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Calling the top on our Age of Unrest
Political chaos in America will continue, but the forces driving it are slowly waning.
If you’re at all like me, you’re wondering when America’s age of unrest is going to end. The more I think about this question, the more I find myself drifting toward an unexpected answer: Perhaps it has already peaked.
At first blush, that might sound like a strange and almost quixotically optimistic thing to say (or pessimistic, if you think unrest is desirable). Didn’t we just have an attempted coup? Didn’t we just have the biggest protests in the country’s history, with widespread looting and riots in Portland that lasted months? Aren’t we in the middle of the biggest violent crime wave since the early 90s? Isn’t there a wave of anti-Asian hate crimes? Aren’t people still tweeting apocalyptic stuff like this?
Indeed, all this is true. But remember that “peak” means that the level of something is still very high, even as the first derivative has turned negative. In other words, I believe we’re still in a time of great unrest, but that it’s beginning to ebb.
In making this prediction, I’m going out on a limb and being more optimistic than Peter Turchin, the historian who believes he has developed a structural theory that can predict waves of social unrest. In 2010, Turchin successfully predicted that unrest would spike later in the decade, and would reach a peak in the early to mid 2020s. Now, his models tell him that we’re not quite at maximum unrest — that we’ve got maybe 2 or 3 more years to go.
Now to be fair, Turchin’s predictions come with a confidence interval (not pictured on the graph above), so a 2020 peak is within the range he envisions. So I’m only being a little more optimistic than he is. Also, he and I probably define “unrest” differently — or to be more precise, I don’t really define it rigorously at all. Finally, there’s the not inconsiderable fact that grand theories of history are all hilariously overfit, and it’s not possible to rigorously validate them with data; even if you make some stunningly correct predictions, as Turchin has, there are just too few data points and too many contingent factors to be able to tell whether those predictions were luck or Hari Seldon-like prophecy.
But anyway, the three important questions here are “What does ‘unrest’ mean?”, “Why do I think it’s beginning to ebb?”, and “What are the reasons it’s beginning to ebb?” So let’s go through these questions.
First, I think of unrest as a state of general popular appetite for political upheaval and acts of political violence — a widespread sense that something is so wrong with society that it must change, and must change now, even if that requires some level of violence. In other words, not an action, but an underlying sentiment. Of course, such a latent sentiment is very difficult to measure; you really have to look at behavior. But here are a few data points suggesting that popular appetite for violent upheaval is beginning to wane.
First, consider terrorism. The years 2015-2017 — leading up to and immediately following the election of Donald Trump saw notable acts of terrorism, including the shootings in San Bernardino and Orlando, the Dallas police ambush, and many others that shocked the nation. The following years saw a steady drumbeat of what’s now called “stochastic terrorism” — people taking spontaneous violent action on their own initiative. There were the mail bombings of 2018, the synagogue shootings of 2018 and 2019, the El Paso shooting in 2019, and so on.
But since the end of the George Floyd protests and the coup attempt of 1/6, spontaneous political violence has been in short supply. There was the Atlanta spa shooting, but unlike the killings of previous years, it’s far from clear that it had any political motivation. Mass shootings are still high, but most of the incidents counted as mass shootings in these databases are of the “regular crime” variety rather than the “politically motivated terrorism” or “crazy person goes on a killing spree for idiosyncratic reasons” types.
There’s a parallel here: The 1970s. At the beginning of that decade, terrorist attacks were amazingly common in the U.S. (though most weren’t fatal). But they rapidly dropped, and surged again only moderately in the mid-70s only to trail off almost completely.
A good book to read about this history, by the way, is Days of Rage. That book notes how the broad-based radical energy of the 60s quickly gave way to exhausted disillusionment, except among a highly violent but increasingly tiny fringe. A similar thing could be happening now.
What we’re also not seeing in 2021 are the kind of continuous left-right street battles that characterized the Trump years — the Charlottesville riots, the antifa-vs.-Proud Boys melees in Berkeley and Portland and NYC, and so on. In fact, the election of Biden didn’t see widespread demonstrations like the Women’s March — the second biggest protests in our country’s history — that followed Trump’s victory. The American street is quiet; people are staying home and watching politics on their screens instead of charging the barricades and hitting each other with sticks. Again, there’s a parallel with the 70s; there were a huge number of major riots in the late 60s and early 70s, but relatively few in the mid and late 70s.
