“Like the Roman, I seem to see the River Tiber foaming with much blood.” So spoke British politician Enoch Powell 50 years ago in his famous speech delivered to a small audience of Birmingham constituents. Those words were an allusion to the forebodings of a soothsayer in Virgil’s Aeneid, so Powell was not literally predicting “rivers of blood.” But he did assert in stark terms that the transformation of Britain’s historic demography through mass immigration was a danger requiring the loudest possible alarm.
Powell, defense minister in the Tory shadow cabinet at the time of his speech, was considered one of Parliament’s foremost intellectuals. But the political establishment’s response was immediate and brutal. The Times of London dubbed his warning “evil.” Party leader Edward Heath stripped Powell of his party post. And some Labour MPs called for his prosecution for inciting racial hatred. Yet a thousand London dockworkers marched to protest his dismissal, and tens of thousands sent him letters and postcards thanking him for speaking out. If the consensus then was that he had gone too far, Powell’s posthumous reputation, forever linked to the speech, has only grown stronger over time among conservatives.
Fifty years later, it seems clear that Powell’s most dire forebodings have proven mistaken—or at least premature. There have been no “rivers of blood.” And, while there have been sporadic terror attacks connected to immigration in Britain, some causing mass casualties, these are a far cry from what Powell predicted. Indeed, London’s present mayor, Sadiq Khan, the son of Pakistanis who immigrated to Britain in the year of Powell’s speech, has observed that terrorist attacks of the kind now occurring may simply be “part and parcel of living in a big city.”
But immigration now is the single most contentious issue throughout the Western world. As the nations of the West have become increasingly multiracial, their politics have grown more polarized. And a case can be made that it is too soon to dismiss Powell’s warning out of hand.
Thus in these times, as the polemics, counterarguments, and mutual insults hurled back and forth by commentators and politicians have begun to grow repetitive and predictable, it may be instructive to step back and approach the Powell question less directly, through the lens of contemporary social science. Issues of order and stability have always been central to political theory, and there is of course a substantial political science literature about revolution, state failure, and civil war—the events that actually could bring about “rivers of blood” through internal strife. This essay will explore some of what social scientists have written on these questions over the past generation.
In the United States today, it is hard to ignore the reality that large numbers of Americans unambiguously despise one another for political reasons. Perhaps this was always the case, but social media and ideologically polarized cable news have certainly heightened the reality. These entities hammer away at Americans about the perfidy of their opponents, reinforcing the perception that political opponents and their beliefs are despicable—and thus rightfully rejected by large numbers of their fellow citizens.
At the ideological level America has become divided into two equally intolerant communities. The Left faction, contained within the Democratic Party and now its most dynamic contingent, is driven primarily by multicultural identity politics. Having seemingly made peace with growing inequality and capitalism, the Left has become an updated version of Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition—people of color and “progressive” whites, plus the recent addition of exotic new varieties of gender-identity activists. The animating belief here is that the United States is a toxic bastion of white male heterosexual privilege, and the country can be redeemed only by that regime’s dismantlement.change_me
This political sensibility gets vehement opposition from a party of “nativism,” defined not by the defense of white male privilege (whose existence in any meaningful sense is denied by most nativists) but by opposition to the Left’s effort to discredit the Western heritage and dismantle the traditional America. Donald Trump clearly benefited from this opposition, which he played some role in molding into an electoral force. America’s new immigrants did not create these hatreds and seldom play active roles in the intensifying battle, though the number that does is growing. But they and their offspring vote Democratic by decisive majorities, which ensures that changing demography exacerbates the division, generating on one side a sense of demographic triumphalism (and a consequent contempt for compromise) and on the other a sense of trepidation and defensiveness that translates into powerful political passions.
The Powell question is whether these splits eventually will threaten American democracy and civil peace. It was a question that occupied a group of professors who convened at Yale last fall to discuss whether American democracy was under threat. Most were liberals who chewed over in predictable ways the “It Can’t Happen Here” trope—whether Donald Trump constitutes a fascist menace. But Duke’s Timur Kuran, whose depiction of the two factions roughly corresponds to those noted above, stated that a growing intolerance characterizes political communities of both left and right. At the core of these ideological communities he sees mutually reinforcing intolerances. They depend upon each other for the political outrage that increasingly defines them.
