Posted in History, Meritocracy, Politics, Populism

Graeme Wood — The Next Decade Could Be Even Worse

This post is a piece by Graeme Wood from the December Atlantic.  Here’s a link to the original.  

It’s a profile of Peter Turchin, a population ecologist who decided to turn his skills in mathematical modeling toward big history — looking for patterns across long expanses of time that help explain the rise and fall of civilizations.  His prognosis for our own is not very promising.  He sees rising prospects for civil unrest.

The fundamental problems, he says, are a dark triad of social maladies: a bloated elite class, with too few elite jobs to go around; declining living standards among the general population; and a government that can’t cover its financial positions. His models, which track these factors in other societies across history, are too complicated to explain in a nontechnical publication. But they’ve succeeded in impressing writers for nontechnical publications, and have won him comparisons to other authors of “megahistories,” such as Jared Diamond and Yuval Noah Harari.

I’m a fan of megahistories, by people like Diamond and Harari and historians like Walter Scheidel and Ian Morris, whom I’ve discussed here.  I’m particularly intrigued by his analysis of the overproduction of elites, which resonates with the critiques of meritocracy that I’ve explored in this blog (e.g., here, here, and here.)

Of the three factors driving social violence, Turchin stresses most heavily “elite overproduction”—­the tendency of a society’s ruling classes to grow faster than the number of positions for their members to fill. One way for a ruling class to grow is biologically—think of Saudi Arabia, where princes and princesses are born faster than royal roles can be created for them. In the United States, elites over­produce themselves through economic and educational upward mobility: More and more people get rich, and more and more get educated. Neither of these sounds bad on its own. Don’t we want everyone to be rich and educated? The problems begin when money and Harvard degrees become like royal titles in Saudi Arabia. If lots of people have them, but only some have real power, the ones who don’t have power eventually turn on the ones who do.

When you’re reading the following passage, I dare you not to think about Donald Trump and Steve Bannon.

Elite overproduction creates counter-elites, and counter-elites look for allies among the commoners. If commoners’ living standards slip—not relative to the elites, but relative to what they had before—they accept the overtures of the counter-elites and start oiling the axles of their tumbrels. Commoners’ lives grow worse, and the few who try to pull themselves onto the elite lifeboat are pushed back into the water by those already aboard. The final trigger of impending collapse, Turchin says, tends to be state insolvency. At some point rising in­security becomes expensive. The elites have to pacify unhappy citizens with handouts and freebies—and when these run out, they have to police dissent and oppress people. Eventually the state exhausts all short-term solutions, and what was heretofore a coherent civilization disintegrates.

See what you think about his take on things.

Turchin Illustration

The Next Decade Could Be Even Worse

A historian believes he has discovered iron laws that predict the rise and fall of societies. He has bad news.

Graeme Wood

Peter Turchin, one of the world’s experts on pine beetles and possibly also on human beings, met me reluctantly this summer on the campus of the University of Connecticut at Storrs, where he teaches. Like many people during the pandemic, he preferred to limit his human contact. He also doubted whether human contact would have much value anyway, when his mathematical models could already tell me everything I needed to know.

But he had to leave his office sometime. (“One way you know I am Russian is that I cannot think sitting down,” he told me. “I have to go for a walk.”) Neither of us had seen much of anyone since the pandemic had closed the country several months before. The campus was quiet. “A week ago, it was even more like a neutron bomb hit,” Turchin said. Animals were timidly reclaiming the campus, he said: squirrels, woodchucks, deer, even an occasional red-tailed hawk. During our walk, groundskeepers and a few kids on skateboards were the only other representatives of the human population in sight.

The year 2020 has been kind to Turchin, for many of the same reasons it has been hell for the rest of us. Cities on fire, elected leaders endorsing violence, homicides surging—­­to a normal American, these are apocalyptic signs. To Turchin, they indicate that his models, which incorporate thousands of years of data about human history, are working. (“Not all of human history,” he corrected me once. “Just the last 10,000 years.”) He has been warning for a decade that a few key social and political trends portend an “age of discord,” civil unrest and carnage worse than most Americans have experienced. In 2010, he predicted that the unrest would get serious around 2020, and that it wouldn’t let up until those social and political trends reversed. Havoc at the level of the late 1960s and early ’70s is the best-case scenario; all-out civil war is the worst.

The fundamental problems, he says, are a dark triad of social maladies: a bloated elite class, with too few elite jobs to go around; declining living standards among the general population; and a government that can’t cover its financial positions. His models, which track these factors in other societies across history, are too complicated to explain in a nontechnical publication. But they’ve succeeded in impressing writers for nontechnical publications, and have won him comparisons to other authors of “megahistories,” such as Jared Diamond and Yuval Noah Harari. The New York Times columnist Ross Douthat had once found Turchin’s historical model­ing unpersuasive, but 2020 made him a believer: “At this point,” Douthat recently admitted on a podcast, “I feel like you have to pay a little more attention to him.”

Diamond and Harari aimed to describe the history of humanity. Turchin looks into a distant, science-fiction future for peers. In War and Peace and War (2006), his most accessible book, he likens himself to Hari Seldon, the “maverick mathematician” of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, who can foretell the rise and fall of empires. In those 10,000 years’ worth of data, Turchin believes he has found iron laws that dictate the fates of human societies.

The fate of our own society, he says, is not going to be pretty, at least in the near term. “It’s too late,” he told me as we passed Mirror Lake, which UConn’s website describes as a favorite place for students to “read, relax, or ride on the wooden swing.” The problems are deep and structural—not the type that the tedious process of demo­cratic change can fix in time to forestall mayhem. Turchin likens America to a huge ship headed directly for an iceberg: “If you have a discussion among the crew about which way to turn, you will not turn in time, and you hit the iceberg directly.” The past 10 years or so have been discussion. That sickening crunch you now hear—steel twisting, rivets popping—­­is the sound of the ship hitting the iceberg.

