The Good Fight
Rachel Kleinfeld on Why America Isn’t About to Have a Civil War

Rachel Kleinfeld on Why America Isn’t About to Have a Civil War

Yascha Mounk and Rachel Kleinfeld discuss the threats to American democracy.

We will not be publishing an article on Monday, Presidents' Day. We wish you all a happy and meaningful holiday. – The Editors.

Rachel Kleinfeld is a senior fellow in the Democracy, Conflict and Governance Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Kleinfeld’s latest book is A Savage Order: How the World's Deadliest Countries Can Forge a Path to Security.

In this week’s conversation, Yascha Mounk and Rachel Kleinfeld discuss effective strategies for heading off extremism and shoring up American democracy; what it takes to contain political violence; and why, though she remains concerned about America’s deep polarization, she mistrusts predictions of “civil war”.

The views expressed are those of the speakers, not those of Persuasion. The transcript has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

Yascha Mounk: You have thought a lot about the threats to American democracy. It is clear that the Republican Party continues, at least to a very considerable extent, to be under the control of election deniers, the MAGA movement, and Donald Trump himself. 

And yet, the midterms did seem to show that a lot of Americans reject that kind of extremism and election denialism, including many swing voters. As we're slowly ramping up for the 2024 election season and trying to think through these last six years, how do you weigh these different factors? Just how threatened is American democracy? 

Rachel Kleinfeld: The election showed that with a gigantic amount of work on behalf of many, many organizations, you can move a tiny percentage of independent and right-leaning swing voters away from election denialism and real authoritarianism in swing states. That mattered a lot, because it means that the 2024 election will be free and fair. But what it didn't do was fundamentally shift the dynamics in the Republican Party. While Trump might be losing steam, Trumpism, Christian nationalism, othering people to build your base with wink-and-nod authoritarianism, is still alive and well. We're seeing DeSantis do it. We're seeing other front runners do it. We saw candidate intimidation. We still saw election deniers win in deep red states. We have about 16 states now where there's trifectas—a state in which the governor, the attorney general and both chambers of the legislature (basically all of your major executive roles that would control elections) are all of one party. In about 15, maybe 16 states, those are all Republican and a number of election deniers were elected to those positions. It's worth remembering that the Jim Crow South was only 11 states, really, in its full form of election suppression against African Americans and poor whites. It doesn't take the entire United States to have an authoritarian enclave somewhere. The role of the RNC in Arizona was notable. Arizona is really the only place we saw any kind of election violence, with the supervisor of Maricopa County elections going into hiding. An RNC phone call seems to suggest that the Republican National Committee was possibly threatening that the mob would be released if certain things didn't happen. 

This institutionalization of the use of threats and intimidation against their own side is an important part of the story. Usually, we think of the story of American democracy as “Democrats versus Republicans.” But there's this fight within the Republican Party and an awful lot of violence and intimidation happened during the primary campaign, not the main election. It bounced out people like Liz Cheney, who couldn't even campaign in her state because of the level of threat against her but also a lot of the people who voted to impeach Trump. We passed a milestone that was valuable. We passed it with a huge amount of work and a lot of persuasive effort, and we barely passed it. I'm most worried that we don't have a future story for our democracy other than just getting through this by the skin of our teeth. 

I don't think that this has always been the id of the Republican Party, but the id of a certain percentage of voters who used to be split between the parties. What we saw in 2016 was a move of a significant number of swing voters and some Democrats into the Republican Party, and they had a particular valence. These were people who believed that only Christians were the true Americans, who held these nativist views and so on. But they haven't always been Republican. They used to be Democrats because they were economically liberal. Now, about 30% of the Republican Party’s voting base believes in economic redistribution and doesn't believe in low tax. They agree on some social and cultural issues, but they don't agree on these core economic issues. That's a hard thing for a party to deal with. They have to find some other way to cobble themselves together. 

Mounk: In every political system, you're going to have some cross-pressured voters. There are many dimensions of politics, maybe six or seven different areas, and you're never going to find a political party which agrees with you in exactly those six or seven. You're always going to have to give something up for something else. When you have a two party system, that pressure is particularly strong. 

