America’s Next Insurgency

The January 6 violence could signal the start of nationwide conflict not seen since the Civil War. Can we stop it?

Bleeding Kansas began with an eviction attempt. In late 1854, Jacob Branson, an abolitionist from Ohio, started trying to kick Franklin Coleman, a slavery proponent, off his property. Roughly a year later, Coleman ran into a friend of Branson’s at a local blacksmith’s shop. The friend berated Coleman for continuing to squat on the land and demanded that he desist. It’s not clear what, if anything, Coleman said in response. But it is clear what he did. As the friend walked away, Coleman took out a gun and killed him.

Fearing reprisal in what was a largely antislavery community, Coleman fled to a nearby town and turned himself in to a proslavery sheriff. That sheriff promptly freed him and then arrested Branson. Local abolitionists, many of whom were already furious about the murder, grew incensed. They intercepted the sheriff at gunpoint and liberated his prisoner.

News of the murder, arrest, and jailbreak spread rapidly across Kansas. Both proslavery and antislavery activists formed militias, and it wasn’t long before violence began to erupt. On May 21, 1856, 800 slavery supporters sacked the city of Lawrence—home to the state’s antislavery leaders—looting houses and murdering one resident. In response, a group of abolitionists led by John Brown killed five proslavery settlers in Franklin County. Hundreds of slavery supporters retaliated by attacking an antislavery settlement in the town of Osawatomie, murdering several locals and burning most of the settlement to the ground. Abolitionists then drove proslavery forces out of Linn County. Slavery proponents next pulled 11 antislavery settlers from their homes and shot them down.

Bleeding Kansas is, per its name, most famous for the bloodshed. But the clash went further than raids. The two camps established rival territorial administrations, each claiming to represent the entirety of the state. They drafted their own constitutions, passed their own laws, and egged on their side’s combatants. Both petitioned Washington for official recognition. But the U.S. capital, itself polarized by disputes over America’s original sin, was unable to decide which group ought to be in command. It was not until the South seceded that Kansas was finally admitted to the Union.

There are many critical differences between the 1850s and today. The government is now far more expansive and powerful than it was in the antebellum era. There is no modern problem as singular and overriding as slavery was; we are instead polarized over many issues. And while there are geographic dimensions to our divisions, they are not nearly as clean as those that once split the U.S. Much like territorial Kansas, almost every American state has its own union and its own confederacy.

Studies suggest that a growing number of Americans think political violence is acceptable. In a January poll, researchers found that 56 percent of Republicans believe that “the traditional American way of life is disappearing so fast that we may have to use force to save it.”

But there are also clear parallels. The present United States may be more polarized than it has been at any time since the 1850s. Large swaths of the population simply refuse to accept the election of political opponents as legitimate. Many of the social issues that divide us, in particular questions of systemic discrimination, stem from slavery. 

Most frighteningly, research suggests that a growing number of Americans believe that political violence is acceptable. In a 2017 survey by the political scientists Lilliana Mason and Nathan Kalmoe, 18 percent of Democrats and 12 percent of Republicans said that violence would be at least a little justified if the opposing party won the presidency. In February 2021, those numbers increased to 20 percent and 28 percent, respectively. Other researchers have found an even bigger appetite for extreme activity. In a January poll conducted by the American Enterprise Institute, researchers asked respondents whether “the traditional American way of life is disappearing so fast that we may have to use force to save it.” Thirty-six percent of Americans, and an astounding 56 percent of Republicans, said yes.

All of this raises a serious question: Could the United States experience prolonged, acute civil violence? 

According to dozens of interviews with former and current government officials, counterterrorism researchers, and political scientists who study both the U.S. and other countries, the answer is yes. “I think that the conditions are pretty clearly headed in that direction,” says Katrina Mulligan, the managing director for national security and international policy at the Center for American Progress and the former director for preparedness and response in the national security division at the Department of Justice (DOJ). The insurrection on “January 6 was a canary in the coal mine in a way, precisely because it wasn’t a surprise to those of us who have been following this.”

