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COVID Consequences: Slouching Toward Civil War

I.      Into the Fray  

The problem is not the problem. The problem is your attitude about the problem.
Captain Jack Sparrow in “Pirates of the Caribbean”

For most of my grown-up life, my work has centered on taming people’s deep addiction to destructive conflict and turning it into something nicer. Like so many others at, I am a mediator, facilitator, arbitrator, and negotiation consultant. has attracted an exceptionally fine population of practitioners.

We are former and current business professionals, community leaders, and public servants. Our community includes retired judges and senior attorneys, veterans with combat experience, psychologists, scholars, social workers and Peace Corps and Vista volunteers who have worked on the ground where chickens peck at bugs. Even though we aren’t a fully unified field, we are an interesting bunch.

Like others, my work falls into three buckets (though the pails tend to leak freely into each other): conflict prevention, managing disagreements, and resolving defined disputes. It’s an odd profession but it suits me and I like the work a lot as do so many of our comrades. Reputedly, Thomas Jefferson opined that “Peace is that brief glorious moment in history when everybody stands around reloading.” That’s when we do our work.

But something has changed.

In these huddled pandemic years, I have spent a lot of time in video conversations with other collaboration experts. Invariably, we tend to be sunny side up when it comes to discussing our work. We tend to share similar values, intuitions, skills, and experiences and all of us want to help people have difficult discussions and turn productive.

But scratch the surface of optimism and there are streaks of skepticism.  When our Zoom meetings inevitably turn to bigger social and political matters (which they do more and more), we get alarmist and gloomy. Worries surface, angst takes over, our hair starts to ignite, and our idealism about the essential goodness of humanity begins to deflate. The daily cycle of news forces us to confront our aspirations.

Here are some signals in the noise that have captured my attention:

  • Robert Kagan, a neoconservative scholar at Brookings, says the United States is heading into its greatest political and constitutional crisis since the Civil War, with a reasonable chance over the next three to four years of incidents of mass violence and the breakdown of federal authority. 

  • F.H. Buckley, a center-right professor at George Mason University, says the U.S. is ripe for secession and there’s much to be said for an American breakup. Center left, Richard Kreitner, who wrote Break It Up, contends we need to finally finish the work of Reconstruction or give up on the Union completely.

  • More than half of young Americans feel democracy in the country is under threat, and over a third think they may see a second U.S. civil war within their lifetimes, according to the 42nd Harvard Youth Poll, released by Harvard Kennedy School’s Institute of Politics (IOP).   

  • The U.S. is “closer to civil war than any of us would like to believe,” said a member of a key CIA advisory panel recently. The analysis by Barbara F. Walter, a political science professor at the University of California at San Diego who sits on the Political Instability Task Force, is contained in a book due out next year and first reported by the Washington Post

  • An NPR/Ipsos poll finds that 64% of Americans believe U.S. democracy is “in crisis and at risk of failing.” That sentiment is felt most acutely by Republicans. 

I keep coming back to an essay by Sri Lankan Indi Samarajiva who dealt firsthand with a prolonged civil war in his home country.

  • “I lived through the end of a civil war — I moved back to Sri Lanka in my twenties, just as the ceasefire fell apart. Do you know what it was like for me? Quite normal. I went to work, I went out, I dated. This is what Americans don’t understand. They’re waiting to get personally punched in the face while ash falls from the sky. That’s not how it happens.

    As someone who’s already experienced societal breakdown, here’s the truth: America has already collapsed. What you’re feeling is exactly how it feels. It’s Saturday and you’re thinking about food while the world is on fire. This is normal. This is life during collapse…

    If you’re waiting for a moment where you’re like “this is it,” I’m telling you, it never comes. Nobody comes on TV and says “things are officially bad.”

    Collapse is just a series of ordinary days in between extraordinary bullshit, most of it happening to someone else. That’s all it is.

So there it is. In between our collegial conversations about this or that case and our clever strategies and tactics, there is a brooding angst that echoes of wistful disappointments and a few failed ambitions of past decades.

When the serious run-up of mediation in the U.S. started back in the 70s, our big plan was to save the world. It was about changing America’s conflict resolution system, inventing new notions of justice, and building a stronger culture of problem-solving habits.