“We are almost guaranteed” five hellish years, Turchin predicts, and likely a decade or more. The problem, he says, is that there are too many people like me. “You are ruling class,” he said, with no more rancor than if he had informed me that I had brown hair, or a slightly newer iPhone than his. Of the three factors driving social violence, Turchin stresses most heavily “elite overproduction”—­the tendency of a society’s ruling classes to grow faster than the number of positions for their members to fill. One way for a ruling class to grow is biologically—think of Saudi Arabia, where princes and princesses are born faster than royal roles can be created for them. In the United States, elites over­produce themselves through economic and educational upward mobility: More and more people get rich, and more and more get educated. Neither of these sounds bad on its own. Don’t we want everyone to be rich and educated? The problems begin when money and Harvard degrees become like royal titles in Saudi Arabia. If lots of people have them, but only some have real power, the ones who don’t have power eventually turn on the ones who do.

In the United States, Turchin told me, you can see more and more aspirants fighting for a single job at, say, a prestigious law firm, or in an influential government sinecure, or (here it got personal) at a national magazine. Perhaps seeing the holes in my T-shirt, Turchin noted that a person can be part of an ideological elite rather than an economic one. (He doesn’t view himself as a member of either. A professor reaches at most a few hundred students, he told me. “You reach hundreds of thousands.”) Elite jobs do not multiply as fast as elites do. There are still only 100 Senate seats, but more people than ever have enough money or degrees to think they should be running the country. “You have a situation now where there are many more elites fighting for the same position, and some portion of them will convert to counter-elites,” Turchin said.

Donald Trump, for example, may appear elite (rich father, Wharton degree, gilded commodes), but Trumpism is a counter-elite movement. His government is packed with credentialed nobodies who were shut out of previous administrations, sometimes for good reasons and sometimes because the Groton-­Yale establishment simply didn’t have any vacancies. Trump’s former adviser and chief strategist Steve Bannon, Turchin said, is a “paradigmatic example” of a counter-elite. He grew up working-class, went to Harvard Business School, and got rich as an investment banker and by owning a small stake in the syndication rights to Seinfeld. None of that translated to political power until he allied himself with the common people. “He was a counter-elite who used Trump to break through, to put the white working males back in charge,” Turchin said.

Elite overproduction creates counter-elites, and counter-elites look for allies among the commoners. If commoners’ living standards slip—not relative to the elites, but relative to what they had before—they accept the overtures of the counter-elites and start oiling the axles of their tumbrels. Commoners’ lives grow worse, and the few who try to pull themselves onto the elite lifeboat are pushed back into the water by those already aboard. The final trigger of impending collapse, Turchin says, tends to be state insolvency. At some point rising in­security becomes expensive. The elites have to pacify unhappy citizens with handouts and freebies—and when these run out, they have to police dissent and oppress people. Eventually the state exhausts all short-term solutions, and what was heretofore a coherent civilization disintegrates.

Turchin’s prognostications would be easier to dismiss as barstool theorizing if the disintegration were not happening now, roughly as the Seer of Storrs foretold 10 years ago. If the next 10 years are as seismic as he says they will be, his insights will have to be accounted for by historians and social scientists—assuming, of course, that there are still universities left to employ such people.

Turchin was born in 1957 in Obninsk, Russia, a city built by the Soviet state as a kind of nerd heaven, where scientists could collaborate and live together. His father, Valen­tin, was a physicist and political dissident, and his mother, Tatiana, had trained as a geologist. They moved to Moscow when he was 7 and in 1978 fled to New York as political refugees. There they quickly found a community that spoke the household language, which was science. Valen­tin taught at the City University of New York, and Peter studied biology at NYU and earned a zoology doctorate from Duke.

Turchin wrote a dissertation on the Mexican bean beetle, a cute, ladybug­like pest that feasts on legumes in areas between the United States and Guatemala. When Turchin began his research, in the early 1980s, ecology was evolving in a way that some fields already had. The old way to study bugs was to collect them and describe them: count their legs, measure their bellies, and pin them to pieces of particle­board for future reference. (Go to the Natural History Museum in London, and in the old storerooms you can still see the shelves of bell jars and cases of specimens.) In the ’70s, the Australian physicist Robert May had turned his attention to ecology and helped transform it into a mathematical science whose tools included supercomputers along with butterfly nets and bottle traps. Yet in the early days of his career, Turchin told me, “the majority of ecologists were still quite math-phobic.”

Turchin did, in fact, do fieldwork, but he contributed to ecology primarily by collecting and using data to model the dynamics of populations—for example, determining why a pine-beetle population might take over a forest, or why that same population might decline. (He also worked on moths, voles, and lemmings.)

In the late ’90s, disaster struck: Turchin realized that he knew everything he ever wanted to know about beetles. He compares himself to Thomasina Coverly, the girl genius in the Tom Stoppard play Arcadia, who obsessed about the life cycles of grouse and other creatures around her Derbyshire country house. Stoppard’s character had the disadvantage of living a century and a half before the development of chaos theory. “She gave up because it was just too complicated,” Turchin said. “I gave up because I solved the problem.”

Turchin published one final monograph, Complex Population Dynamics: A Theoretical / Empirical Synthesis (2003), then broke the news to his UConn colleagues that he would be saying a permanent sayonara to the field, although he would continue to draw a salary as a tenured professor in their department. (He no longer gets raises, but he told me he was already “at a comfortable level, and, you know, you don’t need so much money.”) “Usually a midlife crisis means you divorce your old wife and marry a graduate student,” Turchin said. “I divorced an old science and married a new one.”

