Years ago, two academics predicted that an increase in economic inequality would lead to a period of political instability in 2020. Since then, the top 10th of a percent of the population has taken a larger share both of American wealth and political influence.
Today is election day. Millions of Americans will cast their vote for the next president of the United States. However, there is a good chance that the results of today’s election might take longer than usual.
More than 97 million people voted early. About 35.5 million voted early in person, while the other 62.1 million did so by mail. Those mailed-in ballots take longer to process and count than in-person votes and four states — Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Alabama and Mississippi — don’t allow them to be counted before the election day. Uncertainty about timing and the outcome of the election have led to increased tensions and has voters and business owners preparing for the worst. Plywood adorns storefronts in cities such as New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, DC and Seattle, and gun sales have reached record highs. So far this year, Americans have bought 17 million guns, that’s more than in any whole year before and we still have two months to go in 2020.
This is what the “Turbulent Twenties” look like, according to two academics who predicted a period of civil unrest around 2020: Jack A. Goldstone, a sociologist at George Mason University, and Peter Turchin, a professor at the University of Connecticut. About ten years ago, working off of a model developed by Goldstone, Turchin determined that due to stagnating wages, a growing gap between rich and poor, and burgeoning public debt, the US would experience a period of political instability in 2020.
“Given the Black Lives Matter protests and cascading clashes between competing armed factions in cities across the United States, from Portland, Oregon to Kenosha, Wisconsin, we are already well on our way there. But worse likely lies ahead,” Goldstone and Turchin warned in September. That warning still holds. According to their political stability index, the US will go through a period of unrest no matter who is elected the next US president.
In an interview with ProMarket, Goldstone explained that Trump is a byproduct, not the cause of the political discord in the US, and warned of months, if not years, of political unrest if US lawmakers don’t tackle the underlying issue of power imbalance between America’s wealthiest and the rest of the country.
[The following conversation has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.]
Q: You and Peter predicted the “Turbulent Twenties.” Can you explain your findings?
Peter and I have been looking at models to identify periods of political crisis versus political stability. And these models are designed to be quite general. They look at the balance of power between government, elites, and the average household. And what these models find, or the research behind them finds, is that looking at these three factors — if governments are weak, if elites are highly polarized and in conflict, and if average households are not doing well — that combination leads to an increased risk of political conflict, political violence.
We can track each of these three main factors with a number of kinds of data. Briefly, we can look for government at the level of debts, degree of spending, degree of taxation. For the elite, we look at social mobility. We look at the polarization of voting if there’s a Congress where you can see if there’s extreme partisanship or not. We look at graduation rates from colleges, which may suggest greater competition for higher positions. And, of course, we look at the distribution of income. So we look if there’s a growing number of millionaires, that usually suggests greater conflict for positions, greater jostling to see who’s on top. And for the average household, we look at life expectancy. We look at the portion of GDP that goes to the average household, and a number of other basic welfare indicators. So that’s the model.
And for most countries, at most times, we don’t see things out of the ordinary. But for the United States, there was a clear increase in all of these indicators for risk in the 19th century, particularly around the Civil War reconstruction. And distressingly, those same indicators have now been rising in the US for the last 30 odd years.
Q: So, we can’t really just blame Trump for this. This has been brewing for a while. A lot of people are hoping that things are going to get more peaceful if Biden wins the election. What are you preparing for?
I am preparing for a pretty rough time between now and January and then well into the next couple of years. If it was just Trump, his political defeat would solve our problems. But of course, it’s not just Trump. He has 80 million Twitter followers who he can reach and who will believe what he says. And if he says he won the election, they will believe it.
He’s already trained them to believe that they’re not putting their lives at risk when they come to his rallies, that masking is a sign of weakness, that the coronavirus hasn’t really killed that many people because doctors are interfering with the data to make it look worse than it is. So he has primed an audience of tens of millions to believe his lies about life and death affairs. It’s no problem for him to insist, regardless of the votes that come that he’s won the election.
In fact, even if Biden wins Texas, Florida, and Virginia, I’m sure Trump will say: “Don’t believe it. That’s because the democrats added lots of fake ballots and fraudulent votes. I’m going to challenge those results. We know that we won. We know America is behind us.” And he’s going to claim victory no matter what. And then he’s going to send his lawyers and his supporters to ask Republican governors and legislators to send their own delegations to the electoral college thinking, you know, “I can persuade them that the vote really is flawed.” And he’s going to challenge late votes. He’s already said he’s going to challenge late votes in Pennsylvania and anywhere else that will make a difference.