It used to be the case that what mostly decides who you vote for was economic, but as the social and cultural dimension has become dominant in American politics, you have ended up with having to bridge these economic divides within the parties. In a way, that's true of the Democratic Party as well. As a result, Democrats now have these internal tensions between trade unions and Wall Street financiers in a way that wouldn't quite have been true 15 or 20 years ago.

Kleinfeld: I think Wall Street is actually falling into the realignment right now. Because actually, the shareholders and the board membership is even more strongly Republican now than it used to be. 70% of the board members of publicly traded companies are now Republican. But the values of those companies are values that are more supported by the public of the Democratic Party, and they're being hit hard by Republicans in this populist realignment. 

What's the Republican way forward? I think they've got a couple of options. One is to double down on Trumpism and on social and cultural issues, because that's the way for this base that doesn't believe in economic or classist issues to be held together with the rest of the more traditional Republican Party. That's one option. We're seeing them play with that. Another option would be the post-Mitt Romney autopsy: let's go very much the other direction and court a kind of aspirational business class, like immigrants who want to be part of a growing economy. I think the best news in the midterms, actually, is that the Hispanic vote for [Republicans] increased dramatically from 2016 to 2022. The black male vote doubled. The Asian vote grew. If that keeps happening, well, it's not good for progressives like myself who assumed that all of these ethnic groups will end up on their side. But it is good for a multiethnic democracy because it would force the Republican Party to start catering to these other groups and they'd be as diverse a coalition as the Democrats, and they would have to find another way to hold that coalition together. 

Mounk: In some ways, there is a demographic choice that Republicans can and have to make. I'm a little skeptical of the conventional wisdom that Republicans are the party of minority rule and will do whatever they can to allow a white minority to persist. It's not clear to me that the numbers bear that out. They were able to win in states like Florida which are very close to being majority non-white, and they did so by making huge improvements in the vote share among particularly Latinos, but also among some other non-white voter groups over the course of the last five or six years.

What Republicans seem to have succeeded in doing in a very interesting way over the last 10 years is to increase the vote share among Latinos and some other non-white group by being more working-class pugilists, at least in the cultural stuff, and perhaps to some very small extent with a little bit of a realignment on economic issues, like becoming more open to an increase in the minimum wage and things like that. What would that demographically diverse Republican coalition look like? 

Kleinfeld: There's a very clear path for Republicans. Latinos and African Americans are both more religious than traditional progressives. Latinos are also more Protestant, increasingly, and that Protestantism has really been influenced by right-wing Protestants from America who pushed it overseas into other countries, and now it's coming back to us, and they tend to be much more right wing. Now, one in ten African Americans are immigrants. They're not products of the historical experience of African Americans as many Americans tend to think of it. They have aspirational values and when they look at American democracy, they think, “Well, maybe it's not perfect, but it's better than other countries I've worked in, like Nigeria, so don't tell me that this is a false democracy. We're not seeing that kind of violence,” and so on. A lot of them are small business owners. Immigrants are disproportionately small business owners. The COVID rules really hurt small businesses and Democrats have never really dealt with how the COVID protectionism, which was valid, nevertheless had real costs, particularly if you were a “gray economy” business that couldn't access government loans. Minorities are disproportionately working class and that brings with it some traditional values about risk aversion and gender values. 

You can see a real way forward for Republicans, and there is no reason to think that that's necessarily pro-democracy; it could be pro-inclusivity and anti-democracy. Democrats need to recognize that these things might not go together, and if they're going to support democracy they really need to stop making so many assumptions. The way forward to support democracy is about democracy. Inclusivity is separate and important but not the same. If you're a Democrat who wants to win these groups, you need to rethink how you're trying to woo them.

