The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Why should we worry that the U.S. could become an ‘anocracy’ again? Because of the threat of civil war.

Supporters of then-President Donald Trump scaled the wall on the Senate side of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)
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Barbara F. Walter, the Rohr Professor of International Relations at the School of Global Policy & Strategy at the University of California at San Diego, is the author of “How Civil Wars Start: And How to Stop Them.”

I will never forget interviewing Berina Kovac, who had lived in multiethnic Sarajevo in the early 1990s, when Bosnia and Herzegovina was moving toward independence from Yugoslavia. Though militias had begun to organize in the hills and former colleagues increasingly targeted her with ethnic slurs, Kovac continued to go to work, attend weddings and take weekend holidays, trusting that everything would work out. One evening in March 1992, she was at home with her infant son when the power went out. “And then, suddenly,” Kovac told me, “you started to hear machine guns.”

The civil war that followed, however, was not surprising to those who had been following the data. A year and a half earlier, the CIA had issued a report predicting that Yugoslavia would fall apart within two years and that civil war was a distinct possibility. One reason, the agency noted, was that citizens were organizing themselves into rival ethnic factions — which tends to occur in societies that political scientists call “anocracies.”

Anocracies are neither fully democratic nor fully autocratic; their citizens enjoy some elements of democratic rule (e.g., elections), while other rights (e.g., due process or freedom of the press) suffer. In the last weeks of Donald Trump’s presidency, the respected Center for Systemic Peace (CSP) calculated that, for the first time in more than two centuries, the United States no longer qualified as a democracy. It had, over the preceding five years, become an anocracy.

That rating improved to “democracy” just this month, but to put it in perspective, the current U.S. score is the same as Brazil’s 2018 rating (the most recent available for that country), which was two points below Switzerland’s.

This might come as a shock to many Americans. While we were going about our daily lives, our executive branch continued its decades-long accumulation of power to the point where a sitting president refused to accept an election result. Democratic backsliding had happened incrementally, like the erosion of a shoreline. The process is especially difficult for Americans to recognize because exceptionalism is baked into our founding myth: We are a city on a hill. We are different.

See highlights from a 'Capehart' Washington Post Live conversation with Barbara F. Walter

Or not. The CSP ranking, called the “Polity Score” — well regarded partly because of its historical and geographic scope — uses various criteria to place governments on a scale ranging from -10 (most autocratic) to +10 (most democratic). Anocracies are in the middle, between -5 and +5. The United States’ Polity Score dropped from +10 in 2015 to +5 — an anocracy — for 2020.

Our political tailspin began in 2016, when the CSP cited international observers’ conclusion that the election was not entirely fair: Election rules had been changed to serve partisan inter­ests, voting rights were infringed, and a foreign country (Russia) interfered on behalf of a candidate (Trump). The score dropped again in 2019, after the president refused to cooperate with Con­gress and again at the end of Trump’s term, when he sowed distrust in the election and attempted to halt the peaceful transfer of power.

Joe Biden’s peaceful inauguration, and the reinstated restraints on presidential power, led the CSP to bump up the United States’ polity score, from +5 to +8. That is certainly good news. But the fact that it even dipped into the anocracy zone is deeply alarming.

Most Americans don’t seem particularly concerned. They have faith in our long-standing institutions, and the threat of authoritarianism seems distant.

“The first is a variable… called ‘anocracy’… countries that are neither fully democratic or fully autocratic… The second factor was… ‘ethnic factionalism’… These two factors are emerging in my own country… people don’t know what these warning signs are.” (Video: Washington Post Live)

But anocracy, not autocracy, is our most immediate threat. Anocracy is usually transitional — a repressive government allows reforms, or a democracy begins to unravel — and it is volatile. When a country moves into the anocracy zone, the risk of political violence reaches its peak; citizens feel uncertain about their government’s power and legitimacy. Compared with democracies, anocracies with more democratic than autocratic features are three times more likely to experience political instability or civil war.

I find our complacency quite troubling. Over the course of 30 years, I have interviewed numerous people who have lived through civil wars in places such as Baghdad and Ethiopia, and none of them saw war coming. All were surprised.

If experts like those who prepared the CIA report on Yugoslavia had assessed the United States at the end of Trump’s term, they would almost certainly have deemed us at “high risk” of instability and political violence. The United States was an anocracy, the CSP found, with parties increasingly organized around identity-based grievances. These underlying forces are not going away. We could easily slip back into anocracy.

This is what average citizens should be thinking about when they hear that America’s democracy is declining. They are being led, unaware, into a downward spiral of instability, in which extremists and opportunists spread fear — and then grab power by force.