The Road to Disunion

By Peter Turchin September 30, 2013 17 Comments

Several years ago I started a research project whose goal was to apply the structural-demographic theory to the American history (see Sticking My Neck Out). As I started collecting data, I began seeing connections between seemingly unrelated trends affecting the American society during the last three decades. For example, as the disparity between the incomes of workers and corporate chiefs became more extreme, increasingly large numbers of students flocked to law and business schools; meanwhile, incidence of seemingly senseless shooting rampages exploded to truly epidemic levels.

Viewed through the lens of the structural-demographic theory, however, these trends (and a number of others) all pointed to the same conclusion: that the USA was entering a pre-crisis phase of the secular cycle. Our investigations of historical societies showed that rising economic inequality, elite overproduction (in the US taking the form of overproduction of law and business degrees), and increasing political violence are reliable indicators of a crisis to come. Particularly worrying is the recent shift in shooting rampages, from workplace- and school-related rampages to violence against the state and state representatives.

In 2010 I published a short essay in the science journal Nature, in which I pointed out these worrying trends, and suggested that they were all slated to intensify in the years around 2020. A month ago I posted a book-length manuscript, which fleshes out the theoretical argument with large amounts of data we are fortunate to have for the American society and polity.

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The disquieting conclusion from this more recent analysis is that we are still firmly on track to some kind of a social and political upheaval during the coming decade or so. The worsening structural-demographic trends argue that things will be quite a lot more violent than the 1960s. How much worse – I don’t want [to] even think about it.

But as I read the today’s news, I am struck by how many parallels there are between the 2010s and the 1850s, especially on the political front.

Before 1850 the United States had a stable political landscape dominated by two main parties: the Democrats and the Whigs. During the 1850s this “Second Party System” collapsed.

The Democrats split along the Southern/Northern divide,  while the Whig party simply disintegrated. In his 1976 book, The Impending Crisis, 1848–1861, the historian David Potter describes a stunning array of parties and factions with which the voters were presented in 1854. These included: Democrats, Whigs, Free Soilers, Republicans, People’s party men, Anti-Nebraskaites, Fusionists, Know-Nothings, Know-Somethings, Main Lawites, Temperance men, Rum Democrats, Silver Gray Whigs, Hindoos, Hard Shell Democrats, Soft Shells, Half Shells, and Adopted Citizens.

Will some future historian write a book, titled The Impending Crisis, 2008–2021? We are not quite in 1854 yet, but the current Republican-Democratic Party System is already showing the signs of fragmentation.

The political scientists Nolan McCarty, Keith Poole, and Howard Rosenthal have analyzed the voting patterns in the U.S. Congress, which enabled them to quantify polarization among the American political elites. They showed that during the 1950s and 1960s there was virtually no difference between the Republicans and the Democrats. The American political elites were remarkably unified, just as they were during the Era of Good Feelings in the 1820s.

In The Big Sort the journalist Bill Bishop describes this ‘Second Era of Good Feelings’ as follows:

The American ideal was to get along. The national goal was moderation and consensus. … In Congress, members visited, talked across party boundaries. They hung out at the gym, socialized at receptions, and formed friendships that had nothing to do with party and ideology. (After all, members had been elected more on their personal connections at home—what V. O. Key called “friends and neighbors” politics—than by the force of party or policy.)

Things are quite different now. McCarty, Poole, and Rosenthal provide the numbers, but anybody who reads the news can tell that we are not in the fifties anymore. When I wrote my Nature essay on the problem of 2020, the degree of vituperation between the Republicans and the Democrats was already beyond any limits of civilized discourse. Things got even worse since then.

Now it’s the Republicans who are splintering. One of the leaders of the Tea Party wing in the Senate, Ted Cruz, compared fellow Republican senators who didn’t agree with him to appeasers of Nazi Germany (see the Reuters article).

The way things are going, soon the Republicans will start comparing each other to Bashar al-Assad or Kim Jong-un.

It’s “high noon,” cautioned Democratic Senator Tom Harkin, “as dangerous as the breakup of the Union before the Civil War.” He doesn’t know how right he is.

