The Political Threat Of Soaring Inequality

I read several pieces today that, together, were a somewhat grim insight into the acute social and economic crisis of our time. The first is a challenging and persuasive historical account by historian Peter Turchin of what Aristotle first observed in The Politics. The graphic (by Jennifer Daniel) is a crude but powerful summary of an historical pattern we see again and again in human history:


In this cycle, I’d say the US is roughly in the elite fratricide moment, which means very choppy waters ahead. Turchin’s thesis is basically the following: the eternal tension between liberty and equality has a recognizable shape in historical and economic cycles, which are perhaps better understood today. The optimal moment for successful societies is when the middle class dominates, where political institutions reflect a mass interest in governing the society well, because everyone feels they have a stake (so more people than usual want and need collective success), and because they share some basic commonalities in experience, and so can find a way to compromise.

When societies grow more unequal, commonalities fray. Wealth accumulates among the few, who begin to see the polity as something to be used for private interests rather than engaged in for public-spirited reform. But as wealth at the top grows and grows, and as more and more of the middle class attempt to become part of the super-wealthy club, the loss of economic demand among the increasingly struggling majority puts a crimp in the social mobility of the wannabe elites. So we have a wealth glut: hugely wealthy one-percenters and a larger group of under-employed or unemployed professionals. It’s from these disgruntled elites that you will get the tribunes of the new plebeians. And they will be guided by revenge just as destructively as the top one percent is now guided by naked self-interest.

What disappears in this moment of the cycle is the lubricant for all successful polities: a sense that we are all in this together. When that crashes into economic stagnation, and the fight for a slice of the pie gets even more frenzied, you’re in for some serious social unrest – which will either lead to a period of reform or to further social and economic disintegration.

So do we have elite fratricide? When a Harvard and Princeton alum like Ted Cruz emerges as a wildly swinging wrecking ball for the entire global economy, you bet we do. When Republicans up the ante on judicial appointments by trying to prevent a president from filling any vacancies and when the filibuster has become much more common than, you know, actual legislation, ditto. When the response to that is to scrap one of the last remaining mechanisms for legislative balance and compromise, ditto. When a major political party offers nothing on a major social and fiscal problem, like our grotesquely inefficient form of socialized medicine, but is content merely to attack, attack and attack the law of the land and sabotage it, ditto. When a former Tory prime minister breaks ranks and accuses his elite successors of ignoring the impact of growing social immobility, ditto. When news channels decide to become propaganda channels, and when there are close to no major media institutions retaining trust as neutral arbiters of our national debate, ditto. When elite sister breaks with elite sister over an appeal to the masses, ditto.

You can probably add a whole litany of additional data points yourselves. But to my mind, what matters now in politics is finding a party or a candidate that recognizes this core problem and tries to ameliorate it.

Obama was and is such a person, but the response to his moderate reforms shows how deeply intractable this crisis now is. It may have to get worse before it gets better – and that may mean a dangerous period of unrest and dysfunction. But the challenge remains: how do we reverse this centrifugal force on the polity, especially when it has been put on steroids by the globalized economy? At some point, someone among the sane Republicans and sane Democrats is going to have to run on a robust and aggressive platform of reform that can – yes – begin sharing the wealth and tackling the entrenched and destabilizing perquisites of the super-rich, as well as tackling the populists who engage in selfish and dangerous exploitation of the resentments of our time.

For now, though, we actually have a figure in the middle of this polarizing vortex still straining to forge a middle ground. He’s our president. If he doesn’t succeed, someone else more radical will follow him. That’s why I, as a conservative, continue to support him. It’s time to leave ideology in the dust and see our predicament with unblinking eyes. It’s time for a conservatism that can grasp the necessity for reform – despite the ideology that made sense thirty years ago but has obviously become incapable of adjusting to our time – and build a new majority from the center on out. That small-c conservatism – the type that cares about the coherence and stability of the polity above all other considerations – can take shape among Democrats and Republicans. If Obama cannot succeed in it, more radical options will present themselves. But if real reform cannot find an anchor in this society anywhere, we will all face the consequences.