New Year’s Eve 2019 Forecast (What’s this?)
My forecast is that Red and Blue political cultures remain polarized over the coming years. This polarization will only abate when the global-populist wave cresting in both left and right ideological systems peaks and crashes; the buffer of prosperity which allows Red and Blue to functionally hate each other without consequences collapses; some global existential threat arises to the nation itself; or the two sides become so extreme (and thus narrowly appealing) that they leave space for a broader middle-movement or even closer-to-center left and right movements to emerge. We’ve already seen political policy approaches and cultural points of view begin splitting along this divide, and that trend will accelerate and grow to incorporate institutional splits as well. Things like Churches, universities, “sports”, even major sectors of the economy may begin splitting into Red and Blue halves of what was previously a unified concept. However, I don’t predict any widespread violence, broad insurgency or the dreaded “civil war” in the near future. I am however putting a date out for the first time that if we don’t collectively pull our head out of our proverbial on this matter we may see insurgencies and/or sustained civil conflict beginning in 2035-2045.
The systems theory reasoning for continued polarization is that necessity is the mother of change, and suffering is the mother of necessity. And Americans don’t, themselves, have to suffer for holding Red or Blue positions as increasingly fundamentalist approaches to world view. The surplus available in our system is so great that we are functionally able to hate each other and understand the world by first understanding the political affiliation of those we are interacting with – and yet still keep the lights on, the economy running, services being delivered etc. This isn’t to say there aren’t pockets of real harm being experienced, but most of these are limited to vulnerable communities with small populations, that the Red or Blue then rally around ‘on behalf of’ appropriating the suffering into the broader fabric of Red v. Blue conflict; but just as often in an exploitive rather than helpful way. This means vicarious humiliation and outrage is high, but personal resonance is low.
But none of this will result in widespread instability or violence until at earliest 2035-2045 for several reasons. The demographic conditions aren’t ripe for that to occur (see Q7). The physiological barriers of Maslow’s Hierarchy work against it (see Q6).
Civil wars often take generations of political division to lead to outright conflict. One can argue the date back to the Constitution, but to me the US Civil War started politically in 1820 with the Missouri Compromise, was fought politically and socially until 1861. Forty-one years of continuous acrimonious hatred before it became a conventional military conflict. Thirty years if we want to count the start of non-state actor violence in Bleeding Kansas. During that time the splits I described above were tell-tale markers that society was preparing to split over slavery: the Baptist and Methodist Churches split into northern and southern denominations, schools began splitting, families began splitting.
So even as bad as it seems now – we’re still a long way from widespread violence. We may see clandestine terror groups begin to pop up, but we’re at least 15 years from major conflict. Why do I think 2035 is going to be the kickoff window of high risk? Because beginning in 2030 the structural fiscal collapse of the US’s current fiscal mismanagement begins to play out.
Debt-to-GDP will pass 100% in 2029 and payments of the interest on that debt will close in on 3.5% of the National GDP. By 2032, Social Security is no longer paying out full benefits meaning that the shortfall (estimated ~25%) must either be borrowed, or inflated, lest the country face a default. This combination accelerates the fiscal problems until by 2049 dept-to-GDP is 193% and interest payments are 7% of GDP, or more than Social Security.
It’s unlikely that we’d even get to 2049 when you think about that kind of pressures, and the consequences it has on the buffers we live within, layered on top of a boiling Red v. Blue feud that has had at least a decade more time from now to boil. This is why I place the window of highest risk beginning in 2035, after the reality of the slow-motion collapse becomes apparent, over a ten-year spread.
This isn’t to say it’s likely. My expectation is the Red v. Blue cultural divides will fade away over the 20’s. Political and cultural landscapes are dynamic. And unlike other civil war scenarios where an irreconcilable fulcrum exists around which the divide creates: slavery in the US, religion in France etc.; in the US it’s the perception of one another as being Red or Blue that is driving this polarization. A new political movement that blends elements of both, a growing backlash of tiring at the constant hyper-partisan nature of everything, or the kind of threat that requires us to actually work together are all more likely to emerge and shift this course. But this is a forecast of “if nothing else changes.”
We have about 15 years or so.
Contingencies that would accelerate this time table are sustained reduction in services by government to either a Red or Blue constituency. President Trump is playing with instability fire when he makes move to punish Blue states by withholding Federal services. Mass-violence by the government against the people would rapidly accelerate the time table. What could take 15years might happen in months – but what I’m describing here are death-squads-roaming-the-streets Syrian levels of oppression mass-violence, an unlikely scenario from either side at this point.