See also:

Below the Surface: the Structural-Demographic Roots of the Current Political Crisis

Published On: September 30, 2013

Peter Turchin

Peter Turchin

Curriculum Vitae

Peter Turchin is an evolutionary anthropologist at the University of Connecticut who works in the field of historical social science that he and his colleagues call Cliodynamics. His research interests lie at the intersection of social and cultural evolution, historical macrosociology, economic history and cliometrics, mathematical modeling of long-term social processes, and the construction and analysis of historical databases. Currently he investigates a set of broad and interrelated questions. How do human societies evolve? In particular, what processes explain the evolution of ultrasociality—our capacity to cooperate in huge anonymous societies of millions? Why do we see such a staggering degree of inequality in economic performance and effectiveness of governance among nations? Turchin uses the theoretical framework of cultural multilevel selection to address these questions. Currently his main research effort is directed at coordinating the Seshat Databank project, which builds a massive historical database of cultural evolution that will enable us to empirically test theoretical predictions coming from various social evolution theories.

Turchin has published 200 articles in peer-reviewed journals, including a dozen in Nature, Science, and PNAS. His publications are frequently cited and in 2004 he was designated as “Highly cited researcher” by ISIHighlyCited.com. Turchin has authored seven books. His most recent book is Ultrasociety: How 10,000 Years of War Made Humans the Greatest Cooperators on Earth (Beresta Books, 2016).

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  • I agree with this. It fits Ibn Khaldun’s model and a lot of models since. Clear signs of cyclic decline are evident.

  • O.Voron says:

    Nancy Pelosi: GOP on Obamacare “like hounds baying at the moon.”

    Harry Reid:”Understand we’re dealing with anarchists, they hate government.”

    • Peter Turchin says:

      Those are comments by Democrats on Republicans. The scary part is the shift in the Republican on Republican rhetoric

      • O.Voron says:


        Here is pubs on pubs:

        Whenever a conservative says anything critical of the pukey leadership in the Republican Party — whenever they do it — what do we hear?

        “Circular firing squad.”

        “This is not helpful.”

        “They violated the 11th Commandment.”

        “Let’s not make our 80% friend our enemy.”

        “They won’t consider the end game.”

        They vomit this stuff up every single time any conservative points out how badly they are selling out.

        So you can laugh that these same establishment guys have run off to the Politico to tell the world just how badly they beat up Ted Cruz in their closed door meeting and he has no end game.

        Remember, this is the closed door meeting Karl Rove said Ted Cruz and Mike Lee needed to sell on fighting. How can you sell a fight to a bunch of back stabbing cowards? That is exactly what they are.

  • O.Voron says:

    Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu is visiting the Capitol.

    This led some in the Capitol Hill press corps to joke: Will Netanyahu propose a two-state solution for the Democrats and Republicans?

  • JayMan says:

    I actually have a post coming up based on this premise and your discussion on this topic. Not exactly encouraging is the fact that that the top 1% have a bigger share of the wealth now than they did before the Great Depression.

    Readers see also:

    Flags of the American Nations | JayMan’s Blog


    Maps of the American Nations | JayMan’s Blog

    Colin Woodard, author of American Nations, predicted tension between the various American regions. The current political disarray is perhaps an example of that.

  • Peter Turchin says:

    This would be very funny (if we did not have to live through it):

    If It Happened There … the Government Shutdown

  • pjricherson says:

    Other important trends include the rise of independent voters and the very low approval ratings of Congress.

    David Fischer’s book Albion’s Seed documents the persistent regional differences in the US stemming from the four major streams of early immigrants from different parts of Britain.

    The current government shutdown seems to me to have some risk of resulting in a constitutional crisis.

  • Marcos says:

    Dear Professor Turchin, thanks for sharing your manuscript “A structural demographic analysis …”. Marcos (from Montevideo, Uruguay).

  • James says:

    An old time leftist, Carl Davidson, posits six trends that exist within each of the two currently dominant parties:

    He also refers in passing to the 19th century Whigs as an example of the fault lines that exist within the current Democratic party and, consequently, of its potential to fragment.

    Traditionally it is the left (in many countries, not just the USA) that has had problems in keeping its radicals ‘within the tent’, thereby weakening its impact relative to its base in society.

