The Presidential Election of 2016 through the Lens of Cliodynamics

Peter Turchin


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This article was first published on Evonomics

Cliodynamics is a new “transdisciplinary discipline” that treats history as just another science. Ten years ago I started applying its tools to the society I live in: the United States. What I discovered alarmed me.

My research showed that about 40 seemingly disparate (but, according to cliodynamics, related) social indicators experienced turning points during the 1970s. Historically, such developments have served as leading indicators of political turmoil. My model indicated that social instability and political violence would peak in the 2020s (see Political Instability May be a Contributor in the Coming Decade).

The presidential election which we have experienced, unfortunately, confirms this forecast. We seem to be well on track for the 2020s instability peak. And although the election is over, the deep structural forces that brought us the current political crisis have not gone away. If anything, the negative trends seem to be accelerating.

My model tracks a number of factors. Some reflect the developments that have been noticed and extensively discussed: growing income and wealth inequality, stagnating and even declining well-being of most Americans, growing political fragmentation and governmental dysfunction (see Return of the Oppressed). But most social scientists and political commentators tend to focus on a particular slice of the problem. It’s not broadly appreciated that these developments are all interconnected. Our society is a system in which different parts affect each other, often in unexpected ways.


Furthermore, there is another important development that has been missed by most commentators: the key role of “elite overproduction” in driving waves of political violence, both in historical societies and in our own (see Blame Rich, Overeducated Elites as Our Society Frays). As I wrote three years ago,

Increasing inequality leads not only to the growth of top fortunes; it also results in greater numbers of wealth-holders. The “1 percent” becomes “2 percent.” Or even more. … from 1983 to 2010 the number of American households worth at least $10 million grew to 350,000 from 66,000. Rich Americans tend to be more politically active than the rest of the population. … In technical terms, such a situation is known as “elite overproduction.” … Elite overproduction generally leads to more intra-elite competition that gradually undermines the spirit of cooperation, which is followed by ideological polarization and fragmentation of the political class. This happens because the more contenders there are, the more of them end up on the losing side. A large class of disgruntled elite-wannabes, often well-educated and highly capable, has been denied access to elite positions.

This was written when Donald Trump was known only as a real estate mogul and reality show host; well before this presidential election characterized by an unprecedented collapse of social norms governing civilized discourse—“epic ugliness”, in the words of the New York Times columnist Frank Bruni.



The victory of Donald Trump changes nothing in this equation. The “social pump” creating new aspirants for political offices continues to operate at full strength. In addition to politically ambitious multi-millionaires, the second important source of such aspirants is U.S. law schools, which every year churn twice as many law graduates as there are job openings for them—about 25,000 “surplus” lawyers, many of whom are in debt. It is emblematic that the 2016 election pitted a billionaire against a lawyer.

Another visible sign of increasing intraelite competition and political polarization is the fragmentation of political parties. The Republican Party is in the process of splitting up into three factions: Traditional Republicans, Tea Party Republicans, and Trump Populists. These divisions run so deep that many Republicans refused to endorse Trump, and some even voted for Clinton. Similar disintegrative forces have also been at work within the Democratic Party, with a major fault line dividing Bernie Sanders’ Democratic Socialists from the Establishment Democrats of Obama and Clinton.

So far in this analysis I have emphasized elite overproduction. There are two reasons for it. First, as I mentioned before, other factors are much better understood, and have been discussed, by social scientists and political commentators. Second, cliodynamic research on past societies demonstrates that elite overproduction is by far the most important of the three main historical drivers of social instability and political violence (see Secular Cycles for this analysis).

But the other two factors in the model, popular immiseration (the stagnation and decline of  living standards) and declining fiscal health of the state (resulting from falling state revenues and rising expenses) are also important contributors.

From what I have seen so far, it seems unlikely that the Trump administration will succeed in reversing these negative trends. And some of the proposed policies will likely make them worse. For example, drastically reducing taxes on the wealthy Americans will hardly strengthen fiscal health of the state.

Thus, I see no reason to revise the forecast I made three years ago: “We should expect many years of political turmoil, peaking in the 2020s.”

But this is a science-based forecast, not a “prophecy”. It’s based on solid social science, the workings of which I have left “under the hood” in this article intended for a general audience. But the science is there. If you are interested in looking under the hood, see my recently published book, Ages of Discord.

Because it’s a scientific theory, we also need to understand the limitations of what it can forecast. Cliodynamics is about broad social trends and deep structural causes of these developments. It did not predict that Donald Trump would become the American President in 2016. But it did predict rising social and political instability. And, unless something is done, instability will continue to rise.




So what’s to be done? I find myself in the shoes of Hari Seldon, a fictional character in Isaac Asimov’s Foundation, whose science of history (which he called psychohistory) predicted the decline and fall of his own society. Should we follow Seldon’s lead and establish a Cliodynamic Foundation somewhere in the remote deserts of Australia?

