Posted on October 31, 2020

This Scary Statistic Predicts Growing Us Political Violence — Whatever Happens on Election Day

Peter Aldhous, Buzzfeed, October 24, 2020

Many Americans are clinging to the idea that if Joe Biden wins the presidential election, calm can return to a nation riven by protests and rattled by President Donald Trump’s authoritarian rhetoric.

Not so fast, caution two academics who claim they have devised a measure of political instability that shows that the nation will still be a powder keg that is waiting to blow, even if a Biden landslide means that Trump has little choice but to step aside.

“The tendency is to blame Trump, but I don’t really agree with that,” Peter Turchin, an evolutionary anthropologist at the University of Connecticut who studies the forces that drive political instability, told BuzzFeed News. “Trump is really not the deep structural cause.”

The most dangerous element in the mix, argue Turchin and George Mason University sociologist Jack Goldstone, is the corrosive effect of inequality on society. They believe they have a model that explains how inequality escalates and leads to political instability: Worsened by elites who monopolize economic gains, narrow the path to social mobility, and resist taxation, inequality ends up undermining state institutions while fomenting distrust and resentment.

Building on Goldstone’s work showing that revolutions tend to follow periods of population growth and urbanization, Turchin has developed a statistic called the political stress indicator, or PSI. It incorporates measures of wage stagnation, national debt, competition between elites, distrust in government, urbanization, and the age structure of the population.

Turchin raised warning signs of a coming storm a decade ago, predicting that instability would peak in the years around 2020. “In the United States, we have stagnating or declining real wages, a growing gap between rich and poor, overproduction of young graduates with advanced degrees, and exploding public debt,” he wrote, in a letter to the journal Nature. “Historically, such developments have served as leading indicators of looming political instability.”

Today, with the nation in turmoil, Turchin’s prediction seems remarkably prescient. {snip}

In August, Turchin gave himself a pat on the back for his predictive ability with an analysis showing a significant rise in political demonstrations and violent riots over the last 10 years. But he and Goldstone fear that much worse is to come.

When Goldstone talks about America’s darkest days in the 1860s, he provocatively calls it the “First Civil War.” He fears that we may be on the way to a second one, with the 2020 election serving as a potential “fire-starter” event.

Goldstone has some credentials in predicting conflict. In 1994, shortly after the US military’s ill-fated efforts to support UN intervention in Somalia’s civil war, which led to the downing of two Black Hawk helicopters and the gruesome spectacle of a dead US soldier being dragged through the streets, Goldstone was tapped by the CIA to help lead the State Failure Task Force. This group of academic social scientists was asked to identify factors that predict when a nation is likely to spiral into chaos.

The task force’s initial report, published in 1995, identified three risk factors that seemed to predict whether a state would fail within the next two years in about two-thirds of cases: high infant mortality, low openness to international trade, and level of democracy. On the last measure, partial democracies were more vulnerable to collapse than fully democratic states or autocratic regimes.

Goldstone continued to work on the project, later renamed the Political Instability Task Force, until 2012, tweaking its statistical model to predict both civil wars and democratic collapses with about 80% accuracy over the same two-year lead time.

He didn’t think of applying a similar approach to assess the risk of political conflict in the US until Turchin got in touch in 2015. “I didn’t expect political violence because I believed the US was a strong and flexible democracy,” Goldstone said.

But he is now convinced that Turchin’s PSI heralds a disturbing future for the US that won’t be solved by politics as usual after the 2020 election, even if Trump is defeated and goes quietly. “If those trends continue after Trump departs, then the risks and the occurrence of violence will likely continue,” Goldstone told BuzzFeed News.

“I’m worried about that no matter who wins,” he added. “The social problems are the gasoline. Trump is throwing matches.”

The PSI doesn’t explicitly address America’s deep divisions over racial justice. “Race has been an enduring faultline, ever since the founding of the Republic,” Turchin said. But he argued that it’s the additional dynamics captured by the PSI that explain why tensions are boiling over right now.

One key concern, according to Goldstone, is that people across the political spectrum have lost faith in government and political institutions. “In short, given the accumulated grievances, anger and distrust fanned for the last two decades, almost any election scenario this fall is likely to lead to popular protests on a scale we have not seen this century,” he and Turchin wrote in a recent article published by the Berggruen Institute, a think tank based in Los Angeles. This would hurtle the US into a period of political instability the researchers dubbed “the turbulent twenties.”

“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,” the article said. “But worse likely lies ahead.”

Turchin said people who rule out the possibility of serious political violence in the US based on “the strength of American institutions” are being “unduly optimistic.”

“The social system that we live in is extremely fragile,” Turchin said.


The PSI isn’t the only indicator that has set alarm bells ringing about the stability of the US. The Fund for Peace, a nonprofit based in Washington, DC, has developed a measure called the Fragile States Index (FSI) that, like the work of the State Failure Task Force, seeks to identify nations that are at risk of violence and instability from a range of underlying pressures including economic distress, refugee flows, and their record on human rights.

Overall, the US looks reasonably healthy on the FSI, ranked 149th out of 178 countries for its potential for instability. But there are worrying signs for the US on a component of the FSI labeled “cohesion,” according to Fund for Peace programs manager Natalie Fiertz. “Over the past decade-plus, we’ve seen very rapid worsening of the score for those dimensions,” she told BuzzFeed News.