One of his last papers appeared in the journal Oikos. “Does population ecology have general laws?” Turchin asked. Most ecologists said no: Populations have their own dynamics, and each situation is different. Pine beetles reproduce, run amok, and ravage a forest for pine-beetle reasons, but that does not mean mosquito or tick populations will rise and fall according to the same rhythms. Turchin suggested that “there are several very general law-like propositions” that could be applied to ecology. After its long adolescence of collecting and cataloging, ecology had enough data to describe these universal laws—and to stop pretending that every species had its own idiosyncrasies. “Ecologists know these laws and should call them laws,” he said. Turchin proposed, for example, that populations of organisms grow or decline exponentially, not linearly. This is why if you buy two guinea pigs, you will soon have not just a few more guinea pigs but a home—and then a neighborhood—full of the damn things (as long as you keep feeding them). This law is simple enough to be understood by a high-school math student, and it describes the fortunes of everything from ticks to starlings to camels. The laws Turchin applied to ecology—and his insistence on calling them laws—­generated respectful controversy at the time. Now they are cited in textbooks.

Having left ecology, Turchin began similar research that attempted to formulate general laws for a different animal species: human beings. He’d long had a hobby­ist’s interest in history. But he also had a predator’s instinct to survey the savanna of human knowledge and pounce on the weakest prey. “All sciences go through this transition to mathematization,” Turchin told me. “When I had my midlife crisis, I was looking for a subject where I could help with this transition to a mathematized science. There was only one left, and that was history.”

Historians read books, letters, and other texts. Occasionally, if they are archaeologically inclined, they dig up potsherds and coins. But to Turchin, relying solely on these methods was the equivalent of studying bugs by pinning them to particleboard and counting their antennae. If the historians weren’t going to usher in a mathematical revolution themselves, he would storm their departments and do it for them.

“There is a longstanding debate among scientists and philosophers as to whether history has general laws,” he and a co-author wrote in Secular Cycles (2009). “A basic premise of our study is that historical societies can be studied with the same methods physicists and biologists used to study natural systems.” Turchin founded a journal, Cliodynamics, dedicated to “the search for general principles explaining the functioning and dynamics of historical societies.” (The term is his coinage; Clio is the muse of history.) He had already announced the discipline’s arrival in an article in Nature, where he likened historians reluctant to build general principles to his colleagues in biology “who care most for the private life of warblers.” “Let history continue to focus on the particular,” he wrote. Cliodynamics would be a new science. While historians dusted bell jars in the basement of the university, Turchin and his followers would be upstairs, answering the big questions.

To seed the journal’s research, Turchin masterminded a digital archive of historical and archaeological data. The coding of its records requires finesse, he told me, because (for example) the method of determining the size of the elite-aspirant class of medieval France might differ from the measure of the same class in the present-day United States. (For medieval France, a proxy is the membership in its noble class, which became glutted with second and third sons who had no castles or manors to rule over. One American proxy, Turchin says, is the number of lawyers.) But once the data are entered, after vetting by Turchin and specialists in the historical period under review, they offer quick and powerful suggestions about historical phenomena.

Historians of religion have long pondered the relationship between the rise of complex civilization and the belief in gods—especially “moralizing gods,” the kind who scold you for sinning. Last year, Turchin and a dozen co-authors mined the database (“records from 414 societies that span the past 10,000 years from 30 regions around the world, using 51 measures of social complexity and 4 measures of supernatural enforcement of morality”) to answer the question conclusively. They found that complex societies are more likely to have moralizing gods, but the gods tend to start their scolding after the societies get complex, not before. As the database expands, it will attempt to remove more questions from the realm of humanistic speculation and sock them away in a drawer marked answered.

One of Turchin’s most unwelcome conclusions is that complex societies arise through war. The effect of war is to reward communities that organize themselves to fight and survive, and it tends to wipe out ones that are simple and small-scale. “No one wants to accept that we live in the societies we do”—rich, complex ones with universities and museums and philosophy and art—“because of an ugly thing like war,” he said. But the data are clear: Darwinian processes select for complex socie­ties because they kill off simpler ones. The notion that democracy finds its strength in its essential goodness and moral improvement over its rival systems is likewise fanciful. Instead, democratic societies flourish because they have a memory of being nearly obliterated by an external enemy. They avoided extinction only through collective action, and the memory of that collective action makes democratic politics easier to conduct in the present, Turchin said. “There is a very close correlation between adopting democratic institutions and having to fight a war for survival.”

Also unwelcome: the conclusion that civil unrest might soon be upon us, and might reach the point of shattering the country. In 2012, Turchin published an analysis of political violence in the United States, again starting with a database. He classified 1,590 incidents—riots, lynchings, any political event that killed at least one person—from 1780 to 2010. Some periods were placid and others bloody, with peaks of brutality in 1870, 1920, and 1970, a 50-year cycle. Turchin excludes the ultimate violent incident, the Civil War, as a “sui generis event.” The exclusion may seem suspicious, but to a statistician, “trimming outliers” is standard practice. Historians and journalists, by contrast, tend to focus on outliers—­because they are interesting—and sometimes miss grander trends.

Certain aspects of this cyclical view require relearning portions of American history, with special attention paid to the numbers of elites. The industrialization of the North, starting in the mid-19th century, Turchin says, made huge numbers of people rich. The elite herd was culled during the Civil War, which killed off or impoverished the southern slaveholding class, and during Reconstruction, when America experienced a wave of assassinations of Republican politicians. (The most famous of these was the assassination of James A. Garfield, the 20th president of the United States, by a lawyer who had demanded but not received a political appointment.) It wasn’t until the Progressive reforms of the 1920s, and later the New Deal, that elite overproduction actually slowed, at least for a time.

