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Posts Tagged ‘political science

“The surface of American society is covered with a layer of democracy, from beneath which the old aristocratic colors sometimes peep”*…

Almost three decades ago, one of us, Jack Goldstone, published a simple model to determine a country’s vulnerability to political crisis. The model was based on how population changes shifted state, elite and popular behavior. Goldstone argued that, according to this Demographic-Structural Theory, in the 21st century, America was likely to get a populist, America-first leader who would sow a whirlwind of conflict.

Then ten years ago, the other of us, Peter Turchin, applied Goldstone’s model to U.S. history, using current data. What emerged was alarming: The U.S. was heading toward the highest level of vulnerability to political crisis seen in this country in over a hundred years. Even before Trump was elected, Turchin published his prediction that the U.S. was headed for the “Turbulent Twenties,” forecasting a period of growing instability in the United States and western Europe.

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.

Our model is based on the fact that across history, what creates the risk of political instability is the behavior of elites, who all too often react to long-term increases in population by committing three cardinal sins. First, faced with a surge of labor that dampens growth in wages and productivity, elites seek to take a larger portion of economic gains for themselves, driving up inequality. Second, facing greater competition for elite wealth and status, they tighten up the path to mobility to favor themselves and their progeny. For example, in an increasingly meritocratic society, elites could keep places at top universities limited and raise the entry requirements and costs in ways that favor the children of those who had already succeeded.

Third, anxious to hold on to their rising fortunes, they do all they can to resist taxation of their wealth and profits, even if that means starving the government of needed revenues, leading to decaying infrastructure, declining public services and fast-rising government debts.

Such selfish elites lead the way to revolutions. They create simmering conditions of greater inequality and declining effectiveness of, and respect for, government. But their actions alone are not sufficient. Urbanization and greater education are needed to create concentrations of aware and organized groups in the populace who can mobilize and act for change.

Top leadership matters. Leaders who aim to be inclusive and solve national problems can manage conflicts and defer a crisis. However, leaders who seek to benefit from and fan political divisions bring the final crisis closer. Typically, tensions build between elites who back a leader seeking to preserve their privileges and reforming elites who seek to rally popular support for major changes to bring a more open and inclusive social order. Each side works to paint the other as a fatal threat to society, creating such deep polarization that little of value can be accomplished, and problems grow worse until a crisis comes along that explodes the fragile social order.

These were the conditions that prevailed in the lead-up to the great upheavals in political history, from the French Revolution in the eighteenth century, to the revolutions of 1848 and the U.S. Civil War in the nineteenth century, the Russian and Chinese revolutions of the twentieth century and the many “color revolutions” that opened the twenty-first century. So, it is eye-opening that the data show very similar conditions now building up in the United States…

Two scholars long-ago predicted political upheaval in America in the 2020s. Why it’s here and what we can do to temper it: “Welcome To The ‘Turbulent Twenties’.” An important– and bracing– read.

As to how these challenges might unfold (JIC you’ve not yet seen this widely-circulated piece): “The Election That Could Break America.”

Of course, domestic issues are only one dimension of the challenges facing us. We have to deal with those same issues on a global level, as they play out in radically-changing geopolitics and geo-economics– all underlain by climate change: “Are we living at the ‘hinge of history’?

And finally, for those interested in the “plumbing” that enables the slide toward autocracy: “Money Laundering for 21st Century Authoritarianism: Western Enablement of Kleptocracy” (pdf).

* Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America

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As we step up, we might recall that it was on thus date in 1962 that Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring was published. A pioneering study of the long-term dangers of pesticide use, it challenged the practices of agricultural scientists and the government, and called for a change in the way humankind relates to the natural world.

Carson documented her accusations that the chemical industry spread disinformation, and that public officials accepted those marketing claims unquestioningly. Unsurprisingly, the book was met with fierce opposition by chemical companies; but, thanks to public opinion, it sparked numerous changes: it led to a reversal in the United States’ national pesticide policy, and a nationwide ban on DDT for agricultural uses, and helped to inspire an environmental movement that led to the creation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

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Written by LW

September 27, 2020 at 1:01 am

“Remedies are more tardy in their operations than diseases… it is easier to crush men’s spirits and their enthusiasm than to revive them”*…

 

 

It is time to bring Tacitus and the vibrant intellectual tradition that he inspired out of the shadows. Indeed, in an era in which the recrudescence of great-power rivalry has increasingly taken on ideological undertones, the Roman statesman’s rich commentary on the grim and stultifying nature of autocratic rule is more timely now than ever. Indeed, amid an intensifying battle over competing systems of government, the raw accusatory power that quietly ripples through Tacitus’ oeuvre constitutes a formidable force in liberal democracy’s intellectual arsenal.

