Jordan: I don’t know what to tell you about the United States of America anymore, except that it might be in more trouble than you think. A lot of Canadians– listen, a lot of people around the world are looking at November’s election as a possible turning point for the future of American democracy. That’s a very simple way to see it– that a Donald Trump win means the continued erosion of the American way and a Joe Biden win means a return to normal. Well, what if I told you that this didn’t start with Donald Trump? That it’s not even really about him? That it’s not his fault that Joe Biden won’t fix it. That models created almost 30 years ago, predicted this slow and then rapid decline of American democracy, eventually ending with some sort of revolution. Not necessarily a violent revolution, but violence is not off the table. So what happens next? Can America pull itself back from the brink? And what does it mean for Canada and for the rest of the world, if they just can’t? I’m Jordan Heath Rawlings, this is The Big Story. Jack Goldstone is a sociologist historian and professor at George Mason University. He’s also involved in the creation of the model that I just mentioned. Hi Jack.
Jack: Hi Jordan. How are you today?
Jordan: I’m doing very well. Thank you. And thank you for taking the time to join us. At the risk of flattering you with my first question, can you tell me about your model and what a it predicted about America a few decades ago?
Jack: Well, I’m always thrilled to have someone interested in this obscure academic work, but it does tell us something about America. The model was developed to answer a simple question: Why do States that seem very successful go through upheaval and revolution? What governs that transition from strength to weakness? And I developed a model a few decades ago that looked mainly at population changes as a longterm driver of these things, but followed that population change into three specific areas. And I say three areas because there’s no one thing that turns a strong country to a weak one. It takes a company donation of factors to make that big change. What are those three factors? The government needs to be weakened, usually through some type of debt or financial problems where it’s no longer able to provide what people expect. The elites, particularly the political elites, but the national, business, religious, other leaders need to be so divided, so factionalized, so polarized that they are unable to agree, even on emergency type measures to respond to a political crisis. So big elite divisions. And then the third is that the population as a whole has to have a reasonable measure of anger or anxiety. And the reason you basically need these three is you could have a major crisis, but if the state’s financially strong, it marshals the resources to fix that. Even if the state is weak, as long as the elites are united, they’ll rally behind the state, shore up the weaknesses and get you through it. And then even if the elites are divided among themselves, that’s not going to stir up a major crisis unless they can get large portions of the people to follow them. That means the people need to have some anger, distrust, resentment, and be willing to follow a kind of polarized delete wherever they go. So those three things together, if they arise, tend to create a much higher risk. Upheaval, peaceful revolution, violent revolution, the institutions matter for what happens. But the rise in risk when these three factors coincide is a pretty general finding.
Jordan: When you created this model, three decades ago, did you expect– and I know anybody who’s listening right now probably heard some familiar themes in what you just described– did you expect we’d be here talking about how it applies to America right now?
Jack: Sadly I did. When I wrote that first book on revolutions in 1991, most of it looked at the French Revolution, the English Revolution, rebellions and revolutions in China. But the last chapter said, I know we’re in a different era now, but some of these things might still hold. I wrote that we’ve just had a big baby boom. Typically when you get a big baby boom and they get older, they tend to lower the value of labor. So productivity and wages tend to stagnate, and that I wrote that seem to be happening in the United States. And I noted that our leadership seemed to be going in two ways. On the one hand you had people like Bill Clinton who were kind of unifying leaders, but you also had very divisive leaders in recent history. And I worried, I said, if we get another divisive leader, given the other ingredients, we could see a populous type movement with trade tariffs and protectionism and a lot more a deep conflict. I didn’t put a timeline on it, but that was, that’s what I said in the 1990s. Then my colleague, Peter Turchin, said, you know, Jack, I’m going to take your model and apply it to the United States.
Jordan: When was that?