This oscillation between violence and peace, with elite over­production as the first horseman of the recurring American apocalypse, inspired Turchin’s 2020 prediction. In 2010, when Nature surveyed scientists about their predictions for the coming decade, most took the survey as an invitation to self-promote and rhapsodize, dreamily, about coming advances in their fields. Turchin retorted with his prophecy of doom and said that nothing short of fundamental change would stop another violent turn.

Turchin’s prescriptions are, as a whole, vague and unclassifiable. Some sound like ideas that might have come from Senator Elizabeth Warren—tax the elites until there are fewer of them—while others, such as a call to reduce immigration to keep wages high for American workers, resemble Trumpian protectionism. Other policies are simply heretical. He opposes credential-­oriented higher education, for example, which he says is a way of mass-producing elites without also mass-­producing elite jobs for them to occupy. Architects of such polices, he told me, are “creating surplus elites, and some become counter-elites.” A smarter approach would be to keep the elite numbers small, and the real wages of the general population on a constant rise.

How to do that? Turchin says he doesn’t really know, and it isn’t his job to know. “I don’t really think in terms of specific policy,” he told me. “We need to stop the runaway process of elite overproduction, but I don’t know what will work to do that, and nobody else does. Do you increase taxation? Raise the minimum wage? Universal basic income?” He conceded that each of these possibilities would have unpredictable effects. He recalled a story he’d heard back when he was still an ecologist: The Forest Service had once implemented a plan to reduce the population of bark beetles with pesticide—only to find that the pesticide killed off the beetles’ predators even more effectively than it killed the beetles. The intervention resulted in more beetles than before. The lesson, he said, was to practice “adaptive management,” changing and modulating your approach as you go.

Eventually, Turchin hopes, our understanding of historical dynamics will mature to the point that no government will make policy without reflecting on whether it is hurtling toward a mathematically pre­ordained disaster. He says he could imagine an Asimovian agency that keeps tabs on leading indicators and advises accordingly. It would be like the Federal Reserve, but instead of monitoring inflation and controlling monetary supply, it would be tasked with averting total civilizational collapse.

Historians have not, as a whole, accepted Turchin’s terms of surrender graciously. Since at least the 19th century, the discipline has embraced the idea that history is irreducibly complex, and by now most historians believe that the diversity of human activity will foil any attempt to come up with general laws, especially predictive ones. (As Jo Guldi, a historian at Southern Methodist University, put it to me, “Some historians regard Turchin the way astronomers regard Nostradamus.”) Instead, each historical event must be lovingly described, and its idiosyncrasies understood to be limited in relevance to other events. The idea that one thing causes another, and that the causal pattern can tell you about sequences of events in another place or century, is foreign territory.

One might even say that what defines history as a humanistic enterprise is the belief that it is not governed by scientific laws—that the working parts of human societies are not like billiard balls, which, if arranged at certain angles and struck with a certain amount of force, will invariably crack just so and roll toward a corner pocket of war, or a side pocket of peace. Turchin counters that he has heard claims of irreducible complexity before, and that steady application of the scientific method has succeeded in managing that complexity. Consider, he says, the concept of temperature—­something so obviously quantifiable now that we laugh at the idea that it’s too vague to measure. “Back before people knew what temperature was, the best thing you could do is to say you’re hot or cold,” Turchin told me. The concept depended on many factors: wind, humidity, ordinary human differences in perception. Now we have thermometers. Turchin wants to invent a thermometer for human societies that will measure when they are likely to boil over into war.

One social scientist who can speak to Turchin in his own mathematical argot is Dingxin Zhao, a sociology professor at the University of Chicago who is—incredibly—­also a former mathematical ecologist. (He earned a doctorate modeling carrot-weevil population dynamics before earning a second doctorate in Chinese political sociology.) “I came from a natural-science background,” Zhao told me, “and in a way I am sympathetic to Turchin. If you come to social science from natural sciences, you have a powerful way of looking at the world. But you may also make big mistakes.”

Zhao said that human beings are just much more complicated than bugs. “Biological species don’t strategize in a very flexible way,” he told me. After millennia of evolutionary R&D, a woodpecker will come up with ingenious ways to stick its beak into a tree in search of food. It might even have social characteristics—an alpha woodpecker might strong-wing beta woodpeckers into giving it first dibs on the tastiest termites. But humans are much wilier social creatures, Zhao said. A woodpecker will eat a termite, but it “will not explain that he is doing so because it is his divine right.” Humans pull ideological power moves like this all the time, Zhao said, and to understand “the decisions of a Donald Trump, or a Xi Jinping,” a natural scientist has to incorporate the myriad complexities of human strategy, emotion, and belief. “I made that change,” Zhao told me, “and Peter Turchin has not.”

Turchin is nonetheless filling a historiographical niche left empty by academic historians with allergies not just to science but to a wide-angle view of the past. He places himself in a Russian tradition prone to thinking sweeping, Tolstoyan thoughts about the path of history. By comparison, American historians mostly look like micro-historians. Few would dare to write a history of the United States, let alone one of human civilization. Turchin’s approach is also Russian, or post-Soviet, in its rejection of the Marxist theory of historical progress that had been the official ideology of the Soviet state. When the U.S.S.R. collapsed, so too did the requirement that historical writing acknowledge international communism as the condition toward which the arc of history was bending. Turchin dropped ideology altogether, he says: Rather than bending toward progress, the arc in his view bends all the way back on itself, in a never-­ending loop of boom and bust. This puts him at odds with American historians, many of whom harbor an unspoken faith that liberal democracy is the end state of all history.

