A year after the Jan. 6 storming of the Capitol, the United States seems perhaps even more alarmingly fractious and divided. Regrettably, the right has sustained its support for Donald Trump and continued its assault on American democratic norms.
The next national election will almost inevitably be viciously (perhaps violently) contested. It is fair to say that the right-wing threat to the United States — and its apparent goal of laying the groundwork for a power grab, if necessary, in 2024 — is politically existential.
Yet many Americans seem to be whistling past the graveyard of American democracy. In particular, there seems to have been little effort so far at think tanks, professional military institutions and universities to build and contemplate the dire scenarios that have become increasingly plausible. And the worst-case scenario is this: The United States as we know it could come apart at the seams.
The authors go on to suggest that scholars, think-tanks, and others need to devote more attention to this risk—in part, through gaming out possible futures:
It behooves us to prepare our defenses for the worst. Understandably, the policy focus is now on pre-empting a right-wing steal in the next national election. But success will depend crucially on factors that are beyond control — the midterm elections this year and the identity of the Republican candidate in 2024 — which suggest that focus is misplaced. And even if a steal is thwarted, success might not preclude a coercive challenge of the election results; quite to the contrary, it would provoke one.
War games, tabletop exercises, operations research, campaign analyses, conferences and seminars on the prospect of American political conflagration — including insurrection, secession, insurgency and civil war — should be proceeding at a higher tempo and intensity. Scholars of American politics need to pick up the torch from experts on the democratic decline in Europe, who first raised the alarm about growing dangers to American politics. The very process of intellectual interaction and collaboration among influential analysts of different political stripes could reconcile many of them to the undesirability of political upheaval and thus decrease its likelihood. (emphasis added)
First, is the risk of democratic decline and “civil war” substantial enough to game, or is it simply a partisan talking point?
Second, how well do gaming techniques allow you to explore this?
Certainly, an alarming proportion of Americans feel that a future US civil war is possible, and the topic has frequently shown up in op eds, books, and elsewhere over the past year. Putting my political scientist hat on, I think the risk of civil war in the US is vanishingly small, certainly in the next decade. Sure, there are several “what if?” games in the hobby sector that allow you to fight one, but none of those scenarios seem to me to be at all plausible.
However, the risk of democratic decline is very, very real. The nonpartisan US think tank Freedom House reports that around the world, democracy is in retreat—including, notably, in the United States.
In the Polity5 dataset—one of the quantitative indices most used by social scientists around the world—the US “democracy” variable had stood at a full 10 since the mid-1970s, but fell to 8 in 2016, and 5 by 2020.
While much attention has been focused on the January 6 insurrection/protests, developments such as political polarization, low public trust in government, widespread gerrymandering, and the partisan manipulation of electoral laws and procedures represent far greater structural threats.
Coming at a time when authoritarian China is a rapidly-growing global superpower (with an overall economy that could overtake the US within a decade), the implications of democratic deterioration in America extend far beyond the shores of the United States.
However, while potential crisis points like the 2020 election provide a clear focus for gaming techniques, a gradual, longer-term shift in US politics to something more closely resembling Viktor Orban’s Hungary—an EU member state that Freedom House now only rates as “partly free”—is rather more subtle and difficult to game, I think. Similarly, I don’t think the international implications of declining US democracy would necessarily lend themselves well to gaming, since so much depends on the ideological and political characteristics of the authoritarian populist leader in power. Moreover, while academics and think-tanks are free to game such things, it would be enormously sensitive—probably, too sensitive— for any Western government to do so, regardless of the security classification one might put on the game.
A short game on longer-term democracy trends could be very useful as a spark to a subsequent, substantial discussion. However, as structured analytical techniques go, I think you would get more out of scenario discussions, alternatives futures exercises, and similar methods.