Having served under several emperors, eventually reaching the rank of consul under Nerva, the Roman scholar-practitioner’s reflections serve not only as a lugubrious reminder of the gloom of a life shorn of genuine freedom but also as a warning against succumbing to complacency in the face of democratic corrosion within our own societies.

Of all the Roman historians, Tacitus offers the clearest understanding of how moral resignation forms the dank loam within which tyranny takes root…

Despite Tacitus’ towering moral and intellectual influence over the centuries, his works are only rarely consulted by contemporary students of authoritarianism; we should look again: “Thrones Wreathed in Shadow: Tacitus and the Psychology of Authoritarianism.”

* “Remedies are more tardy in their operations than diseases, and as bodies slowly increase, but quickly perish, so it is easier to crush men’s spirits and their enthusiasm than to revive them; indeed there comes over us an attachment to the very enforced inactivity, and the idleness hated at first is finally loved.”   — Publius Cornelius Tacitus, The Life of Cnaeus Julius Agricola

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As we learn from history, we might that it was on this date in 587 BCE that king Nebuchadnezzar II‘s  siege of Jerusalem ended in his victory, with the destruction of the Temple of Solomon (and much of the rest of the city).

Following an earlier siege (1597 BCE), the Neo-Babylonian Nebuchadnezzar had installed Zedekiah as vassal king of Judah.  But Zedekiah revolted against Babylon, and entered into an alliance with Pharaoh Hophra, the king of Egypt… to which Nebuchadnezzar responded by invading Judah again.

220px-Nebuchadnezzar_camp_outside_Jerusalem._Famine_in_the_city

Nebuchadnezzar camps outside Jerusalem. The citizens starve and are reduced to cannibalism. (Petrus Comestor‘s “Bible Historiale”), 1372

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“If you want to know what an institution does, watch it when it’s doing nothing”*…

 

Depression

 

Realizing an institution is near failure is a difficult epistemic problem. There are many outwardly visible pieces of institutions that do not reflect their actual health.

Before the collapse of financial institutions starting in 1929, naive observers were optimistic on the basis of soaring stock prices. Even after the Black Tuesday stock market crash, most observers expected a normal depression and recovery. Instead, the system continued to deteriorate, bank failures wiped out savings, the gold standard was abandoned internationally, and the Great Depression ensued.

Particularly in mature organizations, many automated systems handle tasks. Such systems can persist and even fulfill their function, while the institution as a whole is failing.The default is decay, maintenance of old abilities is difficult, and growth of new abilities is rare. One must look at what features of an institution indicate the current health of the core organization itself, while carefully distinguishing these from features reflective of past health and support from outside institutions.

From these signs, it’s possible to discover whether an institution has the ability to face new threats or is merely trudging through a slow process of decay. If an institution is unable to adapt to meet new challenges, it will lose again and again. Enduring defeat can only last for so long, no matter how large or well established the retreating organization. Eventually the inability to win dooms all institutions…

Samo Burja (@SamoBurja), from whom we’ve learned before, on the future of the social, political, commercial, and cultural organizations on which we depend: “Institutional Failure as Surprise.”

See also: “How Do You Know If You’re Living Through the Death of an Empire?” (Spoiler alert: it’s the little things…)

* P.J. O’Rourke, Parliament of Whores

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As we think systemically, we might recall that it was on this date in 1912 that the RMS Titanic, a state-of-the-art steamship, set sail from Southampton on its maiden voyage, bound for New York City.  Four days later, after calls at Cherbourg in France and Queenstown (now Cobh) in Ireland, the “unsinkable” Titanic collided with the iceberg that sent it under in the North Atlantic, 375 miles south of Newfoundland.

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RMS Titanic leaving Southampton

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Written by LW

April 10, 2020 at 1:01 am

“God has no religion”*…

 

Ghostly figure leaving the interior of Sanahin Monastery, Debed Canyon, Armenia

 

The idea of American exceptionalism has become so dubious that much of its modern usage is merely sarcastic. But when it comes to religion, Americans really are exceptional. No rich country prays nearly as much as the U.S, and no country that prays as much as the U.S. is nearly as rich.

America’s unique synthesis of wealth and worship has puzzled international observers and foiled their grandest theories of a global secular takeover. In the late 19th century, an array of celebrity philosophers—the likes of Friedrich Nietzsche, Karl Marx, and Sigmund Freud—proclaimed the death of God, and predicted that atheism would follow scientific discovery and modernity in the West, sure as smoke follows fire.

Stubbornly pious Americans threw a wrench in the secularization thesis. Deep into the 20th century, more than nine in 10 Americans said they believed in God and belonged to an organized religion, with the great majority of them calling themselves Christian. That number held steady—through the sexual-revolution ’60s, through the rootless and anxious ’70s, and through the “greed is good” ’80s.

