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A ‘big picture’ explanation of 2020’s unrest

Peter Turchin’s 2016 book, “Ages of Discord: A Structural-Demographic Analysis of American History,” placed our present discord in the broader context of two principal historical cycles.

Are there larger forces at work producing the political, social and economic unrest in 2020? Peter Turchin, a quantitative historian at the University of Connecticut, thinks so. Turchin first predicted 2020’s widespread unrest way back in 2010 in an article in Nature magazine. His 2016 book, “Ages of Discord: A Structural-Demographic Analysis of American History,” placed our present discord in the broader context of two principal historical cycles.

Ages of Discord
Ages of Discord
The first of these cycles is a familiar one: the waxing and waning of “popular well-being” over time. Turchin measures this in terms of income inequality and real wages. His book charts a low level of well-being in the 1860s during the Civil War through the end of the 19th century. Then came a rise in well-being during the economic prosperity of the “Roaring 20s” and a new peak in well-being during the postwar decades from 1950 to 1970. Since then, real wages have been stagnant and inequality has grown, producing a substantial drop in well-being in the 21st century.

‘Elite overproduction’

The less familiar second cycle is that of “elite overproduction.” Greater inequality also produces large numbers of wealthy families who pursue higher education and access to circles of influence. This leads to an oversupply of professions and sharp arguments among elites about the distribution of power and authority in society.

Turchin explains it this way in his 2016 book: “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.”

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The “good old days” occurred when the nation did not have a large group of quarreling elites and enjoyed high levels of popular well-being. Turchin identifies two eras when this occurred: the “era of good feeling” in the 1820s when party conflict abated and the “postwar boom” period from 1950-1965 when rising living standards and the politics of compromise ruled in Washington.

In contrast, mounting inequality in the slaveholding South and industrializing North before the Civil War led to an increase in educated, elite families jousting for control of national politics and institutions. That notorious contest led to hundreds of thousands of deaths on America’s battlefields from 1861 to 1865.

A similar situation now

Turchin argues we are in a similar situation today. The three traits that mark a combustible situation are 1) elite overproduction, 2) stagnating and declining living standards and 3) the increasing indebtedness of the state.

This describes 2020 America pretty well. College graduates are a higher proportion of the American population than ever before – in 2018, totaling 34 percent, according to the U.S. Census. Turchin notes a big increase in the number of lawyers and in the number of applicants for medical professions in recent decades.

A more highly educated public, he argues, produces more unstable and truculent politics. Intra-elite competition has become more intense, evident in large recent increases in the cost of political campaigns and the number of candidates running for office. The cost of a U.S. House campaign doubled between the 1980s and 2012. In the first decade of the 21st century, the number of U.S. House contenders grew 54 percent and U.S. Senate contenders grew 61 percent.

Stagnant real wages, increasing economic inequality

The 21st century has witnessed stagnant real wages, increasing economic inequality and frequent periods of high unemployment, according to U.S. Census data. Real wages only grew in 10 of the previous 40 years. High wage earners have experienced the largest percentage wage growth since 2000, triple the percentage increase of the lower-wage half of the workforce. The 2008-2011 recession and current virus-induced downturn witnessed double-digit unemployment. The unemployment rate has been in double digits since April 2020 and stood at 10.2 percent in July.

photo of article author
Steven Schier
Then there is the matter of public sector indebtedness. Soaring deficits in the 21st century have raised the national debt from 55 percent of Gross Domestic Product in 2000 to 106 percent in 2019. Last year the national debt totaled $22.7 trillion compared to $7.9 trillion in 2000.

Gulp. Add this all together and you have the powder keg that has erupted this year – popular hardship and elites behaving badly. Turchin does not see another Civil War as inevitable. But he does see a period of political, social and economic conflict of the sort we are now experiencing as lasting several years.

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Turchin concludes his February 2010 article in Nature magazine with some possible reforms to help the nation get through our time of turbulence:

Records show that societies can avert disaster. We need to find ways to ameliorate the negative effects of globalization on people’s well-being. Economic inequality, accompanied by burgeoning public debt, can be addressed by making tax rates more progressive. And we should not expand our system of higher education beyond the ability of the economy to absorb university graduates. An excess of young people with advanced degrees has been one of the chief causes of instability in the past.

Steven Schier is the emeritus Congdon Professor of Political Science at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota.

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