This would be precisely the wrong thing to do. It didn’t work even in Isaac Asimov’s fictional universe. The problem with secretive cabals is that they quickly become self-serving, and then mire themselves in internecine conflict. Asimov came up with the Second Foundation to watch over the First. But who watches the watchers? In the end it all came down to a uniquely powerful and uniquely benevolent super-robot, R. Daneel Olivaw.

No, the only way forward is through an open discussion of problems and potential solutions and a broad-based collective action to implement them. It’s messy and slow, but that’s how lasting positive change usually comes about.

Another important consideration is that in Foundation Seldon’s equations told him that it would be impossible to stop the decline of the Galactic Empire—Trantor must fall. In real life, thankfully, things are different. And this is another way in which the forecasts of cliodynamics differ from prophecies of doom. They give us tools not only to understand the problem, but also potentially to fix it.

But to do it, we need to develop much better science. What we need is a nonpolitical, indeed a fiercely non-partisan, center/institute/think tank that would develop and refine a better scientific understanding of how we got into this mess; and then translate that science into policy to help us get out of it.

Our society, like all previous complex societies, is on a rollercoaster. Impersonal social forces bring us to the top; then comes the inevitable plunge. But the descent is not inevitable. Ours is the first society that can perceive how those forces operate, even if dimly. This means that we can avoid the worst — perhaps by switching to a less harrowing track, perhaps by redesigning the rollercoaster altogether.





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al loomis

what needs to be done? transfer power, from the elite to the electorate.
whatever their failings, the people have the welfare of themselves and their children in mind. no small group whether, rich, or connected or scientific, has the same interest. it’s democracy or extinction, and the smart money is on extinction.

Skip Williams

A complex society therefore might require elites we could assume I suppose from this. Would the problem be with elites themselves being cut off or isolated or where elites governance is not transparent. …maybe both. “As those who concentrate social power…” If you are looking at outcomes, elites would also include influencers and not just those identified by their position or authority or wealth.

To me it seems as society becomes more complex, elites should operate within a context of consensus where the outcomes can be rationalized within the broader society. There must be some way of continuous, albeit salubrious critique that informs not just the governance but objective outcomes. We don’t elect all elites; some elites emerge from the discussion.

The more smoke&mirrors elite governance becomes, the more prone to manipulation by both elites and the broader society. The more important it may be to create institutions that keep opening windows. The more important that it may be to encourage functional elites beyond a wealth and authority criteria. Things like an apolitical civil service (government ops). An independent-minded league of women voters whose purpose is the exchange of ideas, access to the vote, and fair and honest elections (free association). Broadcasters that must broadcast in the public interest (a business requirement if they want to be recognized as news for instance). It would take a set of institutions and people to fill the role envisioned in the Foundation set of novels.


An interesting idea, and one that hopefully draws from the concept of a mass intelligence. By that I mean that a group of people will generate a more correct answer than a single person via a kind of sampling.

Aside from small tribal societies, I can’t say that it’s ever been done. For the life of me, I can’t think of a long-lasting system for large human groups that couldn’t be roughly defined as a sort of monarchy (even the few so-called ‘republics’) with a small elite running the show. The last couple of hundred years have been an interesting experiment and may yet provide something different. My guess is that you just end up with rhyming systems with different names.


While I agree that a elite insititution like the Second Foundation might not be the right way to solve things in RL, I have to through in one thing.

That Asimov imo. made a grave mistake in trying to merge the Foundation and Robot Universe.

You can clearly see that it ended up in favoring the later (which is no surprise, since Asimov apparently saw Foundation as a bore: )

which ended up creating his imo. rather messy 80’s novel.

(The Prequel were half decent, while Edge and Earth were… ughhhh…..And not only because of the tons of contradictions to the original Foundation Trilogy..)

And don’t come with the Benford, Bear, Brin Trilogy, were only Brin’s book was decent. (I actually really liked Seldon’s portrayal in it.)

D. Reale

What will this think tank be able to do when Trump and his partisans do not consider scientists very highly and seem to put scientists and the elite into the sam basket?

Gene Anderson

This is terrific. The degree to which your theories predicted Trump had already occurred to me. Ibn Khaldun looks good too–a lot more accurate than the polls and experts! It now appears, though, that the Republicans gamed the election through voter suppression, closing polls, and outright disappearance of possibly millions of ballots. Still, Trump had a huge and broad base of support, and nobody but you and a 14th-century Tunisian really has a good predictor going.


It sounds premature to jump directly to defining corrective measures. If you just accomplish the ability to show times and cycles when/where there is increased potential for disorder, that sounds like enough to me. Feedback loops can put us in a weird spot once there’s a bit of energy behind them, although it’s fun to muse about how civic cohesion will be redefined as we swirl the drain.