Jack: That that was about 20 years ago. And he started tinkering around with it and he was surprised. He made a few adjustments so that the measures would fit the United States. And he looked at a lot of different indicators. He looked at life expectancy, the height of people, the average income compared to a uniform share of national income to see if the rich were getting ahead faster or not. He looked at voting in Congress to see if that was a measure of political divisions. Of course, we looked at state debt. And he put this together and it showed a very clear pattern for the United States, that there was a big increase in political risk score in the mid 19th century, in the lead up to the Civil War, and then it stayed pretty high through the Reconstruction Era and Jim Crow and all of that. But after World War One, the indicators moved in a much more positive direction. There was more elite consensus. There was more widespread economic prosperity. And all of this kind of moved positively despite the Depression and World War II up until the 1960s. And then he found that was kind of the peak of good times. And from about the eighties, things started turning in the same direction they had in the decades before the Civil War. And they’ve now been trending in that direction for about three decades. So Peter took the results of our model, his version of my model, and he wrote that we’re heading for the turbulent twenties, as he called it. He predicted about 10 years ago that the decade we’re in would be where we’d really start to see some critical results of government financial weakness, distrust in government, elite splits, and stagnation of household incomes, all of these things coming together. He was worried about it. We looked at it and we thought, Oh my gosh, you’re right. The US is not in a good place.
Jordan: How much of this has to do with Trump and COVID having accelerated all of that? And how much of it would be happening anyway?
Jack: Well, the key word you use is accelerator. In our model, the longterm trends are independent of most particular individuals, and as I say, Peter had this model predicting this direction 10 years ago, before anyone thought Trump would go into politics. So the general risk is kind of like pressures building up between these moving tectonic plates. You don’t know exactly when an earthquake will occur, but you know, when the pressure is building. And the pressure has been building for decades. Where Trump factors in is as an accelerator, because the types of things that we find take a difficult situation and push it into the edge of eruption of political upheaval and violence, include elections that are contested or illegitimate, leaders who pushed divisions rather than unity, and a crisis that exposes the inability of leadership to work together to solve the problems. And 2020 has brought us all three. Here we are with COVID, government can’t put together another rescue package and bungled the public health challenge, didn’t get a good national plan for dealing with it. We have a leader who is very divisive, as you know. All of these, and we have an election coming up that the president is telling everyone who will listen, it’s going to be illegitimate, it’s not going to be right. So with these three things coinciding with the longterm trends, it’s pretty easy to say, there’s an explosion coming.
Jordan: How does it feel to be doing this work and looking at these patterns in your own country?
Jack: Oh it’s terrible. You know, this is one of these things where I say I should, you know, I want to be an optimist. I think maybe I’ll ignore the model. I don’t want to be Chicken Little. And in fact, three months ago, Peter and I thought, well, maybe we should get it out there because people need to know about the risk and work hard to kind of make sure the election’s legitimate, make sure that they avoid violence. But we couldn’t get anybody to publish our summary of our results because three months ago saying that we’re heading for a Civil War-like situation, maybe seemed a bit implausible. But in the last two months with Trump attacking the election, the scandals at the Post Office, Michael Caputo, the HHS spokesman telling followers you need to stock up on ammunition because the fight is coming, Kyle Rittenhouse taking his AR15 across state lines to do what he felt was needed, the shootings in Portland, the attack on deputies, all of a sudden this crazy idea that Americans might shoot each other over politics has become frighteningly real. So I feel bad talking about it, but now I feel everyone is talking about it. And they need to realize, A) it’s not just Trump. So it’s not going to go away regardless of what Trump does or doesn’t do in the election. B) the things to fix this require rebuilding the centre, just pushing off on one radical direction or another, whether it’s progressive Democrats or extreme Republicans, that’s the wrong direction. Fixing this requires rebuilding our political centre that has kind of come apart for the last 20, 30 years. And third, don’t expect it’s going to happen easily. We’ve been digging the hole for decades. The election of 2024 is probably also going to be difficult and contested. So we need to do a lot of work to shore up our institutions, to rebuild our trust in each other, and to stop describing political opponents as if they were treasonous, dangerous, deserve whatever they get. We need to remember, we’re all Americans. We’re all in this together. They’re not casualties in Blue States and casualties in Red States. And we don’t care about the one or the other. That’s how you actually get to Civil War, when you see some states and you talk about them as if it’s a totally different country. So I’m glad that people are paying attention, but I wish it didn’t have to happen that way.