Writing history in this sweeping, cyclical way is easier if you are trained outside the field. “If you look at who is doing these megahistories, more often than not, it’s not actual historians,” Walter Scheidel, an actual historian at Stanford, told me. (Scheidel, whose books span millennia, takes Turchin’s work seriously and has even co-written a paper with him.) Instead they come from scientific fields where these taboos do not dominate. The genre’s most famous book, Guns, Germs, and Steel (1997), beheld 13,000 years of human history in a single volume. Its author, Jared Diamond, spent the first half of his career as one of the world’s foremost experts on the physiology of the gall­bladder. Steven Pinker, a cognitive psychologist who studies how children acquire parts of speech, has written a megahistory about the decline of violence across thousands of years, and about human flourishing since the Enlightenment. Most historians I asked about these men—and for some reason megahistory is nearly always a male pursuit—used terms like laughingstock and patently tendentious to describe them.

Pinker retorts that historians are resentful of the attention “disciplinary carpet­baggers” like himself have received for applying scientific methods to the humanities and coming up with conclusions that had eluded the old methods. He is skeptical of Turchin’s claims about historical cycles, but he believes in data-driven historical inquiry. “Given the noisiness of human behavior and the prevalence of cognitive biases, it’s easy to delude oneself about a historical period or trend by picking whichever event suits one’s narrative,” he says. The only answer is to use large data sets. Pinker thanks traditional historians for their work collating these data sets; he told me in an email that they “deserve extraordinary admiration for their original research (‘brushing the mouse shit off moldy court records in the basement of town halls,’ as one historian put it to me).” He calls not for surrender but for a truce. “There’s no reason that traditional history and data science can’t merge into a cooperative enterprise,” Pinker wrote. “Knowing stuff is hard; we need to use every available tool.”

Guldi, the Southern Methodist University professor, is one scholar who has embraced tools previously scorned by historians. She is a pioneer of data-driven history that considers timescales beyond a human lifetime. Her primary technique is the mining of texts—for example, sifting through the millions and millions of words captured in parliamentary debate in order to understand the history of land use in the final century of the British empire. Guldi may seem a potential recruit to cliodynamics, but her approach to data sets is grounded in the traditional methods of the humanities. She counts the frequency of words, rather than trying to find ways to compare big, fuzzy categories among civilizations. Turchin’s conclusions are only as good as his databases, she told me, and any database that tries to code something as complex as who constitutes a society’s elites—then tries to make like-to-like comparisons across millennia and oceans—will meet with skepticism from traditional historians, who deny that the subject to which they have devoted their lives can be expressed in Excel format. Turchin’s data are also limited to big-­picture characteristics observed over 10,000 years, or about 200 lifetimes. By scientific standards, a sample size of 200 is small, even if it is all humanity has.

Yet 200 lifetimes is at least more ambitious than the average historical purview of only one. And the reward for that ambition—­­in addition to the bragging rights for having potentially explained everything that has ever happened to human beings—includes something every writer wants: an audience. Thinking small rarely gets you quoted in The New York Times. Turchin has not yet attracted the mass audiences of a Diamond, Pinker, or Harari. But he has lured connoisseurs of political catastrophe, journalists and pundits looking for big answers to pressing questions, and true believers in the power of science to conquer uncertainty and improve the world. He has certainly outsold most beetle experts.

If he is right, it is hard to see how history will avoid assimilating his insights—if it can avoid being abolished by them. Privately, some historians have told me they consider the tools he uses powerful, if a little crude. Clio­dynamics is now on a long list of methods that arrived on the scene promising to revolutionize history. Many were fads, but some survived that stage to take their rightful place in an expanding historiographical tool kit. Turchin’s methods have already shown their power. Cliodynamics offers scientific hypotheses, and human history will give us more and more opportunities to check its predictions—­revealing whether Peter Turchin is a Hari Seldon or a mere Nostradamus. For my own sake, there are few thinkers whom I am more eager to see proved wrong.

This article appears in the December 2020 print edition with the headline “The Historian Who Sees the Future.” It was first published online on November 12, 2020.

GRAEME WOOD is a staff writer at The Atlantic and the author of The Way of the Strangers: Encounters With the Islamic State.

Posted in Meritocracy, Populism, Welfare

Hochschild — Strangers in Their Own Land

This post is a reflection on a book by Arlie Russell Hochschild, Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right.  In it she provides one of the most compelling and persuasive explanation for the turn toward right-wing populism in American politics and the peculiar appeal of Donald Trump.  As she puts it in her subtitle, this is “A Journey to the Heart of Our Political Divide.”

The book, published in 2016, is based on intensive interviews that she did in Louisiana with people on the populist right, long before Trump launched his campaign for president.  At the time, the political movement was the Tea Party, but her subjects ended up providing her an advance look at at the deep issues that led voters to support Trump.

There is no substitute for reading the book, which I strongly recommend.  But to whet your appetite, I provide some of the key points below and some of the most telling quotes.  You’ll find that a lot or her analysis aligns with the analysis by Michael Sandel in The Tyranny of Merit, which I commented on recently.

Hochschild Cover

Here’s the heart of what people were telling her:

You are a stranger in your own land. You do not recognize yourself in how others see you. It is a struggle to feel seen and honored. And to feel honored you have to feel—and feel seen as—moving forward. But through no fault of your own, and in ways that are hidden, you are slipping backward.

As Sandel noted, the meritocracy leaves the uncredentialed with no basis for public respect.  Without SATs and fancy degrees, it’s like you don’t count or you don’t even exist.  This used to be your country and there used to be honor in simply doing your job, going to church, obeying the law, and raising a family, but none of that seems to be true any more.  Respect only now seems to go to those who who are moving ahead in the new knowledge economy, but you and people around you seem to be barely holding your own or falling behind.  

