Our Growing Political Dysfunction – What’s to Be Done?



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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.

after Unknown artist,print,circa 1649
after Unknown artist,print,circa 1649

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.

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Russ Abbott

You said you wouldn’t recommend specific policies. But you could at least say what you claim to know. You wrote, “the SDT provides us with the theoretical machinery to deal with the overall problem holistically.” What is that theoretical machinery and how does it apply to today’s situation?


Peter Turchin’s usual method is to tease us with several blog posts spread out over a month or so.

Randall Parker

Knowing what you know now, if you were King Louis XVI what would you have done differently to avoid revolution? Get large numbers of people to set out for the New World? Order some members of the elite into exile? Start a war to send nobles to go fight it? Where to fight the war? Trump up charges against some nobles, seize their land, and sell it?

Peter Turchin

Your question presupposes that I am some kind of a Hari Seldon and my goal is a psychohistorian Foundation to save the civilization. In fact, that’s what I always disliked about the Foundation — it was a deeply undemocratic project. In my opinion, the only way forward is by collective action that involves most everybody in a society. And a clear understanding of the problem is a necessary precondition for that. But I am running ahead of my story.


Whatever the empirical statistics the think tanks tell you ultimately the people decide what they consider to be massive inequality and a standards of living drop.

When inequality, the difference between the richest and the poorest, out-paces improvements in the education and expectations of the people, you will have a problem.

The solution is not to reduce the education and expectations of the people. Once the education genie is out-of-the-bottle it is gone. The people will use their education to self-organize.

That cannot be stopped or controlled. You educated them to self-organize to help you get richer of their taxes. You made them the agents of their own destiny.

Reform needs to be targetted at the motor of inequality: the big banks, which the University of Zurich showed control most of the world’s corporations.

There is technology that various parts of the US government know about but which has been surpressed such as on energy production that can be released to the public. Freerer energy can divert the ambitions of educated people in creative ways.

Loren Petrich

Peter Turchin, I wish to thank you for puttng your graphs’ numbers online. Doing so has been most helpful to me, since I have data-analysis tools that I have used on them. I’ve done such things as flipping some of the curves and then taking the median of all of them, in addition to doing principal components analysis. I get fairly good agreement.

It’s interesting to compare the long-range cycle to other cycles of United States history.

Arthurs Schlesinger Sr. and Jr. have proposed a liberal-conservative / reform-retrenchment / public-purpose-private-interest cycle that seems to fit fairly well:


The liberal phases have a median length of 12 years and the conservative phases 17 years. Both integrative and disintegrative phases have both kinds of Schlesinger phases, though the latter parts of the disintegrative phases included some long conservative phases: Gilded Ages I (32 years) and II (38+ years). Curiously, both integrative and disintegrative long-term phases began with a liberal Schlesinger phase: adoption of the Constitution, Jackson era, Progressive Era, Sixties radicalism.

In his book The Cycles of American History, Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr noted a foreign-policy cycle discovered by Peter Klingberg, an alternation between extroversion, a willingness to expand influence abroad, and introversion, the opposite. Extroverted phases typically last about 27 years and introverted phases 21 years. This cycle runs out of sync with the Schlesinger one, and continually through both integrative and disintegrative phases. This says something about US military adventures as opposed to those of many preindustrial nations.

Loren Petrich

One can get an idea of what to do by considering what went on in integrative phases, complete with comparing them to disintegrative ones. For the US, the previous integrative ones were 1910-1960 and the early 19th cy., and preindustrial ones have many more examples.

I divide policy prescriptions into two types: pushing up the lower classes and pushing down the upper classes.

*** Pushing up the lower classes.

Restricting the supply of labor: reducing immigration.
Increasing the pay of labor: supporting labor unions, the minimum wage, overtime pay, and the like.

*** Pushing down the upper classes.

Restricting elite membership: restricting the number of people getting elite credentials, like MD’s.
Reducing the wealth of the elite: making the elite pay more in taxes.

There are some methods that IMO are best avoided, like restricting by ethnicity. In the early 20th cy., the leaders of some elite universities “discovered” that academic excellence wasn’t the greatest thing, and they added additional criteria that enabled them to rig admissions in favor of White Anglo-Saxon Protestants (WASP’s), and other people of northwestern and northern European ancestry. Also, the 1920’s immigration restrictions used immigration quotas based on the immigration of some decades before, before a lot of southern and eastern Europeans started arriving.

Even aside from such issues, some of these measures may be a hard sell. It may be hard to keep immigration restriction from being tainted with xenophobia. Pushing up workers’ wages will get called inflationary. Raising taxes on rich people will get called “punishing success”. Etc.


