Jack A. Goldstone (George Mason) & Peter Turchin (Connecticut), Welcome To The ‘Turbulent Twenties’:
Almost three decades ago, one of us, Jack Goldstone, published a simple model to determine a country’s vulnerability to political crisis. The model was based on how population changes shifted state, elite and popular behavior. Goldstone argued that, according to this Demographic-Structural Theory, in the 21st century, America was likely to get a populist, America-first leader who would sow a whirlwind of conflict.
Then ten years ago, the other of us, Peter Turchin, applied Goldstone’s model to U.S. history, using current data. What emerged was alarming: The U.S. was heading toward the highest level of vulnerability to political crisis seen in this country in over a hundred years. Even before Trump was elected, Turchin published his prediction that the U.S. was headed for the “Turbulent Twenties,” forecasting a period of growing instability in the United States and western Europe.
Given the Black Lives Matter protests and cascading clashes between competing armed factions in cities across the United States, from Portland, Oregon to Kenosha, Wisconsin, we are already well on our way there. But worse likely lies ahead.
Our model is based on the fact that across history, what creates the risk of political instability is the behavior of elites, who all too often react to long-term increases in population by committing three cardinal sins.
First, faced with a surge of labor that dampens growth in wages and productivity, elites seek to take a larger portion of economic gains for themselves, driving up inequality.
Second, facing greater competition for elite wealth and status, they tighten up the path to mobility to favor themselves and their progeny. For example, in an increasingly meritocratic society, elites could keep places at top universities limited and raise the entry requirements and costs in ways that favor the children of those who had already succeeded.
Third, anxious to hold on to their rising fortunes, they do all they can to resist taxation of their wealth and profits, even if that means starving the government of needed revenues, leading to decaying infrastructure, declining public services and fast-rising government debts.
Such selfish elites lead the way to revolutions. They create simmering conditions of greater inequality and declining effectiveness of, and respect for, government. But their actions alone are not sufficient. Urbanization and greater education are needed to create concentrations of aware and organized groups in the populace who can mobilize and act for change. ...
In applying our model to the U.S., we tracked a number of indicators of popular well-being, inequality and political polarization, all the way from 1800 to the present. These included the ratio of median workers’ wages to GDP per capita, life expectancy, the number of new millionaires and their influence on politics, the degree of strict party-line voting in Congress, and the incidence of deadly riots, terrorism and political assassinations. We found that all of these indicators pointed to two broad cycles in U.S. history. ...
Writing in the journal Nature in 2010, we pointed out that such trends were a reliable indicator of looming political instability and that they “look set to peak in the years around 2020.” In Ages of Discord, published early in 2016, we showed that America’s “political stress indicator” had turned up sharply in recent years and was on track to send us into the “Turbulent Twenties.”
The Political Stress Index (PSI) combines the three crisis indicators in the Goldstone-Turchin theory: declining living standards, increasing intra-elite competition/conflict and a weakening state. Growing PSI indicates increased likelihood of political violence. The Well-Being Index indicates greater equality, greater elite consensus and a more legitimate state.
This year, the COVID-19 pandemic and the death of George Floyd at the hands of the Minneapolis police have delivered a double-barreled crisis to U.S. politics. America has reacted with a nationwide, months-long series of urban protests. But this explosion of protest is not just the result of this year’s events. The U.S. has weathered epidemics and racial protests before and produced legislation that made the country better as a result. What is different this decade is that these events are occurring at a time of extreme political polarization, after decades of falling worker’s share in national income, and with entrenched elite opposition to increased spending on public services. These trends have crippled the U.S. government’s ability to mount an effective response to the pandemic, hampered our ability to deliver an inclusive economic relief policy and exacerbated the tensions over racial injustice that boiled over in response to the video of Floyd’s death.
Is the U.S. likely headed for still greater protests and violence? In a word, yes. Inequality and polarization have not been this high since the nineteenth century. Democrats are certain that if Donald Trump is re-elected, American democracy will not survive. Republicans are equally certain that if Trump loses, radical socialists will seize the wealth of elites and distribute it to underserving poor and minorities, forever destroying the economy of the United States. Both sides are also convinced that the other side intends to change the democratic “rules of the game” in ways that will make it impossible for them to compete effectively in future elections. In such conditions, elections are not merely contests over policy preferences; they become existential battles for the future of the nation. Whichever party loses is likely to view the results as rigged and the outcome as intolerable. ...
This has already been, and will continue to be, a violent year in America. We need to brace for post-election violence and prepare bipartisan methods to ensure that the election outcome will be widely regarded as fair and legitimate. It will take heroic efforts to rebuild the political center, to join businesses and workers in partnership and consensus, and to restore fairness in both taxation and public spending. Only if all sides can again recover a stake in our government, no matter which party controls it, can we avoid sliding into a crisis that will undermine our Constitution and pit Americans against each other in a way we have not seen for generations.
(Hat Tip: Ted Seto)