By Peter Turchin
Something happened in the United States during the 1970s. According to a number of indicators, well-being of the majority of Americans, which had been growing for many decades, entered a regime of stagnation and, eventually, decline. The trend towards greater equality in incomes and wealth was reversed. Social cooperation within the political and business elites, and between elites and the rest of the population began unraveling. As intraelite fragmentation and conflict increased, the American political system became increasingly more dysfunctional.
By the election year of 2016 the trends of declining well-being and elite fragmentation have become glaringly obvious. One only needs to look to the surging presidential campaign of Donald Trump (and, to a lesser degree, that of Bernie Sanders).
At the same time, the deep structural forces driving both the long-term negative trends and their culmination (so far) in the 2016 presidential campaign, are not understood—neither by the public, nor by the politicians, nor indeed by the social scientists. In fact, what we see today in the United States is a general social dynamic that all complex societies share, ever since they arose some five thousand years ago. As we explain in Secular Cycles, all large-scale complex societies experience periodic waves of political instability. Although the US today is very different from, for example, Late Roman Republic, the structural-demographic forces driving political instability—popular immiseration and intraelite conflict—are the same.