How do you handle this situation?  Not by playing the victim card; that’s for a different kind of person.  “Like nearly everyone I spoke with, Donny was not one to think of himself as a victim. That was the language of the ‘poor me’s’ asking for government handouts. The very word ‘victim’ didn’t sit right.”  Instead, you take stoic stance, adopting one of three versions of what Hochschild calls the “endurance self.”

I was discovering three distinct expressions of this endurance self in different people around Lake Charles—the Team Loyalist, the Worshipper, and the Cowboy, as I came to see them. Each kind of person expresses the value of endurance and expresses a capacity for it. Each attaches an aspect of self to this heroism. The Team Loyalist accomplishes a team goal, supporting the Republican Party. The Worshipper sacrifices a strong wish. The Cowboy affirms a fearless self. 

Each identity involves holding on in spite of the sacrifices you have to make.  The Loyalist sticks by the Republican Party even though it keeps betraying you time and again, as is so often the case in Louisiana.  They allow companies to pollute your environment and skimp on their taxes, but they’re still all you’ve got.  

The Worshipper keeps the faith even though it means giving up something you really care about.

But sometimes you had to do without what you wanted. You couldn’t have both the oil industry and clean lakes, she thought, and if you had to choose, you had to choose oil. “Oil’s been pretty darned good to us,” she said. “I don’t want a smaller house. I don’t want to drive a smaller car.”

So you hang in there.  The Cowboy understands character as a willingness to take risks and live with the consequences.  You can make it on your own, without having to rely on welfare and special privileges.

To Donny, the Cowboy expressed high moral virtue. Equating creativity with daring—the stuff of great explorers, inventors, generals, winners—Donny honored the capacity to take risk and face fear. He could take hard knocks like a man. He could endure. 

The people she spoke with had a deep suspicion of the state.

“The state always seems to come down on the little guy,” he notes. “Take this bayou. If your motorboat leaks a little gas into the water, the warden’ll write you up. But if companies leak thousands of gallons of it and kill all the life here? The state lets them go. If you shoot an endangered brown pelican, they’ll put you in jail. But if a company kills the brown pelican by poisoning the fish he eats? They let it go. I think they overregulate the bottom because it’s harder to regulate the top.”

For liberals, this stance is hard to fathom, because for them the institutions of the state are the key guardians of the public square, which is central to their values.  And this space is now under threat.

…In the liberal deep story, an alarming event occurs; marauders invade the public square, recklessly dismantle it, and selfishly steal away bricks and concrete chunks from the public buildings at its center. Seeing insult added to injury, those guarding the public square watch helplessly as those who’ve dismantled it construct private McMansions with the same bricks and pieces of concrete, privatizing the public realm. That’s the gist of the liberal deep story, and the right can’t understand the deep pride liberals take in their creatively designed, hard-won public sphere as a powerful integrative force in American life. Ironically, you may have more in common with the left than you imagine, for many on the left feel like strangers in their own land too.

For right-wing populists, the federal government is the biggest threat.  For those in the West, the feds are the ones who seem to own all the land and regulate what you can do with it.  In the South, the resentments runs even deeper.

After the Civil War, the North replaced Southern state governments with its own hand-picked governors. The profit-seeking carpetbaggers came, it seemed to those I interviewed, as agents of the dominating North. Exploiters from the North, an angry, traumatized black population at home, and moral condemnation from all—this was the scene some described to me. When the 1960s began sending Freedom Riders and civil rights activists, pressing for new federal laws to dismantle Jim Crow, there they came again, it seemed, the moralizing North. And again, Obamacare, global warming, gun control, abortion rights—did these issues, too, fall into the emotional grooves of history? Does it feel like another strike from the North, from Washington, that has put the brown pelican ahead of the Tea Partier waiting in line?

And then there’s the last issue:  waiting in line.  Hochschild identifies a deep story that runs through all of the accounts she heard, and at the heart is a sense of resentment about being treated unfairly in the pursuit of the American Dream.  The dream is all about the possibilities for getting ahead, and this means an orderly process of status advancement in which people wait in line until it’s their turn.  The core problem is that suddenly they find other people cutting in front of them in line, and the federal government is helping them do it.

Look! You see people cutting in line ahead of you! You’re following the rules. They aren’t. As they cut in, it feels like you are being moved back. How can they just do that? Who are they? Some are black. Through affirmative action plans, pushed by the federal government, they are being given preference for places in colleges and universities, apprenticeships, jobs, welfare payments, and free lunches…. Women, immigrants, refugees, public sector workers—where will it end? Your money is running through a liberal sympathy sieve you don’t control or agree with. These are opportunities you’d have loved to have had in your day—and either you should have had them when you were young or the young shouldn’t be getting them now. It’s not fair.

You’re a compassionate person. But now you’ve been asked to extend your sympathy to all the people who have cut in front of you. So you have your guard up against requests for sympathy. People complain: Racism. Discrimination. Sexism. You’ve heard stories of oppressed blacks, dominated women, weary immigrants, closeted gays, desperate refugees, but at some point, you say to yourself, you have to close the borders to human sympathy—especially if there are some among them who might bring you harm. You’ve suffered a good deal yourself, but you aren’t complaining about it.

Posted in Higher Education, Populism, Sports

Nobel prizes are great, but college football is why American universities dominate the globe

This post is a reprint of a piece I published in Quartz in 2017.  Here’s a link to the original.  It’s an effort to explore the distinctively populist character of American higher education. 

The idea is that a key to understanding the strong public support that US colleges and universities have managed to generate is their ability to reach beyond the narrow constituency for its elevated intellectual accomplishments.  The magic is that they are elite institutions that can also appeal to the populace.  And the peculiar world of college football provides a window into how the magic works.  

