A US Cultural Power Transition?

Happy Independence Day. Let's talk history, shall we?

A reader and good friend reminded me recently that I wrote my thesis on the idea of Power Transitions in geopolitics. If you are a super-nerd of geopolitics or international relations it is just the thing for you right after you finish the latest Harry Potter spin-off. Otherwise, here's the short version:

1) Nations, especially Great Powers that are close to each other, go through power transitions, in which one country's power surpasses another. 

2) This tends to lead to war when the countries are both close in power, because it's not clear who is "boss," essentially.

3) By contrast, when one country has a preponderance of power, they are a hegemon and peace is more likely--see Pax Romana, Pax Brittanica, Pax Americana.

4) It's hard to predict who wins these wars--the rising power or the declining power.

5) My thesis expands on this and has a nifty large-N study that shows a pretty awesome graph confirming that this theory works really well.

They reminded me of it because he believes it's precisely what we're seeing in the United States that is leading to such strife. Let's expand on that idea.

Let's look at the strife in the United States in the late 60's and 70's. What was happening? Black and female liberation movements, as well as anti-war movements, were raging, and frequently conservative forces--including the government--fought back violently. There were radical/violent Black nationalist movements, and a highly active, murdering KKK. There was bra-burning, massive student protests, and the national guard firing on them. It was an incredibly tumultuous time.

What came out of it? Civil rights, the success of the second wave of feminism, the end of the draft. The rising powers won, the declining powers were largely-speaking defeated. Nobody (essentially--noting that the US is big enough to have a few of everyone) talks anymore about black people not being able to vote or not attending the same schools as whites. Women can hold positions of leadership. Etc. There is not full equality, but there is a major step towards progressivism. Interesting, the rising power of socialism/communism in the United States was crushed and neoliberalism won instead.

We can imagine the US Civil War in a similar way. The abolitionist / anti-slavery movement had grown and taken root in the north in strength relative to the slave-holding south. When the north was able to elect an anti-slavery president, Lincoln, without any Southern electoral votes, the south finally declared outright war. The rising political force of abolitionism had enough momentum to rally the north to muster the resources necessary to defeat the south--rather than let them go. Slavery was defeated forever and blacks in America were, at least, free of bondage.

Fast forward to today: we do not have the kind of violence or extremism of the 60's, much less the Civil War. But there is political strife at a level we have not seen since then. There is a culture war in which you are pressured to take one side or another. White nationalist groups, while not nearly as popular as in the 60's or 70's, have become louder than they were in the 80's-00's, and many of them feel they have a voice in the current administration. College students have become more militant about enforcing progressive norms, even attacking professors or forcing resignations for those who don't toe the line. AntiFa is a thing at all and will use violence to prevent far-right speakers from having a pedestal. We're not as fractured as we were in the 1960's, but it's ugly.

It is a plausible hypothesis that another power transition is occurring now. Young people tend to be more socially progressive than their older counterparts, and they are growing in number, and they are demanding substantial and rapid changes to the social order and norms around race, gender, sexuality, etc. Older Americans, especially rural whites, are pushing back, attempting to maintain the norms they had established--they are the declining power in this scenario (see: Strangers in Their Own Land)

If we are in such a transition, how will the "war" play out? The Civil War was won by violence. The Civil Rights movement was won by a peaceful movement that was attacked by the declining power. By what force will this conflict play out? Good question, but if you're considering violence please consider how effective it has been when it has not involved mass slaughter.


Erik Fogg

We do politics, but we don't do the thinking for you.