In my research I studied many historical societies that experienced structural-demographic crises. In each case there was a multitude of causes for the explosion of political violence, but I see two commonly recurring themes, fundamental problems that prevented people from finding a nonviolent way out. First, and most importantly, they didn’t really understand the nature of the crisis they found themselves in. Second, and related, their lack of understanding of deep structural causes driving their societies to collapse caused them to blame specific individuals and groups as causes of the crisis. Instead of cooperating to solve the problem, these societies descended into partisan conflict, which eventually exploded into a full-blown conflagration.
Sounds familiar? In the United States today most everybody knows who the culprit is. Depending on who is speaking, it’s Trump, or Clinton, or Black Lives Matter, or Blue Lives Matter. As passions and hatred of the opponents boil over, barriers to violence go down, and we get perilously close to the point where the cycle of strike and counter-strike, revenge and counter-revenge takes over in an autocatalytic manner.
So what’s to be done, to repeat the question from the previous post? The only way to get out of the crisis is to generate broadly based collective action for positive change. It cannot come from within either of the parties, which are by the nature divisive. You cannot overcome a disintegrative structural-demographic trend by playing party politics.
Even more important is to have good working understanding of how we got into this mess. Without such understanding, we will not be able to escape it. The only hope I see for us, and why this time may be different, is that we have a much better understanding of the causes of this crisis.
Consider also that the current crisis has been decades in developing. For decades we have been doing some things (and perhaps many things) wrong. Drastic change means that almost everybody will be negatively affected, at least, in the short run. We need a good working model of the society to figure out which of the unpopular measures are really needed. There will be enough pain to go around, and we don’t want to impose unnecessary suffering on anybody.
This means that the fundamental problem number one, our lack of clear understanding of how we got into this mess, is really the most important one that needs to be solved.
My friend and colleague Kevin Feeney has a particularly clear idea of how collective action for positive change should be structured. First, we need to develop much better science, because without good science we are doomed. Although the structural-demographic theory provides us with a decent set of theoretical tools to understand the deep causes of the current crisis, I would be the first to admit that it’s just a beginning. Different social sciences, e.g. economics, have learned a lot about different aspects of how our societies function,. These insights need to be integrated within a more holistic understanding of how different factors—economic, social, demographic, cultural etc.—work together, both to drive us to the precipice, and hopefully get us away from it. This means establishing a transdisciplinary scientific center or institute is a key part of the solution.
We also need advocacy organizations that would get the message coming from science out to the public, put pressure on the elected representatives, and propose concrete policies.
The third element of the solution is an organization that translates science to policy. We need a mechanism that will evaluate proposals on policies and reforms. Will they move us in the right direction? What are their unintended consequences? Human societies are nonlinear dynamical systems, and sometimes a policy intended to achieve a certain result can lead to precisely the opposite effect—due to those nonlinear feedback loops.
Why does the science part and the policy part need to be separate, and independent organizations? Because, again as Kevin points out, they have different goals, methods, and values that don’t mix well. The science institute is about truth, and must be able to speak truth even when it is inconvenient. The policy organization is about good, about how to increase social wellbeing. There is a tension between what’s true and what’s good. We really need two separate organizations to pursue each.
So there you go. We need a science institute, a science-to-policy think tank, and advocacy organizations—separate, but working together. Then we somehow need to forge a common consensus and adopt painful reforms. And in the process we have to convince, or overcome special interests whose narrow-based wellbeing is vested in the status quo. Who said it’s going to be easy?