“Unfortunately, I think it’s a heightened risk,” Janet Napolitano, the former secretary of homeland security, told me. As evidence, she cited the Capitol attack, as well as “the rhetoric that’s being exchanged on social media, and just the number of groups out there that are organized and don’t seem reticent about using violence.”

Scholars of conflict differed in their estimates of how much violence might erupt, from sporadic terrorist attacks to a sustained insurgency. Individual assaults could be successfully handled by local and state police, but they could also easily escalate into a broader conflagration requiring federal involvement and inspiring copycat attacks. Experts also listed a wide range of potential targets, from Democratic politicians and institutions affiliated with minority groups to city halls and state government buildings.

But officials and researchers overwhelmingly agreed on the main source of the threat: the radical right. Despite overwrought warnings of “antifa,” it has been extreme conservatives who have driven into crowds of protestors, killing liberal activists. No leftists have murdered police officers or security guards, as right-wing fanatics did last summer in California. Progressives have not called for a race war or the bloody overthrow of the federal government. “Primarily, this is a far-right problem,” Napolitano said. “We saw it pretty clearly expressed on January 6.”

That, however, could shift. The modern American left does have a violent tradition. During the 1960s and ’70s, groups including the Weather Underground bombed banks, statues, and major government buildings. The Black Lives Matter protests in the summer of 2020 were overwhelmingly peaceful, but some demonstrators looted stores and destroyed police vehicles. And when Donald Trump’s supporters protested in Portland wielding paintball guns, the far-left activist Michael Reinoehl shot and killed one of them. His justification—self-defense—is both inexcusable and telling. If right-wing agitators continue down an increasingly extreme trajectory, and if the state does not stop them, it is easy to imagine liberals becoming increasingly less pacifistic.

Unfortunately, none of the officials I spoke with thought that any agency—from local and state law enforcement to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the armed forces—is fully prepared for the challenges posed by domestic terrorism. At least for federal employees, this should be expected. After four years of working under an administration that courted extremism rather than combated it, many bureaucrats and officers are just getting up to speed.

“In my entire 40 years in the military, from Annapolis to supreme allied commander of NATO, I never gave a thought to these challenges,” says James Stavridis, a retired four-star Navy admiral and the former dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. “I suspect my successors in the Pentagon at the four-star level have spent a huge amount of time thinking them through over the past 12 months.”

These officials—and their peers in the DOJ and DHS—should be able to scale up fast. Because the federal government has such strong surveillance measures, it is very effective at penetrating and eliminating terrorist cells. It has powerful law enforcement agencies and the world’s most well-funded military, meaning that it retains an overwhelming force advantage. As a result, full-scale civil warfare is highly unlikely.

But as a tool of counterinsurgency, force has serious drawbacks. It is tricky to devise operations that target violent extremists without also targeting nonviolent ones. Sometimes, counterinsurgency measures sweep up random civilians. As a result, they can quickly generate backlash, further radicalizing both militant groups and the broader public. And even if every operation is perfectly precise, violence does not have a good track record of changing hearts and minds. 

To truly end an insurgency, the government must address the underlying social conditions that allow terrorism to thrive. It must build trust with alienated communities, which means finding partners that are welcomed by hostile populations even if the government itself is not. Part of why America failed in Iraq and Afghanistan is that in both places, wide swaths of the country simply rejected the authority of the U.S.-backed Iraqi and Afghan governments.

Unfortunately, the Biden administration might not have much more luck fighting insurgents on the home front. The economic dislocation and misplaced cultural grievances that are driving discontent are not easy to fix, especially with our knotty political system. And even if the president can tackle these challenges, the institutions that are trusted by the right—incendiary conservative politicians, Fox News, talk radio grifters, Facebook commentators obsessed with “owning the libs,” and, above all else, Donald Trump—have no incentive to stop peddling lies or to cool their tone. Hate works to their political and financial benefit.

“We can run around and do targeting operations. The FBI can sweep up dudes nonstop,” says Jason Dempsey, an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security and a former special assistant to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. But political violence is, ultimately, a political problem. So long as the GOP remains in thrall to the far right, attackers will have enough support to regenerate. “If you don’t address that,” Dempsey says, “then no amount of tactical action will ever get you ahead of the game.”