But in the early 1990s, the historical tether between American identity and faith snapped. Religious non-affiliation in the U.S. started to rise—and rise, and rise. By the early 2000s, the share of Americans who said they didn’t associate with any established religion (also known as “nones”) had doubled. By the 2010s, this grab bag of atheists, agnostics, and spiritual dabblers had tripled in size.

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History does not often give the satisfaction of a sudden and lasting turning point. History tends to unfold in messy cycles—actions and reactions, revolutions and counterrevolutions—and even semipermanent changes are subtle and glacial. But the rise of religious non-affiliation in America looks like one of those rare historical moments that is neither slow, nor subtle, nor cyclical. You might call it exceptional.

The obvious question for anybody who spends at least two seconds looking at the graph above is: What the hell happened around 1990?

One theory, compellingly explained, at “Three Decades Ago, America Lost Its Religion. Why?

* Mahatma Gandhi

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As we contemplate creeds, we might recall that it was on this date in 1959 (one year to the day after the debut of The Huckleberry Hound Show) that The Twilight Zone premiered on CBS.  An anthology series created (and hosted and frequently written) by the remarkable Rod Serling, it features near the top of the “best series” lists of TV Guide, Rolling Stone, and others, and was ranked (in 2013) by the Writers’ Guild as the third best-written show ever.

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Written by LW

October 2, 2019 at 1:01 am

“These fragments I have shored against my ruins”*…

 

gerontacracy

 

Hate crime is rising, the Arctic is burning, and the Dow is bobbing like a cork on an angry sea. If the nation seems intolerant, reckless and more than a little cranky, perhaps that’s because the American republic is showing its age. Somewhere along the way, a once-new nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal (not men and women; that came later) became a wheezy gerontocracy. Our leaders, our electorate and our hallowed system of government itself are extremely old.

Let me stipulate at the outset that I harbor no prejudice toward the elderly. As a sexagenarian myself, not to mention as POLITICO’s labor policy editor, I’m fully mindful of the scourge of ageism. (I’ve had the misfortune on occasion to experience it firsthand.) But to affirm that America must work harder to include the elderly within its vibrant multicultural quilt is not to say it must be governed almost entirely by duffers. The cause of greater diversity would be advanced, not thwarted, if a few more younger people penetrated the ranks of American voters and American political leaders.

Let’s start with the leaders.

Remember the Soviet Politburo? In the waning years of the Cold War, a frequent criticism of the USSR was that its ruling body was preposterously old and out of touch. Every May Day these geezers would show up on a Moscow reviewing stand, looking stuffed, and fix their rheumy gaze on a procession of jackbooted Red Army troops, missiles and tanks. For Americans, the sight was always good for a horselaugh. In 1982, when Leonid Brezhnev, the last of that generation to hold power for any significant length of time, went to his reward, the median age of a Politburo member was 71. No wonder the Evil Empire was crumbling!

You see where this is going. The U.S. doesn’t have a Politburo, but if you calculate the median age of the president, the speaker of the House, the majority leader of the Senate, and the three Democrats leading in the presidential polls for 2020, the median age is … uh … 77.

It doesn’t stop there. We heard a lot last November about the fresh new blood entering Congress, but when the current session began in January, the average ages of House and Senate members were 58 and 63, respectively. That’s slightly older than the previous Congress (58 and 62), which was already among the oldest in history. The average age in Congress declined through the 1970s but it’s mostly increased since the 1980s…

Timothy Noah (@TimothyNoah1) points out that our leaders, our electorate, and our hallowed system of government itself are aging. And it shows: “America, the Gerontocracy.”

* T. S. Eliot, “The Waste Land”

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As we ponder progression, we might recall that it was on this date in 1796 that George Washington, having decided to decline a run for a third term as president, “delivered” (via a long letter published in the the American Daily Advertiser) his Farewell Address.  Characterizing it as advice from a “parting friend,” he celebrated the Constitutional logic of separation of powers and warned against permanent alliances with foreign powers, large public debts, a large military establishment, and “the devices of any small, artful, enterprising minority” to control or change the government– among many other topics.  His letter became the foundation of the Federalist Party’s political doctrine, and is considered one of the most important documents in American history. 

Starting in 1862, the Farewell Address was read, first in the House of Representatives, then from 1899 in the Senate as well on Washington’s birthday.  The House abandoned the practice in 1984, but the Senate continues the tradition.  A member of the Senate, alternating between political parties each year since 1896, reads the address aloud on the Senate floor, then upon finishing, makes an entry into a black, leather-bound journal maintained by the Secretary of the Senate .

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Written by LW

September 19, 2019 at 1:01 am

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