When I was writing my first book, a history of the White House and the presidency, I came across a quote from John Adams. “Remember,” he wrote in December 1814, “Democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes exhausts and murders itself. There never was a Democracy Yet, that did not commit suicide.”
In the 207 years since, we came close to proving our second president right. The United States barely survived a terrible civil war in the 1860s, when 2.5% of the population was killed, the equivalent to losing about 8.25 million Americans today.
I’ve thought about that a lot in the past year, and on this first anniversary of the attack on the U.S. Capitol—the proud citadel of our democracy—this question hangs uneasily in the air: Is a civil war really possible? One of America’s most pre-eminent scholars on civil wars and how they begin offers this blunt answer: Yes. In fact, we’re closer to one in our country than most Americans think, or are willing to believe.
Walter knows her stuff
“No one wants to believe that their beloved democracy is in decline, or headed toward war,” Barbara Walter, a professor at the University of California at San Diego tells me, and writes in a new book out next week.
But as an analyst “looking at events in America the same way you’d look at them elsewhere, you’d go down a checklist, assessing each of the conditions that make civil war likely. And what you would find is that the United States, a democracy founded more than two centuries ago, has entered very dangerous territory.”