This historian saw it all coming 30 years ago: How America's failure is pushing us 'off the cliff'
As soon as Joe Biden's victory in the 2020 election was clear, the question of what lies ahead immediately came to the fore: What do Democrats need to do, not just to help America recover from the profound damage of the Trump presidency, but to address the long-term underlying problems that made it possible in the first place? To help answer that question, I turned to the man who took the measure of those problems in the first place, sociologist and historian Jack Goldstone, whose 1991 book, "Revolution and Rebellion in the Early Modern World," revolutionized our understanding of revolutions as products of organizational failure in coping with demographic pressures.
Goldstone's book appeared just as America was celebrating "The End of History," as announced in a then-famous book by Francis Fukuyama. With the end of the Cold War, everything had supposedly been settled. There would be no more revolutions or ideological struggles. Almost 30 years later, no one thinks that anymore, and the demographic factors Goldstone identified — such as the "youth bulges" associated with the Arab Spring — have become commonplace terms in discussing potential revolutions. Goldstone's model combined measures of demographically-driven social stress from the mass population, the elites and the state to produce a single number, the "political stress indicator," or psi. State breakdown — and thus revolution — has only occurred when psi rises to dramatically high levels. Unlike earlier theories, Goldstone's approach explained when revolutions didn't happen, as well as when they did.
I discovered Goldstone's work by way of cultural anthropologist Peter Turchin, who refined and expanded his model and applied it to a broader range of societies, including modern industrial states. Four years ago, the month before Donald Trump was elected, I reviewed Turchin's book, "Ages of Discord: A Structural-Demographic Analysis of American History," which predicted an approaching period of social and political disintegration, regardless of whether Trump won or lost.
But even in 1991, Goldstone had seen worrying signs in America of the same sorts of problems his book described in England and France in the 17th and 18th centuries, respectively, as well as in China and the Ottoman Empire. Most notable was the problem of "selfish elites" who "preferred to protect their private wealth, even at the expense of a deterioration of state finances, public services, and long-term international strength."
That's why Goldstone's perspective on the problems facing us today seem particularly worth our attention. He and Turchin combined to write an article for Noema magazine in September, "Welcome to the Turbulent Twenties," and BuzzFeed highlighted their perspective — and specifically, the role of psi — in a late October story on the possibility of rising political violence in the U.S. But their perspective deserves much more than an occasional mention — it should inform the entire framework in which our discussions take place.
I reached out to Goldstone even before this election had been decided, seeking the broadest perspective I could possibly get. Some of what he and Turchin wrote about is admittedly now difficult to imagine, given that Democrats may not win a Senate majority and have lost at least nine seats in the House. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Your book "Revolution and Rebellion in the Early Modern World" came out just after the end of the Cold War, at the same time as Francis Fukuyama's celebrated book "The End of History and The Last Man," which claimed that we had reached "the end-point of mankind's ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government." Fukuyama was hardly alone at the time, but you offered a strikingly different view, one much more consistent with how history has unfolded in subsequent decades. What was the key insight that gave you such a different view?
Most people had viewed revolutions as a result of great ideological struggles. And if there weren't going to be any more such great struggles, people thought there wouldn't be any more revolutions either. It's certainly true that the leaders of revolutions need an ideological platform, but in my view the causes of revolutions were organizational failures, and the ideological shifts come about when people feel the organizational failure of their society and look for new ideas on how to fix it.
In my view, organizational failure is not something that goes away with some march of history. It's always possible, even likely, that societies will get themselves into trouble. Governments tend to overspend, elites tend to fight taxation and accumulate resources. As elites grow in number, they tend to fight more and more among themselves for position and wealth, and if elites do not make sure that the wealth of society is distributed in the way that gives ordinary people hope and a stake in society, then they can be recruited to opposition, even radical movements.
