Below the Surface: the Structural-Demographic Roots of the Current Political Crisis

By Peter Turchin October 16, 2013 8 Comments

The latest news from Washington is that there is a compromise in the making that would allow the government to raise the debt limit. But even if an eleventh hour agreement is reached tonight, it is clear to everybody that there will be more budget battles to fight in the months to come. As I wrote in a previous blog, our political elites are deeply divided among themselves and unable to reach a lasting compromise. The likelihood of a catastrophic default, sooner or later, is still very high.

The proximate reason for the current political crisis is an unbridgeable ideological divide. Each side (especially the Tea Party and the Democrats, with traditional Republicans caught in between) has drawn a line in the sand that it is unwilling to cross.

The ideological conflict has been “sacralized,” to use the terminology of Scott Atran. Killing ‘Obamacare’ has become a sacred value for the Tea Partiers, while preserving it is an equally sacred value for Obama and the Democrats. As Scott’s research shows, once a dividing issue has been sacralized, a compromise is very difficult and sometimes impossible.

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But why have ideological differences been allowed to become so deep and so resistant to compromise? After all, the same basic tension between conservatives and liberals has been a constant feature of the American political landscape for at least a century, if not more. Yet during the 1950s and 1960s ideological differences were not allowed to get in the way of running the government. What has changed?

One observation that I and others (for example, McCarty, Poole, and Rosenthal) have noted is that political fragmentation waned and waxed together with economic inequality. Some popular press accounts of my views treat inequality as the cause of political instability (for example, in an otherwise excellent commentary by Dave Ross on CBS). However, this is not quite right. Inequality is a symptom, not the root cause. Yes, inequality harms cooperation and breeds conflict, but there is a deeper, more fundamental process that drives up both inequality and instability. This factor is intraelite competition, resulting from elite overproduction – too many aspirants for too few power positions.

Consider two facts. First, between 1983 and 2007 the number of American ‘decamillionaires’ (individuals with personal wealth exceeding $10 million) increased from 60 thousand to 460 thousand (that’s a five-fold increase in proportion to the total population!). Many of these newly wealthy people turned their attention to the political arena – either running as candidates themselves, or supporting others.

Second, between 1975 and 2011 the number of lawyers tripled from 400 thousand to 1.2 million (more than doubling in proportion to population). The law degree has always been and still remains the main route to political office in the United States. So the number of potential candidates for political offices increased manifold.

But the supply of offices themselves stayed flat. There are still 100 US senators and 435 US representatives today – same numbers as in 1970. When there are many more candidates vying for a limited number of positions, competition heats up, efforts (and methods) to defeat the opposition become increasingly desperate, and ‘us-versus-them’ mentality sets in.

Note that ‘us-versus-them’ does not need to refer just to Republicans-versus-Democrats. It might as well be true conservatives versus RINOs (Republicans In Name Only).


I am not saying that ideology is used purely cynically by politicians trying to get ahead in the game. For some this may be true, but the majority is clearly quite sincere in their convictions. The question is why politicians today are driven to extreme ideological positions and have lost their ability to compromise.

(As an aside, this is a non-political blog and usually I avoid singling out one or the other political party as being ‘right,’ but in this case it is clear to any disinterested observer that the radical, extremist element in the current crisis is largely, if not entirely, the far political right. This is supported by the quantitative research of McCarty, Poole, and Rosenthal, who showed that since the 1960s the Democrats remained pretty much in the same position on the liberal-conservative spectrum, while the Republicans have moved far to the right.)

Intraelite competition also helps us to understand some of the particular aspects of the current political situation. As I said above, what’s different today is that there are huge numbers of potential donors and an equally large pool of potential candidates – desperate law school graduates earning $50K per year, which is not enough to repay their Law School loans (I will have to devote another blog to tracing out how this stratum of desperate elite aspirants emerged). Such conditions make it very easy for unscrupulous political organizations, focused solely on their narrow agendas, to threaten sitting members of the Congress that they would run a well-funded challenger against any wavering congressman in the primaries, should they ‘cave’. Do I need name any names?


For those readers who are interested in the sources of the data I use in this blog, take a look at the (rough) draft of my book on structural-demographic analysis of American history, posted on my Cliodynamics web site. The book manuscript also explains other aspects of structural-demographic dynamics, such as why the number of elite aspirants exploded between 1980 and now.

Published On: October 16, 2013

Peter Turchin

Peter Turchin

Curriculum Vitae

Peter Turchin is an evolutionary anthropologist at the University of Connecticut who works in the field of historical social science that he and his colleagues call Cliodynamics. His research interests lie at the intersection of social and cultural evolution, historical macrosociology, economic history and cliometrics, mathematical modeling of long-term social processes, and the construction and analysis of historical databases. Currently he investigates a set of broad and interrelated questions. How do human societies evolve? In particular, what processes explain the evolution of ultrasociality—our capacity to cooperate in huge anonymous societies of millions? Why do we see such a staggering degree of inequality in economic performance and effectiveness of governance among nations? Turchin uses the theoretical framework of cultural multilevel selection to address these questions. Currently his main research effort is directed at coordinating the Seshat Databank project, which builds a massive historical database of cultural evolution that will enable us to empirically test theoretical predictions coming from various social evolution theories.

