How Bad Could It Get?

America’s Prospects for the Future Aren’t Promising

Generally speaking, I prefer a glass-half-full approach to life whenever possible. I’d rather believe there is a way forward, light at the end of the tunnel, than not. I suspect most mentally healthy people feel the same.

But I’m also committed to the proposition that denial is almost never a healthy or useful response to reality.

Make no mistake, denial is one of the more common states of mind among Americans today. Faced with daunting near-term challenges at home — pandemic illness, unemployment, fears for their children, a hotly contested election that is still not resolved in the minds of many conservative voters — decent, well-intentioned citizens across the political spectrum can surely be forgiven if they drift into denial regarding less immediate, more abstract challenges that might loom on the horizon. I mean, how much challenge can a person handle at one time? Obviously, there are limits. Just as obviously, the challenge that’s in your face right now will command far more attention than some possible challenge “out there” someplace. Of course it will. That’s perfectly understandable.

In a day-to-day environment crowded with immediate challenges, it’s difficult to give much priority to something ominous looming on a horizon that’s, say, five years out, let alone 20 years or more. On the 20-year horizon, if we care to look, we’d notice (among other things) a significant ramping up of negative effects of climate change. Those effects are bound to accelerate and amplify as the decades unfold, to the point where our world becomes almost unrecognizable and life becomes not just terribly difficult, but unbearable. But, again, that’s 20 years, 30 years out. I’m fighting dragons right now, thank you.

What about the five year horizon? In that time frame, climate change will have worsened incrementally, resulting in serious trouble here and there, though not quite enough to seem critical to most people in most places. Still fairly easy to deny, in other words, if you’re still fighting those dragons.

But other problems will loom more urgently. Projecting ourselves out five years from now and looking back, we will probably see that the Covid pandemic finally came “under control” toward the end of 2021, some months after most of the population got inoculated with vaccine. We will also note, however, that the U.S. economy sustained serious long-term damage due to the pandemic. Over half a million citizens died. Thousands of small businesses were shuttered and never came back. Millions of workers lost their jobs and remained unemployed or under-employed. Tens of thousands of families lost their homes and were forced either into makeshift housing or onto the streets — meaning that homelessness became the new pandemic, with no cure in sight.

Though the Biden-Harris administration, starkly contrary to Trump, responded to the national crisis with passion, compassion and intelligence, U.S. national resources were stretched to the breaking point. As desperation grew throughout our society, more and more people were driven to violence. In many cities, the streets became unsafe. Store shelves were frequently empty. Social services faltered under the strain. The national mood darkened, fear spread, anger surfaced. The police found themselves outnumbered and outgunned. In the most heavily armed nation in the developed world, vigilantism came out of the shadows, and gun-toting mobs fought for leverage in a destabilizing society.

Granted, all the foregoing is a projection of possibilities. It won’t necessarily get that bad. But the point is, it actually could.

Returning to reality, even if Covid were not an issue, the near-term future is not promising. Covid aside, America is not just in serious trouble, it might be at the brink of irreversible decline, wherein a steadily growing percentage of the population is impoverished and desperate, and the sociopolitical divide looms more ominously than at any time since the Civil War.

For proof of the divide, look no further than the 74 million voters who wanted Trump for a second term — Trump, the most authoritarian, most lawless creature ever to inhabit the White House. Then contrast that with the millions on the left who are still angry that self-proclaimed socialist Bernie Sanders couldn’t get a shot at the presidency in 2016. Rarely have our politics been so polarized.

But Trump voters are the greater concern, because their message is that white supremacy, racial injustice, xenophobia, autocracy and outright denial of science are just fine, compared with the perceived alternatives. Those alternatives include, notably, the inexorable shift toward a non-white voting majority in America, meaning that white folks won’t be in complete charge forever. Also, the absolute fact of climate change — which Trump voters for the most part simply deny — along with all the economic and social displacements driven by that change, which include: the absolute necessity of “powering down” the fossil fuel-driven economy; finding ways to do more with less; finding ways to significantly reduce per capita consumption — all of which sound to conservative thinkers like intolerable, unimaginable constraints on personal freedom.

The meaning of freedom itself is certainly, inevitably on the line. Conservatives and progressives understand that meaning very differently. Traditionally, conservatives are thought to be the staunchest defenders of freedom, but recent studies show otherwise. For example, in three major areas of freedom — freedom of the press, freedom to vote, and freedom to criticize the government — today’s Republican/conservatives are far more in favor of restriction than are Democrat/liberals, according to NPR/Marist polling.

This should not surprise us. What conservatives usually mean by freedom, sadly, is freedom for them, not freedom for everyone. They clearly believe that their own prerogatives are inherently constrained whenever freedom is extended to others. In other words, they’re great at defending what they claim as their rights, but they suck at sharing those rights. Yes, it’s pathetic; but it’s also deadly serious.

The fact is, tensions are rising across the sociopolitical spectrum, and that trend is bound to continue. Relatively privileged white Americans see the demographic shift as inherently corrosive to their power and security. The growing black and brown segments of U.S. society might never accumulate wealth comparable to that held by minority whites, but they will overwhelm the political landscape by dint of sheer numbers. For whites who cannot or will not adjust their expectations, the only defense is abrogation of democracy, a prospect too real to ignore. Donald Trump was a test case. He won’t be the last. The next American autocrat will likely be more competent, and more dangerous.