If you drive around the state of Michigan, where I used to live, you would see farmers on tractors wearing a cap that typically bore the logo of either University of Michigan (maize and blue) or Michigan State (green and white).  Maybe they or their kids attended the school, or maybe they were using its patented seed; but more often than not, it was because they were rooting for the football team.  It’s hard to overestimate the value for the higher ed system of drawing a broad base of popular support.

Football

Nobel prizes are great, but college football is why

American universities dominate the globe

David F. Labaree

 

College football costs too much. It exploits players and even damages their brains. It glorifies violence and promotes a thuggish brand of masculinity. And it undermines the college’s academic mission.

We hear this a lot, and much of it is true. But consider, for the moment, that football may help explain how the American system of higher education has become so successful. According to rankings computed by Jiao Tong University in Shanghai, American institutions account for 32 of the top 50 and 16 of the top 20 universities in the world. Also, between 2000 and 2014, 49% of all Nobel recipients were scholars at US universities.

In doing research for a book about the American system of higher education, I discovered that the key to its strength has been its ability to combine elite scholarship with populist appeal. And football played a key role in creating this alchemy.

American colleges developed their skills at attracting consumers and local supporters in the early nineteenth century, when the basic elements of the higher education system came together.

These colleges emerged in a very difficult environment, when the state was weak, the market strong, and the church divided. Unlike European forebears, who could depend on funding from the state or the established church, American colleges arose as not-for-profit corporations that received only sporadic funding from church denominations and state governments and instead had to rely on students and local donors. Often adopting the name of the town where they were located, these colleges could only survive, much less thrive, if they were able to attract and retain students from nearby towns and draw donations from alumni and local citizens.

In this quest, American colleges and universities have been uniquely and spectacularly successful. Go to any American campus and you will see that nearly everyone seems to be wearing the brand—the school colors, the logo, the image of the mascot, team jerseys. Unlike their European counterparts, American students don’t just attend an institution of higher education; they identify with it. It’s not just where they enroll; it’s who they are. In the US, the first question that twenty-year-old strangers ask each other is “Where do you go to college?” And half the time the question is moot because the speakers are wearing their college colors.

Football, along with other intercollegiate sports, has been enormously helpful in building the college brand. It helps draw together all of the members of the college community (students, faculty, staff, alumni, and local fans) in opposition to the hated rival in the big game. It promotes a loyalty that lasts for a lifetime, which translates into a broad political base for gaining state funding and a steady flow of private donations.

Thus one advantage that football brings to the American university is financial. It’s not that intercollegiate sports turn a large profit; in fact, the large majority lose money. Instead, it’s that they help mobilize a stream of public and private funding. And now that state appropriations for public higher education are in steady decline, public universities, like their private counterparts, are increasingly dependent on private funding.

Another advantage that football brings is that it softens the college’s elitism. Even the most elite American public research universities (Michigan, Wisconsin, Berkeley, UCLA) have a strong populist appeal. The same is true of a number of elite privates (think Stanford, Vanderbilt, Duke, USC). In large part this comes from their role as a venue for popular entertainment supported by their accessibility to a large number of undergraduate students. As a result, the US university has managed to avoid much of the social elitism of British institutions such as Oxford and Cambridge and the academic elitism of the German university dominated by the graduate school. Go to a college town on game day, and nearly every car, house, and person is sporting the college colors.

This broad support is particularly important these days, now that the red-blue political divide has begun to affect colleges as well. A recent study showed that, while most Americans still believe that colleges have a positive influence on the country, 58% of Republicans do not. History strongly suggests that football is going to be more effective than Nobel prizes in winning back their loyalty.

So let’s hear it for college football. It’s worth two cheers at least.

Posted in Culture, History, Politics, Populism, Sociology

Colin Woodard: Maps that Show the Historical Roots of Current US Political Faultlines

This post is a commentary on Colin Woodard’s book American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America.  

Woodard argues that the United States is not a single national culture but  a collection of national cultures, each with its own geographic base.  The core insight for this analytical approach comes from “Wilbur Zelinsky of Pennsylvania State University [who] formulated [a] theory in 1973, which he called the Doctrine of First Effective Settlement. ‘Whenever an empty territory undergoes settlement, or an earlier population is dislodged by invaders, the specific characteristics of the first group able to effect a viable, self-perpetuating society are of crucial significance for the later social and cultural geography of the area, no matter how tiny the initial band of settlers may have been,’ Zelinsky wrote. ‘Thus, in terms of lasting impact, the activities of a few hundred, or even a few score, initial colonizers can mean much more for the cultural geography of a place than the contributions of tens of thousands of new immigrants a few generations later.’”

I’m suspicious of theories that smack of cultural immutability and cultural determinism, but Woodard’s account is more sophisticated than that.  His is a story of the power of founders in a new institutional setting, who lay out the foundational norms for a society that lacks any cultural history of its own or which expelled the preexisting cultural group (in the U.S. case, Native Americans).  So part of the story is about the acculturation of newcomers into an existing worldview.  But another part is the highly selective nature of immigration, since new arrivals often seek out places to settle that are culturally compatible.  They may target a particular destination because its cultural characteristics, creating a pipeline of like-minded immigrants; or they choose to move on to another territory if the first port of entry is not to their taste.  Once established, these cultures often expanded westward as the country developed, extending the size and geographical scope of each nation.

Why does he insist on calling them nations?  At first this bothered me a bit, but then I realized he was using the term “nation” in Benedict Anderson’s sense as “imagined communities.”  Tidewater and Yankeedom are not nation states; they are cultural components of the American state.  But they do act as nations for their citizens.  Each of these nations is a community of shared values and worldviews that binds people together who have never met and often live far away.  The magic of the nation is that it creates a community of common sense and purpose that extends well beyond the reach of normal social interaction.  If you’re Yankee to the core, you can land in a strange town in Yankeedom and feel at home.  These are my people.  I belong here.

