As readers of this blog know, structural-demographic theorists distinguish between two causes of revolutions and civil wars: structural trends, which build slowly and are quite predictable, and much less predictable, or even unpredictable, triggering events. In this view, a revolution is like an earthquake or a forest fire. As Mao once wrote, “a single spark can start a prairie fire.” A fire needs fuel—dead plant material—which accumulates gradually as plants die and fall down. But what it needs to start is a spark—somebody throwing away a careless match, or a lighting strike coming from the sky.
Structural trends undermining social resilience in the United States have been building up for decades. It became clear to me 10 years ago (see my 2010 forecast) and has become obvious to most everybody in the last few years. These structural forces are: increasing popular immiseration (declining incomes, falling life expectancies, growing social pessimism and despair), elite overproduction and intra-elite conflict, and failing state (growing state debt and collapsing trust in state institutions). The Covid-19 pandemic put even more pressure on the system, especially exacerbating immiseration.
What is somewhat unusual is that the triggering event for USA in 2020 is also highly predictable. Every four years America elects president. Even under “normal” circumstances a ruler transition stresses the system, but when it happens under conditions of high social fragility, it can deliver a death blow to it. Last time this happened was in 1860. The result was the American Civil War and what many historians call the “Second American Revolution,” because it overturned the previous social order, dominated by slave-owning southern planters in alliance with northern merchants who shipped their products overseas. This ruling class was replaced with the new governing class, the northern manufacturing, mining, railroad, and agro-business elites. The main fault-line then was between the slave-owning South and the free-labor North.
Today the faultline is between what could be called the Red and Blue Americas. Blue Americans hate and fear Trump and everything he stands for. Red Americans hate and fear what Biden stands for. Either side is united primarily not because they particularly like their candidate, but by their dislike of the opposing party. There is a geographic aspect to this confrontation (the coasts versus the heartland) but it is not as clear-cut as it was in 1860. Also, the Red and Blue parties coincide imperfectly with the Republicans and Democrats, because many Obama voters switched to Trump in 2016, while many republican politicians have endorsed Biden. The division is over the issues.
As a reminder, my analysis in this blog (and elsewhere) is always non-partisan and as even-handed as I can make it. So let me try summarizing how each side feels, as though I were an observer from Alpha Centauri.
Blue Americans cannot bear thought of four more years of Trump, his desecration of the values that made America a beacon to the world, his bullying and lies, his undermining of the norms and institutions that make America work, his contempt for European allies, and his kowtowing to foreign dictators. They fear that Trump will use false claims of election fraud and the post-election social unrest to engineer a military coup, in which he would set himself up as dictator, and abolish free press and American democracy.
Red Americans fear a Biden administration that will open borders to massive immigration, encourage looting and property destruction by BLM and antifa rioters, take away their guns, increase their taxes, and end the oil and gas industry in America. Many see Biden as the senile figurehead for the global cabal of Wall Street, Silicon Valley, and child-sex predators that include prominent Democrats, Hollywood elites, and deep state allies, whose aim is to establish an unelected “liberal dictatorship” that would abolish freedom of speech and American democracy.
Each side sees the world in Manichean terms and increasingly endorses violence as the necessary means to prevent the other side from staying in, or coming to power. As a result, we are in an extremely fragile state, which in technical terms is known as the revolutionary situation.
What will happen on November 3? One possibility is that one side wins by a landslide and the other accepts it. This is what the generals fervently hope for. This would avoid a civil war, at least for a time. The problem is that neither side has shown any willingness or understanding to solve the structural problems that have brought about the current revolutionary situation. And it takes years to reverse the negative structural-demographic trends, even once the necessary reforms are implemented. So we simply kick the problem forward to 2024.
Moreover, a clean win by either side, while possible, doesn’t seem to be very likely. Let’s face it, we live in a “post-truth” world. The difference between the Red and Blue parties is stark not only in their visions of where America needs to go; they also completely disagree on what is true or false. Each side believes that the other has been lying and suppressing information. The polls reported by the mainstream media, who has decisively taken the Biden side, suggest that Biden leads Trump by 10 percent or more. The Blue party is convinced that they are winning. But if you read Red party-aligned media and social media, they are equally convinced that they are the ones winning. Come election date and the days after, during the messy process of counting ballots and contesting results state by state by the lawyer teams on each side, it is unclear to me how either party could be convinced that they lost the elections.
What comes next—in November and in the months ahead? In dynamic systems terms, we are on the cusp with a highly positive Lyapunov exponent. What it means in English is that, unless there is a clean win, we will be in situation where possible trajectories start diverging dramatically. All kinds of outcomes become possible, even ones that seem outlandish right now, such as American Civil War II.
Many social scientists, who study civil wars and revolutions, don’t believe that a civil war here is likely. They look at the current wave of violence and don’t see how it could escalate to a civil war—the United States has a strong and well-armed police force that can easily put down any popular insurrection. But this view misses an important point: successful revolutions rarely result from the revolt of the masses. The most important factor is the divisions at the top, with dissident elites mobilizing the masses to advance their political agendas.
Using the past as a guide to the future, I can think of a number of possible trajectories after Nov. 3. These are all very speculative, and some may seem outlandish, but others have also been war-gaming various post-election scenarios.
In one demonstrations against Trump turn violent, he uses the military to suppress them, and then sets himself up as dictator (this is what the Blue party fears). In another Trump is arrested by the FBI and is put on trial. Alternatively, Biden is tried and convicted for corruption.
Other possibilities include a regional rebellion, e.g. the West Coast announces independence and the state governors use National Guard to defined themselves against the Trump administration in Washington. Or the Deep South announces independence against the Biden administration in Washington.
A group of colonels seizes the power and establish a junta (this one seems the least likely as the social norm that the military doesn’t interfere in politics is one of the few that has not yet unraveled).
Since we seemingly live in a dystopian novel, I can also imagine a trajectory in which Trump is assassinated by a lone gunman, who is then killed, and the person who killed the killer of Trump’s assassin commits suicide by shooting themselves four times in the head, and then jumping from the twentieth floor window.
Just about the only way in which street violence could directly escalate to a revolution is if revolutionary crowds break into the White House and depose Trump. But even this trajectory requires collaboration from the top (the police and the army standing aside to allow this to happen).
I am sure you can think of other possible trajectories. The main point is that hitting a cusp creates a fan of possible trajectories, many of which couldn’t even be imagined ahead of time.
One final thought is that the timing of any such possibilities is completely unpredictable. Social breakdown can happen in days, but historical comparisons suggest that usually it takes many months. For example, Lincoln was elected on Nov. 6, 1860, but the first real battle of the Civil War took place in July 1861.
And this concludes my “analysis from Alpha Centauri.”
Postscript: 4.XI.2020. A day after the elections, and the possibility space has started collapsing, but there is still a multitude of trajectories ahead. As I expected, a “clean win” by either party has not materialized (even though many from the Blue Party were expecting a Blue Wave, that turned out to be wishful thinking). The next likely phase is when both parties declare victory.