Will the United States experience civil unrest in 2017-2018?

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?

unrest photo by Mark Cummins

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?

unrest, by Mr. push

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?

(photos of unrest by Mark Cummins and Mr. Push)


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14 Responses to Will the United States experience civil unrest in 2017-2018?

  1. ellenandjim says:

    This will seem an extreme statement but I don’t see what I say as extreme. I think we are seeing civil unrest and violence in the US streets now. It’s sporadic and focuses on specific issues or places: the widest and across the races and ethnic types it ever got was Occupy Wall Street, which was ferociously put down. it does not seem what is called general civil unrest because as yet no police, no military have backed those protesting; and along with the violent methods, draconian prison sentences are handed out — and threatened. So one reporter for filming Standing Rock was accused of a felony and could have gotten a sentence of 48 years. It’s not hard to understand why so little filming since Amy Goodman’s famous video was put on the Net (she doesn’t go there after her warrant was dismissed). What happened in Oregon was the gov’t allowing one group to succeed with violence. The most recent case of a dismissal of any charge, any indictment of a police officer who killed someone is significant — the way the hold-up on overtime is. The new administration is being already felt.

  2. VanessaVaile says:

    I don’t know but pretty much agree with your designated hot spots ~ some reservations, qualifications. Mainstream media did its damnedest to ignore Standing Rock.

    I don’t share your faith in the Ivory Silo❝ and campus power unless it makes cause with social justice, protest and sanctuary movements outside the university, Front line immigration rights volunteers, pardon the pun, put more faith in churches. Also I have been following the urban/rural divide, living it in conservative parts, talking to people and listening.

    As a historical point of reference, I lived in Germany 1968-69, read mostly European press, listened to national news in its own speak. There is a familiar feel to the current atmosphere. Possibly irrelevant, but after that remarkable year, a larger % of German and French youth became and remained politically engaged.

    My mind flips back to media — in the 60s protests, riots,battles etc got covered. News was not 24/7 but TV cameras showed up. Protest organizers notified the media and they came, That stopped, coverage got thinner, stories more managed. Then came social media. Plus botnets and gaming search algorithms.

  3. VanessaVaile says:

    Bloomberg’s Pessimist’s Guide to 2017, https://www.bloomberg.com/graphics/pessimists-guide-to-2017/. Take a look at what it got right for 2016

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  5. cbamarilyn says:

    Unfortunately I do see a high possibility that we could face a Civil War during Trump’s reign, G-d forbid we do! I think it would be between ultra right and Ulta left wingers and between Trump supporters and Trump non-supporters if he gets impeached or if he takes more unpopular stances.

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  9. Thank you for your well considered analysis for what it is worth, astrology supports your views

  10. Deborah says:

    We are now in 2018, with teachers’ strike in WV and spreading to Oklahoma as I write this for better pay. We are seeing mass deportations of immigrants that are breaking up families. We are still seeing in the USA wages that are not livable wages by any means. We are seeing daily our police forces out of control and look like something out of a military movie. We are seeing our own citizens- elderly, poor, children hungry in one of the richest nations in the world. We are seeing our oceans, lakes, air, public lands and parks contaminated and our wildlife exterminated. We are seeing our Constitutional rights being ripped up every day, arrested for protesting, and freedom of speech ignored or stifled including our journalists that are trying hard to bring us the true stories. We are seeing our children gunned down in their places of learning and speaking of learning– they are being subjected to government/Prussian type schooling that isn’t teaching at all, but gloried babysitting, being brow-beat, with absolutely not being allowed any critical thinking of their own. We are seeing the highest office of the land- our Executive, legislative and Judicial branches of government and total mockery of what the Founding Father’s intended this country be. We are seeing our young fighting illegal wars and invading other countries without our Congress or President declaring it a war per Constitutional law. Our Congress no longer serves the people at all, only the corporations that have paid them to submit their own legislation that best suits their profits. We are seeing our jobs have been sent overseas, yet our infrastructure that was built decades ago is crumbling to pieces. There are jobs yet we as a nation and people refuse to demand something be done. We are seeing the banks being deregulated even more so after the repeal of Glass-Steagall. We have seen our Supreme Court declare that corporations are people allowing them to hide behind massive campaign donations without disclosure to the public. We have seen our standing in the world stage a mockery, a joke, a complete mess and laughing stock in Europe and elsewhere.

    The people of this country, Americans- have last their way. There once was a time, like in my parents day where one person in the family could stay home and raise the children and the other work one job, buy a home, car etc. There once was a time when unions were strong, the workers could strike and bring real change to their place of business, But those times are gone. To me it seems as if the “people” are afraid to really rise up. They don’t seem to know they have all the power to stop this assault, There once was a time when our youth would have sit-in’s, massive protests, our workers would strike and the people would emphatically say no to any invasions of war. But those times are gone. It seems there is no end to how big our military industrial war machine gets yet we were warned decades ago against unsought power of them.
    George Carlin said it so well decades ago ” because the owners of this country know the truth .It’s called the American Dream,because you have to be asleep to believe it”

    I am a 60 year old woman and remember clearly there was a time when things were better and feel the population now as a whole is clueless as to what is really going on in the USA. They have been beaten down, just struggling to simply – survive, and that to me isn’t living at all. A real revolt??? I don’t think so. Petitions and marching aren’t enough either!

  11. Cheryl says:

    We live in TN.cant close on sell of our house because of the goverment shutdown and buy our next one USDA loans needs to go ahead and continue on somehow with loan proceedings on homes.I personally think this is all ridiculous i was liking Trump til now this gov shutdown thing is immature bs for the bird come on folks theres enough them in our country why worry bout it now theres other things you hardly ever hear repulblicans around here go on about or help witch is the poor ,homeless and healthcare hmm wheres those issues in our country went well i think out the door.Government control also i have a freind on the sex offender registry over minor phone call whats our country come to false labeling over minor bs lol to get gov more money 150 a year thats bunch non since and blaphamy why dont trump do something about the poor and people in need of healthcare these days and not worry bout a lit wall, theres already so many them in here why dont we take down wall and make it mexico part of america and straighten things out easy way and all these cops shooting black people you hear on the news thats horrible im a strong beleiver in a wrights in this country privacy, and all around wrights our country was founded on instead of this of what goes on now days.Jesus should be first and pray this country becomes great again thanks god bless.

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