It certainly doesn’t take much to get the hoi polloi all worked up. Within the current maelstrom, all Trump supporters are racists/xenophobes/uneducated and Hillary folks are snowflakes and criminal youths supported by Soros and the MSM, but I can’t say that demonizing the other team is enough to provide any kind of long lasting social glue for applying force. I’m hoping for the kind of belief system or event that provides a kernel to form around, rather like planet formation. Holding your hands just so when making the sign of the Cross was a serious business at one time.

Disintegrative phases strike me as things that require integrative steps on the way towards a finer collapse. On the other hand, maybe it’s turtles all the way down.

Ross Hartshorn

I think that one of the things which has occurred in climate science, is that the people doing the science got caught up in doing the persuasion as well (in some cases), and this ended up making them less, not more, influential. Corrective measures should be developed/advocated by a totally different group of people, with access to the results of the scientists. As soon as scientists are regarded as partisan and advocating for a set of policies, they become less influential.

Also, to be honest, there’s little chance we will be able to ameliorate this time through the cycle. But, we can probably record, analyze, and interpret well enough that the next time through the cycle people will consider it important and take early action. This perhaps makes me a pessimist, but only for the short term. Developing the science (which means also developing the gathering of data) is what we are able to do now, anyway.


Exactly right (on separating science from downstream responses). It’s probably best to view the basic research vs. solutions vs. persuasion walls as a form of auditing procedure. The moment that science becomes advocacy, there’s a lessening of it’s persuasive ability. Social scientists, especially in the more soft disciplines, seem to be the most prone to this. It certainly didn’t help Gould’s legacy and economists, good heavens, what can you say in that case?

Besides the odd fudging of the numbers and general alarmism, it didn’t help that climate scientists had every appearance of wanting to change the economy (and world) in ways that suited them beyond lowering the amount of human-caused environmental damage.

In any case, damage to the ecology just sounds like a bog-standard situation involving an oversupply of the non-elite and is well studied with Dr. Turchin’s models. It’ll correct itself one way or the other, and it’s probably best that the crisis happens early. The last thing you probably want is 15 billion solar-panel-using vegetarian humans running up against a carrying capacity limit.


Wouldn’t happen anyway.

Have you seen how fast birthrates are decreasing globally?


Another problem is that …..

… at least in terms of the Climate Change Debatte, both sides have kinda radicalized each other.

The Rise of Trump can partially also be explained like this.

Yep, Hegel (kinda) predicted Trump.

Guillaume Belanger

Have you considered a different model entirely where groups of people run their own agricultural production, their own factories, their own banks, and all share equally in the decision making process, in the invested efforts to make things run, and in the benefits that comes of this? Are you of the opinion that this is a social anarchist’s fantasy that has no hope of ever being realised, not even in an approximation? And have you thought of how the elite that holds the power will be made to release it, because, obviously, none that hold power will ever give it away willingly. On another note, has anyone with any real power ever expressed interest in your work and your ideas about shaping policy, or is it just a handful of scholars and concerned citizens that take pleasure in reading and commenting on your articles and books? I’m honestly curious about all of these things. Don’t read me as being negative or rhetorical in my questions. I find your work very stimulating and interesting.

[…] The Presidential Election of 2016 through the Lens of Cliodynamics […]

Roger Cooper

You stated that political fragmentation is increasing. This is a testable statement. Can you supply numerical evidence. I would expect the following thing to be occurring with increased political fragmentation:

1. More defections on important congressional votes
2. Higher anti-incumbent votes on primaries/caucuses (or more defeats of incumbents)
3. More defections of voters from their parties
4. Higher votes for 3rd party candidates

I don’t think that there is a consistent pattern of here of party fragmentation, but I would like to see the data.


Hi Peter,
I have a great respect for your ideas but I have to politely disagree with your hope for mitigation and transformation. The best model I have seen is the www3 from LTG and it puts 2020 and onward in the danger category. The brilliant part of their model was to pick somewhat available measurement methods. And to focus on system dynamics with feedback. The real question is measuring diminishing returns on resources. I suspect that your efforts, however heroic, may be susceptible to imprecise data points. But all of this research will help future scientists.
There is a lot of evidence for collapse, if one bothers to look. Dmitry Orlov is right in saying that we are in mid collapse. Peak oil is certainly having a different effect on prices than expected and the deflationist deserve credit for their foresight.
The LTG folks were right in saying that their model does predict anything when the chaos begins. I believe we have entered that period of chaos and that makes modeling difficult if not impossible.

Unfortunately, humans are glorified apes not fallen creatures from the garden of Eden. The complex emotions and desires that have propelled our success will now lead to hubris, confusion, and further self-inflicted wounds. You are a voice of reason shouting into the hurricane. A full dissipative system that is losing its energy, cheap fossil fuels and cheaper debt. Ugo Bardi has the right name for his blog, Cassandra’s Legacy.