So I feel the risk of revolutions is always there. The ideologies may change. We went from an ideology of liberalism to an ideology of communism and then, when communism faded, the Middle East and much of Asia started turning to an ideology of radical Islam. So I had no reason to believe that revolutions would disappear.
When they reappeared with vigor I was not surprised, and my work started getting a lot more attention — especially after the Arab Spring, which was a whole bunch of old-fashioned violent, civil war-inducing revolutions. They obviously had a lot to do with the failure of states to provide jobs for the young, the problem of over-educating a large cohort of youth, the failure to distribute economic progress equally.
So, my vision turned out — not happily but, as it turned out, correctly — to foresee that many more revolutions were possible. In fact, I'll go one step further. At the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union, many people said, "Well, those aren't revolutions, those are something new. Those are refolutions" — with an F — "They're more like reforms, they're negotiated, they are peaceful or they are democratic movements." I was a little bit alone in saying, "Now, wait a minute, to me they look like revolutions."
You had a failure of states that were organized on the basis of state communism, and they unwound differently because the populations tended to be older and thus were less drawn to radicalism and violence. So you had the color revolutions as the response, but when you talk about why these things occurred and how they played out and whether we'll see more of them in the future, the answer was, "They're organizational failures. Yes, we will see more of these." And indeed, after 1998 is when so we started seeing more color revolutions across Asia, and we will continue to see those.
In fact, I think the real difference between color revolutions and violent revolutions is not just a matter of tactics or ideology. It's got a great deal to do with the age structure of the population, the educational job profile. When you have a younger population that's more educated, that's suffering higher unemployment, you're likely to get a more ideologically extreme revolution. When you have an older population that is in a stagnant economy, you're more likely to get the color revolutions, seeking just to open up and democratize politics.
Another big argument I had with people at the time was that they felt that once capitalism had triumphed, there would not be any more need for revolutions. But I said this is not about capitalism. The revolutions of the 19th century were still about the same kind of organizational state failures that we'd seen in earlier centuries, and once we get to the 20th and 21st centuries, we could still have organizational failures, even in modern, fully industrialized states.
Your model actually had three contributing factors to political instability: the mass population, the elites and the state. You've already talked about that dynamic, but could you break it down into those three parts and say a little more specifically about each of them?
Let's start with what it takes for society to continue to work and successfully reproduce itself across time. We tend to think about society as how it looks at a particular moment in time: Are people getting along or are they not getting along? Is it because they disagree or whatever? That to me is a very incomplete, shortsighted way to approach the dynamic nature of society. Instead I tend to think in terms of flows of resources, flows of people.
To reproduce itself over time, the government needs to continue to have enough revenue to carry out its responsibility for national defense and domestic administration. The government, the economy and other institutions like the church need to recruit a fresh flow of leadership every generation. So they need to have some system for training and selecting the next generation of elites or leaders.
If the government doesn't have a system to keep revenues in pace with expenses, it will start to go into debt, it will start to go broke, it will start having to scrounge around to find other ways to raise money. If society doesn't get the flow of elites correct, either there are not enough competent, well-trained people to move into leadership positions or what's much more common is that you have an overflow, where society ends with more people training and aspiring to elite positions, and believing that they deserve them, than there are positions for such people. For societies to grow stably, there has to be a system of recruitment and filtering that is seen as fair and legitimate to govern that distribution of elite positions. Otherwise, it becomes a dangerous free-for-all.
For much of human history that was simply inheritance. The older son inherits his father's position and the younger sons have to go work things out on their own. When we get to a meritocracy, you have people acquiring the training or degrees to provide the right certifications for elite positions, and that's fine as long as things grow at the same pace — if you have expansion of the universities, if you have societies expanding their bureaucracies, expanding the professional business positions and so on. But if you start training many more people for elite positions than the society can provide, you get the frustration of large numbers of overeducated youth, and that's politically dangerous.
