Most of the time, CNN’s weekend anchor Jim Acosta makes me break out in hives. I saw enough of his brand of performative journalism to last me a lifetime a long time ago, when the bigfoot TV reporters from Chicago would descend on the Illinois Statehouse at the end of the legislative session. But Acosta had Ronald Brownstein and Barbara Walter on his show Sunday, and he let them talk.

Brownstein covers politics for The Atlantic; he’s also a senior analyst for CNN, which is a godsend for me, since the Atlantic puts his back stories behind a paywall but his weekly on-air column for CNN, Fault Lines, is archived at A longtime Washington correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, he’s simply one of the best political analysts in the news business. Fun fact: According to his profile, one his first books — he’s published several over the years — was The Second Civil War: How Extreme Partisanship Has Paralyzed Washington and Polarized America. It came out in 2007. He hadn’t seen nothin’ yet! Nor had any of us.

Walter’s background is academic. She’s a professor of political science and international relations at UC San Diego and the author of How Civil Wars Start and How To Stop Them. “Her current research is on the behavior of rebel groups in civil wars,” according to her bio at UC San Diego, her research areas “includ[e] inter-rebel group fighting, alliances and the strategic use of propaganda and extremism.” She’s had a field day in the last five years.

So Acosta was well within his rights to lob slow-pitch softball questions at both the day after ex-President Trump blasted the FBI, the Justice Department, the media Democrats and various Democrats at a political rally in Wilkes-Barre, Pa. The result: 8:45 minutes of informed conversation about a real threat to our system of government and a couple of money quotes:

Ron Brownstein on the 1850s

Brownstein was asked to comment on a Tweet by US Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., that said in part: “Trump is attacking law enforcement and once again using language he knows will provoke violence. Only one group of Americans has a chance to diminish this danger- Republicans.” and Acosta’s question and Brownstein’s answer begin at 4:30ff:

I have written that I believe we are in the modern equivalent of the 1850s; the only question is what the modern equivalent of the 1860s looks like. By that I mean that we are already functionally in a cold war between two inimical factions that have fundamentally different visions of what the country should be. And Liz Cheney is fundamentally right. People who have studied this internationally will say that the key — I would defer to Professor Walters on this — when democracies are threatened by undemocratic forces the key is, what does the center right do?

Based on my study of the 1850s, I’d say there was no functioning center-right in the runup to the Civil War. The issue dividing the country was slavery, and politicians like Illinois Sen. Stephen A. Douglas who tried to broker compromises between the extremes were destroyed by zealots — on both sides — who demanded total capitulation by their political enemies.

So Brownstein’s language about “two inimical factions that have that have fundamentally different visions of what the country should be” is precisely on target.

Remember: The political issue was framed as one of the extension of slavery into the western territories on the Great Plains (where it was economically unfeasible anyway). This, the Southern “fire-eaters” construed as an existential threat to the Southern way of life. At the same time, in the words of David M. Potter’s The Impending Crisis, their abolitionist counterparts in the North “had a strength which derived not only from the righteousness of their cause but also [/] from the technical skill of a distinctive style of publicity, which discredited their opponents as not only wrong n principle but also morally depraved and personally odious” (164-65).

Does any of this sound familiar?

Barbara F. Walter: ‘racial and religious’ breakdown

Barbara Walter’s CV, on her personal website, runs to 13 pages. She’s been studying civil conflict since before 1994, when she presented a paper about the civil war in Zimbabwe at the University of Chicago. Her most recent book, How Civil Wars Start and How To Stop Them, draws on the breakup of the former Yugoslavia and other overseas conflicts to produce what H.W. Brands, a reviewer for The Guardian, calls “a typology of the descent into organised domestic violence.” So she knows what she’s talking about.

On Jim Acosta’s show Walter said (at 2:50):

We’re not on the precipice of civil war but we know from decades of research on civil wars that weak and declining democracies, those democracies that have broken down on racial and religious lines, are at the highest risk of political violence and civil war.

Click the “pause” button on all the other sound bites we hear, and this is pretty much where things shake out in America. Our political parties break down now pretty much along racial and religious lines, and political violence has been escalating.

Debi and I have her latest book at home. Brands, a history professor at the University of Texas Austin notes, “Walter’s recounting of Trump’s assaults on decency and democracy is familiar yet still chilling.” The headline to Brands’ review: “[She’s] sounding the alarm.” True enough, but I think the book’s value is in its comparative typology. How do we stack up against Zimbabwe and the former Yugoslavia? I have to agree with Brands’ overall assessment:

“The good news is that the bad news wasn’t worse,” he says. “But we haven’t seen the end of it.”

Another fun fact, gleaned from the conclusion of Brands’ review in The Guardian: “Walter relates that amid the 2020 election campaign, she and her husband, who between them possess Swiss, Canadian, Hungarian and German passports, considered their exit strategy from the US should things get really bad. They even weighed up applying for Hungarian citizenship for their daughter. It didn’t come to that. But they renewed their passports just in case.”

Links and Citations

H.W. Brands, “How Civil Wars Start by Barbara F Walter review – sounding the alarm,” The Guardian, Jan. 13, 2022

Ronald Brownstein and Barbara F. Walter, “Brownstein: Overwhelming evidence Trump is leading un-Democratic faction of GOP,” interview by Jim Acosta, CNN, Sept. 4, 2022

Mark Levy and Jill Colvin, “Trump moves to general election mode with Pennsylvania rally,” Associated Press, Sept. 4, 2022

David M. Potter, The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War, 1848-1861, ed. Don E. Fehrenbacker. New York: Harper Perennial, 2011. 164-65.

[Uplinked Sept. 5, 2022]

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