He argues that these national groupings continue to have a significant impact of the cultural geography of the US, shaping people’s values, styles of social organization, views of religion and government, and ultimately how they vote.  The kicker is the alignment between the spatial distribution of these cultures and the current voting patterns.  He lays out this argument succinctly in a 2018 op-ed he wrote for the New York Times.  I recommend reading it.

The whole analysis is neatly summarized in the two maps he deployed in that op-ed, which I have reproduced below.

The Map of America’s 11 Nations

11 Nations Map

This first map shows the geographic boundaries of the various cultural groupings in the U.S.  It all started on the east coast with the founding cultural binary that shaped the formation of the country in the late 18th century — New England Yankees and Tidewater planters.  He argues that they are direct descendants of the two factions in the English civil war of the mid 17th century, with the Yankees as the Calvinist Roundheads, who (especially after being routed by the restoration in England) sought to establish a new theocratic society in the northeast founded on strong government, and the Anglican Cavaliers, who sought to reproduce the decentralized English aristocratic ideal on Virginia plantations.  In between was the Dutch entrepot of New York, focused on commerce and multiculturalism (think “Hamilton”), and the Quaker colony in Pennsylvania, founded on equality and suspicion of government.  The US constitution was an effort to balance all of these cultural priorities within a single federal system.

Then came two other groups that didn’t fit well into any of these four cultural enclaves.  The immigrants to the Deep South originated in the slave societies of British West Indies, bringing with them a rigid caste structure and a particularly harsh version of chattel slavery.  Immigrants to Greater Appalachia came from the Scots-Irish clan cultures in Northern Ireland and the Scottish borderlands, with a strong commitment to individual liberty, resentment of government, and a taste for violence.

Tidewater and Yankeedom dominated the presidency and federal government for the country’s first 40 years.  But in 1828 the US elected its first president from rapidly expanding Appalachia, Andrew Jackson.  And by then the massive westward expansion of the Deep South, along with the extraordinary wealth and power that accrued from its cotton-producing slave economy, created the dynamics leading to the Civil War.  This pitted the four nations of the northeast against Tidewater and Deep South, with Appalachia split between the two, resentful of both Yankee piety and Southern condescension.  The multiracial and multicultural nations of French New Orleans and the Mexican southwest (El Norte) were hostile to the Deep South and resented its efforts to expand its dominion westward.

The other two major cultural groupings emerged in the mid 19th century.  The thin strip along the west coast consisted of Yankees in the cities and Appalachians in the back country, combining the utopianism of the former with the radical individualism of the latter.  The Far West is the one grouping that is based not on cultural geography but physical geography.  A vast arid area unsuited to farming, it became the domain of the only two entities powerful enough to control it — large corporations (railroad and mining), which exploited it, and the federal government, which owned most of the land and provided armed protection from Indians.

So let’s jump ahead and look at the consequences of this cultural landscape for our current political divisions.  Examine the electoral map for the 2016 presidential race, which shows the vote in Woodard’s 11 nations.

The 2016 Electoral Map

2016 Vote Map

Usually you see voting maps with results by state.  Here instead we see voting results by county, which allows for a more fine-tuned analysis.  Woodard assigns each county to one of the 11 “nations” and then shows the red or blue vote margin for each cultural grouping.

It’s striking to see how well the nations match the vote.  The strongest vote for Clinton came from the Left Coast, El Norte, and New Netherland, with substantial support from Yankeedom, Tidewater, and Spanish Caribbean.  Midlands was only marginally supportive of the Democrat.  Meanwhile the Deep South and Far West were modestly pro-Trump (about as much as Yankeedom was pro-Clinton), but the true kicker was Appalachia, which voted overwhelmingly for Trump (along with New France in southern Louisiana).

Appalachia forms the heart of Trump’s electoral base of support.  It’s an area that resents intellectual, cultural, and political elites; that turns away from mainstream religious denominations in favor of evangelical sects; and that lags behing behind in the 21st century information economy.  As a result, this is the heartland of populism.  It’s no wonder that the portrait on the wall in Trump’s Oval portrays Andrew Jackson.

Now one more map, this time showing were in the country people have been social distancing and where they haven’t, as measure by how much they were traveling away from home (using cell phone data).  It comes from a piece Woodard recently published in Washington Monthly.

Social Distancing Map

Once again, the patterns correspond nicely to the 11 nations.  Here’s how Woodard summarizes the data:

Yankeedom, the Midlands, New Netherland, and the Left Coast show dramatic decreases in movement – 70 to 100 percent in most counties, whether urban or rural, rich, or poor.

Across much of Greater Appalachia, the Deep South and the Far West, by contrast, travel fell by only 15 to 50 percent. This was true even in much of Kentucky, the interior counties of Washington and Oregon, where Democratic governors had imposed a statewide shelter-in-place order.

Not surprisingly, most of the states where governors imposed stay-at-home orders by March 27 are located in or dominated by one or a combination of the communitarian nations. This includes states whose governors are Republicans: Ohio, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Massachusetts.

Most of the laggard governors lead states dominated by individualistic nations. In the Deep South and Greater Appalachia you find Florida’s Ron DeSantis, who allowed spring breakers to party on the beaches. There’s Brian Kemp of Georgia who left matters in the hands of local officials for much of the month and then, on April 2, claimed to have just learned the virus can be transmitted by asymptomatic individuals. You have Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas, who on April 7 denied mayors the power to impose local lockdowns. And then there’s Mississippi’s Tate Reeves, who resisted action because “I don’t like government telling private business what they can and cannot do.”

Nothing like a pandemic to show what your civic values are.  Is it all about us or all about me?