Jordan: Well, we started down the path to finding your work by taking the approach that we wanted to look, as a Canadian show, at how much the 2020 election matters, both for the future of America, but also for our country, because we’re right next door to you, and it’s a little bit scary right now. I realize that Trump is not the only factor here and that he’s an accelerator and et cetera, et cetera. But how much does this election matter, the outcome of this election, in terms of steering away even a little bit from that horrific path you just described?
Jack: Well, the steering away is possible, and I’ll give you and your listeners an example close to home. How long ago was it that you were worried about the people of Quebec voting to leave Canada?
Jordan: Yeah, 25 years? Yeah.
Jack: Yeah. People were seriously worried and it was a close thing. And if that movement for Quebecois independence had led to a vote to withdraw, who knows what shape Canada would be in today? I assume it would be peaceful, fortunately, Canada is a relatively peaceful country, but it wouldn’t be the same country that we know and love today and did before. In fact, I’m happy that the differences have largely been reconciled and Quebec population, you know, you have a Francophone Prime Minister again, the country seems integrated, the Maritimes I know have a bit more problems, but Canadians still feel it’s one country.
Jordan: Well, now it’s our Western provinces now that are talking about leaving. There’s always, there’s always somebody unhappy up here.
Jack: That’s right. There’s always somebody unhappy, but how do you know whether that’s just noise or represents a serious problem? And today in the United States, our research says it has become a serious problem. Doesn’t mean they can’t steer away. If there is a large Biden victory, that would be a vote for centrism, normalcy. It won’t be a return to the past because the past can’t be recovered. The United States is not going to be in the same relation to the world in 2020 that it was in 1960, where World War II had destroyed the rest of the world and America was like a Colossus. America can be, will be the richest economy in the world, I think for a while longer, despite China’s growth. But that will only be the case if America stays united. If we focus on the things that make America as a whole special. If we start fighting with each other and destroy the unity in this country, we’re not going to move ahead. So that’s where we are now. The question is, do we recognize that and steer away from it? Do we repudiate the politics of division? Do we struggle to find policies that we can agree on? Or do we keep disabling ourselves by fighting and strict party line voting? Narrowly confirming judges, officials, and policies that the other side find intolerable? I hope that doesn’t continue. It doesn’t need to continue. But that’s the course that we’re on today. And it’s as if we’re steering for an iceberg and I’m shouting, Hey, if we keep going in this direction, we’re going to hit that iceberg. We’ve got to turn the ship around, even though it’s going to take a while for a big ocean liner, like the United States, to change direction.
Jordan: I’m glad you used the iceberg analogy. Cause I was also going to mention steering, and in my mind, it’s like steering away from a sharp cliff. And I guess my question is, as you look at the way things are today, how far away from like a really sharp and sudden drop into violence and all the other horrible stuff, is America? Like, are we a couple more Kyle Rittenhouses away from all out– ugh? Like, you know, it’s scary to even contemplate, but it feels very close.