After the last Gilded Age, all of those were achieved (as well as breaking up national monopolies). As I stated in another post:

Immigration was stopped in the 1920’s (I’m skeptical that stopping immigration will do much good economically, though it may be good culturally as everyone assimilates and adjusts to a new America)

Redistributive policies and strengthening of unions, I believe, would do even more societal good (they started in the 1930’s), even if the total pie is shrunk.

Also, busting up of big national monopolies/companies and championing of regional/local interests/businesses (as was started by the trust-buster Teddy Roosevelt at the start of the 20th). That may lead to more sort-term inefficiency but more long-term societal health and vitality:

Also, yes, there were anti-Semitic/bigoted restrictions (including on swarthy southern European Catholics) at the Ivies as well as steadily increasing income tax rates.

Don’t see why all this can’t/won’t happen again. there’s arguably already an unspoken Asian quota at the Ivies.

Vladimir Dinets

If I remember correctly, he stubbornly refused to borrow money to solve the financial crisis. I’ve read claims that his personal flaws contributed a lot to the intensity of the implosion, just like personal flaws of Nicholas II were a major factor in making the collapse of Russian Empire so catastrophic.

Vladimir Dinets

I mean Louis XVI – the comment ended up in a wrong place sorry.

Ross Hartshorn

I think that it is not so intellectually difficult to figure out what should be done, in the sense that an omnipotent ruler could do it without so much trouble (Loren Petrich lists several good options). The difficult part is to figure out how to do so, when those with power (by definition, the elites) don’t want to change much.

The usual historical way is for widespread violence to break out for a generation or so, which either thins out the elite or at least convinces them that the situation is serious enough to require changes which t hey otherwise would not accept. So, given that we don’t want to go that route, the question is what else could be done which would convince the elites to give up some of their current, privileged position vs. labor.

[sound of crickets]

Paul Brower

Somehow you missed Nicholas II…

We in America support at least four exploitative and largely irresponsible elites — big landowners (really, include apartment owners who take advantage of permanent scarcity of housing in places where the best opportunities are), industrialists and financiers largely as heirs to great fortunes, a corporate bureaucracy that operates much like the Soviet nomenklatura, and a class of sell-out intellectuals (corporate lawyers, lobbyists, televangelists, and political shysters) almost entirely in collusion in an effort to take whatever they think they can get away with while having the rest of the American people fight each other for the scraps. They see themselves as the cause of all bounty in America and the rest of us as lazy losers who deserve to be deeply in debt so that they will work long, cheap, and hard but somehow competently for their betters.

The contempt that our elites have for us reflects an order that fosters extreme narcissism of elites while requiring that others abase themselves to their alleged betters. Donald Trump epitomizes the sort of malignant narcissism that a laborer or clerk could never get away with. .

The only safety that any member of our elites has is that there are so many people who would go to the guillotine, figurative or literal, in the event of a mass revolution. Maybe the war for profits goes badly. Maybe global warming causes crops to fail. Maybe we get an economic meltdown even nastier than that of 1929-1932.

Maybe America is more vulnerable to fascism, in which case model minorities of recent years become the scapegoats that economic elites offer angry masses for excoriation and plunder while stripping workers of whatever rights they now have. We may be in more peril of a Hitler than of a Lenin.

We need go either social democratic, creating a social market state, or we need to go libertarian. Social market states are the only systems that work with anything near our level of prosperity and technological advancement. Libertarian? Our culture is made for an economic frontier, and when we lack that our system typically festers.


What are the chances that a genius-leader (would that be “Gröfaz”, lol) would achieve exactly the opposite of the desired result? Plugging leaks in the dike may merely cause the upcoming collapse to be even larger. It seems to me that the difference between dampening a cycle and merely upping the ante is a pretty subtle thing.

Peter Turchin

Any simple remedy to a complex problem can make things so much worse. The mind boggles


To some extent, you can argue that (for once) the current era is a new type.
The combination of truly large scale surveillance along with the ability to parse the data leads us down a new road. Where once you needed old ladies in apartment hallways and people listening to conversations in taverns, the work is now increasingly outsourced to a synthetic intelligence. Given that the likely President-elect is a paid in full member of the national security state and large companies alike, it seems to me that the skids are greased for that outcome.

The more unrest, whether from divergence in wealth or because of a population that is increasingly tribal, the more top-down control you can expect. The difference is that the potential for a permanent dictatorship is present due to technology.

As a partial aside, this makes me think about a Luttwak article from some time ago. I can’t say that I agree with it entirely, but it’s worth considering.


Given that fascism doesn’t necessarily imply ethnonationalism, it’s certainly no huge stretch to see Madam President leading down that path as pressure is applied to the system.