“Each of the two intolerant communities wants to wipe out the other,” concludes Kuran, who mitigates his blunt language by observing that this “wiping out” entails merely “making the rival community accept, if only tacitly, its world view and favored policies.” Currently, he says, the two sides are in rough equilibrium in terms of political power, but Kuran foresees many sorts of extraneous events that could upend the equilibrium in favor of one faction or the other.
Kuran clearly is correct when he says that the degree of political polarization is now striking. Americans in 1960 nearly unanimously told pollsters they were indifferent to whether their child married someone from another political party, but now they care a lot about it. (Half of Republicans would reportedly be “upset” and a third of Democrats.) Dating apps now signal whether one’s potential partner has differing views over abortion. A recent Pew survey reveals that Democrats and Republicans are further apart in their attitudes on key issues than at any point in decades. In 2016, the alt-right’s “joking” use of Nazi memes on Twitter drew apprehension and scorn, but perhaps of equal importance is the restoration of Lenin, Stalin, and hammer and sickle memes by young leftists. Che Guevara never left us, of course, but now we have Ta-Nehisi Coates, touted as the leading black intellectual of his generation, who muses that the “complete abolition of race as a construct” is one of those things that “don’t tend to happen peacefully.”
Of course, anyone who lived through the radical emergence of the 1960s knows that violent rhetoric need not necessarily signify very much at all in the long run. But there was plenty of unsettling violence in the late 1960s, and we’ll never know how close the country came to real societal instability.
The study of revolution—especially the English, the French, and the Russian revolutions, long at the center of political theory—spawned a subset of inquiry devoted to forecasting contemporary events. During the Cold War, many political scientists tried to discern which developing states were most vulnerable to communist overthrow and which had the greatest prospect to emerge as stable Free World democracies. When the Cold War ended with the Soviet Union’s collapse, this state-failure industry hardly skipped a beat.
In 1994, spurred by the massacre in Burundi and the violent breakup of Yugoslavia, Vice President Al Gore initiated the State Failure Task Force. It sought to promulgate an authoritative, data-driven study of the correlates of regime breakdown. If the West had better “early warning systems,” the thinking went, states on the verge of collapse could be identified beforehand, the international community could intervene, and much tragedy could be avoided. Working with the CIA, academic specialists in revolution and civil wars set to the task. Typically, they would examine dozens of variables, ranging from infant mortality to the prevalence of mountain ranges, the proportional size of the “youth age bulge” (population percentage of 15 to 25 year olds), the percentage of children in school, the proportion of the GDP that was engaged in international trade. These were massaged with complex mathematical techniques to see which best corresponded with state failure. According to one authoritative summary of the group’s findings, the three best variables to gauge state stability were openness to international trade, low infant mortality, and democracy. Not surprisingly, this conclusion reflected neoliberal assumptions so confidently held during the 1990s: economic development was good, democracy was good, free trade was good, and nations that followed those guidelines would be rewarded with stability and perhaps prosperity. The Western democratic capitalist world was exemplary. State failure was something that happened mostly in non-Western places.
An important contributor to this literature of revolution and state failure was Jack Goldstone, now a professor at George Mason University. In 1991 Goldstone published an ambitious and acclaimed work of comparative history entitled Revolution and Rebellion in the Early Modern World. The work sought to discern which structural commonalities in societies from Western Europe to Asia coincided with stability and which correlated with violent disruption. The book can be thought of as a materialist corrective to Karl Marx, whose massively influential theory of political development—from feudalism to capitalism to the emergence of a proletariat whose growing class consciousness opens the gates to socialism—never conformed especially well to the actual facts of social and political history.
Goldstone argues that the deeper structures governing civic strife in the early modern world can be traced to population growth. States break down or revolutions occur when the state seems increasingly unable to perform the expected tasks of government. It is not sufficient that government be unjust or that classes be oppressed; states become vulnerable when a significant portion of a society’s elite perceives the rulers to be ineffective. Loss of legitimacy is the result of intra-elite conflict; revolutions break out when disaffected elites can ally themselves with and mobilize the popular classes.
Goldstone’s population dynamics were critical to whether a government could maintain legitimacy in the early modern world: rapid population growth put pressure on landholdings, unleashed peasants into the cities, and led to inflation-driven fiscal crises, compelling the state to raise taxes and producing intra-elite factions and fighting. Larger elite families produced more aspirants to high positions than the state service or the nobility could satisfy. Goldstone likens his demographic structural model to an earthquake: for decades before an outbreak, pressures build, and then a trigger (a bankruptcy, economic depression, or regional rebellion) unleashes pent-up forces. Every crisis is different, but the underlying rhythms are similar in 17th century Britain and France, the Ottoman Empire, and China. All experienced relative tranquility from 1660 to 1760, a period of relative demographic stagnation.
