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COLUMN: Is the United States Heading Toward Radical Political Change?

Growing levels of social discomfort and increasing political polarization have opened the door for the emergence of an autocrat.

In Analytic Insider issues published in 2016 and 2020, we explored whether the American system of governance will undergo a major transformation in the coming decade. Using Strategic Foresight Analysis, I identified six drivers that played a major role in the 2016 presidential campaign and now appear to be even more influential today:

  • Increased popular anxiety over social change, the pace of globalization, and introduction of new technologies
  • Decreased trust in institutions and news reporting
  • Heightened focus on personalities rather than issues
  • The impact of big money in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling
  • The diminished influence of political parties
  • The growing influence of social media as a political mobilization tool

These forces and factors can be represented in large part by two independent spectrums (see graphic below).

Each spectrum is defined by:

  • Who is best positioned to leverage political capital? Institutions (to include political parties and Congress) or personalities (to include wealthy candidates and major donors)?
  • How will decisions be made and future conflicts be resolved? Through democratic processes or by more authoritarian means?

COLUMN: Is the United States Heading Toward Radical Political Change? Homeland Security Today

Arraying these spectrums on an X and a Y axis enables us to generate four mutually exclusive stories or scenarios describing how the U.S. political system of governance could change radically in the next decade.

Were the projected scenarios we developed in 2016 prescient or off the mark? Events of the past six years suggest that all four scenarios are just as – or even more – likely to describe how radical political change could come about. Their continuing viability indicates the quality and power of the initial key drivers. The question is: Which one best represents the future?

Scenario 1. Autocratic Rule: A Near-Miss but a Serious Possibility

Growing levels of social discomfort and increasing political polarization have opened the door for the emergence of an autocrat – be it former President Trump or another who takes up his mantle, hailed as a “political savior” by a majority of the population. The events of January 6 almost made this scenario a reality. Last fall, Pro-Publica identified 48 Republican state and local officials as members of the militant extremist Oath Keepers group. A May 13, 2022, study by the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights that tracks right-wing extremism found that 875 of 4,375 Republican state legislators surveyed (about 1 in 5) were members of 789 far-right Facebook groups including groups for white supremacists, anti-abortionists, sovereign citizens, and neo-Confederates. Not included in this far-right category were such groups as the NRA, pro-Trump groups, or Make America Great Again (MAGA) groups.

A key driver for these movements is the perceived “existential” threat to traditional values and ways of life. A key factor fueling this scenario would be the ascent of far-right politicians and administrators through elections and appointments who are willing to subvert established norms and laws. Such candidates would tap nativist sentiments, silence the press, offer simple solutions, subvert existing institutions, and create or spur social media outlets to promote their agenda and reinforce a cult of personality.

Scenario 2. One Party Rule: Early Traction but Another Near-Miss

When the Democratic Party gained control of the presidency and both houses of Congress in 2020, enactment of a fully-funded Build Back Better program could have generated substantial momentum for this scenario. But failure to pass the program in the Senate put the party into a tailspin. President Biden’s popularity has since fallen to 39 percent as inflation surges over 8 percent, COVID becomes endemic, and families face baby-formula shortages.

In the unlikely event, however, that the Republican Party experiences dramatic losses in the 2022 or 2024 election, a Democratic resurgence could make this scenario plausible. Such a turn in events would probably be triggered by Democrats galvanizing support around perceived “existential” issues including abortion, voting rights, climate change, or the institution/promise of policies that offer economic relief to inflation (e.g., childcare support). In this scenario, over time the populace would opt for a more authoritarian – yet still “democratically” based – replacement for today’s increasingly dysfunctional two-party system.

Scenario 3. Established Multi-Party System: Early Signs It Could Emerge

Over the past six years, the Republican Party has become increasingly divided. It could split into three factions: 1) one based on the MAGA politics of Trumpism, 2) a more traditional conservative faction, and 3) an evangelical Christian faction. Serious divisions are growing in the Democratic Party as well, as progressives champion more leftist policies and gain greater influence in Congress. Democratic centrists are increasingly being contested by progressives in primary elections. Any new political parties that emerge, however, would have to develop independent political machines and sources of funding, and instill new administrative procedures that allowed them to contest elections at the state and local level. 

Scenario 4. Celebrity Democracy: A Growing (but Sustainable?) Trend

As the influence of political parties wanes, candidates for elected office have increasingly been drawn into the political process from the ranks of millionaires, celebrities, or charismatic individuals supported by extremely rich donors. Witness ex-New York City mayor and billionaire Michael Bloomberg’s run for the presidency in 2020 and the candidacies of TV personality Dr. Mehmet Oz, hedge fund CEO Dave McCormick, and athletes Hershel Walker and Caitlyn Jenner.

In this scenario, democratic processes would be retained, but the ability of political parties to orchestrate who runs for elective office would erode. Success would be measured mostly by a candidate’s “popularity” and not his or her ability to govern. This scenario would become less viable if people concluded that celebrities were incapable of governing well.

A simple analysis of the matrix reveals that the more the key drivers propel US politics to the top-right corner of the matrix (and away from the bottom-left corner) the healthier the political system. The question is how will these drivers play out? A common mental mistake is to assume that change will be gradual or incremental. The coming years could prove that wrong!

Learn how to generate key drivers and use Foresight techniques by attending our Foresight workshop, The Impact of Global Climate Change on Law Enforcement and Security Forces, to be held prior to the IAFIE conference in Treviso, Italy, on June 18-19, 2022. Click here for details and registration.

Randolph H. Pherson
Randolph H. Pherson is CEO, Globalytica, LLC; President, Pherson Associates, LLC; and a Founding Director of the non-profit Forum Foundation for Analytic Excellence. He teaches advanced analytic techniques and critical thinking skills to analysts in most of the 17 US Intelligence Community agencies, in ten of the Fortune 100 companies, and in many countries around the world including the UK, Italy, Norway, Denmark, Romania, Australia, Saudi Arabia, and Hong Kong. Mr. Pherson has authored, co-authored, or edited eleven books. He is best known for two books many analysts encounter in their training: Structured Analytic Techniques for Intelligence Analysis and Critical Thinking for Strategic Intelligence. Mr. Pherson was a career CIA intelligence analyst and manager, last serving as National Intelligence Officer for Latin America. He is a recipient of the Distinguished Intelligence Medal for his service as NIO and the CIA’s Distinguished Career Intelligence Medal. He received his AB from Dartmouth College and MA in International Relations from Yale University.

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