Language : English 简体 繁體
Society & Culture

Elite Overpopulation and American Politics

Feb 24, 2021
  • Su Jingxiang

    Fellow, China Institutes for Contemporary International Relations

As Joe Biden was sworn in as President of the United States on January 20th, the 2020 general election was finally over. But with the end of a historic election cycle came even more extraordinary events. On January 25th, the House of Representatives presented articles of impeachment against Donald Trump to the Senate, which is due to begin impeachment proceedings on February 9th. 

The House voted on January 13th to impeach Trump on the grounds that his January 6th speech had incited people to storm the Capitol. Since Trump is already out of office, even if the Senate passes the impeachment, he will not lose his pension or Secret Service protection. Some political experts in the U.S. believe that the Democrats insist on the impeachment with 2024 in mind, and hope for a Senate resolution barring Trump from running for public office again lest he stage a comeback in four years. Some Republican leaders are also hoping to use the move to oust Trump from their party and restore traditional leadership. 

The political stakes are high for the U.S. Senate as it moves forward with the impeachment. According to official figures, Donald Trump received 74,222,958 votes in the election, the most votes for a sitting president in U.S. history. The last four major polls showed that Trump’s approval rating had stayed between 40 and 50 percent before he left office, which is very high by American political standards. Moreover, the vast majority of Americans who participated in the January 6th siege of the Capitol believe that their actions have been legitimate, reasonable and peaceful. Many political commentators argued that given the precarious political situation in the country, it would be politically unwise to call Trump to account, which may well provoke a backlash and exacerbate social tensions. 

Why is the U.S. in such a political situation? Where is it going? Politicians, think tanks and media in the U.S. all have their own takes, with different interests, exchanging accusations and defenses, which has made it difficult for the outside world to see through American politics. In contrast, some scholars who have stayed away from politics are able to analyze it in a relatively objective and dispassionate manner and come up with relatively more data-based explanations. 

As proposed in the 2016 book, Age of Discord: A Structural-Demographic Analysis of American History by Peter Turchin, a professor at the University of Connecticut, historical analyses show that all large societies, including the ancient Roman, Mongol and Ottoman Empires, went into a crisis period of inequality and political turmoil after a long period of peace and economic prosperity. These ‘ages of discord’ also appeared repeatedly throughout American history, including in the 1820s, 1870s, 1920s and 1970s. If there is a 50-year cycle, the country will enter a new period of political turmoil in 2020, which will last for at least 10 years.

What makes human history unique, Turchin argues, is the recurring phenomenon of ‘elite overpopulation’. As wealth increases, more and more people gain access to education and more and more people with advanced degrees consider themselves part of an elite class. Many of these people have ambitions and wish to go into politics. However, available positions in the government and other social administrative institutions increase far less rapidly than the ‘elite population.’ In the U.S., for example, there are only 435 seats in the House of Representatives and 100 in the Senate. Wall Street, big businesses and universities are similar to the government in this regard. Too many elites compete for the same jobs, and some who don’t get it are disappointed and start feeding resentment against the “mainstream society.” These people often turn to the underclass who wish to change the society to forge a coalition for greater social influence, and ultimately the power of public offices. 

The election of Trump in 2016 confirmed Turchin’s theory. Over the past four years of his presidency, Trump rallied much of America’s white working class under his banner and promise to ‘Make America Great Again (MAGA)’. In the eyes of conservative Republican Patrick J. Buchanan, the Trump movement is so large and powerful that any politician he opposes will not win the 2024 Republican nomination for presidential election. 

In the eyes of Turchin, the U.S. is not fundamentally different from past empires. As the most powerful country in the world, the U.S. views itself as “too big to fail,” and has lost the spirit of its founding fathers. As ‘winner takes all’ has now become the new social norm, elites and special interest groups of power are increasingly selfish, with little regard for the interests of ordinary people or the future of the country, which has led to an alarmingly wide wealth gap, growing divisions and increasing social and political instability. 

American society is ridden with crises at the moment which call for comprehensive political reforms, but the bureaucracy and interest groups are so powerful that no one can, or will, change them. There is no shortage of elites in the U.S. With Trump out of office and Biden in the White House, it’s just elites rotating without much impact on the society as a whole to be seen.

Logically, the development of international relations always follows the development of social relations. In other words, the development of domestic political and social relations precedes the change of international relations. It is time for the international community to prepare for approaching new political crises in the U.S.

You might also like
Back to Top