In a subsequent essay, Goldstone writes that the preconditions for revolution in the contemporary world are three: 1) when states become dysfunctional, no longer able to command resources and obedience; 2) when elites become alienated from the state and engage in battles for resources and status; 3) when large numbers of citizens become receptive to mass protest movements. Although in the early modern world, as we have seen, Goldstone believed population growth fueled instability, in general many circumstances might create such conditions.
But what militates against these forces? For almost all modern political scientists, democracy is the effective guarantor of stability, the mechanism ensuring political battles can be fought without violence, with failed or threatening rulers tossed from office peacefully. In any ranking of states listed according to vulnerability to revolution or state failure, the major capitalist democracies invariably rank at the bottom, meaning they are the most stable. When I spoke to Goldstone last fall, he said countries with low birth rates and modest demographic growth—the modern West—were unlikely to experience revolution or civil strife, but he did foresee a strong possibility of major fiscal crises and disruptive party realignments.
Some caveats reduce confidence in this conclusion. The first is that despite their methodological sophistication, social science practitioners haven’t been particularly successful in predicting civil war and revolution. The blunt fact is that no one of note thought Iran was facing a revolutionary situation in 1977. A decade later Western analysts were stunned by the collapse of the Soviet empire in Eastern Europe and the USSR’s subsequent implosion. This is astonishing given the extent of Western analytical resources devoted to the Soviet system. In part, the failure was ideological. The anti-communist right tended to perceive the Soviets as ten feet tall and a continuing threat, while mainstream liberals saw Soviet communism through the lens of “convergence,” with Leninism as no more than an energetic effort to bring social democracy to a relatively backward country. In 1991, Jerry Hough, perhaps the liberal establishment’s most esteemed Soviet expert, assured a congressional committee that the idea of Soviet dissolution “contradicts all we know about revolutions and national integration throughout the world.” The country dissolved a few months later. No less shocking to political scientists were the Arab Spring explosions of 2011.
If ideological blinders might partially explain the weaknesses of state failure theory, so too does the sheer complexity of contingency—how events interact with one another. In the 1960s, MIT professor Edward Lorenz, one of the pioneers of “chaos theory,” found that if he typed variables of three decimal places instead of six into a computerized weather simulation, the two results would increasingly diverge over time. Long-range weather forecasting was thus impossible. An analogy can be made to mathematical attempts to understand social systems. What if, for example, the Shah of Iran had suppressed brutally the early demonstrations against his rule? No doubt such a response early in the game would have larger prospects for success than if undertaken later. Sometimes it seems as if the predictions that can be made confidently verge on the self-evident. As historian Nikki Keddie put it, “The more unusual or transforming an event is, the less likely it is to be predicted.”
A further factor mitigating against effective predictions is what Timur Kuran describes as “preference falsification,” a tendency of people to mask their real beliefs because of fear of oppression or social ostracism. Political situations may never be as stable as they appear because seemingly quiescent public opinion can move quickly toward opposition, often ignited by a completely unexpected spark. This occurred in Eastern Europe, where even the communist secret police units, which had many measures to track what the public was thinking, were caught off guard by how quickly mass opinion turned against the regimes. Demonstrations in East Germany drew 70,000 in one week, then a half a million the next. As Kuran described it, “Before long, fear changed sides; where people had been afraid to oppose the regime, they came to fear being caught defending it.”
Of course the consequences of preference falsification are less likely to be dramatic in a functioning democracy. Nonetheless, in democracies people do hide their true sentiments on various issues. Kuran, writing in the 1990s, mentions affirmative action as one such issue, and others have surely arisen since then, most likely in areas where the strictures of “political correctness” are most rigidly enforced.
A final caveat emerges from the Powell prediction. What does social science tell us about the large question now facing the Western democracies, namely how will they fare with demographic transformations that reduce their historical core populations to minorities? There is little precedent for this, certainly none in recent history with variables that can be plugged into computer models. But the debate surrounding it is becoming increasingly combative. On the left, some maintain implicitly or explicitly that the white European population deserves to wither and die. An early expression of this idea, shocking when written in 1967 but rather commonplace today, was Susan Sontag’s assertion that the white race is the “cancer of human history.” On the other side of the spectrum are those who believe, with the French writer Renaud Camus, that the “Great Replacement” brought about by mass immigration is a form of genocide.
