Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Gaming a US civil war?

Earlier this month, the New York Times published a piece by Jonathan Stevenson and Steven Simon discussing the risk of democratic decline in the United States:

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)

Some of this has already been done—the authors themselves point to the example of the Transition Integrity Project matrix games examining challenges that might emerge during the 2020 election, something we covered at the time here at PAXsims. The New Yorker also ran a two-day matrix game of possible problems during that same election.

There are two key issues here, of course.

  • 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.

Freedom House (2021)

Indeed, the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA, one of the world’s leading electoral assistance NGOs) has already classified the US as a “backsliding democracy,” along with countries like Brazil, Poland, and Hungary.

IDEA, Global State of Democracy Report 2021

Similarly, the Economist Intelligence Unit has classified the US as a “flawed democracy” since 2016.

EIU, Democracy Index 2020

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.

One response to “Gaming a US civil war?

  1. Brian Train 24/01/2022 at 2:50 pm

    “… 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.”

    Agree, implausible to the level of cartoonish. Played some, did a 1930s violence-below-the-radar exercise myself (Land of the Free).
    A revision of one you mentioned a while back. “American Abyss”, is being published by Compass Games as “2040: An American Insurgency”.
    Compass is also doing a Case Geld game by Ty Bomba etc. etc. so “whatever the market will bear” I suppose (and I include myself in there, since they publish some of my stuff too!).

    If there is to be violence, I believe it will be spasmodic, scattered, and low-level… I envision something like The Troubles in some regions if a reliable reciprocating engine of revenge violence can get started but I don’t see it sustained either.
    A more fruitful line of enquiry would be to look at the internal processes of American government and power and how they slide away from even the pretence of letting all voices speak – think anyone gamed out Viktor Orban’s coming to full power?
    As the “game” gets more and more an exercise of naked power, authority and directive decisions, perhaps it gets simpler and therefore easier to make a game of it – perhaps an alteration of GMT’s forthcoming crisis management game Mr. President:

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