I loved Asimov’s books and his ideas! And I apologize for being so sanguine. I just don’t think human society has ever really experienced an industrial collapse. Ever. There have been small ones, but we have to look at the whole system, globally.

Thank you and I will definitely read your book!

Roger Cooper

I think that you are conflating political polarization with political fragmentation. There has been an increase in political polarization between the parties. This is the opposite of political fragmentation within the parties. There are certainly factions with each US political party, but this rarely affects actually voting. This quite different from the 1960’s to 1980’s when Southern Democrats acted almost as a 3rd party in congress.

Roger Cooper

What evidence do you have that the political parties are splitting? It easy to focus on current headlines and forget the disputes of the past. Give some numerical evidence that party fragmentation is worse now than then. This should be measurable.

I suspect that you will find that party fragmentation was greater during the days of the “Conservative Coalition” (1936-1994) than today.


“All data are imprecise.”

Speaking of which…


The LTG Model is basicly that dimishing returns either for Industry or Agraculture will lead to a societical collapse, when vthe costs become unsubstainable.

Economists like William Nordhaus called it Junk Science, because Jay Forrester and Co. didn’t know anything empirical evidence on economic growth or the history of past modeling efforts, because nobody in the group was an economists.

Plus, the living members of the LTG study are in a disarray. Meadows still thinks the model is correct, while Randers uses another one. (that Meadows thinks is Junk Science.)

Happens all the time, specifally if people misuse certain “models” for their own message.

(Like Gail Tverberg misusing Prof. Turchin’s book “Secular Cycles” in a pseudo LTG context to make her message look more credible.)


Hello Prof. Turchin:

Any idea where various other countries/regions (the main countries of the EU, New Zealand, China, Japan, Russia, etc.) are in their cycles?

Vladimir Dinets

The two parties might seem to be fragmenting, but they are prevented from actually splitting by one major flaw of US electoral system, namely the lack of runoff elections. And removal of that flaw requires a constitutional amendment, which is unlikely to be possible in the foreseeable future.

Of course, the foreseeable future means only a few weeks nowadays 🙂

Roger Cooper

It is not completely true that the US lacks runoff elections. A number of states use runoffs (or non-partisan primary), including California, Louisiana and Georgia.

Furthermore, plurality voting does not guarantee a two-party system. Canada and the United Kingdom have multiple parties. Canada in particular has had wild swings in its elections (the Conservative party was reduced to 1 seat in an election, with a decade it held a majority).

I suggest that fragmentation is less now that is was in the period from 1964 to 1994.

Dick Burkhart

What Bernie Sanders is trying to do is explicitly integrative, to counter the disintegration going on: He wants (1) a 50 state strategy, and (2) a focus on economic policies that will unite the 99%.

Of course this will not directly help the elites, unlike what Trump is already trying to do. But if Bernie’s strategy starts to work then you can predict that a less-dominant faction of the elites will join forces with him to challenge the other elites. If successful, this could resolve the crisis. The likely method of resolution would be a massive debt forgiveness to benefit the middle class by wiping out much of Wall Street (just listen to Michael Hudson on US debt = the primary tool of the class warfare of the 1% against the 99%).

Stephanie Brazell

Dr. Turchin- I read an article that mentioned your name, followed a link to read more about cliodynamics, watched the videos, followed your FB page, and here I am-reading all of this in fascination. I’ll be buying your book soon as well as the sci-fi one and a few others you mentioned above 🙂

I have a question though: If I understand what I’ve read so far, it is a working premise of yours that “elite overproduction” is possibly one of the leading factors in the destabilization of a society. If this hypothesis is actually correct, then the USA is sunk before we begin to try to save it, are we not?

I say this because (and perhaps I’m wrong…?) I always had this idea that with enough hard work and education, any kid could grow up to be anything here. And most kids definitively do not aspire to mediocrity. They want to grow up to be President, Astronauts, NFL football players, lawyers, doctors etc. Of course some want to be teachers/police/firemen/welders…but MOST either set their own bars higher or have parents or teachers who push them. And those higher-aspiration jobs all have the capability of earning well into the high 6/low 7 figures, so it is easy to imagine the successful ones breaking into the elite. Or maybe pushing their children there. So, doesn’t this mean that ultimately in American society, eventually there will be a complete saturation of the elite?

Although I applaud, admire, and deeply appreciate your stated stance of not using the science to advocate for change, the above question begs another:

If that (US will at some point have elite saturation, if not for other influences) is a true statement (as I believe it is) then what would your studies indicate is the way forward if we are to escape with as little harm done as possible?

Thank you, again, for your time and for making all of this terribly interesting stuff available to laypeople like me!


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