Another important segment of contemporary opinion, an establishment view, is what might be called the Davos outlook, represented, for instance, by Vox and The Economist, which holds that if poorer people can better their standard of living by emigrating to richer, low-birth-rate countries, that’s salutary for the simple reason that it constitutes the greatest good for the greatest number. The political science literature on state failure is relatively silent on these issues, but not entirely.
In classic writings about representative government, it was considered a serious drawback for a country to have different “nations,” as they were commonly called in the 19th century. Some of the Founding Fathers, conscious of the European wars of religion, celebrated what they perceived as America’s ethnic homogeneity at the time of the Founding (leaving aside, of course, the profoundly moral and intensely political question of slavery). In his massive work on representative government, John Stuart Mill wrote that “free institutions are next to impossible in a country made up of different nationalities.” Until quite recently, political science literature on ethnically divided societies has been generally pessimistic about the prospects for democracy in such societies. But there is no clear delineation between countries where members of different ethnic groups identify primarily with those groups and where they identify with the larger nation.
Clearly the United States in the era of the melting pot surmounted these challenges, though not without measures of assimilation that would be decried as cultural oppression today. It must be noted as well that the United States instituted an almost total freeze on mass immigration lasting two generations. Just as clearly, many ethnically riven societies in Europe and the Third World have not fared as well in assimilation.
Even as late as the 1960s and ’70s, the consensus social science view matched John Stuart Mill’s. The late Yale scholar Juan Linz, author of the classic work The Breakdown of Democratic Regimes, was haunted by the shadow of democracy’s collapse in Europe in the 1930s. Almost off-handedly he remarks that “it is no accident, therefore, that few multinational states have been stable democracies.”
The study of multiethnic societies that seems to be most cited by other scholars is Donald L. Horowitz’s impressive Ethnic Groups in Conflict, published in 1985. The product of an exhaustive effort to synthesize and generalize a massive amount of material, Horowitz’s 700-page work opened up a field that previously had been a kind of academic backwater. In the postwar world most American political scientists viewed ethnicity as a kind of atavism, which would eventually fade in importance. There was something of a Marxist coloration to this. Marx assumed that class interests were the “real ones.” And Third World anti-colonial movements had often managed, if temporarily, to submerge ethnic divisions during the struggle for independence. The mainstream of American political science viewed politics as a process in which one sought power to get certain things or results. It was not until the 1970s or later that scholarship caught up with the reality that ethnicity was not fading away and indeed seemed to be rising in importance.
Most of Horowitz’s book is devoted to ethnic politics in the postcolonial, developing world. He contrasted these struggling countries with Western Europe, where ethnic divisions tended to be milder. Though there were distinct European ethnic communities (Walloons and Flemish in Belgium; the linguistic cantons in Switzerland; the Basques in Spain), most people still identified themselves primarily by nationality rather than ethnicity. Further, in Europe few political parties were ethnically based. Europe’s political institutions, formed by nationalism, religion, and social class, predated the new emphasis on ethnicity.
The Third World was different. In one telling detail, Horowitz notes that ethnic violence in Europe tended to be caused by terrorism, whereas in the developing world it was the ethnic riot, often involving mutilation of opponents, which caused casualties. This was clearly hatred at a different level of intensity.
Horowitz lays out a key distinction between what he calls “ranked” and “unranked” ethnic systems. Ranked systems involve degrees of legally and culturally enforced inequality between groups—American slavery and segregation are prime examples, though there are multiple variations all over the world. Ranked systems of ethnic conflict are disappearing, as legal equality has become a widely professed norm, not just in the West but around the world, and enforced ethnic subordination is widely regarded as illegitimate, even where it is still practiced.
Americans, accustomed to viewing ethnic conflict through the lens of white racism and the need to overcome its legacy, may be surprised by one argument running through Horowitz’s pages: ethnic conflict in unranked systems is virtually ubiquitous, and in many ways more corrosive to a peaceful and functional society than ranked systems. In unranked systems, ethnic groups exist in parallel, each internally stratified. There is no settled ethnic hierarchy. But the absence of enforced subordination seldom leads to harmony. In the societies Horowitz studied, from Africa to Malaysia, Sri Lanka to the Caribbean, ethnic affiliation tended to trump class or political interest.