Does America have enough extremists to sustain an insurgency? Mason and Kalmoe’s research suggests that tens of millions of Americans view political violence as acceptable. This doesn’t mean that tens of millions of people are willing to commit violence themselves. But they don’t need to be. According to The New York Times, between 15,000 and 20,000 Americans belong to militias. If there’s at least tacit outside backing, that’s more than enough potential actors. “These groups are in the hundreds, and membership is in the five digits,” says Linda Robinson, a longtime foreign correspondent covering the Middle East and the director of the center for Middle East public policy at the RAND Corporation. “This puts it up at a parallel with some of the more significant armed insurgencies in other countries that many of us have spent years studying.”

The raw numbers, of course, do not tell us much about the precise nature of the threat. America’s militia scene may be large, but it is also diverse and chaotic. Some groups, like the Proud Boys, are avowed misogynists. Others, like the Three Percenters, welcome women members. The Oath Keepers recruit heavily from the police. The Boogaloo Boys, meanwhile, encourage violence against them. Without a clear hierarchy and leadership, America’s militias would find it impossible to wage organized warfare against the federal government. That is part of why a redux of the 1860s is currently unlikely.

But international experience suggests that disorganization among insurgents is no impediment to sustained violent activity. Indeed, for many states struggling with serious civil conflict, diffuse terrorist networks are the norm. Both Robinson and Mason, for example, told me that America’s budding domestic terrorism scene in some ways resembles the structure of al-Qaeda. While al-Qaeda may have slipped off many Americans’ radar screens since Osama bin Laden’s death, the movement has survived two decades of sustained assault from international militaries because its dispersed setup—multiple branches with minimal overlapping infrastructure—makes it very difficult to completely dismantle. It is alive and well in the Middle East and, especially, in Africa. Over the past two years, it carried out grisly attacks in Mali, Somalia, and Kenya. 

For counterinsurgency forces, fighting a dispersed network poses special challenges. A clearly defined enemy can certainly surprise, but if it has a stated agenda and staked territory, there are known battle lines. When the opponent is a collection of groups with differing aims, there is an especially wide range of targets. In the United States, those targets include some obvious marks—Democratic politicians, Republicans who won’t help steal elections, Black churches, synagogues, shopping centers popular with immigrants. But antigovernment extremists could also select targets that are more idiosyncratic. Investigators have speculated that the Nashville man who blew up his van near an AT&T facility in December 2020 may have been inspired by conspiracies about 5G technology. In February 2021, a group of anti-vaccine protestors temporarily shut down a mass vaccination facility. The next such demonstration might not be conducted peacefully.

Successful attacks against any of these people or places would have clear negative consequences for national security. But when it comes to our political stability, experts say, the most frightening targets are government properties. “I think what we should be most concerned about here are attempts to take over state institutions by force,” says Yuri Zhukov, an associate professor of political science at the University of Michigan who studies domestic and international political violence. Doing so, he told me, is usually a prerequisite for seizing and controlling territory: in other words, for starting a more serious civil conflict.

Violent militias are unlikely to successfully occupy the Capitol again, given the complex’s heightened security. They will also struggle to overtake state capitols, which have likewise grown more fortified after armed protests in Lansing and Richmond. But Zhukov and others are concerned about local government buildings, which are much easier for extremists to attack. Indeed, for some of the world’s most successful insurgent groups, municipal facilities were the first sites of violence. 

In Ukraine, for example, residents who opposed the 2014 Euromaidan revolution—in which pro-Western protestors forced the pro-Russian president out of office—began destabilizing the country’s more Russia-aligned eastern provinces by seizing city property. “Protestors come to the square, they get whipped up into a frenzy, then they’re told to march on the local administrative building, like the town council or police station,” Zhukov said, describing what happened. Fueled by regional grievances, opportunistic politicians, and Russian propaganda, they broke down doors, smashed through windows, and streamed into the facilities. Local police, either overwhelmed or sympathetic to the insurgents’ aims, failed to hold them off. The uprising was contagious, and town after town across the country’s eastern flank fell to insurgents. Eventually, it was impossible for the government to dislodge them without turning to its military. Later, once Russian troops got directly involved, it became impossible to dislodge them altogether.