As for the major grassroots movements involved in the unrest, we can see interest in these by looking at Google Trends. For Black Lives Matter, we can clearly see the two peaks:
And here’s the alt-right:
Here’s the Me Too movement:
You can see that the action is mostly in the early Trump years, with the exception of the huge peak for BLM during and just after the Floyd protests. QAnon has a more recent peak, but that looks to be dying too:
Now of course, interest might die down and then surge again even bigger than before, as it did for BLM and QAnon in 2020. But as of right now, all of these movements seem to be less in the public eye.
(Note: No, I am not drawing a moral equivalence between the movements listed above, just using interest in them as barometers of grassroots unrest.)
So that’s the data; how about anecdote? My experience is that while there are still plenty of crazy threads preaching race war on Twitter, they now get about 20% of the engagement they got in 2016 or 2017. Facebook is no longer a wasteland of broken friendships and bitter fights to take over discussion groups, as it was in those days. Nazis no longer mob me for suggesting that immigration is good. The country feels a little less unsettled than it did in the early Trump years, to say nothing of 2020.
So if unrest is beginning to ebb, what’s the cause? Here are some possible explanations for this possible fact:
1) Exhaustion. Maybe Covid, the Floyd protests, and the drama of our nation’s first coup attempt have left Americans without the energy to wage their Cold Civil War. Maybe seven years of constant social media screeching has simply inured people to the madness, so that they’re slowly starting to tune the whole thing out and refuse to get involved.
2) Adults in the room. Turchin’s own theory of why violence ebbs involves non-extremist people being roused to action by political unrest, and entering the political arena to actively suppress the radicals. Perhaps Matt Yglesias is emblematic of this newly activated moderate class. But far more powerful than moderate commentators are the social media platform companies, who finally bestirred themselves to ban Trump and start kicking off some of the crazier cults after 1/6. And this comes on top of a quiet multi-year effort to tighten up standards around harassment and hate. (Of course, this theory has the interesting implication that the age of unrest will only end if people think it’s not going to end anytime soon; only then will they continue to exert effort to calm things down!)
3) The departure of Trump. My impression (from reading books by Rick Perlstein and others) is that in the early 1970s, much of what had been a general wave of unrest became focused on the single person of Richard Nixon, and when he left — and when the Vietnam War ended — much of that rage had nowhere to go. Trump, like Nixon, became the champion of the Right and the bete noire of the Left. When he exited the stage, perhaps he took some of our anger with him.
4) Economic good times. Yes, COVID has clobbered our economy, but a huge wave of bipartisan government largesse has lifted the fortunes of most Americans. Real personal consumption expenditures (a measure of economic well-being that’s weighted toward the middle and lower classes, since rich people consume less of their income) are back to their pre-pandemic trend:
And this is true even though personal savings rates have also risen substantially. Economic security may not foreclose on the possibility of unrest (witness the late 60s; the late 2010s were also good economic times), but it probably does take the edge off.
So those are my theories for why unrest is beginning to ebb; I’m sure there are others. But the final and crucial question is: If we are heading for a lull, how long will it last? Will it be another 40 years before we see another society-wide upheaval like the late 2010s? Or will we be right back in the madness in a couple of years?
As I see it, the biggest danger is the 2024 election. Trump’s personality cult still has a personal lock on the Republican Party, and he might as well run again in 2024, as he has nothing else to do with the remainder of his life. Meanwhile, it seems like there’s a good chance that Republican state legislatures in purple states will pass laws allowing them to override the will of their voters and hand their electors to Trump if they “suspect voter fraud” (i.e. if Trump loses the state). This may be technically constitutional, but would certainly provoke an immediate legitimacy crisis and could spill into open conflict.
With the possible exception of a war with China, this 2024 election theft scenario is the biggest danger to the stability of the nation. The passions unleashed in such a conflict might overwhelm anything we’ve experienced since 2014. There might be less grassroots unrest, but if they’re led into a civil war by their political leaders, Americans will fight.
Thus, my advice to anyone who wants America to calm down is to focus on the 2024 election, and how to prevent it from becoming the mother of all shitshows. If 2024 ends up being a fizzle instead of a bang, my guess is that more stable times are ahead.