Political parties thus faced an almost gravitational pull to become more ethnically based, so that elections (invariably with higher turnout) became exercises in competitive mass mobilization and election results became a form of census taking. There were, in the vast realm of political data Horowitz analyzed, exceptions—states that maintained functioning democracies while instituting measures that successfully mitigated ethnic conflict. And there were political parties that retained a pan-ethnic character. But they were not the norm. The core finding of Horowitz’s book is that there is something almost elemental about the force of ethnic identity, that it tends to overcome competing loyalties, despite efforts by moderate and able men to reign it in.
Perhaps more alarming, in unranked ethnic systems ethnic actors (parties, leaders) often seek power for motives that seem to be largely related to the mere desire to acquire power. “Power is sought as a means to goals so diffuse, so remote, so difficult to specify,” writes Horowitz, “that attainment of power becomes, again, an end in itself. [It resembles] many situations in international politics, where power is sought to prevent the emergence of dire but distant and dimly perceived consequences.”
Thus, in Horowitz’s view, the fear of ethnic domination and suppression is a motivating force for the acquisition of power, and “broad matters of group status regularly have equal or superior standing to” more mundane matters of resource allocation and other decisions considered the “stuff of everyday politics.” As Horowitz puts it, “Conflicts over needs and interests are subordinate to conflicts over group status.” Horowitz adds that “the desire to extirpate diversity seems greatest in states that are among the most heterogeneous. Few unranked groups view the freedom from uncomfortable entanglement with ethnic strangers without a certain longing.”
The Horowitz thesis is not uniformly pessimistic. The author devotes several detailed chapters to measures employed by political leaders to reduce ethnic conflict. Federalism and local self-government fare rather well, affirmative action less so. Horowitz concludes his work with an observation that is almost certainly an allusion to Enoch Powell (who is nowhere mentioned in the text): “Even in the most divided societies, ties of blood do not lead ineluctably to rivers of blood.” But Horowitz’s overall analysis demonstrates that bloodshed is frequent enough, and functioning democracy quite rare.
These conclusions, it should be re-emphasized, are drawn from a book about Hutu and Tutsi; Kikuyu, Tamils, and Sinhalese; Creoles and East Indians; Malays and Chinese. The experience of European whites is not pursued with any particular attentiveness. But of course Europeans didn’t face significant internal tensions over ethnicity until relatively recently for the simple reason that these were largely homogeneous societies. Now that is changing. And is it far-fetched to assume that these all-too-human and nearly universal political tendencies will be irrelevant to the increasingly divided societies of the contemporary West?
Thirty years after Donald Horowitz’s work first appeared, it still has no rivals for penetration and scope in mainstream scholarship. During that time, as mentioned above, the political science literature related to regime change and civil war onset grew voluminously. But as professor Jeffrey Dixon pointed out in a recent examination of this literature, there seems to be some hesitancy about exploring certain questions. In 2009, Dixon examined 46 studies of civil war initiation that searched for meaningful correlations among 200 separate variables. There was much consensus among these scholars—not surprising since they were largely using similar data sets. Oil exports put a country at risk for civil war, as did lack of mass education and population density.
Ethnic diversity also could put a country at risk, according to some of these studies. But it is interesting that Dixon added that “the relationship between diversity and civil war is far more contentious than other demographic arrangements. Part of the reason is that scholars are wary of conclusions that might justify ethnic cleansing or other forms of discrimination.” Dixon seemed to be saying that some of these academics trimmed their conclusions if they stirred too much discomfort. But one scholar who did focus on the relationship between diversity and civil war onset was Tanya Ellingsen, writing in the Journal of Conflict Resolution. She concluded that ethnic diversity did increase the risk of civil war, especially when the largest ethnic group fell below 80 percent of the population and there were several other ethnic groups in the mix. Mitigating that finding, for the West at least, is that prosperity made civil war less likely, as did democracy.
But generally, the subject remains a sensitive one in academia. A recent paper published by three economists in the American Economic Review concluded that, when a society’s cultural diversity was linked to ethnic diversity, prospects for civil conflict increased and the government’s ability to provide public goods was enfeebled. But reading such works sometimes can give the impression that the authors are engaging in a kind of samizdat, shrouding their more pessimistic findings amidst deferential shoutouts to radical scholars such as Richard Lewontin, who has argued that, based on genetics, race isn’t a legitimate biological category. This is perhaps the necessary price for avoiding unwelcome attention at a politically correct university.