It is hard to envision America’s messy militia scene destabilizing the United States in a similar manner. But it is possible that U.S. militias could quickly grow more organized, or at least more orderly, if even one group took control of a local government building. “Once that happens in one city, people are going to try and replicate it somewhere else,” Zhukov said. “That’s kind of the nightmare scenario here.”

The United States is not Ukraine. It is a far more powerful country with better-equipped and better-trained security forces. And we do not share a border with a hostile adversary that likes to intervene in our politics.

But there are enough parallels to cause concern. Like Ukraine, we are highly polarized. Russia is not as forceful a presence here, but it has been injecting disinformation into our political discourse and trying to destabilize our government. There are emerging linkages between America’s far right and Vladimir Putin’s regime. Certain American political elites are fueling extremism to gain more power. And there are those within our local police departments, federal security services, and the armed forces who sympathize with far-right groups.

“The two most common features of some of the worst civil conflicts are political elites instrumentally looking to use violence and mobilize people in pursuit of their own power ambitions, and divisions within the military,” says Michael Kofman, the director of the Russia studies program at CNA, a nonprofit research and analysis organization, and a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center. To varying degrees, the U.S. has both.

There is a good chance that any sustained right-wing insurgency in America would follow the pattern Ukraine experienced. Militia groups, responding to some perceived tyranny by federal authorities—or perhaps to another liberal political victory—would attempt to seize city government buildings in a safely conservative state. If it worked, extremists elsewhere would attempt to replicate the attack.

But in some countries wracked by civil conflict, violence largely takes place in politically mixed communities. In Iraq, for example, attacks are generally concentrated in the same handful of provinces. According to Robinson, of RAND, these are places “where people have been in conflict for a very long time over basic issues, and where the government is either not addressing the violence or, in some cases, a shadow government is of like mind with the actors.” In 1855, Kansas bled for a similar reason: It was a seam territory, home to people with irreconcilable political differences who followed competing governments of uncertain legitimacy. A modern American insurgency could break out in a similarly split state. 

One candidate for that kind of violence might be Michigan. The swing state has a long history of militia activity, and it has a fiercely divided government. The governor, Gretchen Whitmer, is a Democrat, as are the attorney general and the secretary of state. But Republicans control the state legislature, and they have worked hard to undercut and delegitimize the executive branch. In response to the governor, attorney general, and secretary of state’s 2018 election victories, the legislature spent a lame-duck session passing laws to limit the executive branch’s powers. The legislature has sued the governor repeatedly over COVID-19 regulations. They have threatened to sue her if she allocates federal pandemic relief money without their approval. And they have openly cultivated ties to antigovernment militias. 

This came to a head on October 6, 2020, when the FBI arrested six men for plotting to kidnap Whitmer. These men were radicals, but they were not isolated. At a May 2020 protest over COVID-19 rules, the state senate leader appeared on the same stage as one of the arrested men. It is not difficult to imagine a militia furious at Whitmer in particular, or at Democrats in general, trying to seize a state building with the tacit support of Republican legislators.

Whether the violence began in a safely red state or a contested purple one, the response to any insurrection would follow a similar chain of escalation. Under the U.S. law enforcement system, responsibility for fending off insurgents attacking a local or state government building would first fall to local and state police. In an ideal world, that is where it would end. 

Yet police officers are, on the whole, more conservative than the general population, and militia groups curry favor among law enforcement. Research suggests that well over 1,000 cops might actually belong to right-wing extremist organizations, a figure that does not capture the number that simply sympathize with radicals. Were a right-wing group to seize power, it is possible that the police would not work aggressively to arrest insurgents.

But even if the police fought the mob, they might struggle. Due to lax American gun laws, most militia groups are exceptionally well armed. The connections between law enforcement, the military, and extremist outfits mean that some militia members are also quite well trained. Dozens of the people involved in the January 6 riot were active or former members of the police and the military, and many employed technologies that are frequently used by those in uniform. Others used common military combat techniques. 