Now our conversations are different. Old hopes, marbled with today’s starker realities, find us talking over and over about the polarization and toxicity running loose in the country and the slow gravitational pull of becoming advocates instead of independent dispute resolvers.

That’s when the subject of a possible new American civil war keeps popping up.

II.      Questions Arise  

“You may not be interested in war but war is interested in you.”
-Leon Trotsky

Really? A second American civil war? North and South, Blue and Gray, brother against brother, and some 21st century version of what a few Southerners still call “that recent unpleasantness”?

If you are an unrelenting optimist, you wait for traffic lights to turn green and, with reasonable confidence, march forward. If you are a diehard pessimist, you look both ways before crossing a one-way street. These days, humanity seems to have a bias toward dystopian scenarios. We imagine political conspiracies, zombie wars, and street battles with vax deniers and flat earthers.

In the spirit of fellow travelers going down the conflict resolution road, I recently sent out an email query to a lot of people I know and asked the following:

Concerns about the future of democracy in America continue to rise and some feel a tipping point is coming. Understanding that “war” comes in many forms but often involves serious outbreaks of violent conflict between states, governments, ideological factions, or insurgents, how likely do you think some form of civil war in the U.S. is in the next 5 years? On a scale of 7 = Very Likely and 1 = Very Unlikely, what is your prediction?

The results of my quirky and completely non-scientific survey were interesting.

I received responses from 43 people. All were people I know, among them, former public officials, military veterans, lawyers, writers, professors, and mediators from some of the professional circles I run in. Most people provided a single number between 1 and 7 but six people gave me several numbers with comments like “If you mean X, then my number is ___ but if you mean Y, it is a ___.

All numbers were averaged together and the average was 4.04. On a conventional Likert Scale this might translate into “Somewhat Agree” that some form of civil war is coming.

Twenty-five of the 43 people who responded sent me comments, most of them short and pithy and all of which would make for a great living room conversation if we were beyond N-95 masks and social distancing. Here are a just a few:

  • My answer is shaped by the way you formulated the question,  “…some form of civil war.” I would say 7. I say this because with the large number of anti-democratic groups out there, many with substantial financing behind them and many with apparent support/acceptance from significant numbers of people, it feels inevitable that there will be some instances in the East on a local or state level. I’m less certain about this escalating into a full scale, national civil war. I’m very curious to see what you hear from others.
    Better than 50/50, the shit will hit the fan at state and local levels with verbal and some physical attacks as school boards and city councils and election commissions and health clinics and various local and state meetings become ‘January 6’ kind of gatherings for extremists on either end of the spectrum to posture and get news time. The idea of civil war becomes more endemic and poisonous to open debate and purposeful dialogue.
    I do not think “civil war” is likely within 5 years, so make that at most a 1 to 2.
    Scattered armed skirmishes perhaps, but I think/hope the military, FBI, etc. will continue to do their jobs, and to not join the Trumpists and their motley associates.

Part of me keeps struggling to make sense of all this. Encyclopedia Britannica says:

The definition of civil war clearly encompasses many different forms of conflict. Some analysts distinguish between civil wars in which insurgents seek territorial secession or autonomy and conflicts in which insurgents aim for control of the central government. Conflicts over government control may involve insurgents originating from within the centre or state apparatus, as in military coups, or challengers from outside the political establishment. Other analysts distinguish between ethnic civil wars, in which the insurgents and individuals in control of the central government have separate ethnic identities, and revolutionary conflicts, in which insurgents aim for major social transformation.

But I think something else is going on. It is bigger, more profound, and will last longer than a single large and violent disturbance.

III.     Gray Zone Conflict

“Whatever is coming, it won’t be pretty.”
Lucy Moore, mediator

Rational skeptics say if you pull out any single thread of an alleged “idea” like civil war, you soon get lost in a tangle of subsidiary questions. To understand the angst and helplessness we mediators are grasping to define, we need to come at it from another angle.