Lastly, you understand that a government that's losing money and resources gets into trouble and it starts picking on other groups to say, "We need to tax your wealth, or we need to increase your taxes." But, if the elites can organize and be unified and simply say, "No, we're going to change the system," then you either get reforms or an elite coup-d'état. There's no need for a revolution if the elites are united and can agree what needs to be done.
But if the elites themselves are very divided and unsure — do we need to change government policy, or do we actually need to change the government and displace some of the conservative elites that are preventing the changes we need? — then members of the elite who believe change is necessary will try to recruit popular support. They want the demonstration that large numbers of the population are with them to demand the overthrow of conservative elites or an incompetent ruler.
So this ties into mass well-being, then?
Trying to stir up popular support for change is only feasible if large numbers of the people are unhappy with the situation. It's very hard for dissident elites to get people to take the risk and take the time to engage in opposition to government if most of them think everything's OK, as long as they're getting what they expect. It doesn't have to be great, but at least it's what they expect.
But if large numbers of people find there are shortages of land, that wages are going down or stagnant, that they don't have enough land to provide for their family or kids or enough income to provide a proper wedding for their daughters; if they can't find work, they lose their land to a greedy landowner and are thrown into the workforce and have trouble finding jobs, or become vagrants or bandits. Then, when things are bad enough for a large portion of the population, they are much more easily recruited to movements that say, "We gotta get rid of everything. These are bad people in charge. Things are never going to get better until we get them out of the way." That's how you recruit a mass movement for rebellion or revolution.
In your book, published almost 30 years ago, you warned that we were getting ourselves in trouble. You focused particular attention on the role of "selfish elites," which you've called a "key difficulty faced by regimes in decline." You warned that the U.S. was, "in respect of its state finances and its elites' attitudes, following the path that led early modern states to crises." What did you see then as the central problem that wasn't being addressed?
I had just spent 10 years studying how states gradually get themselves into a situation of breakdown, and one of the questions that motivated me was: Why should governments that have the ability to tax and to recruit the smartest people ever get into trouble? You would think that they're holding all the cards. But what I'd seen in my studies of state breakdown was that government got into trouble when it could no longer count on the support of elites, and that usually occurred because elites lost sight of what we used to call the public service ethic.
I was just reading about John F. Kennedy and what his parents drilled into his entire family: "Yes, you're rich and you're privileged, but you have responsibilities to serve the public." That's the same ethic that had been drilled into Roman centurions and senators, and had been drilled into the aristocracy of Europe — the whole code of chivalry was that if you're a knight or a lord, you have certain responsibilities to watch out for society and take care of those that are not as powerful and fortunate as you.
Throughout history, societies start down the road into collapse when elites start saying, "No, I've got to take care of myself first, because other people are after my position and I can't count on it being secure for my children. So I have to keep as much of what I have as possible." So elites start fighting with each other, they resist taxation, they become much less civic-minded. They give less in the sense of philanthropy and leadership for public efforts.
I was seeing that in the United States. We put a movie out that said, "Greed is good," and people started revering the work of Ayn Rand, who basically preached that whoever is successful owes that success only to themselves, and it's wrong for government or anyone else to ask that they share it. Well, that line of thinking makes elites feel very good and feel, "Yes, I've earned all of my success. It's all due to me and I have a right to enjoy it." But that leads to bigger yachts and private islands on the one hand, and deteriorating schools and ballooning budget deficits on the other. That was very clearly the way the United States was going in the '80s and '90s, and it really didn't change.
So here we are with this election. There was no mass rejection of Trump. It wasn't about Trump. People didn't understand that four years ago, and apparently they still don't understand it now. The breakdown, the polarization, the divisions of American society are not about Trump,. They are about people rejecting the actions of an elite — both conservatives and liberals, it really didn't matter; it was both New York elites and Texas elites — rejecting a notion of a society in which winners take all and government should be starved, with no provide benefits or support for communities that are in trouble, and basically leaving people on their own.
