Gridlock Today, Violence Tomorrow

Increased political polarization is leading the U.S. down a dangerous road.

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You'd have to be asleep not to notice the increasingly vicious and uncompromising tone of congressional debate lately. The short term results are all too clear: The prolonged inability to agree on a budget and debt levels; the costs inflicted by the government shutdown, for example, on flood victims in Colorado; the sheer unpleasantness of watching people we elect to lead us behaving like schoolyard bullies.

But as painful as it is to watch the spectacle, what's happening now pales in comparison to what's to come. So says Peter Turchin, a professor at the University of Connecticut and an active commentator on what he calls "social evolution."

Turchin studies long term sweeps in history, like the rise and fall of Communism and the forces that tore the U.S. apart in the run-up to the Civil War. He's built a mathematical model to explain the rise and fall of empires. His model takes into account a wide range of factors: public debt, available jobs, competition among elites, the gap between rich and poor and outbreaks of public violence. All of these indicators are trending in the wrong direction, he cautions.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Congress.]

Polarization is Dangerous

In a recent post, Turchin says that growing polarization among political elites is a bright, flashing warning of social unrest and imminent collapse of American power and prosperity. Polarization among elites poses a severe threat to any complex society. Polarization is a real problem for society, not just fodder for talk shows. It means that elites are fighting for their personal advantage within a highly competitive system -- but they no longer fight to improve or protect the social system as a whole.

Today, many Republicans are in a desperate fight for political survival in gerrymandered districts that are all-but-guaranteed to remain Republican. These legislators live in perpetual fear that a still-more-conservative opponent might unseat them in the primary. Their personal job worries edge out the national interest, even in the face of default and economic catastrophe.

But how did our elites get this polarized? Turchin says elites get polarized when too many ambitious and well-prepared people vie for control of society's resources. It's easy to see this in other cultures: for example in Saudi Arabia, where the high birth rate among the ruling family is outstripping that country's vast oil wealth. It's harder to see the root cause here at home.

Too many Lawyers

In the U.S., two underlying economic factors drive discord among elites: First, U.S. elites have become accustomed to their incomes rising far faster than GDP growth alone can support. This requires seizing the levers of political power to redistribute income: to put it simply, incomes at the top can't rise quickly enough without cutting taxes at the top, paid for by service cuts at the middle and the bottom. That takes political muscle. It draws ambitious people to the political fray. It elicits self-interested behavior once in office – not civic mindedness.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the economy.]

This dynamic alone is hard enough to deal with, but it's made worse because the population of would-be elites is rising much faster than the economy can support. For example, U.S. law schools routinely graduate more than twice as many new J.D.'s as there are job openings for them. Without enough lawyer jobs to go around, law school graduates are entering federal service in record numbers. Is it any surprise that as government fills up with people skilled in the art of open conflict, that we are seeing much more open conflict in government?

A similar challenge confronts newly–minted MBA's. Many more talented and ambitious grads emerge each year than elite employers can accommodate. Some of them are drawn to the political process to gain from policy what they are unable to wrest from the marketplace.

Toward the next Civil War?

Turchin cautions that today's hostile political climate looks a lot like conditions in the run-up to the Civil War. Then as now, politicians and the public at large became increasingly shrill and belittling to those who held different beliefs. Then as now, politicians became increasingly rigid, refusing to acknowledge that different people could reasonably hold different views, and treating disagreement as a sign of stupidity, corruption or even treason. Then as now, politicians refused to compromise. Then, existing political parties and alignments succumbed to the acrimony, just as the Republican Party is now a house divided between its mainstream leadership and tea party radicals.

The question is whether we can pull back from the brink and begin to forge a new, less passionate, less divisive way of governing. Turchin is not optimistic: "The worsening structural-demographic trends argue that things will be quite a lot more violent than the 1960s" he says. "How much worse – I don't want [to] even think about it."

David Brodwin is a cofounder and board member of American Sustainable Business Council. Follow him on Twitter at @davidbrodwin.

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