Jack: We are very close indeed. And one can imagine a number of scenarios around the election that lead to hundreds or thousands of casualties from people shooting at each other, whether it’s a kind of Portland scenario where the national guard goes in, whether it’s a situation like Seattle where people kind of put up barricades and try and wall off part of their city. We’re seeing these things happen now in one city at a time. But if it gets to be like the George Floyd riots, where the same thing happens in a hundred cities at a time, National Guard goes into all of them. You remember the incident we had in front of the White House, where the president wanted to make a march to the church across the street so he could hold up a Bible and show his resolve. Well to clear that crowd, people in the White House ordered thousands of rounds of ammunition to be brought to an armoury in DC. They looked into infrared weapons to try and make the crowd feel so uncomfortable that they’d feel like crawling out of their skins and they’d have to run off. They certainly use tear gas and explosive devices. Historically when a government starts using that kind of weaponry against its own people, the people take that as an attack. And if it continues, people start to mobilize to fight back, especially if they feel the government is acting illegitimately. So if you have a situation where Trump claims victory before the results are clear and people start protesting and he orders his National Guard, as he always threatens to do, go out there, disperse those protesters, I don’t want them holding up signs that say, “Trump Lost Get Out,” and they start clearing the squares, people are going to fight back. And I don’t know how far it could go. So we are very close. I mean, if you ask me, is the iceberg a thousand meters away or just 50 metres away? I would say I’m not sure. I think it’s somewhere in that range. I think we’re likely to hit it because that’s how fast we’re going in that direction. But maybe we can reduce the blow by steering a little bit away now. And then over the next two or three years, we hope we can clear course and get out of the iceberg field that we’re in because otherwise we’re going to hit another one. So I think we’re very, very close to seeing a real explosion. The question is just how wide spread it will be and how many people will be hurt or even killed. It may be hundreds. It may be more.
Jordan: Well, that is first of all, scary as hell. How can other countries, you know, the United States in the past has been kind of a beacon for democracy around the world. How can other countries right now help you guys, for lack of a better way to put it, make sure that, you know, you do try to steer away from that iceberg?
Jack: You know, there’s only so much our foreign friends and allies was can do. They can encourage respect. Remind us that what makes America great is we’ve always had peaceful transitions of power. We’ve always had faith in our constitutional processes and followed those processes. We haven’t argued with them or disputed them. We’ve had faith in American institutions like the US Postal Service. So I would hope our allies would say, Remember Americans, as your friends, what we admire most about you are how well your institutions work, how much everybody respects those institutions and values them, and we hope that in this coming election season, despite the partisan rhetoric, despite the strong feeling, that you will hold onto those institutions that we love and that we know make America the special place it is. But I have to tell you, the things about America, aside from all the factors I’ve mentioned, add the fact that we have the most widespread gun ownership of any industrialized country in the world, add the fact that social media has carved out a huge space for conspiracy theories, adding these ingredients to the already volatile mix makes it that much more likely that things will go wrong. When you have a president who says, when the looting starts, the shooting starts, that’s not deescalation, that’s encouraging escalate. That’s the kind of thing that led Kyle Rittenhouse to say, my country needs me to take my weapon into the neighbouring state. So it’s hard for me, much as I’d like to, to say, yeah, there’s some simple things we can do to avoid a problem. We’re past that stage, it’s going to require a large effort. And I’m happy to say, I know people who were working on election integrity, mapping out the transition, working with local election officials. There certainly are smart people who have seen the same things I’ve seen and who are working as hard as they can to make sure our election goes smoothly and that the results will be seen as legitimate. What’s just absurd this year is there are also large numbers of people working out of the White House who are working in the opposite direction, who were putting up lawsuits, who are calling the election illegitimate in advance, who are issuing confusing orders to people on how they should vote– vote twice, vote by mail, don’t vote by mail, vote in person. So it’s just not easy for me to sit here and say, you know, I’ve looked at the data. Don’t worry. I have to say, I’ve looked at the data, we should be worried and we should be talking to our friends and neighbours and saying, let’s make sure we keep our emotions in check. Let’s not, you know, jump to conclusions. Let’s wait for the officials and the processes to do their job and support them.
Jordan: What about in the long term? You know, horrifying near-term scenarios aside. What does the model say about sort of, I guess the crest of the wave and what comes afterwards? How many variable directions could this go? What does it mean for the rest of the decade and beyond?
