Combine all these factors and the result is a potentially volatile mixture awaiting a catalyst.
In the past, I reckoned the odds of America experiencing a revolution akin to France 1789 were low due to the different political, economic and cultural conditions present then and now, but recently I’ve considered the possibility that America’s extremes of wealth, income and power inequality are a powder keg awaiting ignition.
By French-Style Revolution I don’t mean a violent overthrow of the ruling elite as much as a tumultuous reset of how resources and power are distributed. Systems become vulnerable to such resets when they become highly asymmetrical in how they distribute resources and power, and rigid in their defense of the extreme inequality of the distribution.
The fundamental source of democracy’s stability is the dynamic competition of various interests and the dynamic equilibrium of the three branches of the state each balancing the others by restraining the dominance of any one branch or interest.
But extremes of inequality undermine this stability, as the wealthiest elites now bring such a preponderance of wealth to bear that each of the three branches of the state are now beholden to the interests of the few, leaving little recourse to the many.
When the agenda and narratives have been shaped by the wealthiest elites’ foundations, think tanks, corporate PR and lobbyists, then electing different representatives has little effect on the power structure.
The masses can still influence cultural / social policies by voting in a liberal or conservative slate, but the distribution of wealth, power and resources remains unchanged.
As wealth and power are concentrated into ever fewer hands, the mythology of broad-based access to prosperity has vastly expanded the pool of second-tier elites who feel entitled (via implicit promises made by the system) to their fair share of income, wealth and power–financial security and political agency, i.e. a say in public decisions.
These second-tier elites are primarily university graduates and the offspring of upper-middle class households who have been led to expect a secure slot in the upper reaches of the economy or state is a birthright gained by their education and class.
That there are no longer enough slots for this class means those left out constitute the raw material of a potently dissatisfied and potentially angry political class. Historian Peter Turchin presents this as the result of the overproduction of elites, a dynamic he has traced back to previous eras of tumultuous upheaval.
Another common factor driving the masses to revolt is when the essentials of life are no longer affordable or available in sufficient quantity. Historian David Hackett Fischer has documented the perilous impact of inflation, i.e. the collapse of the purchasing power of wages.
Yet another potentially explosive factor is the supreme confidence of the wealthiest elites that the system they rule could ever turn against them or crumble beneath their feet–in a word, a hubris as extreme as their wealth and power. The resignation of the masses and the ease of distracting them with ginned-up controversies and crises and consumerist novelties has fed elite confidence that their supremacy is unassailable.
This hubris leads to the elite becoming tone-deaf to their own excesses and the instability their excesses are generating within the system, an instability that’s currently hidden beneath the resignation and distraction of the masses and the mute frustration of the second-tier elites facing lifetimes of insecurity.
Another factor is the promises made by the state generations ago can no longer be met without creating new money on a scale that guarantees destabilizing inflation. This new money is issued as Treasury bonds which are purchased for income by the wealthy, further exacerbating wealth and income inequality.
The power elite are incapable of demanding sacrifices of the wealthy as the prime directive of the status quo is to defend the current asymmetry of wealth and power. This undermines the collective consensus needed to take the collective action needed to reset the system.
Combine all these factors and the result is a potentially volatile mixture awaiting a catalyst. The confidence of the status quo that it is essentially omnipotent (the Federal Reserve will always save us, etc.) and eternal is itself a factor in the mix.
The key factor is the rigidity or flexibility of the power structure. If the structure is incapable of resetting to a more flexible, symmetric distribution of power as resources, it will come apart as pressures mount.