The Threat of the US Becoming an "Anocracy" Again? Civil WarRoundup
tags: democracy, American exceptionalism, Balkans, Anocracy
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.
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.