This is from a Reuters article yesterday: “Only half of Republicans would accept Clinton, the Democratic nominee, as their president. And if she wins, nearly 70 percent said it would be because of illegal voting or vote rigging, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll released on Friday.”
“I’ve never seen an election like this. Not in my lifetime. Certainly not in modern history,” told Reuters Lonna Atkeson, head of the Center for the Study of Voting, Elections, and Democracy at the University of New Mexico.
Very true. To see another horrible election like this one we would have to go back to the nineteenth century America. Although, thankfully, things are not as bad as they were in 1860.
Still, those who think that the elections of 2016 are just a temporary blip that we have to survive through are indulging in wishful thinking. Atkeson, for example, blames Trump: “It has to be the candidate effect.”
Trump may fade away, as many hope, but the deeper social causes of the bizarre 2016 election will not. The underlying pressures for political violence have been building up since the 1980s and, according to the data and best projections that I have, they are set to continue growing into the early 2020s. I am afraid that what we will see in 2020 or 2024 might be much worse.
So what should be done – what can be done? This is the question that I almost invariably hear after giving my talk on structural-demographic dynamics in the USA between 1780 and the present. In fact, I have been discussing this issue with a few colleagues over the past year (we started this discussion even before this most recent evidence of political dysfunction that the 2016 elections provide). In this post, and others to come, I plan to reflect some of our ideas.
But if you expect a detailed set of policy initiatives and reforms from us you will be disappointed. Let me invoke my “Charles I defense” to explain why we will steadfastly avoid the specifics.
Or, if you prefer, the “Louis XVI defense.”
These two European monarchs had the misfortune to inherit the thrones of England and France, respectively, during the pre-crisis structural-demographic phases of their respective kingdoms. Although neither was a particularly effective leader, by all accounts, neither was an evil person. Both tried to resolve structural-demographic crises. Their governments proposed specific reforms but failed to convince the elites to adopt them. History didn’t leave flattering portraits of these two rulers, but in reality they were simply their misfortune to be caught between the impersonal social forces that grounded them up like millstones grind grain. In the end, both lost their heads, one to an executioner’s axe, and the other to guillotine.
This lesson of history is quite clear: even if the most powerful man in the land was unable to head of an explosion of political violence resulting from structural-demographic pressures, what do you expect from a group of academics? We can’t go on as we have done in the last 30 years. This means that any changes that will help us avoid the troubles to come will be painful to various groups. The French nobles, for example, did not want to impose taxes on themselves to solve the fiscal crisis into which the French Kingdom slid during the 1780s (in ancien régime France the nobility were exempt from most taxes).
But the result of their inability to agree on a course of reforms was that most of them lost everything, up to and including their heads. In 1787, before things really unraveled, the Notables directed their ire at Charles Alexandre de Calonne, the French finance minister who spearheaded the proposed reforms. Calonne was destroyed as a politician and was sent into exile (on the other hand, he escaped guillotine and eventually died in his own bed).
Rephrasing my question, what can a group of academics do? 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.
To be continued.