Mounk: There’s a very important political and, in certain ways, cultural divide between what activist groups have called the “American Descendants of Slavery,” on the one side, and African immigrants and their descendants on the other; people who have been in the country mostly for centuries, brought to the country in chains against their will, and shaped by the terrible experience of chattel slavery on one side, and people who have, not always, but often, a profile which is much more similar to Indian or perhaps Chinese Americans, who often came here on H1-B visas and often from elite backgrounds within their countries. If the average Nigerian American or Kenyan American makes more than $100,000 a year, it's very imaginable that in 50 years we will effectively have narrowed our racial disparities, especially as there is more immigration from very rapidly-growing African countries on more family-sponsored visas coming from Nigeria and Kenya rather than India and China. 

But in a way, that still means that you have a very disproportionate number of people who suffered the worst injustices in American history living under very challenging circumstances in Chicago and Baltimore in some of the most deprived communities in the country. And then, on the other side, you might have this thriving upper middle class of successful immigrants and their descendants. I think that's just one of the many ways in which how we think and talk about these issues is a little simplistic.

Kleinfeld: You're absolutely right. I've written about that in a paper called “Five Strategies to Support U.S. Democracy” and about the need for “thick” identities. This is exactly what I mean. An African American immigrant from Nigeria who's come over here on an H1-B visa and is earning $150,000 a year is a thick identity. They have many identities: an immigrant, a woman, and an entrepreneur. They can pick what their political profile is going to be from those identities. By narrowing them just to race or phenotype and not taking into account what's in their head or aspirational soul means that both parties do them a disservice. I think the future of democracy is really going to be finding some way to allow thicker identities to come to the surface so that we're not picking and choosing from among, frankly, some of the worst angels. By tribalizing ourselves in these very thin ways, we do a disservice to our full humanity. The democracy conversation right now often does that by narrowing our identities into what you can see and making that the most salient when that is not necessarily what's most salient to the holder of that identity. 

Mounk: I feel like we've been spending a good amount of time here on analysis. You can analyze with the best of them but you can also suggest solutions. You recently published a really interesting paper where you talk about what civil society actors, individuals, organizations, and politicians can do to help save American democracy. 

But let’s start with what doesn't work. You make an interesting argument that a lot of what’s done in that space, a lot of charitable dollars that are supposedly spent on saving American democracy are channeled into areas which may be fine insofar as they go but which really miss the mark in terms of making as much of a difference as they should.

Kleinfeld: I argue that some things are insufficient. I'm not saying that they're wrong. They're mostly about helping Democrats win or helping Democrats win through other language like “increasing voter turnout,” which we hope will help Democrats win or get more minorities to vote because we think they'll vote for Democrats. I'm a Democrat and I believe that that is very important right now: because the Republican Party is in thrall to this anti-democratic force, Democrats do need to win. But what we've seen in the last two elections, but especially the 2020 election, was that Democrats won the presidency, they won both houses of Congress, and at the state level, the anti-democratic rot really grew quite a bit. Normative disintegration grew—the laws against protest, the laws allowing cars to drive into protesters, for instance. We're a federal country, and about half our states are so deep red that you're just not going to get a Democrat winning those states. Even if you do increase all of these pro-democratic Democratic forces and win at the national level, you still have these states that are quite red, and they're going to continue to exist. 

A lot of important policy is made at the state level, not least criminal policy, and including deciding which activities are criminalizable—only a few things are done at the federal level, more now, but they can't prosecute everything. To change democracy and make it better in America, there's a set of institutional strategies we need to think about, and I lay them out: ranked-choice voting, final-four or final-five voting, and increasing the ability to hold to account people who use political violence. But there's also a whole set of social activities that are getting really short shrift. I try to talk about the social demand from the right for illiberal policies and where that's coming from, issues of masculinity and issues of rural areas being left behind, which are really important to grapple with. Our Constitution gives rural areas immense power. But we've just decimated their economies, we've told them they are flyover states, and we've belittled them. What do you expect to happen except some form of backlash? It's happening globally. But in America, the constitutional power given to those areas is really extreme. I tried to talk about some of the societal issues on the left as well, particularly this idea that we keep asking people to turn out while democracy is really not doing a whole lot for them, because they're being taken for granted and because the ideological arguments are kind of missing the mark from what they need.