So, we have hundreds of millions of people whose lives, they feel, are slipping away from them. They feel their opportunities for their families and their children are getting fewer, rather than greater, they see the government getting further and further into debt. They don't see why. What's all that money being wasted on, if their lives aren't getting better? And so they are voting to reject everything in the traditional elites and establishment politics. They reject everything they've seen for the last 30 or 40 years, because it has neglected and demeaned their lives.
So, they're voting for the outsider, the renegade, the person who'll upset the apple cart and who at least says, "I'm doing this for you," regardless of the reality and regardless of the delivery. Someone who says, "The people that you're angry at are the people I'm angry at, and I'm going to do something about it for you." That's enough to earn their deep, steadfast loyalty, and that's why they came out in such large numbers to vote for someone, even if the other half of America says, "Well, you know, this guy Trump seems to be divisive and incompetent and nasty and so we're not going to vote for him."
You know, half of America thinks he still gets it: "He understands our situation. We don't want to be taxed and have money wasted. We don't want to live in a situation where we're constantly worried that other people are taking our opportunities, our jobs. We want to feel defended, supported." That's their America, and they want it back. I saw all this coming when you have an elite that lives inside guarded communities and makes it harder to get into school, and instead of investing to deal with declining productivity puts its money into fancy real estate and showy acquisitions.
In the article with Peter Turchin you published in September, you argue that American exceptionalism had been founded on cooperation. It unraveled during the 19th century but was "reforged during the New Deal," only to fall apart again beginning in the 1970s. You describe that cooperation as "an unwritten but very real social contract between government, business and workers," and what replaced it was the neoliberal contract, only between business and government. Now Trump comes in saying, "I'll stick up for you," but he didn't actually do anything for workers. How should we understand that gaping disconnect?
In my 1991 book, I said that there are two different playbooks you can get as leaders respond to this kind of crisis. Donald Trump has followed the typical dictator's playbook. That is, he finds a country where a lot of people are unhappy because they see they're losing out to greater inequality. The elites don't care about them. The elites are starving the government, so the government is basically incompetent, or becoming a tool of the elite. So they want to vote for a strongman to repair the damage.
But the dictator is smart enough to know that he also needs elite support. You can't just come in and stage a revolution. He doesn't even want a revolution, he just wants to be in power. He needs to somehow get elite support while harnessing the anger of the population, so what does he typically do? He directs that anger at others. He may direct it at the professional elite, at the left-wing intellectuals. "I don't need them. I just need the business elite." And the other thing he says is, "Look at the other people who are trying to take things away from you. Look at immigrants, look at foreigners, people of different religions." He finds scapegoats. So that's what Trump did, and that's why we're in the situation we're in now. It's a divisive, not a healing approach. It leads deeper into crisis.
But that's not the only alternative.
What we really need is the kind of leadership that can inspire elites to make sacrifices to strengthen all of society. This is what the Japanese did after World War II. It's what America did in World War II, and in leading the world in the Cold War. That kind of inspiration benefits from having a major external enemy. I remember Sputnik, and how afraid America got all the sudden. We won the Second World War, but then Russia had missiles and had nuclear weapons that could destroy us. So we needed to invest in ourselves, we needed to invest in science and education for the young, we needed to build our internal infrastructure to a high level, we needed to invest in research and development and put a man on the Moon. We were going to build modern communication, build the greatest scientific establishment in the world, and recruit — wherever it's useful — immigrants to come and strengthen us.
So a lot of the top engineers and scientists in our big Cold War movement were immigrants, and we continued that into the '70s and '80s. A lot of the people who built our computer industry were immigrants and children of immigrants. So, we had a bit of that new social contract — government investment and taxation rates were higher. People think Ronald Reagan got rid of taxation rates, but elite taxes were still 50% higher in the Reagan era than they are now.