By a slim majority, the electorate seems to sense the danger in this growing divide. The election of Joe Biden represents one last try at moderation, at balancing the opposites. This was Biden’s stated promise: that he would bring America together again. And the voters agreed to give him a chance. If his history is any indication, he means to give it his best effort.

At this writing, in early December, one major question remains unresolved: who will control the U.S. Senate? It all hinges on two Georgia races to be decided in January. If both Democrats win, the Senate will be split 50–50 between Democrats and Republicans, and with Vice President Kamala Harris as the tie-breaking vote, Democrats will hold the slimmest of slim advantages. But if even one Georgia race is won by a Republican, then Senate power remains with the Republicans, meaning Senator Mitch McConnell will be free to continue his reprehensible pattern of blocking all progressive legislation. In this, McConnell takes openly diabolical glee. If he gets his way, at least the first two years of Biden’s term could go largely to waste.

But whether Biden succeeds or fails in relative terms might be largely irrelevant. More likely, no reasonably imaginable legislation can forestall the impending future, a future that will see increasing levels of peril and difficulty for most U.S. citizens.

In this regard, a range of astute thinkers have much to say, and are saying it with increasing urgency. Let me briefly mention three examples and invite you, dear reader, to explore further.

The first is Umair Haque, a source I’ve mentioned in previous postings. Haque is an intriguing man with a fascinating personal story — too long to recite here, but you can read a short version of it here. Recently, he has been publishing a lot on Medium, mostly on the topic of the U.S. economy and where it’s headed (hint: not in a good direction.) Truth to tell, Haque sounds decidedly bleak, with essays such as “This Way of Life is Ending” and “Does America Have a Future?” But, in my humble opinion, he’s just too cogent to ignore. And, by the way, the other sources I’m about to mention would, I think, pretty much agree with him.

Next up is Richard Heinberg, a truly eclectic thinker who is as comfortable with spirituality as he is with economics and political theory. Richard was one of the first people to call attention to the impending problem of “peak oil,” a time in the fairly near future when the world will literally run out of easy-to-get, reasonably priced fossil fuels. With that as background, he has been a staunch advocate of alternative energy resources and technologies, warning that if we fail to wean society off its fossil-fuel dependency soon, we will face social and economic catastrophe. Richard is senior fellow at the Post Carbon Institute and has authored 13 books, including The Party’s Over: Oil, War, and the Fate of Industrial Societies (2003), The End of Growth: Adapting to Our New Economic Reality (2011) and Our Renewable Future: Laying the Path for One Hundred Percent Clean Energy (2016). One of his most recent essays, titled “Making America Ungovernable,” warns that post-Trump America is headed for social and economic instability. You can read it here.

In the essay just cited, Heinberg introduces the third thinker on my list, ecologist and historian Peter Turchin, who strongly agrees that America faces hard times dead ahead.

Turchin has published at least seven books and more than 200 scientific articles in such journals as Nature, Science, and the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (USA). He is the founder of the journal Cliodynamics, dedicated to “the search for general principles explaining the functioning and dynamics of historical societies.” His books include War and Peace and War: The Rise and Fall of Empires (2006) and Ages of Discord: A Structural-demographic Analysis of American History (2016).

Turchin views the mechanism of our downfall in somewhat different terms than Heinberg or Haque. In his view, a primary cause of our impending “age of discord,” civil unrest and potential social carnage is what he calls “elite overproduction.” It’s a problem he’s identified repeatedly while analyzing the rise and fall of numerous human societies over a span of some 10,000 years.

As societies prosper and grow powerful, Turchin says, more and more individuals gain both wealth and education, and these factors elevate them to “elite” status. But societies by nature have only so much room for elites, in relation to other, less privileged social strata. At some point, there are too many elites — a problem seen today, for example, in Saudi Arabia, where huge numbers of minor royalty idle away their opulent lives with little to do. Before long, Turchin says, some of those elites will seek power outside the established hierarchy, perhaps siding with less privileged cadres who seek to overthrow the current order. The pattern occurs again and again. In the U.S. today, he says, one manifestation of this pattern is the overproduction of lawyers. Educated in the ways of law and money, yet underutilized in a system already glutted with their kind, some will turn predatory or parasitical. Others might turn to crime. None of this bodes well for social order.

Of course, too many lawyers is only part of a bigger problem. The bloated elite sector rests atop an increasingly disenfranchised and restive working class — factory workers, construction workers, day laborers, farmers. Donald Trump exploited this fact in his rise to power. And though Trump has lost the presidency, he has not lost his hold on the angry heartland. He is exactly the kind of autocratic counter-leader that Turchin’s theory predicts in such circumstances.

The social imbalance has advanced beyond repair in today’s America, Turchin says. Trouble is coming fast. His best case scenario within the next five years is discord rivaling that of the late 1960s; but just as likely, he says, is all-out civil war. You can learn more about Turchin’s thinking here.

Again, thinkers like Haque, Heinberg and Turchin offer scenarios of what may come to pass, not absolute certainties. They are looking at trends, trying to interpret the trajectory and velocity of developing conditions. Just possibly, our near-term future won’t be as bad as they predict. Then again, there’s a good chance it will be. In this writer’s view, none of us should be complacent about what might lie ahead.

This topic is too big and complex to fully address in one sitting. We will return to it again in future essays.

Futurist, street philosopher, agitator, closet musician, planetary advocate