Dynamics of political instability in the United States, 1780–2010

reported in
Human cycles: History as science : Nature News & Comment


Sometimes, history really does seem to repeat itself. After the US Civil War, for example, a wave of urban violence fuelled by ethnic and class resentment swept across the country, peaking in about 1870. Internal strife spiked again in around 1920, when race riots, workers' strikes and a surge of anti-Communist feeling led many people to think that revolution was imminent. And in around 1970, unrest crested once more, with violent student demonstrations, political assassinations, riots and terrorism (see 'Cycles of violence').

To Peter Turchin, who studies population dynamics at the University of Connecticut in Storrs, the appearance of three peaks of political instability at roughly 50-year intervals is not a coincidence. For the past 15 years, Turchin has been taking the mathematical techniques that once allowed him to track predator–prey cycles in forest ecosystems, and applying them to human history. He has analysed historical records on economic activity, demographic trends and outbursts of violence in the United States, and has come to the conclusion that a new wave of internal strife is already on its way. The peak should occur in about 2020, he says, and will probably be at least as high as the one in around 1970. “I hope it won't be as bad as 1870,” he adds.

Extrapolating the cycle has problems. PT thinks that it's overlaid onto a longer cycle, but its timescale is too large to be reasonably inferred from this dataset. That's presumably why there's nothing big around 1820. However, there were two previous big incidences of violence:

The American Revolutionary War, 1775 - 1783, preceded by tarring and feathering of disliked officials and destruction of a certain tea shipment

The Boston Revolt and other colonies' revolts, 1689

A half a century early was when the colonies were founded, so we can't look back further than that.

PT makes similar claims of cycles for Europe and Asia from the 5th cy. BCE onward. Ancient Rome, medieval and early modern Russia, France, England, ...



Cliodynamics is viewed with deep scepticism by most academic historians, who tend to see history as a complex stew of chance, individual foibles and one-of-a-kind situations that no broad-brush 'science of history' will ever capture. “After a century of grand theory, from Marxism and social Darwinism to structuralism and postmodernism, most historians have abandoned the belief in general laws,” said Robert Darnton, a cultural historian at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in a column written in 1999.

But I think that it's a good idea.


For example, it seems that indicators of corruption increase and political cooperation unravels when a period of instability or violence is imminent. Such analysis also allows the researchers to track the order in which the changes occur, so that they can tease out useful correlations that might lead to cause–effect explanations.

PT and his colleagues propose two cycles.


The first, which they call the secular cycle, extends over two to three centuries. It starts with a relatively egalitarian society, in which supply and demand for labour roughly balance out. In time, the population grows, labour supply outstrips demand, elites form and the living standards of the poorest fall. At a certain point, the society becomes top-heavy with elites, who start fighting for power. Political instability ensues and leads to collapse, and the cycle begins again.

So it's hard to see in the US data, though it would be more apparent in Eurasia, with its longer history of large-scale societies.

The second one is a two-generation cycle, which PT calls the fathers-and-sons cycle. After some people revolt, their children remember how horrible the revolt was and prefer not to revolt. However, the non-revolters' children lose patience with increasing injustices and eventually revolt. PT compares it to underbrush accumulating and being burned up in a forest fire.

Fathers and sons? Not many mothers and daughters, it must be said for most of history, though that looks like it's changing.

PT has also mapped the growth of religions, and he finds that they fit the "contagion model" most closely, with people deciding to convert from being acquainted with other converts.

About fellow researcher Jack Goldstone,


Goldstone has searched for cliodynamic patterns in past revolutions, and predicts that Egypt will face a few more years of struggle between radicals and moderates and 5–10 years of institution-building before it can regain stability. “It is possible but rare for revolutions to resolve rapidly,” he says. “Average time to build a new state is around a dozen years, and many take longer.”

This theory is much like the two Arthur Schlesingers' theories of US-history cycles (CYCLES OF AMERICAN HISTORY):






Liberal Movement to Create Constitution



Hamiltonian Federalism



Liberal Period of Jeffersonianism



Conservative Retreat After War of 1812



Jacksonian Democracy



Domination of National Government by Slaveowners



Abolition of Slavery and Reconstruction



The Gilded Age



Progressive Era



Republican Restoration



The New Deal



The Eisenhower Era



Sixties Radicalism



Gilded Age II

Lib = liberal, reform

Con = conservative, retrenchment

The Schlesingers had proposed various hypotheses, like a variant of PT's father-and-son generational hypothesis.

Political realignments and Constitutional amendments approximately correlate with this cycle:
Amending the US Constitution - Secular Café
US Party Systems - Secular Café
US Political Realignments - Secular Café
Supercomputer predicts revolutions by analyzing news articles - Secular Café




What will happen next?

According to PT's cycles, the next big outbreak of violence should be in the years around 2020.


Previous bouts of turbulence were not dominated by any one issue, he says. But he already sees the warning signs of social strife, including a surplus of graduates and increasing inequality. “Inequality is almost always a bad thing for societies,” he says.

That said, Turchin insists that the violence is no more inevitable than an outbreak of measles. Just as an epidemic can be averted by an effective vaccine, violence can be prevented if society is prepared to learn from history — if the US government creates more jobs for graduates, say, or acts decisively to reduce inequality.

But perhaps revolution is the best, if not the only, remedy for severe social stresses. Gintis points out that he is old enough to have taken part in the most recent period of turbulence in the United States, which helped to secure civil rights for women and black people. Elites have been known to give power back to the majority, he says, but only under duress, to help restore order after a period of turmoil. “I'm not afraid of uprisings,” he says. “That's why we are where we are.”

This roughly agrees with what one would expect from the Schlesingers' cycles. Gilded Age II has lasted longer than Gilded Age I, so its end is overdue. The Clinton Presidency seemed like the beginning of a new liberal era, but Bill Clinton was a cautious centrist and anything but the left-wing ogre that the right wing called him. More recently, the Occupy movement has been a flash in the pan. The Republicans have countered demographic disadvantages by gerrymandering themselves into power in the House of Representatives and several states, and undoing that will be difficult.

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