Turchin has published 200 articles in peer-reviewed journals, including a dozen in Nature, Science, and PNAS. His publications are frequently cited and in 2004 he was designated as “Highly cited researcher” by Turchin has authored seven books. His most recent book is Ultrasociety: How 10,000 Years of War Made Humans the Greatest Cooperators on Earth (Beresta Books, 2016).

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  • how does your structural-demographic hypothesis account for the regional nature of political conflict in the US? Most of the most ideological conservatives are from the states of the old Confederacy, the Coasts are dominated by Democrats and the northern midsection of the country is mixed, including many of the House Republicans who voted for the Senate compromise yesterday.

    • Peter Turchin says:

      Structural-demographic theory in its pure form does not specify along which fault lines the elites will fracture. It’s like with earthquakes – you know that the pressure is growing, but you don’t know where it will crack.

      More detailed and culture-specific investigations are needed to answer such questions.

      However, I continue to be struck by the parallels between today and the 1850s. Then it was again the southern elites who refused to compromise and pushed the Union to the breaking point – and beyond, into a bloody Civil War.

  • One parallel I see to the 1850’s is that the side pushing things more, is the one that does not think time is on their side. The southern elites knew that the natural trend was for the North to have a larger and larger advantage in population, hence more control over the democratically elected government. The Dred Scott decision was an attempt to take things out of the political arena, in part because of an awareness that the long-term trend was against them if it remained a political question.

    Similarly, conservatives in America today believe (rightly or wrongly) that the natural trend of government over time is to encroach on more and more of the private sector, with Republican administrations just solidifying the encroachments of the previous Democratic administration (Eisenhower after FDR is a frequently cited example). Thus, they resort to increasingly strident rhetoric and increasingly radical measures, because they believe that there is a ‘ratchet effect’ that will cause normal, compromise-driven politics to work against them.

    None of this is to say that conservatives today endorse slavery, are even necessarily in the wrong, just that the psychology of ‘time is not on our side, time for drastic measures’ is similar.

    • Peter Turchin says:

      It’s an interesting thought, but the Eisenhower example belongs to a different era. Ever since the 1970s (actually, starting with the Carter administration), the tax rates on the top incomes have been getting lower. So time actually has been on the side of conservatives.

      • vdinets says:

        Yes, but they feel deeply threatened by the changing demographics, although the details of the perceived threat are changing. In the 1990-s it was the “welfare-sucking black teenage breeding machines” (quoting some conservative radio host, probably Rush – I don’t remember), and now it’s Mexicans and other immigrants, plus the godless youth. This “enemy at the gates” feeling is very real, particularly in the Deep South – no wonder armed militias are springing up everywhere.

        • Peter Turchin says:

          Hmm, interesting. I’ll have to mull on this. But, then, the right should be fighting the immigration bill, not Obamacare? I actually don’t understand why they fought the Battle of Alamo over a health care bill. Sure, it’s highly imperfect, but the most dangerous piece of legislation that will destroy the Republic??

          • vdinets says:

            They are preventing the immigration bill from moving forward. So far, the only major legislation Obama managed to push through was Obamacare. The Republicans are trying to prevent him from accomplishing anything at all, and Obamacare is the only thing that they couldn’t block, so they are trying to derail it now. Besides, they invested so heavily in demonizing it that by now much of their core constituency sincerely believes that Obamacare is nothing short of Marxist revolution and devil worship. A lot of people in the South believe that everybody will be microchipped with 666 code, and so on. Without living in the rural South it is hard to imagine the level to which the conservatives have created an elaborate fictional universe to live in. On a funny side, the fear of “socialism” seems to be the most paranoic in areas where farmers get the most subsidies, particularly in sugar cane-growing parishes and counties.

  • I would surmise, after reading a good portion of the draft for “A Structural-Demographic Analysis of American History”, that elite competition combined with disgruntled, easily radicalized and mobilized grass-roots sentiment is manifesting as less powerful elites using the media to mobilize opinion against the government, which they perceive as dominated by traditional elites. For example, Faux Muse, as I call them, makes tons of money selling radical paranoia to naive, disgruntled, xenophobic labor. They are the susceptible (S) of the SIR model of the dynamics of epidemics. I find it interesting that in our society, this part of the model are not the youth, but defined by characteristics more closely associated with lower education and socio-economic levels and very notably, xenophobia (cultural distance).

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