Over the past three years, the media has dramatically increased use of the term “existential threat.” I suspect this reflects the growing polarization of society and the growth of an “us versus them” culture, exacerbated by disinformation propagated on social media and broadcast channels and reinforced by echo chambers. The term and the threats cited could emerge as key drivers defining the political dialogue as the country moves toward midterm elections in November. The early identification of key drivers is one of the most challenging – and rewarding – tasks in Foresight Analysis.
On the right, the phrase often appears in discussions about the following topics:
- Societal change is posing an existential threat, fundamentally challenging our national heritage, Christian values, long-established social norms and traditions, and even the “look” of the town where we were born and raised.
- Gun control measures pose an existential threat to our Second Amendment rights to own guns (including assault rifles). We need our guns to defend ourselves and our families and to resist an oppressive government should that day come.
- Abortion poses an existential threat to life of the unborn – some say even from the moment of conception. The Supreme Court decision striking down Roe v. Wade opens the door to defend life by enacting legislation needed to outlaw abortion, contraception, and in vitro fertilization in all states.
- Immigrants crossing America’s “unregulated open border” with Mexico pose an existential threat to our national identity, maintaining law and order, and keeping the cost of health care and social services in check.
Those on the left, for their part, have increasingly adopted the phrase when making the following arguments:
- Abortion restrictions spurred by the Supreme Court’s decision to strike down Roe v. Wade pose an existential threat to women’s rights to be in control of their own bodies. Not allowing abortions in the case of incest, rape, or risk to life or protecting life from the point of conception impose totally unacceptable burdens to women’s lives and livelihoods.
- Gun violence poses an existential threat to everyone, including our schoolchildren and worshipers at churches and synagogues. The Supreme Court recently loosened open-carry restrictions, and mass shootings with powerful guns are now so common that anyone could become a victim. Over the Fourth of July weekend, the Gun Violence Archive reported shootings in nearly every state – including 11 mass shootings – killing 220 people.
- The right to vote is being rapidly eroded as many states are creating obstacles to registration and even allowing election boards to override the popular vote. This poses a fundamental threat to democracy and an existential threat to our rights as citizens. Americans could wake up in 2022 or 2024 living in a world where democratic norms and even the rule of law no longer apply, people’s votes no longer count, and long-cherished freedoms are eroded by newly selected autocrats.
- Climate change is accelerating, posing an existential threat not only to our children and grandchildren but even to current generations. The threat is not being addressed effectively, and the Supreme Court’s decision regarding executive authority to limit carbon emissions could block global efforts not to exceed more than a 1.5 percent increase in global temperature. With this court decision, we are likely to approach in a few years – not decades – an irreversible tipping point in preserving a sustainable environment.
In the coming months, the rhetoric is almost certain to heat up in the wake of new abortion legislation spurred by the Supreme Court decision, continuing or even accelerating reports of mass slayings, a summer immigration surge, prohibitions on limiting carbon emissions, and mounting reports of voter disenfranchisement as the 2022 midterm elections approach.
This focus on existential threats would be accelerated if current concerns about inflation, gasoline prices, COVID-19, and the availability of baby formula wane. That would require the Federal Reserve to get inflation under control, gas prices to fall as supply increases, COVID-19 to evolve into just another endemic flu, and baby formula to return to store shelves.
Under such circumstances, media reporting could shift to covering demonstrations and debate over what people proclaim as more pressing existential threats. The months preceding the November elections could emerge as The Battle of Existential Threats. Politicians on the left and the right could adopt Destructionist rhetoric by stoking fear (both legitimate and illegitimate), inciting anger, and motivating core constituents to seek salvation by voting for them. Most election ads would label the 2022 midterm and the 2024 election as “do or die,” “us versus them” events that would do irreversible damage to society if the other side won. And whoever does win would find it almost impossible to reunite the country.
A Constructionist “way forward” out of this conundrum would require fresh leadership, new controls over the dissemination of disinformation, and a refocusing of public debate on the key drivers that prompted such polarization (for a discussion of these key drivers see last the May issue of the Analytic Insider). Key drivers cited in that article that deserve attention include:
- Decreased trust in institutions and news reporting
- The growing influence of social media as a political mobilization tool
- Increased popular anxiety over social change, the pace of globalization, and introduction of new technologies
Learn more about the use of Foresight techniques to anticipate the potential for dramatic political change by reading Structured Analytic Techniques for Intelligence Analysis.