Jack: Good question. Countries that get themselves in this kind of mess typically go in one of two directions. They come to a period of great divisions and great difficulty. And if they keep fighting with each other, if they continue to see their political opponents as dangerous enemies that must be destroyed, then one side or the other does win. But the result is usually a failure of democracy and a great decline in the wealth and power of the country that takes decades to restore. So China and Russia are loving what they see in the United States now. They say this is great, the US is tearing itself apart. We don’t need to lift a finger to emerge as stronger countries next year. On the other hand, there are countries who face this kind of existential moment of crisis and pull themselves together. The kind of wise people in the moderate branch on each aside say, you know, the extremists are going to get us all killed. We need to make a deal to stop the violence and to stop the drift into something worse. And when reformers can come together and say, yeah, we need certain things to change. We don’t want to do anything radical, but we need to make some big changes to reassure people that the elites care about what happens to them and that the people who are running this country, are not just fighting with each other and running around like chickens with their heads off, or just feathering their own nests, we needed to get faith in leadership, we need to restore trust in government. Then it’s possible to rebuild. We could rebuild our infrastructure. We could strengthen our education system. A big issue is immigration. If people come out of this fight, Trump/ anti-Trump, radicals, and say, you know, we have to close America off to immigration. We’re going to lose a huge source of the energy and entrepreneurship that has helped make America great for the last hundred years. On the other hand, if we come out of this and say, you know, we’ve been talking about real immigration reform, we need to get serious. We need to figure out who we want to have in the country, under what conditions, and we want to make sure people are welcomed, that once they come here as legal immigrants, they’ve got everything America has to offer. If we do that, I think America could end up stronger than ever at the end of the 2020s. But the next five to 10 years will be a testing time for this country. And the decisions we make will determine whether America continues to be a world-leading power, or just another cautionary tale of an empire that tore itself apart with internal conflict and let other countries take the lead.
Jordan: Well, that’s a terrifying way to end this discussion. Before I let you go, your model aside, if I had to ask you to go with your gut and pick one of those two scenarios, what are you going to tell me?
Jack: I think America, just because of its amazing diversity and this compelling dream of the City on the Hill, of being a country that’s open to everyone who wants to come and do their best, I think we still have the resources to pull together and go forward. You know, the fact that the tragedy of Black Americans who were killed by police came up this year as a big national issue and put protests all across the country, and yet, if you look at the polling, the attempt to scare people well with law and order, and to say all of this Black Lives Matter, isn’t it awful? Isn’t it dangerous? That has not worked. A majority of Americans say we hate the looting, we hate the rioting, but we are moved by the injustice. Black Americans are Americans like us. When we see police kneel on somebody’s neck, that’s an American neck. We don’t care about the colour of that person. It’s just not right. It shouldn’t happen. And as long as that feeling is widespread in this country, I’m optimistic that we will pull ourselves together and move forward the way America did after the Civil War, the way we did after the Depression, and I hope the way we will do after this kind of descent into decades of inequality, hatred, bankrupting government. These are bad times, but good times may lie around the corner. I think most Americans recognize that investment in education, accepting immigrants, improving racial justice have been part of this country’s forward progress, and we’re going to keep doing those things and we’ll get back on track. It’s just going to take maybe half a decade to undo the mess we’ve gotten into over the last three.
Jordan: Well, good luck with that. And we’ll see you in half a decade. Thanks so much for doing this, Jack.
Jack: I hope it’ll work out well. And I look forward to having a better conversation with you then.
Jordan: Jack Goldstone of George Mason University. That was The Big Story. If you want more, including previous episodes about the terrifying decline of the United States, you can find them at thebigstorypodcast.ca. You can find us on Twitter at @thebigstoryFPN. You can find us in your podcast app, Apple, Google, Stitcher, Spotify. Doesn’t matter. Look us up, subscribe for free, rate, review, tell your friends all that good stuff. And if you want to drop us a line, you can always email us, firstname.lastname@example.org is the address I read them personally. I swear. Thanks for listening. I’m Jordan Heath Rawlings. We’ll talk tomorrow.
Back to top of page