Over the last year I have been working with several dozen others in a series of discussion groups called Project Seshat ( organized by the inimitable and prolific Chris Honeyman. In ancient Egypt, Seshat was the goddess of writing and the ruler of books. Honeyman’s  project brings together security, military, negotiation, and diplomacy experts to better understand negotiation’s role in international affairs. The term most often used is “Hybrid Warfare” (HW) which is often interchangeably called “Gray Zone Conflict.”

While most of my colleagues in these meetings are focused on the aggressive and often sub rosa cross-border machinations of China, Russia, and North Korea (and our own), my own work is closer to home and better captured by Gray Zone Conflict (GZC).

Wikipedia defines GZCs as exchanges by state and non-state actors that fall between the traditional war and peace duality. These interactions remain below the threshold of an attack (jus ad bellum) which might warrant legitimate formal military responses. I recognize there is no interdisciplinary consensus on its meaning and both notions, GZC and HW, remain loose and elusive.

The empirical observations which braid into our discussions, depending on the specific cases we analyze, can include cyber-attacks, transnational organized crime, illicit finance, espionage, information war, lawfare, domestic and international corruption, foreign interferences, cartels, triads, fake news, electoral interventions, diplomatic maneuvers, economic warfare, retaliatory commercial sanctions in the global marketplace, small and sometimes covert combat actions in the field, psychological propaganda, disinformation campaigns, criminal alliances, sporadic larger armed confrontations, and occasional moments of negotiation.

The list goes on; it more closely resembles the new world we now inhabit and is likely to persist. I am currently working on cases whose contexts are ones of permanent, long-term strategic distrust and persistent, mostly undeclared fighting, often without any defined starting or ending points. Some of the antagonisms are deeply ideological, reflecting long-term fights over race, economic inequities, water and forest issues, the fate of indigenous people, reproductive rights, or the constitution.

IV.     Onward

“The go-between wears out a thousand sandals.”
Japanese proverb

The country is not yet fully on fire, but it is smoldering and there are plenty of hot spots. Maybe they cascade or amplify into something bigger like Blue and Gray, or maybe it’s all temporary and they fade. More likely, they will keep festering.

What, then, of mediators?

We don’t have a lot of traction on really big-picture events. Sometimes a project or case we do has regional or national threads but more often, most of us work on problems closer to home, i.e., local, snarky disputes and quarrels that are within our ambits of reach. Nonetheless, the larger political and sociological contexts keep infiltrating our conversations. The danger for all of us is the temptation to wallow in despair and engage in endless hand wringing which can easily bend into a feeling of paralysis and impotence.

Where I come to at the end of this is giving up some of my delusions of what can and can’t be done … without giving up hope. If I have any counsel at all, it is to go back to the immediacy of what we try to do: Go do our jobs! However you define your work, get on with it. Get up in the morning, brush your teeth, get caffeinated, and dive into that next case, project or initiative which can use your mediation values, skills, and experiences to make the world just a little better, one case or project at a time.

In a discussion not long ago, Janine Geske, a retired Wisconsin Supreme Court justice who mediates very difficult sex abuse cases in the Catholic Church, reminded me of the famous “Star Thrower” parable from Loren Eisley which fits us perfectly.

One morning an old man is walking on a beach after a big storm has passed and sees the shore littered with dead and dying starfish. Off in the distance, he sees a small boy approaching. As the boy walks, he pauses once in a while, picks up one of the starfish and throws it back in the sea. When they come closer, they have the following conversation:

Old Man: “Good morning!  May I ask what it is that you are doing?”

Young Boy: “Well, I’m throwing some of the starfish back into the ocean. The tide has washed them up onto the beach and they can’t return to the sea by themselves and when the sun gets high, they will die, unless I get them back into the water.

Old Man: “But there must be tens of thousands of starfish on this beach. I’m afraid you won’t really be able to make much of a difference.”

The boy bends down, picks up another one and throws it as far as he can into the ocean. Then he turns, smiles, and says: “It made a difference to that one!”

Amen, the end of my screed on impending civil war.


Peter Adler

Peter Adler directs ACCORD3.0, a group of independent consultants specializing in foresight, fact-finding and conseneus building. He is the former President and CEO of The Keystone Center and has held executive positions with the Hawaii Supreme Court, the Hawaii Justice Foundation, and Neighborhood Justice Center of Honolulu. Peter can also… MORE >

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