The 2016 American elections saw many passions and surprises, sometimes directed at the political process and structure of American society. Is it possible that these clashes will break out into civil unrest?
I don’t mean to ask this in an inflammatory way. I’m trying instead, despite the moment’s tensions, to look analytically at what’s possible or likely, as a futurist. I’m not posting this to encourage or discourage unrest.
I can imagine several possible sites for conflict, along with several drivers.
One site is the Dakota Access Pipeline struggle. This has gone on for months, pitting Native American and allied protestors against a variety of local and regional law enforcement and private forces, even as the upper midwest’s fierce winter has begun to settle in. A group of veterans is planning to arrive at the protests shortly, using their bodies and reputation to – peacefully – protect protestors from further police violence. They may also build structures to maintain the protest against the rigors of upper midwestern winter.
The protestors are intensely nonviolent, but their opponents are free with physical force. Will the latter stage a violent confrontation through agents provocateurs, or will some of their opponents turn to violence themselves because of any number of reasons? Or will the #NoDAPL team remain nonviolent as the months wear on? Alternatively, will the conflict spread? For example, in Vermont the same DAPL company has been building a pipeline against opposition. Could allied resistance groups spring up, either because of the racial angle or for anti-carbon politics?
A second and much broader area for conflict is over the Trump administration’s promised wave of deportations. As presidential candidate Trump vower to deport Latino and Muslim illegal immigrants for various reasons. In opposition many politicians, activists, city leaders, and people vow to prevent this from being carried out.
Will we see civil disobedience, with police officers or bureaucrats refusing to follow federal orders? Will people hide undocumented immigrants in their houses, form human chains to block deportation agents, form a new Underground Railroad to shuttle immigrants to safety? What happens when federal agents turn to force to compel obedience?
There is an important role for American education in this domain. Colleges and universities are already dipping toes into the immigration crisis, as demands to declare them to be “sanctuary campuses” increase, and are sometimes met. We can also see signs of reaction to this in Georgia, where a leading state legislator threatened Emory University with funding cuts if it refuses to turn over undocumented students. Will an increasingly politicized student body, especially as elite institutions, deploy Ghandi/King peaceful tactics to protect deportees and oppose Trump? Could members of that body take up arms?
Added to these two flashpoint areas is the growing public division over policing. On the one side are civil libertarians, Black Lives Matter, and people temporarily horrified by videos of police doing horrible things. On the other are the police, Blue Lives Matter, and people who feel the thin blue line needs our support to stamp out anarchy. Trump’s support for increased stop and frisk might become a national movement to increase police power, given the enormous successes Republicans have had in winning state and national power.
Will Americans stick to social media as our sole weapon in resistance, or will some in this exceedingly well-armed nation resist violently?
(This is not a new problem, as even a casual glance into American history reveals.)
Let’s stick with these three sites for now, and consider forces that could make them zones of escalated unrest and/or violence. Let’s assume that the election’s tensions continue to some degree.
One force is that a large number of Americans are now military veterans, thanks in particular to a decade and a half of global war. This means a sizable population has advanced military training and experience, especially in insurgency and counter-insurgency practices. Veterans could help organize resistance movements, stiffen their ability to act, or help train and support them should they turn violent. Veterans also serve in public and private police forces, as well as the army, obviously. Will this fact cool down tense situations, or heat them up?
Adding accelerant to these potential fires is some recent scholarship on public attitudes towards democracy, which finds support for that system of government to be declining in certain nations, including the United States. An increasing number of people are comfortable with military rule, support censorship of free speech, and are less excited about the benefits of living in democracies. If this is accurate, we could see a proportion of the population likely to support, or engage in, civil unrest or its repression.
Intriguingly, the wealthy are increasingly in favor of soldiers in charge:
In 1995, the “rich” (defined as deciles 8 to 10 on a ten-point income scale) were the most opposed to undemocratic viewpoints, such as the suggestion that their country would be better off if the “army” ruled. Lower-income respondents (defined as deciles 1 to 5) were most in favor of such a proposition. Since then, relative support for undemocratic institutions has reversed. In almost every region, the rich are now more likely than the poor to express approval for “having the army rule.”
Given that the wealthiest Americans have outsize influence on national and local politics, should we expect, say, both political parties to become more friendly towards increased policing and surveillance than they already are?
A third driver of potential unrest is our growing ability to share information (of all quality levels) and organize through digital tools. As John Robb and others have argued, people can now learn how to build and deploy force by learning through the internet, then sharing their results to spur on others. We’ve already seen the power of shared digital video to accelerate politicization, such as in Black Lives Matter. The recent election showed people happily bubbling themselves into partisan cocoons. Perhaps social media and mobile devices will speed up participation in unrest… or give us images and stories that frighten us into cooling down.
Another potential driver is the widening gap between rural and urban American. We’ve seen this in the recent election. I’ve written about it in terms of the digital divide. Cracked notes that not only are rural folk often found attacking cities in civil wars, and in American have access to a wealth of weapons and material, but can also swiftly block food shipments into cities. Should we fear a city versus country tension, or relax, assured by the aging and depopulation of the countryside?
Let me pause here for reasons of time. This is enough to start with. What do you think the odds are of America breaking out into civil unrest over the next two years? Are there other sites of likely conflict, or other drivers?