What Will Happen If Bad Times Come?

If the economy is always the pre-eminent issue in American politics, then the employment report out today, combined with the news that wages are growing most strongly for the working class, ought to be the conditions for social rest. Instead, we have the highest degree of social unrest since the late 1960s, with political violence and extreme rhetoric dominating the scene. The watchword of the day is “polarization,” and there is a lot of statistical evidence illustrating our growing political divide (such as the findings that an increasing number of Americans don’t want their kids to marry someone from the other political party).

This would seem out of proportion to the underlying conditions of the nation. Stanford’s Mo Fiorina thinks in fact that the vast majority of Americans are not strongly polarized (but see Victor Davis Hanson’s response to Fiorina here). And all the indications are that turnout next week may well come in on the high side for a midterm, which indicates an aroused electorate. Regardless of the circumstances, ask yourself this: what would the political scene look like if the economy was bad? If we were in an unpopular major war like we were in 1968.

Pondering how much worse things may become as we approach the 2020 election sent me back to James Piereson’s prescient 2012 article in The New Criterion, “The Fourth Revolution,” later expanded into a book, Shattered Consensus: The Rise and Decline of America’s Postwar Political Order. (I wrote about the original essay here, and reviewed the book when it came out in 2015 here.) In one sentence, Piereson thinks our political order has broken down and entered a period of instability. In particular the liberal “blue state” model of high taxes and (supposedly) high services is unsustainable.

I recall Piereson wondering whether the kind of frenzy we saw in the protests at the Wisconsin state capitol in 2011, as Gov. Scott Walker was pushing through his reforms that clipped the wings and political power of public employee unions, were a model of the future. In the revised version of the essay in Shattered Consensus, Piereson offers this speculation:

Any number of events or developments could throw the system into a terminal crisis—another recession perhaps, a stock market crash, the bankruptcy of a large city or financial institution, a war in the Middle East, or any far-reaching event that destabilizes the international economy. Such a development would make it difficult for the U.S. government to pay off the commitments it has made to seniors, the poor and unemployed, students, federal contractors, state and local governments, and various other groups that depend on payments from the government. In that circumstance, the voters would face a choice of either watching the various interests fight it out for shares of dwindling resources or getting behind a candidate that could bypass the interest-group system in order to implement policies to restore economic growth. Either of these outcomes—stagnation or upheaval—is possible.

Trump has gone all-in on growth, with good results so far. But if you think the left is hysterical and violent now, just wait until we have a shock of some kind.