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Posts Tagged ‘sociology

“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

“Button, button, who’s got the button?”*…

If something is “fit for the back of a postage stamp,” it’s generally understood as lacking depth and nuance. A similarly sized object, however, has been upending that saying for 125 years. From political campaigns to punch lines to keepsakes, the button has packed bits of incredibly rich history into just a few inches. “It seems like a niche little object, but it really tells a very general American history,” [observed] collector and manufacturer Christen Carter

The wearable item is, in fact, an entry point into the complexities of the past.Carter recently co-authored the forthcoming book Button Power—which is available for pre-order on Bookshop—with notable dealer Ted Hake, who’s been collecting the objects for around 60 years. Through composed displays and black-and-white photos, the tome delves into the item’s history, spanning its invention in 1896 to contemporary usages. “Early on people were wearing buttons, and mostly it’s a temporary thing. It’s a moment in time,” Carter says. “They connected you to something else. One-hundred-twenty-five years ago, images weren’t as prevalent as they are now.” Button Power compiles a diverse array of notable figures, from Shirley Chisholm and the Ramones to Rube Goldberg and Muhammad Ali, each represented through the wearable item…

A medium with popularity perpetually in flux, the button has risen and fallen since its creation and notably surged in the 1960s and 1980s as it was used more widely for countercultural movements and protests. Of course, mainstream efforts from political campaigns, public figures, and large-scale events generally still sought out buttons to share their visions. Many of the slogans and broader undertakings of alternative movements that may have evaded popular narratives, however, also are preserved by the object. “It’s a people’s history, too…

More (and more nifty buttons) at “A New Book Chronicles the 125-Year History of the Button, Its Design, and Its Role in Cultural Change.”

* children’s game

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As we wear ’em with pride, we might recall that it was on this date in 1948 that Margaret Chase Smith of Maine became the first woman elected to the United States Senate without completing another senator’s term.

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Written by LW

September 18, 2020 at 1:01 am

“God has no religion”*…

Empty seats at a Catholic church in New York City, June 2014

In the early years of the twenty-first century, religion seemed to be on the rise. The collapse of both communism and the Soviet Union had left an ideological vacuum that was being filled by Orthodox Christianity in Russia and other post-Soviet states. The election in the United States of President George W. Bush, an evangelical Christian who made no secret of his piety, suggested that evangelical Christianity was rising as a political force in the country. And the 9/11 attacks directed international attention to the power of political Islam in the Muslim world.

A dozen years ago, my colleague Pippa Norris and I analyzed data on religious trends in 49 countries, including a few subnational territories such as Northern Ireland, from which survey evidence was available from 1981 to 2007 (these countries contained 60 percent of the world’s population). We did not find a universal resurgence of religion, despite claims to that effect—most high-income countries became less religious—but we did find that in 33 of the 49 countries we studied, people became more religious during those years. This was true in most former communist countries, in most developing countries, and even in a number of high-income countries. Our findings made it clear that industrialization and the spread of scientific knowledge were not causing religion to disappear, as some scholars had once assumed.

But since 2007, things have changed with surprising speed. From about 2007 to 2019, the overwhelming majority of the countries we studied—43 out of 49—became less religious. The decline in belief was not confined to high-income countries and appeared across most of the world. 

Ronald F. Inglehart, director of the World Values Survey, explains what’s behind the global decline of religion: “Giving Up on God?”

* Mahatma Gandhi

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As we contemplate the cosmic, we might recall that it was on this date in 1631 that Sweden won a major victory at the Battle of Breitenfeld against the Holy Roman Empire during the Thirty Years’ War. Initially a conflict between the Protestant and Catholic states in the Holy Roman Empire, it gradually developed into a general European war, resulting in the deaths of over 8 million people, including 20% of the German population, making it one of the most destructive conflicts in human history.

Gustavus Adolphus at the battle of Breitenfeld

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Written by LW

September 17, 2020 at 1:01 am

“When angry, count four. When very angry, swear”*…

Annibale Carracci – The Cyclops Polyphemus (detail)

Anger, like other emotions, has a history.

It is not merely that the causes of anger may change, or attitudes toward its expression. The nature of the emotion itself may alter from one society to another. In classical antiquity, for example, anger was variously viewed as proper to a free citizen (an incapacity to feel anger was regarded as slavish); as an irrational, savage passion that should be extirpated entirely, and especially dangerous when joined to power; as justifiable in a ruler, on the model of God’s righteous anger in the Bible; and as blasphemously ascribed to God, who is beyond all human emotions.

Profound social and cultural changes—the transition from small city-states to the vast reach of the Roman Empire, the adoption of Christianity as the official religion of Rome—lay behind these shifting views, but all the positions had their defenders and were fiercely debated. This rich heritage offers a wealth of insights into the nature of anger, as well as evidence of its social nature; it is not just a matter of biology….

The history of anger– indeed, the very fact that it has a history– sheds light on the elevated emotional climate of today: “Repertoires of Rage.”

* Mark Twain

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As we wrestle with wrath, we might recall that in 1752 in Britain and throughout the British Empire (which included the American colonies) yesterday was September 2. The “jump” was occasioned by a switch from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar, as a product of which almost all of “western civilization” was then on Pope Gregory’s time; Sweden (and Finland) switched the following year.

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Written by LW

September 14, 2020 at 1:01 am

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