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Why the demographic make-up of the US creates the perfect conditions for civil war

To understand why a person might become a foot soldier in a violent political movement, we must look not only at their ideology, but also at their domestic circumstances. 

By Louise Perry

How pessimistic should we be about the process of violent, symmetrical escalation taking place in the United States? A summer of left-wing protests has been followed by a shocking instance of right-wing insurrection, with the storming of the Washington Capitol. And while the word “fascism” has been used a lot over the past four years in reference to Trumpism, we are now also starting to hear the phrase “civil war” spring up.

But the US of 2020 is very different from the US of 1861 or, indeed, the Europe of the 1930s – the stock comparison. In his 2018 book, How Democracy Ends, the political historian David Runciman cautions against crude comparisons between the rise of Trumpism in the United States and the rise of fascism in Europe. For one thing, he reasons, “the United States is too rich, too old, too set in its ways for this kind of politics… Political violence is a young man’s game.”

If we’re looking for the kind of society that could easily act as a demographic powder keg, Runciman advises us to turn our attention to countries such as Egypt. At the time of the military coup in 2013, the average Egyptian was roughly as likely to be poor and unemployed as the average German was in 1930. Crucially, too, the median Egyptian was just 24 years old, whereas the median American today is 38. This matters, because older societies tend to behave differently from youthful ones.

Political violence may be supported by the old, but is actually done by the young. This is true of most other kinds of violence: it is now a truism among criminologists that age is one of the strongest factors associated with violent crime, which is almost always committed by men aged between 15 and 30. And there are all sorts of other prosaic factors associated with the risk of violence. The weather is one of them, with 27-32˚C believed by some experts to be the perfect temperature for rioting, while murder rates consistently peak in the summer months (hence the joke among British police officers about being assisted by “PC Rain”).

The 2011 riots in England followed this template perfectly, since the weather was balmy and the rioters were 90 per cent male, and 95 per cent under the age of 40. This presents a problem for those determined to understand rioting as simply “the voice of the unheard”. It can be that – the death of Mark Duggan, the 29-year-old shot dead by police in Tottenham, north London, was certainly the incident that sparked those particular riots. But marginalisation is not sufficient to provoke violence: there must also be other, less politically convenient, forces at play.

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[see also: Can Joe Biden restore America?]

Including demographic forces. Your perfect rioter is a young, unmarried, childless, unemployed man. His youth and sex make him more prone to violence in general, his lack of employment makes him desperate and his lack of a stable home life means he has nothing to rush back to. He can stay out all night, since he has no job to go to and no children to drop off at school in the morning. Thanks to various ingenious studies on crime rates in places ranging from the American Wild West and 19th-century Utah, to China in the aftermath of the one-child policy, we know that, all else being equal, unmarried men are twice as likely as married men to commit property and violent crime. It is not only a matter of stabler men being more likely to marry; marriage also seems to have a stabilising effect.

In the United States, marriage rates have been steadily declining for 60 years, the coronavirus pandemic has led to a sharp increase in unemployment, and more and more men have either never had children or are not living with them. These are complex social trends, and it is clearly not the case that all such men are potentially violent – far from it. But these trends do matter when assessing a society’s propensity for violence, including its propensity for civil war.

While we might ordinarily be quite right to take comfort in the fact that the average American is “too old” to participate in political violence, watching footage of the rioters storming the Capitol on 6 January should give us pause. The crowd was typical of other violent mobs in that it was overwhelmingly male, but there were also a surprising number of greying beards on show, and arrests have included men in their fifties, such as Larry Rendell Brock, an Air Force veteran who was photographed carrying zip ties, which could have been used as makeshift handcuffs.

Brock was one of several rioters to be informed on by an ex-wife, a phenomenon that has been the subject of much hilarity on Twitter, with many commentators also taking pleasure in the fact that Jake Angeli – he of the horned hat – is a “failed actor” who, aged 33, still lives with his mum. Many of these would-be insurrectionists still live like young men, it seems, even if they are not especially young.

This contributes to their volatility. One of the few American writers sensitive to this demographic component of the current disorder is Michael Lind, who wrote of the Capitol riot:

“Isolated individuals are the natural sources for political armies. Though their ideologies vary, and different political warlords recruit them, the young people who vandalise stores and offices in the name of Black Lives Matter often share a common lack of social rootedness with their militant Maga counterparts…”

The likelihood of a person becoming a foot soldier in a violent political movement depends not only on their ideology, but also on their domestic circumstances. And on this point, there is reason to be pessimistic about the American crisis. 

[see also: American fascism is a deadly threat – it must be confronted now]

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This article appears in the 20 Jan 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Biden's Burden