In 2010, Peter Turchin, a professor in the departments of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and Mathematics, published an essay in Nature in which he made the case that 2020 could see the start of a decade of instability for the country.
So far, Turchin’s predictions are holding true, as 2020 saw the start of the COVID-19 pandemic and 2021 kicked off with an attack on the U.S. Capitol by supporters of former President Donald Trump.
“On the one hand, I was not terribly surprised, because this is what I have been saying for 10 years, but on the other hand, it always comes as a surprise seeing one of the country’s central institutions being taken over by a mob,” Turchin says now. “That was startling.”
Turchin studies the dynamics of civilization and complex societies, and makes quantitative predictions about the myriad ways seemingly disparate, yet interconnected, components interact and influence society’s trajectory.
“All complex societies encounter periodic waves of internal instability, which often spills into internal wars, such as civil wars or revolutions,” he says. “There are no known examples of society organized as state that ran for more than about 200 years before encountering these types of internal instabilities and our society is no exception.”
Turchin explains that we have entered an “age of discord” – the failure of cooperation – and that the signs have been apparent since the 1970s, including indicators like declines in well-being, stagnating wages, and increased fragmentation and polarization between political parties.
“Discord for us underlies the unraveling of social institutions that make our society work in a functional way,” says Turchin. “Human societies are complex. We have complex dynamics, and remember that we are not talking about fixed period cycles, rather a boom and bust dynamic. Things go up and down.”
Turchin’s forecast that the 2020s would be unsettled arose from the examination and alignment of data on fundamental characteristics of society and actions of individual people or groups.
“We have these two different types of dynamics that move in waves,” he says. “The first is structural-demographic theory dynamics, which typically move in a longer-term wave of about 200 years but on top of that you have social-psychology driven cycles, basically the length of two generations, and both cycles are peaking in the 2020s.”
Turchin says that structural-dynamic theory (SDT) can be thought of in similar terms to the stresses or pressures that build up and result in earthquakes. Like tectonic plates moving slowly but surely building friction and eventually erupting in an explosive crescendo, sociopolitical pressures accumulate and build, similarly culminating in potentially earth-shaking events like insurrections, revolutions, or civil wars.
The stress-inducing factors of SDT include declining social cooperation and civic engagement, widening economic inequality, increasing public debt, and decreasing confidence in state institutions — all have added strain and pressure to the current system. Less predictable triggers, in this case the pandemic, can also set off the instability.
“You can’t predict how the pressure, which is building, will be released.”
— Peter Turchin
There is also the question of “elites,” defined as those with the most influence in society, and whether they will do what is needed to reverse the current trend of instability.
“Power is the ability to influence the behavior of other people,” Turchin says. “Those in high administrative levels can tell people what to do, while a public intellectual can influence people by persuading them. In the United States, wealth is closely correlated with power. Think about society as a pyramid: there are few people at the top that wield a lot of power, and most of us down at the base don’t have much power.”
To navigate an age of discord, we need to look to the past, Turchin says, and observe where the right mix of political and social reforms were enacted to successfully avert crises in the past. So far, the response to the storming of the Capitol has not addressed the fundamental causes of the instability in society, says Turchin.
“Most of the reactions right now by the political elites are essentially increasing the cost of insurrection by putting people in prison and things like that,” he says. “It’s just keeping the lid down, rather than turning off the fire under the pot.
“They could be doing one of several things, for example, increasing the minimum wage, because minimum wage has only positive effects. The 2021 Nobel Prize in Economics went to an economist who showed that increasing minimum wage does not increase unemployment, and benefits not just the lowest levels of workers. Its effect percolates up. This is one of the things the current administration promised to do but has essentially reneged on. This is a very bad sign that the people in charge do not understand what’s driving the problems, and that they are not taking the right steps to solve them.”
Turchin says that, along with increasing the federal minimum wage, there are other measures that can be taken to increase well-being and set us on a more stable track, including more and stronger labor unions and making taxes more progressive. But here again, we see more worrying signs for the 2020s, says Turchin.
“The Trump administration did the opposite three years ago with tax cuts,” he says. “Those kinds of policy interventions over the last several years are not making the tax issue better.”
Then, the COVID-19 pandemic emerged to cause even more instability.
“Another important factor that drives instability is the loss of legitimacy by the government,” Turchin says. “The epidemic has undermined trust in state institutions and that’s another negative trend.”
Since the major drivers of instability have not been addressed, Turchin expects we will see more events like the attack on the Capitol in coming years.
“You can’t predict how the pressure, which is building, will be released,” he says. “On the surface, the next couple of years until the elections could look fairly calm, but there will be things bubbling under the surface. I think elections are really flashpoints; 2022 certainly is going to be a flashpoint, and 2024 is the one where our system will really be put under huge strain. It is not going to be painless, but we can learn from previous societies to make our own exit from this crisis more favorable.”