Mounk: Where do you see an area in which organizational capacity, money, and action are lacking and where people could really make a difference?

Kleinfeld: There are so many gaps, but I will pick out one or two. Take economic redistribution. The left tends to say that the problems with our democracy are high inequality and the fact that people are being left behind. First of all, none of the research points to economic issues as being behind what's going on in our democracy or in other democracies. Frankly, the only research suggests that when a rising tide is happening, and some boats aren't rising as fast as others, they might turn to nativist parties, which is really hard from a policy perspective. We also know that simple redistribution programs tend to meet a lot of backlash from the working class, who feel like they're going to be paying for other people and they don't like that and there's a racial component to that. There's a sense that giveaways don't fulfill a need that men in particular have to own something. There's all sorts of good survey research on how men react to this economic redistribution. On the one hand, there's people who are saying “Let's do redistribution!” On the other hand, all the research is saying that it will not actually solve our democracy problems. And yet, we have a deep structural problem with our economy right now. It's been taking away a lot of agency and harming rural areas which have this disproportionate political power. We've stopped thinking of the economy as connected to our democracy at all. Whereas the Founding Fathers and Aristotle thought very much about how economics needed to support democratic systems, and that you really needed to have the ability to be a thinker and not just be educated but have the independence to make your own political decisions. You also needed to learn the habits of heart of being an independent thinker from your economic world, which is why Jefferson was so into yeoman farmers, who did everything for themselves. We've lost that kind of thinking altogether. One could imagine more investment and the Hewlett Foundation is doing this to some extent, as is Omidyar. What would an economy look like that supported our democracy, that wasn't so winner-take-all for California and New York, that enabled people to be more independent and have the time to be free thinkers? That's very different from just economic redistribution. But it’s not independent of that conversation. 

Another area I want to highlight is masculinity. We have reams of research suggesting that men in this country are really falling behind. They're falling behind in their college outcomes. White men aren't even trying to compete in college anymore. They're just saying that they're choosing not to. We see that the white working class is dying disproportionately of opioids and suicide and these diseases of despair like alcoholism—so much so that their life expectancy was lower. It was lowering even before COVID, which has, I think, never happened in a developed country. Men particularly seem to be having real trouble in this new world, and it's limiting their sexual prospects. It's limiting their marriage prospects. You get a backlash when you have a lot of men, particularly a lot of young men, experiencing this kind of failure to compete. We know that that causes trouble. 

I am not the person to come up with a good policy about what to do, but someone is. We need a movement that talks to men in this country. When I worked internationally in development, and we tried to help women with small loans and so on in India, you always worked with the men as well as the women. It's well known in international development that you cannot run a women's empowerment program without also empowering men. Otherwise, you get a backlash. In America, we've been running these women's empowerment programs since Title IX with really no thought to what it does to the male half of the country, and we're getting a backlash. We see that with political violence. Actually, the number one predictor, more than racism, is gender hostility. And so we need to do something about our men—and the people who work with college-age men in sports teams, religious programs, and programs need to help men find their way through college. We need to rethink how we help men compete.

Mounk: Richard Reeves has an interesting book about that particular topic and we had a great conversation on this podcast a couple of months ago on this issue. 

I want to ask you about the prospect of political violence. There's been a lot of talk over the course of last year of an impending “civil war.” I take it that you're quite skeptical of the idea, and yet you are concerned about the role that political violence is already playing in America and may play in the years to come. Why should we be concerned about political violence in the United States and why is the hyperbolic language about “civil war” nevertheless misleading? 