We had a series of presidents — all the way, I would say, from Eisenhower through Reagan — who said, "America has an ideal, we're all going to contribute to that. We're going to pitch in, live up to that ideal, we're going to lead the world together." That pursuit of American exceptionalism worked pretty well to keep America together.
Now, it started to break down even under Reagan, because Reaganism started to join with the free-market competitive inequality that got worse and worse over the next 30 years. But at least after the Depression and World War II, Americans were being trained to pull together. It was minorities who legitimately felt that they were being left out of the conversation, so you had the civil rights movement and the women's movement saying, "We want to be part of this." What they wanted to be part of was an America that in general was moving forward and taking leadership in the world. That kind of notion, that everybody should move forward together and that the whole society needs to work together — that has been lost.
So it began to break down under Reagan. Then what happened?
It really collapsed after the Cold War, when it seemed that Americans just kind of took for granted: "We have the system that works. All we have to do is keep doing what we're doing and if the meritocracy gets more and more privileged and exclusive, well, that doesn't really matter. The rich get richer and richer, but they earned it. They're building new industries and doing what the railroad and steel magnates did in an earlier century to build a new America, so they're fine. We're not for the sales tax on Internet products and we're just going to let the intellectual, professional and business elites feather their nests, and everybody else can either catch up or fall behind. That's fair play in America."
That's been completely corrosive, and obviously it's also given opportunities for the dark side of American history: the hatred of foreigners, the hatred of minorities, the regional competition, the distrust between the city and the countryside. All those have been kind of long-standing elements of human nature. America didn't discover them, but we didn't get rid of them either.
Those dark elements come out more strongly when you're in a society that simply says, "We have open competition and the better you do the more proud you should be of yourself. You don't really owe anything to anyone else, and you certainly don't owe anything to the government to provide for the basic structure and investment in society. Government doesn't deserve it. They don't know what to do with it. So let's starve the government."
Well, you do that and you lose social cohesion. You lose the confidence and effectiveness of government and the government will not be able to respond when you have a crisis, whether it's a pandemic or a crisis of racial injustice or a crisis of income inequality. So those problems simply fester and lead to worse divisions and eventually to some kind of conflict.
In the article with Turchin, you describe a formula for past progress, referencing what happened in England in the 1830s and here in America in the 1930s. First, a leader trying to preserve the past social order is replaced by a new leader willing to undertake much-needed reforms. Biden replacing Trump may fit that mold, but he's not going to have much support in the Senate, or an FDR-style popular mandate. The second thing you describe is the new leader leveraging support to force opponents to give in to necessary changes. It looks like that's not an option, at least in the near term. So where do we stand right now?
I can tell you very simply: The most important person for the future of America has been and will be Mitch McConnell. The reason I say that is because we're going to have a president who wants to be a nonpartisan problem-solver. He definitely realizes that America needs to fix its infrastructure, and join the world in moving toward control of the terrible threat of climate change. Our West Coast is burning, our Midwest farmers are being flooded, and our East and Gulf coasts are being pounded by hurricanes.
So we need to do something about climate change before it destroys us, we have to take care of the pandemic, we have to make the economy work better for those people who are not on the cutting edge of the digital economy, we have to somehow restore dignity and opportunity for people from all walks of life. So there are big problems that need to be solved. Biden does want to address those in a bipartisan way, and he says it: "I want to bring America together again. I want to include everybody. I want to be the president of all Americans."
He's saying all the right things to put us back on the right track. You can think of the instability index that Peter and I talk about as measuring your distance from a cliff: How close are you getting to the edge of the cliff? We can't tell exactly where the edge of the cliff is, because you could say it's shrouded in fog. It depends on lots of particular circumstances. But we know there's a cliff out there, when government no longer commands the respect of the people and the elites can no longer work together. Our measurements say we're getting very close to that cliff. So Biden wants to turn around and change directions, and start backing away from that cliff edge. That's good.