So I expect we’re going to have a huge fight, that Trump will follow the authoritarian playbook for how to stay in power, regardless of election results. And it may take Americans going to the street, as they are in Belarus, as they did in Ukraine, to say: “We demand that our votes be fairly and fully counted.” And that may drag on for months.
Q: One of the things that you touched on in your piece for Noema Magazine is that if Biden wins, the government needs to come together in a bipartisan effort to tackle some of these underlying issues like inequality. Do you think that Biden is the right person to do it?
Biden is a very good candidate for those who want to see America kind of get back to something like normal, something like the way it was. He certainly cut his teeth making deals crossing the aisle. People like Lindsey Graham have praised his character. Many Republicans know him well. Americans know him well. And he is a person who understands pain and loss and the importance of avoiding conflict.
But Biden himself, well-suited as he may be to reconcile America, is up against a very large Republican [base], both official class and popular followers, who see Democrats with fear. They are afraid that the Democrats will take their money away and give it to undeserving immigrants and minorities. They’re afraid that Democrats will defund the police and give free sway to rioters. They’ve been told that that will happen. And I think it will take months, maybe a couple of years, for Democrats to show that those fears are, in fact, not well placed. But I think initially, Biden will face enormous hostility and anxiety from about 40 percent of the population.
Q: You mentioned that one of the things you study is the balance of power between the government, the elites, and regular households. How has that power shifted?
It is very clear if you look at the distribution of income, the top 10th of a percent has taken a much larger share both of American wealth and American political influence. The Citizens United Supreme Court decision, which eliminated any boundaries on what the wealthy can spend for political action committees, gave those people who benefited enormously from the growth of America’s economy, from the 1980s to 2020, a way to divert their wealth into the political arena that they had previously lacked. So we now have the wealthiest in society not only commanding more of America’s wealth than they have for a century, but also greater freedom to use that wealth to send political messages and back friendly political officials. So I think that’s clearly a group that’s benefited.
And in order to avoid being suspected of that, they have tried to persuade the American public that their losses in economic standing and political power are really due to the improved standing of minorities, immigrants, foreign countries. And so they’ve tried to divert all the blame elsewhere, and particularly make targets of the Democrats by saying, “You know, all this great problem of inequality, stagnating wages, that’s because of Democratic policies that were too friendly to foreign powers, too open to immigration, too indulgent to minorities, and therefore, back the party of wealth, the Republicans because it’s still looking out for you.” That’s where we are. And [these are] the divisions that we face.
Q: You probably were not very surprised by Trump being elected and what’s happened over the last four years.
That’s correct. I tried to tell people: “Don’t focus on the surprise that Trump was elected.” We’ve had performers, entertainers be elected in American politics before. We had a wrestler as governor of Minnesota. We had a movie star who was governor of California—twice, in fact. So the celebrity victories are not unusual. What I thought was unusual is that 46 percent of Americans were so fed up with the political establishment, that they were willing to vote for real outsiders either an extreme independent, like Bernie Sanders who was a strong contender for the Democratic nomination, or Donald Trump, a totally inexperienced outsider who won the Republican nomination. That alone should have been a strong signal that politics as usual was being destroyed by the intensity of partisan divisions that had grown up. When Trump got elected, I thought, “Oh, my gosh, here we go. All the worst tendencies are now going to be amplified for four years.” But it wasn’t a shock to see the mainstream parties cast aside by the voters.
Q: Do you wish people had listened to you sooner?
It’s always nice if people listen so that they are aware. But it wouldn’t have changed anything, any more than a weather forecast that tells you a hurricane is coming, changes the course of the hurricane. All it allows you to do is kind of be prepared and get ready to deal with the damage. I don’t think simply knowing that this was coming, would have changed it because what we’re talking about are widespread trends in government spending, political affiliation, the distribution of income. None of those things were going to be halted simply by social scientists saying they were dangerous.
Q: What’s your prediction for the next decade down the road?
We have two different ways we could go. We are at a point of historically high political divisions, and government distrust and weakness. And if we continue down that road, the next election will be just as bitterly fought as this one. It will be increasingly impossible for leaders to govern, and Americans will find themselves looking with fear at their own police and their neighbors. Could we go that way? I’d say it’s probably a 60-40 probability that that’s where we’re headed given the trends we have. It’s not easy to turn this around.
I do think there’s about a 30 or 40 percent chance that President Biden is elected and starts to adopt policies that reduce the economic inequality that reward work as much as they reward capital, and develops institutions, whether it’s some kind of public service or a broad community organization that helps bring people together, get to know each other. Then we could gradually pull back from this edge and rebuild an America that still believes that out of many we can make one.
I don’t see that as the most likely outcome.