Kleinfeld: America has always allowed a lot more violence of all sorts, political and otherwise, than our peer democracies. We have five times the murder rate, at the best of times, to Europe. And right now is not the best of times. We have allowed political violence, from the Know Nothing Party to lynchings in the South, the “Redemption” era that allowed parties to come back in the 1860s and ‘70s by lynching their way into into Congress. We have a long history of this. We know internationally that if you have a history, you're more at risk of repeating it. We also know that there has never been a civil war in a country that has a strong democracy with strong institutions, particularly a strong military and security institutions. And that's because civil war is not really about the feelings that are in people's hearts—how much they hate each other or how polarized they are. All of that matters. But those kinds of issues are all mediated by the state. If you have a strong state, it's much harder to take out but through violence, and so you just don't see it. And for a civil war you also need a brutal state, generally—a state that really reacts with a lot of violence or is very corrupt. We don't have that state structure in America. Say what you will about the level of violence in our criminal justice system and the corruption in the system, it is nothing like Ghana, for instance, where I've worked and where multiple coups happened with only five or six people in a small group behind them. They could take down the state that way. You can't take down our country that way so I'm not worried about that kind of civil war. 

I am very worried about targeted political violence, and I write about it a lot. Because when you look at what's happening lately, what you're seeing is that there are three strategies being used and they are purposeful. One is not so much actual violence but a lot of threat and intimidation that is targeting election workers—and not all election workers. In 2020, when it really broke through the roof (we'd never had this kind of targeting before), it was in swing states that Trump was trying to target. It's very clear. We're also seeing the targeting of Republicans who are pro-democratic—whether it’s the Maricopa County Supervisor, or the Republicans who voted for impeachment, somebody like Liz Cheney, on the January 6th Committee. Republicans who are standing for a pro-democratic Republican Party are a threat to the anti-democratic faction, and they're getting a lot of pressure, a lot of intimidation, a lot of threats. You see that in every country where one faction is trying to take over a political party. They go after their own side first and that's exactly what we're seeing. We're also seeing this “othering” to build a base. There's a long history of doing this, because while a lot of people see violence and they recoil, other people see violence and they say, “Oh, we're allowed to do that? I didn't know. Now I'm more excited to do that.” Every time you see something like the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, you actually see an increase in people searching, “How do I donate to the KKK?” and other horrible search terms. That kind of base-building through othering and dehumanization is allowing a lot of spillover violence and we're seeing all of that in America. You don't need a civil war to try to take over a party with violence, and you don't need a civil war to try to build your base with violence. 

Also read: “The Reality Ally” by Jonathan Rauch. 

Mounk: I think you have the curse of being a compelling speaker who makes people feel a little bit depressed about the world but you're not a fatalist and certainly not a cynic. 

If, from the vantage point of 2050, we look back on this moment and say that in the end things somehow turned out to be okay, what's the storyline?

Kleinfeld: I do write about depressing things. But I'm not at all depressed. I'm actually pretty excited about this moment. And I guess that's because, at core, I spent the last 10 to 15 years working on social change within democracies. It does not happen in a linear fashion. It happens at crisis points. It happens when people come together across polarized constituencies to come up with a way around the polarization rather than through it, where they reframe old problems in fundamentally new ways and push forward. We've had that at various times in American history, where the corruption and violence of the Gilded Age moved into the Progressive Era; where the white Christian assumptions of the Progressive Era gave way to a broader America in the latter half of the 20th century.

I think, frankly, America has gotten a little bit stale and self-regarding over the last couple of decades. We had not been pushing our democracy forward. People hadn't really cared about it. We'd really taken it for granted after the fall of the Soviet Union. We've been weakening our powers but also not paying a lot of attention to what had been going on at home. What's happened now, thanks to this crisis, is that we have this robust infrastructure of pro-democracy activists. We have people who are white recognizing what African Americans have been saying for a long time about some of the problems in our democracy and starting to come to some common cause, with a lot more new energy from the business community and from other pillars that really had never cared before. It was just the water the fish swam in. They didn't really think much about it. I feel like we're at a moment in which we can do one of these lurches forward that our country does once in a while, and we really need it. It took this crisis to get us there. It's not inevitable. It takes human agency to make it happen, but I think it can happen.

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Podcast production by John T. Williams and Brendan Ruberry. Podcast cover image by Joe O’Shea.

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The Good Fight
The podcast that searches for the ideas, policies and strategies that can beat authoritarian populism.