If Republicans win the Senate and Democrats have the House, the issue is whether Republicans in the Senate will support that change in direction, to pull us back from the cliff. Or are they going to say, "No, if you're not going to put us in charge, if you're not going to do it our way, we're going to push you over that cliff, so that people can see how bad you are"? That's what they did with Obama, to a large degree: Just say no to everything and if there are failures, it's on you.
If Mitch McConnell works with moderate Democrats to move away from the cliff, that will strengthen the moderate Democrats and reduce the power of the more radical or progressive wing, because the moderates will be getting more done. This is a very common situation in politics. You usually have an extreme left and extreme right, a middle left and a middle right. And if the middle left and the middle right can work together, they keep the extremists marginalized. They keep them weak.
But if the moderates cannot work together and cannot get anything done, that strengthens the extremists on both sides who say, "See, there's nothing to be gained by moving to the middle. There's nothing to be accomplished by compromise with our opponents. So let's just go all the way to get what we want."
So if Mitch McConnell is willing to say, "Hey, I want the moderate center of American politics to flourish and be rebuilt," if he is willing to work with the Democrats to pull us back from the edge of a cliff, we can start to move away from the dangerous spot that we're in. But if he says, "I'm going to be the party of no. I'm going to just wait until we get a Republican president again, and I will let things go as close to the cliff, or even over the cliff, if that's what it takes," that is going to increase the strength of the far-left progressives and the far-right radical Trump anti-government anti-globalist extremists — and we're going to end up having an election in 2024 that makes 2020 look relatively united.
The polarization will be worse, the anger will be worse, the recrimination on both sides will be vicious and nothing will have been accomplished in four years. That's what I really see if it continues in that direction. We're close enough to people taking up arms against each other in the streets now. That becomes almost unavoidable if Biden is pushed to the extremes by McConnell's unwillingness to work with him in the right direction.
I wanted to ask about innovative democratic reforms that can cross ideological lines. Ranked-choice voting is one example that can incentivize a less acrimonious, more substantive way of campaigning. Or citizens' assemblies, which have been widely used in other countries recently. Obviously the Senate is not going to start doing that, but these ideas are bubbling up in more local contexts. Could they be promoted to help change the conversation, or at least expand the possibilities for avoiding the cliff?
Absolutely. We don't want partisan solutions, even if they're good ones, rammed through on a partisan basis, because that does more damage by increasing the polarization and political division, even with good policy. I think citizens' assemblies are great. I like the idea of going back to an old device, the "blue ribbon commission," where you have a policy issue, you know it is important, you know it's contentious and you have some idea where you want to go. You appoint a bipartisan commission with some leading politicians, some leading experts, you try to work out a plan. And once that plan is developed to the point where you can make a good argument for it, you can show it has bipartisan support on the commission that developed it, then you offer it to the legislature.
We actually had that with the prison reform bill that President Trump signed. That wasn't something that came because he was so wildly enthusiastic about it when he ran for office, but it was a problem that both sides saw needed to be addressed and they came up with a plan that could be the basis of bipartisan legislation. I think we can do that again on climate and environmental policy. We can do it on infrastructure. We can do it on jobs and social mobility. We can do it on income inequality and opportunities.
There are a lot of ideas floating around, whether it's cash handouts or more progressive taxation or taxing capital and labor equally or providing preschool education to give everybody a better chance early on. But these ideas need to be discussed at length by people from different perspectives, in a room with technical experts who can answer questions, and with legislative aides who can hammer out concrete legislation to be a framework for bipartisan agreement.
I'm a big believer in universal citizen service, to bring people from all over the country from all different walks of life to work shoulder to shoulder on a common goal and get to know each other. That breaks down a lot of the polarization and enmity that grows up if people are educationally and residentially segregated, as we have become. I think there are a lot of things that can be done without changing the Constitution, and without radical overhaul of the income structure. There are things we can do to make progress on concrete issues that will help us pull together as a country and point us away from the edge of the cliff.
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