Yesterday Nick Hanauer published an important article on Politico, To My Fellow Plutocrats: You Can Cure Trumpism. I agree with pretty much everything he says there, and I also want to add a few of my thoughts.
I find myself in deep disagreement with almost everyone I talk to about Trump and Trumpism. I firmly believe that Trump, by himself, is not the problem. Indeed, the left’s maniacal focus on Trump confuses cause with effect. Yes, Trump is a manifestation of a serious civic sickness. But treating the symptom by removing Trump won’t cure the disease, even if it temporarily makes us feel better. No, to heal the body politic we must confront the disease itself.
And here’s what I wrote in my blog post Listen, Liberal – Part I :
Clearly, the Democrats are still in massive denial about why they really lost the presidential elections of 2016. They are looking everywhere except at themselves. But by buying into the Russia conspiracy theory they are setting themselves up for much worse. When this conspiracy collapses (I personally give less than 10% chance that there is any substance behind it), it would be a colossal reputational hit, from which they might not recover before the next round of presidential elections.
The Democrats should stop obsessing about the mythical “Siberian Candidate” conspiracy. Instead, they should read the remarkable book by Tom Frank, Listen, Liberal: Or, What Ever Happened to the Party of the People?
The real threat to our republic is an alarming breakdown in social cohesion, and the cause of this breakdown is obvious: radical, rising economic inequality, and the anger and anxiety it engenders.
I would add two things. First, I’d use the term “immiseration” rather than “inequality.” Most Americans, including myself and (I am sure) Nick, don’t want radical egalitarianism. Some degree of inequality is fair. Of course, the level of inequality in the US is way, way above what the great majority of Americans consider as fair. But it’s worse than that. As Nick says later in the article, the growing inequality is resulting in declining well-being of large swaths of American population – in absolute terms. The technical term for this is immiseration.
Second, as our historical research shows, popular immiseration is only of the general factors that drive political instability. The other, and in many ways more important one, is intra-elite conflict:
Intense intra-elite competition leads to the rise of rival power networks, which increasingly subvert the rules of political engagement to get ahead of the opposition. Instead of competing on their own merits, or the merits of their political platforms, candidates increasingly rely on “dirty tricks” such as character assassination (and, in historical cases, literal assassination). As a result, excessive competition results in the unraveling of prosocial, cooperative norms (this is a general phenomenon that is not limited to political life). Elite overproduction in the US has already driven up the intensity of intra-elite competition. Another clear sign is the unraveling of social norms regulating political discourse and process that has become glaringly obvious during the 2016 presidential election. Analysis of past societies indicates that, if intra-elite competition is allowed to escalate, it will increasingly take more violent forms. A typical outcome of this process is a massive outbreak of political violence, often ending in a state collapse, a revolution, or a civil war (or all of the above).
And all of these trends, immiseration and intra-elite conflict are spiking, suggesting a peak of political violence during the 2020s:
Structural-demographic theory (SDT) suggests that the violence spike of the 2020s will be worse than the one around 1970, and perhaps as bad as the last big spike during the 1920s. Thus, the expectation is that there will be more than 100 events per 5 years (see the upper panel in the figure). In terms of the second metric (the lower panel) we should expect more than 5 fatalities per 1 million of population per 5 years, if the theory is correct.
What it all means is that the main threat to the American elites are not the “miserables” (or even “deplorables”), but frustrated elite aspirants, who have always been the primary moving force behind revolutions and civil wars. It will be not peasants with pitchforks, but the Revolutionary Tribunal commissars with Mausers.
Or the Committee for Public Safety with its guillotines.
So what’s to be done? I agree completely with one solution that Nick discusses:
as counterintuitive as it might sound, the single best way to advance our own interests is to put more energy and money into advancing the economic interests of others. For example: by fighting to pass a $15 an hour minimum wage.
This is a great start, but it’s not enough. The fundamental social process that drives both immiseration and intra-elite conflict is the massive oversupply of labor that developed in the United States over the past 30–40 years. It’s driven by a combination of factors, demographic growth, immigration, massive entry of women into the work force, and shipping of manufacturing jobs off shore. See my analysis that tries to disentangle these influences: Putting It All Together (Why Real Wages Stopped Growing IV)
Most recently, the social force that has loomed particularly large is the technological change, with machines are replacing people. Something must be done about recovering the balance between the number of people who want jobs and the number of jobs available for them. And then there is the second problem of elite overproduction.
These are all massive problems and I don’t have ready answers or solutions. Yet there are things that a group of researchers and policy experts can do—and the American elites can help fund it.
One huge difference between the periods preceding the crises of the English Revolution, the French Revolution, and the American Civil War is that we have a much better understanding of why things are heading south. The Structural-Demographic Theory is not perfect, and much additional work needs to be done. But while different social scientists and public intellectuals focus on different slices of the overall problem, the SDT provides us with the theoretical machinery to deal with the overall problem holistically. Because we have this understanding, we don’t really have an option of sitting the troubles out – we need to use it.