2020: Fuel, Spark, and Fire

Peter Turchin talks a lot about social dynamics and cycles societies go through over time. He predicted 2020 would be a year of turmoil for the United States (warning; his material is very dense). Today I wanted to touch upon his idea that the conditions that create unrest take decades to form, but once these conditions have built, a spark can create an “unexpected” fire.

Fuel

If you have ever gardened, you know that the beginning stages of growth for a plant are slow (or seemingly slow). When the conditions are right (warm, loose soil, sun, and appropriate moisture), a plant will begin to make changes inside of the seed not visible to the human eye. By the time those changes are visible above ground, the plant bursts forth in quick growth.

What we see in America in 2020 is the visible part of the unrest and dissatisfaction. What most of us didn’t see were all of the small decisions we made as a society starting in about 1970 that led to an astonishingly divided country in 2020. Starting in around 1970, we switched our focus from the community to the individual. During and after the Great Depression and World War 2 (1930 – 1968), we began to come together to increase the quality of life for everyone. We passed generous social programs like the GI Bill and Social Security, and even made social progress in the form of Civil Rights. But then, for some reason, we stopped. My guess is that societies (like individuals) tire of discipline and “revolt” at some point.

Spark

These small gradual changes shifting from community to individualism are not in and of themselves bad, but when left unchecked for an extended period of time they can wreak havoc. These ideological shifts are the fuel that needs a spark. The spark could be anything. Namely, 2020 has brought us four sparks: a global pandemic, economic injustice (exacerbated by the pandemic), racial injustice, and an aspiring autocrat as President.

Now we have a fire on our hands. A fire in its natural state is cleansing. It burns up old dead leaves and shrubs. It creates fertile soil for new life. The duration and severity of our “America in 2020” fire depends entirely upon what we do next. If we remain obstinate and refuse to make systemic changes for the betterment of all people, the fire could rage and threaten to destroy our nation totally. We could make small cosmetic changes and put out a small fire, but be “surprised” when the next spark sets us up in flames. Or, we could be wise, notice the opportunity in our current fire, and burn up the old things that no longer serve us and use it as fuel to create a better country. I honestly have no idea what path we will choose, but all three options are equally available.

Joe Biden as Gray Champion

Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote a short fictional story in the 1800’s about a mythical figure called the gray champion. The basic gist of the story is that a town of settlers is about to be overrun, and right when they need him, an old man (the gray champion) appears and inspires the people with courage. I think Joe Biden is America’s gray champion in 2020.

Setting the Stage

The gray champion only comes along when his people need him the most. He seems to show up at the last minute, to inspire and uplift the people. He (or she) himself doesn’t need to fight the battle, he just needs to inspire. The gray champion joins people together to fight a common enemy.

Joe Biden has stated numerous times that we are in a battle for “the soul of the nation”. His rallying cry is for us to unite to face the crises of a fragile democracy, the coronavirus pandemic, rising income and wealth inequality, and climate change. He says again and again that he is a “bridge”. This means that he himself will fight the battle only as much as he can rally and spur on the right people.

At a time of maximum threat and danger, the gray champion appears “out of nowhere” to bring people together and inspire them. Joe Biden has been a consistent, but not necessarily influential political figure for decades. What he sees is his chance to remind America of what we could be if we rise to and overcome our current challenges. In contrast, Donald Trump represents “business as usual”, even when it is clear it isn’t working for the majority of people anymore.

From, and Back to Nowhere

One of the main criticisms of Joe Biden’s campaign is that it lacks the fiery, cult-like nature of Donald Trump’s campaign. But therein lies the appeal. Joe Biden is not saying he will fix our problems, but rather we will do it together. One of the most encouraging things I heard Joe Biden say was in an interview with Andrew Yang. Joe praised Andrew Yang, and in turn, Yang said he was excited for Joe Biden to lead America. In that moment, Joe Biden interrupted Yang and said “we will lead together”.

The gray champion appears out of nowhere and returns back when his job is complete. America’s most recent gray champion, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, appeared on the political scene to a nation in crisis. FDR mostly fulfilled his purpose, passing not long before the end of World War 2. Similarly, Joe Biden is advanced in age, but he is coming to a deeply divided America with a vision for a better future. He isn’t coming with an oversized ego, but rather to lift up our best and brightest to tackle the challenges of our time.