The most notorious example of a diversity scholar hiding from his own research is the case of Robert Putnam, the Harvard sociologist. In his Bowling Alone, published to much acclaim in the Clinton era, Putnam demonstrated how the United States was slowly losing its “social capital,” meaning the network of local associations (churches, sports clubs, PTA, etc.) that formerly had bound Americans to one another. Putnam’s work garnered much acclaim and many awards from a mostly liberal establishment.
Then, in 2000, he undertook a major study involving 30,000 people in 41 locations to explore how much ethnic diversity was contributing to this loss of social capital. The answer was quite a bit. Putnam discovered that “out-group trust,” how much one trusts people different than oneself, is lower in diverse communities. But “in-group trust”—how much you trust people who resemble you—also diminishes. In places with more ethnic diversity, people had fewer friends, watched more TV, were less inclined to vote. As Putnam put it, “People living in ethnically diverse settings appear to ‘hunker down’—that is, to pull in like a turtle.” But perhaps just as revealing as Putnam’s findings was his reluctance to publish them, notwithstanding that he was a well-established Harvard professor with tenure. In fact he waited six years to publish, telling a Financial Times reporter that he had delayed sharing his research with the public until he could develop proposals to compensate for the negative effects of diversity. That didn’t mollify the paladins of political correctness. Putnam, an old-school liberal, has been smeared as “the alt-right’s favorite academic,” in the words of Shikha Dalmia, in The Week.
Some will argue, of course, that hunkering down, ignoring neighbors, watching more TV, and diminished car-pooling are a far cry from civic breakdown. True. The fraying of community ties isn’t in the same category with actual intrastate violence. But it is undeniable that talk of American democratic failure is in the air today in ways unheard of 10 or 20 years ago. Jack Goldstone, the prominent scholar of intrastate strife, considers American state failure unlikely, mostly because states with the demographic and youth profile of the contemporary West don’t experience revolutions. But not all of his followers agree. One dissenter is Peter Turchin, a University of Connecticut professor whose Ages of Discord uses “cliodynamics”—a variant on the Goldstone template—to track average wages (in decline since the 1970s), fierce competition for scarce places among elites (“elite overproduction”), and governmental fiscal crises in American history. He believes that these longue durée types of measurements foreshadow severe social unrest within the next several years.
Andrew Sullivan, a hard to classify but highly esteemed blogger and essayist, wrote last fall about his doubts whether the U.S. democratic system can survive the ascension of tribalism—and the calcification of its political system into two parties whose voter preferences increasingly can be predicted on the basis of race, religion, and social class. Sullivan notes the mutual hatred that leaders of the two parties have for each other, and he doesn’t shirk the role of immigration. The post-1965 immigration wave “disorients in ways that cannot be wished or shamed away.” He laments “the decision among the country’s intellectual elite to junk the ‘melting pot’ metaphor as a model for immigration in favor of ‘multiculturalism.’”
Another indicator was the decision of a major publishing house to publish, and major reviewers to praise, Omar El Akkad’s American War, a ho-hum novel whose appeal is less literary than prurient: a look at an America reduced to Third World poverty after decades of civic strife. Given that the war in American War is sectional, ideological, and explicitly non-ethnic in origin, one can’t help wondering if this was a requirement for mainstream acceptance (or perceived to be by the author). In any case, its publication signals that dystopian novels about the break-up of the American system have moved from the self-published fringes to the center of American publishing.
Several months ago I asked Paul Kennedy, the noted historian and author of The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, what he thought were the chances of the American constitutional system breaking down in the near future. Though his answer wasn’t alarmist, he immediately pointed to the frailties of the international financial system. For example, what if a crisis in non-democratic China caused the Chinese to stop buying American bonds? Such a development could trigger a massive financial crisis in the United States, with potentially devastating impact on the domestic political system.
While the question of U.S. political stability inevitably is one of speculation, some facts are inescapable. American politics are more polarized and full of hatred today than at any time in the postwar era. Demographic diversity is advancing rapidly, a circumstance that social scientists correlate empirically with, at best, a loss of social cohesion and often with civil strife. Average wages have been stagnating. Competition for good positions at elite levels is more intense. True, America’s situation differs from that of Europe, where one leading intelligence official has warned, in the midst of a terror wave two years ago, that his country was on the verge of civil war. But it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that America is entering a new era fraught with greater possibilities for internal tension. And, if we reflect on Enoch Powell’s speech from our present perspective, it hardly seems obvious that even his most dire warnings were overwrought.
Scott McConnell is a founding editor of The American Conservative and the author of Ex-Neocon: Dispatches From the Post-9/11 Ideological Wars.