If local and state police were unable to stop extremists, or if insurgents targeted a federal building, the national government could take charge. There are a number of armed federal agencies that could potentially claim jurisdiction. In 1992, for example, the FBI commanded federal and local officers as they stood off against a white nationalist in Idaho accused of illegally selling weapons. The next year, agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives raided a compound in Waco, Texas, following reports that residents were stockpiling banned arms. When the raid devolved into a gunfight that killed five ATF agents, the FBI came in. The Department of Defense (DOD) even played a role, providing the FBI with specialized equipment.

In isolated instances, this is almost always enough. Sometimes, it can be too much. In its attempt to flush residents out of the Waco compound, the FBI accidentally set off a horrifying fire that killed almost everyone inside. The dead quickly became martyrs for antigovernment extremists. Timothy McVeigh said the disaster was one of the reasons he blew up a federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995, killing 168 people.

But in cases where disorder becomes widespread, federal agencies might not be the best fit. If a militia took control of more than one government building or started multiple violent riots, the governor might call on the National Guard. There is very recent precedent for this step, albeit not against the far right. In the rioting after George Floyd’s murder, Minnesota Governor Tim Walz deployed the National Guard in Minneapolis to try to stop the unrest. This is not a positive memory. It involved a justified protest being co-opted by violent actors, resulting in a forceful government response. But the Guard did eventually restore order. 

Yet if, as in Ukraine, a successful insurrection led to either copycats or a loss of territorial control, a state’s National Guard might not be enough. The governor might ask the president to invoke the Insurrection Act, federalizing the Guard and bringing in additional military forces. This, too, would have precedent. In 1992, President George H. W. Bush invoked the Insurrection Act at the request of California Governor Pete Wilson to try to stop the L.A. riots.

It’s also possible that the president would invoke the Insurrection Act without first receiving a governor’s request. If widespread violence broke out in a GOP-controlled state, the governor could refuse to fight it or, worse, could order state law enforcement to side with insurgents. With the state abdicating its responsibility, the White House could feel compelled to step in.

That might seem unlikely, but it has happened within the living memory of many Americans. In 1957, Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus deployed the state National Guard to prevent Black students from enrolling in Little Rock’s Central High School. In response, President Dwight Eisenhower federalized the Guard and sent in the 101st Airborne Division to protect the teenagers. On September 30, 1962, Mississippi Governor Ross Barnett ordered the state highway patrol to withdraw from the University of Mississippi so an angry mob of segregationists could stop James Meredith from enrolling in classes. The rioters shot at federal marshals sent to protect Meredith, attacked journalists, and beat up bystanders. Later that day, President John F. Kennedy federalized Mississippi’s National Guard and sent in U.S. Army units to quell the unrest. The military succeeded, but only after two people were killed and hundreds injured.

Militia groups, responding to some perceived tyranny by federal authorities—or perhaps to another liberal political victory—would attempt to seize city government buildings in a safely conservative state. If it worked, extremists elsewhere would attempt to replicate the attack.

Ugly as these incidents were, they were discrete. There were no cross-state riots, no cascading acts of violence. But in the worst-case, Ukraine-style scenario—in which thousands of insurgents seized buildings, destroyed infrastructure, and simultaneously carried out other attacks across multiple parts of the country—the military would have to get more involved. In this situation, the president might direct the Joint Special Operations Command, the agency that chases terrorists in Iraq and Afghanistan, to look for domestic insurgents and put down attacks.

These troops would make fast work of any insurrectionist brushfire they were sent to contain. Tactically, special operations units are extraordinarily proficient. But like in the Middle East, that work would result in mass casualties and horrifying violations of human rights. In attempting to preserve the territorial integrity of the United States, the military might rip it apart. If it succeeded in maintaining the authority of the federal government, it could come at the expense of the rule of law.

Leaders of the U.S. Northern Command, the military branch that controls the DOD’s homeland defense efforts, did not respond to questions about planning for domestic conflict. Neither did the current assistant defense secretary for homeland defense—the DOD official who oversees domestic operations. In response to written questions about their concerns, plans, and capabilities, DHS and FBI spokespeople simply emphasized that they were paying close attention to domestic terrorism and would work collaboratively to combat it. In an interview, Mike Dugas, the provost marshal for the National Guard Bureau, told me the Guard has not done national-level planning for a counterinsurgency mission.

