In years past, when Americans saw footage of other countries’ parliaments devolving into all-out brawls, they may have laughed at the comical, comforting foreignness of it all. But today, after watching something like the last State of the Union address, which ended with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi dramatically tearing up President Trump’s speech, it’s entirely plausible to imagine that with the right triggering event, Congress could erupt into a fistfight. This intense atmosphere of polarization now runs right through America's elite—from the very top to the precarious but highly educated lower tier of elites who are left scrambling for positions in media, academia, and politics.
Of all the theories in circulation about why political rivalry is so intense, one of the most convincing (and worrying) comes from the Russian historian and scientist Peter Turchin. Turchin is a pioneer of “cliodynamics,” which is a field of research that applies scientific methods of inquiry to history. Cliodynamics employs multiple disciplinary perspectives, ranging from mathematics and statistics to anthropology and complex systems theory, as well as vast troves of historical data to identify patterns of sociopolitical instability over the centuries. It is, in essence, an attempt to identify why states rise and fall and then use this knowledge to make predictions about the future. All the way back in 2010, Turchin warned that the historical patterns were lining up to indicate a coming period of instability and violence in America, which he expected to peak in the 2020s.
In his book War and Peace and War (2006), Turchin applied the cliodynamic method to global history, looking at the factors driving the consolidation and collapse, or “integration” and “disintegration,” of empires such as ancient Rome, China, and Byzantium. In Ages of Discord (2016), he turned his attention to the United States, mapping the patterns of American history from the disintegrative period leading up to the Civil War to the integrative period of the New Deal, through to the present. Today, Turchin believes that we are in the middle of a new period of disintegration that began the 1980s under President Ronald Reagan and has been accelerated since the 1990s.