    So it’s interesting that it is the Republicans who are currently showing a lack of internal discipline. Generally, one would expect that the greater resources at the disposal of the pro-elite parties, combined with their more flexible conception of ideology would ensure they can overcome their co-ordination problems (i.e. their internal competition). If they are running into problems on that score, it’s sign that something is up.

    When the elites began to seriously fall out on other occasions in the modern era there were often mass movements, i.e. labour or, in Europe, the socialists, who held out the prospect of being able to reconstruct society on a higher level.

    Whatever about the reality of that hope, it would seem that such movements are vastly weaker now than a century ago.

  • David Vognar says:

    What interests me most about your work is the connection between biology and culture. It’s a relationship, and not an opposition, that is ripe for interesting research like yours. I’m currently studying Marxism and I have begun thinking about its critique of capitalism as a veiled critique of biology. Living beings are naturally selfish, want to maximize their given resources (even if different people’s standards of maximization vary) and want to re-produce (in Marxist language, produce)–even if we also develop more altruistic tendencies and aspirations. I find it especially intriguing that humans can temporarily or consistently enact the latter, without disregarding biological needs and desires. In this case, our cultural programing is relating with our biological programing. (Marxist dialectics would assume that biology and culture are oppositional. I do not.) I feel this is the great promise of our kind. I most disagree with Marxism though in its dualistic focus on the upper and lower classes. It glosses over important ideas, like those of Ibn Khaldun, that analyze culturally competing groups that rise and fall in power. In my opinion, the more evolved our leadership culture becomes (which depends on the cultural evolution of the society as a whole but even more so on succession and interaction between leadership groups in the same culture and different cultures tending toward cooperation), the better chance we have at re-making institutions that are still very much stuck in their atavistic biological founding. Yet that entails such openness and will tend to produce open government structures. In my opinion, this is the most dangerous thing about society today: The more open the government becomes, the higher the chance an uncooperative group will hijack it to serve its own, preponderantly biologically based ends for dominance. In this case, there is no relationship between biology and culture. There is the modern day Republican Party. And the short-term solution for that, as cultural evolution takes a while, is a game theory strategy called generous tit for tat: http://www.amazon.com/SuperCooperators-Altruism-Evolution-Other-Succeed/dp/1451626630

  • karlfrost says:

    I just had the unusual experience of being locked in El Dorado National Forest, near Lake Tahoe, CA, while hiking because of the government shut down and the closure of federal facilities. I decided to do a bit more hiking, before figuring out how to off-road out of the area. While hiking i was reflecting on your blog post and was wondering if this might be thought of as a kind of n-person prisoner’s dilemma or public goods game, where the the public of concern is the community of elites and the public goods are the surpluses produced by the rest of society. Just as fisherfolk in small communities can successfully coordinate with each other informally to successfully manage a fishing stock by everyone voluntarily taking less fish than they are capable of, elites can, in good times, moderate the amount they skim off the top of the economy. When trust breaks down amongst communities of fisherfolk and everyone starts to take more than is sustainable out of fear of how much others will take, the fishery collapses. Similarly, when trust amongst elites breaks down different factions start to tweek the system in ways that benefit themselves more than is sustainable for the whole system, leading to a breakdown of the whole system as inequity grows to unsustainable levels.

  • O.A.Wehmanen says:

    The 2020’s are going to be very exciting physically also. The overpopulation expressed in Rwanda and the drought expressed by Syria will both get worse. When the no-longer-insurable-beach-houses fall to the inevitable Florida storm the elites may get excited.

  • Nichol says:

    I realize that I’m a couple of years late to the party, but just feel the need to butt in.

    I agree that you can see a certain amount of fragmentation as the parties both age and are subject to strain but, if anything, I’d say that Pr. Turchin’s observation comes as much from an internal bias as it does observation.

    If anything, the US Democratic party is subject to breaking up due to it’s construction. Unlike the right side of the aisle, it is made up of a consortium of groups as a response to a monolithic clump of ‘traditional’, largely of UK extraction (at least culturally) people.

    I think you can expect that consortium to last only as long as those groups find it necessary to act in concert.

    An interesting side track in Cliodynamics might be to examine the growth and demise of countries that aren’t nations (ie. ethnonations). Situations like the later Roman Empire and the USSR really are rather rare.

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