But Dugas said there was “heightened awareness” among the Guard about the threat of violent domestic extremists, and that it’s possible individual governors have taken steps with their own Guard to plan for an insurgency. Former DOD officials told me they considered ways in which to assist civilian law enforcement if domestic agencies needed specialized technology or expertise. And though these officials did not map out broad domestic tactical operations during their tenures, they suggested that the department’s thinking might be shifting.

“We did not, so far as I know, have a plan for an outbreak of a civil war,” said Tom Atkin, who served as acting assistant secretary of defense for homeland defense from September 2015 to January 2017. “And I guess that part of it is, prior to Trump’s presidency, who ever thought that would happen?”

The good news is that most of the people I interviewed thought that, while we must prepare for the worst, a nationwide insurgency remains unlikely. For starters, America’s robust intelligence capabilities make it difficult for would-be terrorists to carry out plans. The men who plotted to kidnap Gretchen Whitmer were caught before they could act. So were the Boogaloo Boys who sought to set off explosives at a Black Lives Matter protest. The January 6 insurrection was a high-profile national security failure. But even then, the government received warnings. With a newly attentive administration, it is less likely that future plotters will be able to act.

More importantly, the country has in recent memory faced domestic extremism and brought it to heel without spiraling violence. During the 1990s, militia groups and radicalized individuals in the Pacific Northwest, the Ozarks, and other locations emphatically rejected the authority of the federal government. They stockpiled weapons. They declared themselves “sovereign citizens” and refused to pay taxes. They set up kangaroo courts where they issued decrees and placed liens on the property of local authorities. None of these had the force of law, but they were intimidating. And some extremists were able to co-opt—at least to a limited degree—local police forces. 

But after the Oklahoma City bombing, the FBI began a sweeping crackdown. They infiltrated, broke up, and shrank many of the country’s militias by arresting members who had engaged in criminal activity. Other members were merely taken in for questioning, but the experience was frightening enough to discourage further militia involvement. Many veterans of this fight are still in the government. The man who led the successful prosecution of McVeigh, Merrick Garland, is now the attorney general. He has made it clear that he will hold domestic terrorists to account.

Perhaps the most hopeful historical precedent, however, comes from the 1960s, the last time a presidential administration made fighting discrimination and expanding democracy central to its agenda. Much like today, these plans encountered fierce opposition. White people marched and rioted to stop integration. Right-wing politicians denounced the federal government as tyrannical and promised to fight to stop its plans. “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, and segregation forever,” Alabama Governor George Wallace declared in 1963. Later that year, he stood in front of a school to stop Black students from entering, even after Kennedy sent in federal troops. 

But eventually, and without the use of force, Wallace stepped out of the way. So did most other white southerners. Black people enrolled in previously all-white schools. They began sitting at the front of buses. Between 1960 and 1970, Black southerners went from being mostly disenfranchised to more than 65 percent registered to vote.

That’s not to say the end of Jim Crow was a peaceful affair. Black people and their allies were spat on and beaten up. Forty-one activists were killed. But given the rhetoric of the time, experts say it is remarkable that more people didn’t die. “If you took these yahoos at their word, and not just individuals but politicians, you’d say, ‘Oh God, I don’t know, 10,000 [killed] or something,’ ” said Robert Mickey, a professor of political science at the University of Michigan who studies the democratization of the American South. “But no, they were full of it.”

Yet in some ways, the present moment feels more frightening than the 1960s. Part of that is geographic. Today’s conflict is national, rather than concentrated in the South. Part of it is polarization. The Democratic Party of the 1960s included both Wallace, southern apartheid’s most voracious defender, and Lyndon B. Johnson, its most powerful elected opponent. There were clearer lines of communication and a joint political tent. Now, the conflict over minority rights, the rule of law, and basic principles of democracy is mapped neatly onto parties. Unlike in the 1990s, when right-wing extremism was overwhelmingly disavowed by national Republicans, the modern GOP actively courts the far right.

