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Will Michigan Have A Civil War In Its Future?

Dec 20, 2023 | Democracy, Elections, Future, Government, Michigan, Political Parties, Politics, Public Safety, Voters | 0 comments

In last week’s post, I reviewed the book How Civil Wars Start And How to Stop Them by Barbara Walter. Based on two decades of global research by a team of experts, Walter argues that there are trends in the U.S. that could lead to the modern version of a civil war.

By “civil war” she doesn’t mean a struggle between two armies like the American Civil War. Today’s civil wars are more like the way the Nazis came to power in Germany. They combine electoral politics, propaganda, political violence, and intimidation to gain power. Radical groups use these means to weaken institutions, create fear, and destroy confidence that democratic governments can protect us.

If Walter’s version of civil war is coming to the U.S. in the next decade, Michigan would certainly feel its impact. News media, social media, federal government policy, and anti-government organizing doesn’t stop at state borders. In a federal system of divided powers, though, states can be hot beds of conflict or anchors of stability. Where might Michigan end up?

Her book discusses several early indicators that scholars identified in countries that have experienced civil wars. Let’s take them one-by-one. Walter claims civil wars are more likely to occur in a country when:

The system of government falls somewhere between a dictatorship that can use repression and a full democracy that gives voice and influence to all parts of society.

I found two sources that rate the level of democracy in Michigan. Jake Grumbach is an academic who created the State Democracy Index with data between 2000-2018. By his rating system, Michigan was 39th among states for the quality of its democratic institutions in 2018. A project with current data is called Snapshot: Democracy Ratings By State. As of 2023, they rate Michigan as 5th among states for the strength of its democratic institutions! This rise was driven by citizen-initiated referendums for constitutional amendments that strengthened its democracy beginning in 2018.

A complete breakdown of the factors that go into the Snapshot rating are available at the Michigan Democracy Profile. Briefly, some of the factors that give Michigan a high rating are:

  • Making registering to vote and voting relatively easy,
  • Allowing direct citizen initiatives to change its constitution and laws,
  • Having high voter turnout,
  • Making absentee voting easy,
  • Having high security for elections, and
  • Having an independent redistricting process.

Bottom line: It appears that Michigan has a robust democracy that can resist extremist pressures.

Political parties are split along racial, cultural, or ethnic lines

The best data I can find on the makeup of the major political parties in Michigan is from the report States of Change: How Demographic Change is Transforming the Republican and Democratic Parties. Here is their breakdown of Michigan’s 2020 party composition:

White, Non-College40%64%
White, College Graduates28%29%
Black25% 2%
Hispanic 3% 2%
Asian & Other 4% 3%

What is not captured in these numbers is a strong urban/rural divide in Michigan. Counties classified as urban are uniformly Democratic strongholds while rural counties are Republican strongholds. Michigan’s independent redistricting process, however, combines many urban, suburban, and rural areas in legislative and congressional districts to overcome the political impact of this factor.

State-wide elections in Michigan are often decided by just a few percentage points — neither party can afford to go all out for one ethnic group. 32% of the Democratic Party’s voters are members of ethnic minorities. It will need to keep them motivated and involved. 68% are whites who must not be alienated if the party hopes to win. The Republican Party must also retain the loyalty of white voters, but will have to make in-roads with growing minority groups – now only 7% of the Republican coalition — to stay viable.

Bottom line: I don’t see any pathway for the major political parties to rely exclusively on one ethnic or geographic group and win elections in Michigan.

Members of one ethnic, cultural, or religious group believe they are losing their dominant position.

In 2020, the Bookings Institute did some good work on this factor in its report, America’s Electoral Future: The Coming Generational Transformation. They project the share of ethnic minority voters in Michigan will increase from 22% in 2020 to 25% in 2036. The share of voters born after 1981 will increase from 36% in 2020 to 59% in 2036.

The significance of this is that those born after 1981 – “Generation X and Millennials” – have much more liberal attitudes and vote for Democrats in much higher numbers than members of previous generations. Ethnic minorities also tend to vote Democratic in higher numbers than whites.

The report then describes simulations of future vote totals based on Generation X and Millennials keeping their current political preferences, those generations becoming more conservative over time, or the generation behind them turning more conservative. In each simulation, Michigan leans further Democratic with each election cycle.

Bottom line: It appears that old white voters will be losing out on directing the affairs of the State of Michigan. However, they won’t be losing to another ethnic group – those changing demographics will be modest. They will be losing to their more liberal kids and grandkids. It would be pretty crazy to go to war against your descendants.

Will Michigan kids grow up with political violence in the next decade?

Niels Bohr (and many others) said “Prediction is very difficult, especially if it’s about the future!” The events at the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021, though, are a warning that chaos can break out in the oldest democracy in the world. If some believe in stolen elections and some believe in vast right-wing conspiracies, a civil war of sorts could break out in our children’s lifetimes.

Michigan has had its share of scares — with armed protestors roaming its capitol during COVID and the FBI interrupting a plot to kidnap the governor. Looking at the key factors that Walter describes in her book, though, I believe Michigan could be an anchor of stability in the years ahead. It has become one of the highest rated democracies among states, its political parties will need ethnic diversity in their base to win elections, and the groups that have been dominant in the past will probably not feel threatened by others replacing them.

Take nothing for granted, but sleep soundly for now.




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