Several years ago I started a research project whose goal was to apply the structural-demographic theory to the American history (see Sticking My Neck Out). As I started collecting data, I began seeing connections between seemingly unrelated trends affecting the American society during the last three decades. For example, as the disparity between the incomes of workers and corporate chiefs became more extreme, increasingly large numbers of students flocked to law and business schools; meanwhile, incidence of seemingly senseless shooting rampages exploded to truly epidemic levels.
Viewed through the lens of the structural-demographic theory, however, these trends (and a number of others) all pointed to the same conclusion: that the USA was entering a pre-crisis phase of the secular cycle. Our investigations of historical societies showed that rising economic inequality, elite overproduction (in the US taking the form of overproduction of law and business degrees), and increasing political violence are reliable indicators of a crisis to come. Particularly worrying is the recent shift in shooting rampages, from workplace- and school-related rampages to violence against the state and state representatives.
In 2010 I published a short essay in the science journal Nature, in which I pointed out these worrying trends, and suggested that they were all slated to intensify in the years around 2020. A month ago I posted a book-length manuscript, which fleshes out the theoretical argument with large amounts of data we are fortunate to have for the American society and polity.
The disquieting conclusion from this more recent analysis is that we are still firmly on track to some kind of a social and political upheaval during the coming decade or so. The worsening structural-demographic trends argue that things will be quite a lot more violent than the 1960s. How much worse – I don’t want [to] even think about it.
But as I read the today’s news, I am struck by how many parallels there are between the 2010s and the 1850s, especially on the political front.
Before 1850 the United States had a stable political landscape dominated by two main parties: the Democrats and the Whigs. During the 1850s this “Second Party System” collapsed.
The Democrats split along the Southern/Northern divide, while the Whig party simply disintegrated. In his 1976 book, The Impending Crisis, 1848–1861, the historian David Potter describes a stunning array of parties and factions with which the voters were presented in 1854. These included: Democrats, Whigs, Free Soilers, Republicans, People’s party men, Anti-Nebraskaites, Fusionists, Know-Nothings, Know-Somethings, Main Lawites, Temperance men, Rum Democrats, Silver Gray Whigs, Hindoos, Hard Shell Democrats, Soft Shells, Half Shells, and Adopted Citizens.
Will some future historian write a book, titled The Impending Crisis, 2008–2021? We are not quite in 1854 yet, but the current Republican-Democratic Party System is already showing the signs of fragmentation.
The political scientists Nolan McCarty, Keith Poole, and Howard Rosenthal have analyzed the voting patterns in the U.S. Congress, which enabled them to quantify polarization among the American political elites. They showed that during the 1950s and 1960s there was virtually no difference between the Republicans and the Democrats. The American political elites were remarkably unified, just as they were during the Era of Good Feelings in the 1820s.
In The Big Sort the journalist Bill Bishop describes this ‘Second Era of Good Feelings’ as follows:
The American ideal was to get along. The national goal was moderation and consensus. … In Congress, members visited, talked across party boundaries. They hung out at the gym, socialized at receptions, and formed friendships that had nothing to do with party and ideology. (After all, members had been elected more on their personal connections at home—what V. O. Key called “friends and neighbors” politics—than by the force of party or policy.)
Things are quite different now. McCarty, Poole, and Rosenthal provide the numbers, but anybody who reads the news can tell that we are not in the fifties anymore. When I wrote my Nature essay on the problem of 2020, the degree of vituperation between the Republicans and the Democrats was already beyond any limits of civilized discourse. Things got even worse since then.
Now it’s the Republicans who are splintering. One of the leaders of the Tea Party wing in the Senate, Ted Cruz, compared fellow Republican senators who didn’t agree with him to appeasers of Nazi Germany (see the Reuters article).
The way things are going, soon the Republicans will start comparing each other to Bashar al-Assad or Kim Jong-un.
It’s “high noon,” cautioned Democratic Senator Tom Harkin, “as dangerous as the breakup of the Union before the Civil War.” He doesn’t know how right he is.