Peter Turchin

I wasn’t making this argument, but elsewhere I worried that technology is swinging against popular-based movements in favor of a small elite who can build armies of robot cops and soldiers. But such a pessimistic scenario assumes that those evil elites will somehow manage to remain monolithic. Enough said.


I am extremely skeptical about AI. There is strong AI and weak AI: I believe in weak AI.

Basically, the extreme claims made about “singularity” and “conscious robots” into which you can upload a human personality is an obvious high-end con to entice guillible billionaires to part with a percentage of their wealth to fund endless scientific projects to achieve the unachievable. I’m not going to be distracted with that nonsense.

What is important is weak AI which is human operator assisted technology such as guided missiles, pilotless drones, rolling copstation robots that have been tested on some American streets. These all depend on human input for their function and, far from being highly intelligent, have stupidity programmed into them. An R2D2 robot-like cop would always have a fundamental flaw when it comes to physical confrontation.

In the modern times we should not also forget the importance of human programming, the political ideology which is spread by the mass media, which influences how people see the world and act. This is the most dangerous form of technology because elites can use it to turn humans into stupid robots and say the most ridiculous of things.


re: Weak vs strong AI.

I’d say that the most powerful concept in the medium term will be something in-between.

A larger programming team could write (and no doubt has) self-learning software with goals. The software could experiment on a large population (Facebook or a Wall Street trading firm for example) and see how the group or marketplace reacts to given inputs. As opposed to a rules based system, the software can invent solutions which don’t even make sense to the developers, but work.

I’d say that this ecosystem is developing faster than the human ability to withstand it. The ramp up in individualized sales pitches will hit politics pretty hard. The hope is that alternative mass programming is done by opposition groups, but there’s a kind of stick in the spokes here….the internet lends itself to gigantism and monopoly mixed with a help of centralized control (Chinese censorship for example). I don’t doubt that ‘revolutionary’ groups will always exist online, but just look how fast the ruling classes turned a large part of the electorate against Wikileaks.

I can’t say that you need particularly strong AI to run a surveillance state. Once 100% of phones are wiretapped (probably there now), the ongoing war over encryption leads to more backdoors in devices and algorithms,
ubiquitous security cameras, and all financial transactions are trackable by government and large firms, a lot of possibilities present themselves.
I’m not sure that you get a boot stamping on a human face forever, but I wouldn’t doubt that the rules governing historical cycles may need rewriting.


“But such a pessimistic scenario assumes that those evil elites will somehow manage to remain monolithic. Enough said.”

It’s certainly possible to have non-monolithic evil elite that is in a state of equilibrium. I admit that the long term prognosis is not good, but that is really the question I suppose I am posing about the effects of AI, surveillance, etc. on politics.

One interesting side effect might be entirely new power centers. Rather than the Soviet era version of party/army/intelligence, the US troika might have some new players. Internet and communications companies are defacto intelligence agencies and you never know what information they (or a traditional .gov agency) might have on someone. Multiple versions of Hoover’s FBI writ large might lead to interesting side effects.

On an utterly separate note, and just to let my typing Tourette’s run for a moment, I think that the biggest outcome of this election will be a lack of legitimacy for whoever wins. It’s baked in the cake right now regardless of the inoculations currently being offered up. Is lack of legitimacy a side effect of instability or cause?

Peter Turchin

That’s right, the loss of legitimacy for whoever wins is essentially guaranteed. And this loss of trust in the institutions is part of the overall complex of cause-and-effect — more on this in Ages of Discord.


“There are some methods that IMO are best avoided, like restricting by ethnicity.”

Serious question. Why not? I don’t see an upside from introducing a large number of truly foreign foreigners. I admit that it would be a bummer to create another Iceland or Japan, though. Perhaps something should be done about them.

An interesting aside about immigration to the US. The average immigrant is practically a decade older than the average native-born person. So much for the concept of buoying up entitlement programs, although even if the age were actually lower you just end up with a form of Ponzi scheme.

Assuming that open borders are a bad thing at this point, due to things like resource constraints, labor issues, and the death of civic engagement as discussed by Robert Putnam, here’s my solution…

. Unlimited immigration, but you have to trade with someone of the same age (and perhaps gender) from the other country. They get your benefits of citizenship (like Medicare for example), and you get theirs. An individual trades with another individual.

To make it work, a marketplace is opened because of the difference in value. For me (a Californian) to move to Switzerland might require a lump of money. On the other hand, it might take several million (or more) dollars to persuade me to trade with someone in Lagos.

Loren Petrich

That has problems of its own. How does one tell who are “truly foreign foreigners”? For many Americans in the past, it was anyone other than a northwestern European, anyone northwest of a line extending France – Germany – Scandinavia. Before the late 19th cy., the “truly foreign foreigners” also included some such people: the Irish.

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