And the 1960s and 1990s are not the only historical analogs. In 1876, an armed militia of Democrats successfully pressured Mississippi’s Republican governor to resign. In 1898, an angry mob of white supremacists in North Carolina seized Wilmington’s city hall and forced the Republican mayor out of office. These were not isolated incidents. The entire collapse of Reconstruction was an extraordinary victory for right-wing insurgents over fatigued federal forces and their regional allies.

The entire collapse of Reconstruction was an extraordinary victory for right-wing insurgents over fatigued federal forces and their regional allies.

We should learn from this failure. Coercion can be an essential tool in fighting insurrections, but Reconstruction’s demise shows that insurgencies cannot be permanently defeated by simply applying force. This is a lesson that the U.S. military has recently rediscovered while mired in the Middle East. American soldiers could quickly topple the Baathist and Taliban regimes, yet without continuous, widespread occupation, they could not stop Iraq from devolving into chaos and the Taliban from slowly regaining power. To defeat an insurgency, government actors must ultimately change the political beliefs of a hostile population. 

That means today’s democrats—lower- and upper-case d alike—must enact policies that win over voters, restore their trust in the government, and ultimately reduce discrimination. This will require legislation to mitigate economic inequality and improve living standards for everyone. The American Rescue Act—which is expected to cut poverty by a third, fight the pandemic, and stimulate the economy—is a positive first step. Raising the minimum wage and fixing our infrastructure would be a wonderful second and third. Actions that give local communities more power, like the freedom to set up municipal broadband networks (something prohibited in many states by laws passed at the behest of cable companies), would also prove valuable. The Biden administration could more fully unrig the economy by using competition policy to break up giant corporate conglomerates. And in the long run, regulations that further integration would help to lessen racial animus and the violence it inspires.

But to truly stop the spread of extremism, economic and social reform will not be enough. So long as the Republican Party continues to peddle lies and hate, extremist groups will find political cover. Unfortunately, the average Republican member of Congress has more to fear from primary challengers than from Democrats, and denouncing the far right opens officials up to accusations that they are not sufficiently supportive of the Trumpist cause. Embracing it, by contrast, helps them stay in office. The result is escalating rhetoric that further inflames the base.

Democrats are not powerless to stop the GOP’s vicious cycle of radicalization. If the Senate can pass many of the critical, pro-democracy reforms contained in H.R. 1—the House’s For the People Act—they might be able to change the Republican Party’s underlying electoral calculus. The gerrymandering ban would force more GOP politicians to compete in genuine swing districts. Provisions that expand access to the franchise could make them reach out to traditionally liberal demographics. Combined, these changes might just cause Republican politicians to moderate.

But without them, the odds of a shift are long. Republicans will have the upper hand in redistricting, leading to a new, disproportionately conservative congressional map. The party’s ongoing efforts to keep minorities from voting will move full steam ahead. Maybe a robust pandemic recovery and strong economy will be enough to lock the GOP out of federal power for years, forcing some kind of independent reckoning. But an unreconstructed Republican Party could capture the White House, again while losing the popular vote, and then use its national power to more thoroughly rig elections. 

If that happens, hell could really break lose. A few blue states might try to secede. Leftist militias, now a relative rarity, might expand. Indeed, even moderate liberals could embrace violence. It isn’t hard to see why. If voting can no longer bring about political change, people tend to reach for alternatives.

Some progressive groups are already arming themselves. At least one of them, based in Washington State, has named itself after John Brown. The homage is instructive; Brown took to weapons after concluding that abolition would be impossible without them. He was tired, he explained, of the antislavery movement’s commitment to rhetoric in the face of slaveholder violence. “These men are all talk,” Brown said of his compatriots, shortly before moving to Kansas. “What we need is action—action!” 

The echoes of the 1850s are loud, and grim.

“There are not a lot of cases of highly socially and politically polarized countries that depolarize without something horrific happening,” said Mickey, of the University of Michigan. “We don’t have a playbook.”

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Daniel Block

Daniel Block is the executive editor of the Washington Monthly.