have more moderate candidates... a more moderate Congress, and as those moderates would be more likely to work together."

At Bucknell, Walter double-majored in German and political science before continuing her studies at the University of Chicago, Harvard and Columbia. Her career as an academic and author speaks to the power of a liberal arts education. President Bravman conveyed his gratitude for Walter's appearance as the series' final guest. "She's a wonderful example of Bucknell's impact on the world," he said.

Planning is underway for the 2023-24 Bucknell Forum series.

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