Although it is a fictional story, the gray champion provides us with a narrative that every organization (family, country, business, civic, etc.) in a crisis needs a leader to come and bring people together and inspire them to search for higher ground. No one can tell the future, but a Biden presidency has the unique opportunity to revive that cooperative spirit we have long lost as a nation.

Why the 2020 Election will likely be Violent

I take no joy in doom prophecies. In fact, I consider myself a relentless optimist. However, the facts are mounting that the 2020 presidential election is going to result in some of the deepest civil unrest probably anyone has seen in their lifetime. I wouldn’t rule out another (likely more intense) bout of rioting coupled with an even more divided and non-cooperative federal government. After that is where I have no prediction for where things will go. The next couple years will likely contain even more upheaval, but also the opportunity for the transformation of our government and economy.

America Remains Divided

This is neither surprising nor unexpected. What is a little unexpected is that even in the midst of battling a foreign invader (coronavirus), we still haven’t found our common ground. Usually a “total event” (a war, pandemic, national tragedy, etc.) brings a country together. Coronavirus has pulled at our already loose seams even more. Wearing or not wearing a mask is becoming a political statement. States are deeply divided on when and what to reopen in their economy. Civic cooperation (as seen in a number of other countries) would have made for three months of lockdown, but many more months of a much better controlled spread. That has proven impossible here in the US.

Perhaps more importantly, America has yet to embrace a unifying figure. In order for substantive change and healing to happen, there has to be someone (or perhaps something) that brings Americans together. I was hopeful and excited with the campaign of Andrew Yang. One of his major campaign slogans was “Not left. Not right. Forward”. In my estimation, he was the only candidate with a specific agenda to heal our division. But Americans didn’t seem ready for him (despite a remarkable run for the highest office as a “nobody” in politics).

A divided country (probably at a level not seen since the Civil War) is a breeding ground for growing resentment and bitterness after an election. Donald Trump is openly adversarial to his “opponents”, but even Joe Biden doesn’t seem to represent national healing and unity. Furthermore, many Americans view him as an extension of the Obama administration, which was (not intentionally) part of the polarizing force that got us to where we are. If Donald wins, expect rioting, marching, protests, and civil disobedience. If Joe Biden wins, expect the same.

Inequality, Automation, and Coronavirus

As if we didn’t already have the perfect storm brewing, we add in social and economic inequality at multi-decade highs, Coronavirus, and the looming threat of automation as a response to a contracting economy. For all intents and purposes, the killing of George Floyd was a public lynching. This awakens the latent resentment that many Americans have toward a flawed criminal justice system. Americans are already feeling the economic heat in a very potent way. For some, coronavirus has been a chance to telework, but for many Americans, they left jobs that may not ever be coming back. And just our (bad) luck, many of the Government protections are set to expire this summer, and if a second wave of the virus hits in the fall, it could spell financial ruin for millions of Americans.

A long term effect of the coronavirus will be a turn toward increasing automation, creating major disruption in some of America’s largest industries. Food service for example is already shooting toward being contactless, making less need for waiters, waitresses, and hostesses. Grocery and convenience stores are already looking at ways to expand self-checkout. Walmart is going to expand cashier-less stores. What happens to the hundreds of thousands (likely millions) of Americans that will be displaced as a result? Your guess is as good as mine. On the campaign trail Andrew Yang spoke of the major disruption that driverless cars and trucks can have on our economy. Imagine this repeated over multiple industries, accelerated by the coronavirus.

I apologize that the tone of this post is mostly depressing. But if we fail to look at our coming difficulties with a truthful eye, we end up making ourselves less able to change anything, or at least take shelter for the coming storm.

In the long run, I am hopeful that the current and coming upheaval in America will see us better, stronger, and wiser on the other side. But there is no guarantee. Napoleon Hill wrote that “every difficulty has within it the seed of an equivalent or greater benefit”. That seed needs to be germinated and tended in order for us to reap the subsequent benefits. So in whatever ways we can, let’s do the work of unifying our country and ensuring a better life for generations to come. Thanks for reading!

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