DANIEL VAUGHAN: The elements of our political discontent

When developing a meteorological forecast, it is necessary to start with the vital ingredients of what makes up the weather. Some of those essential elements are temperature, atmospheric pressure, wind, humidity, precipitation, and clouds. Each factor impacts the others and creates the phenomena we experience every day, from sunny skies to blizzards and tornados to hurricanes.

Modern philosophy has often tried to boil politics down to a science. Many have attempted to identify critical components of political activity in order to make predictions, much like a weather forecaster would.

The predictive power of these political forecasts, however, is mostly useless. Few could have imagined the series of extraordinary events that have already taking place in 2020, from media panic over the possibility of WWIII, to a presidential impeachment, to a viral pandemic, and now race riots.

We don’t know what will happen next. Humility should always remain at the forefront of identifying political trends. We simply do not know what is to come.

But the act of identifying the ingredients that constitute our political environment has merit as a starting point. No story or political trend occurs in a vacuum. Much like the weather, the elements of our current events interact with each other in critical ways.

The country is currently witnessing mass protests over the death of George Floyd that include far too many reports of violence, looting, and destruction. As any student of history can tell you, these kinds of events are not new to the American political experience.

We are far from suffering the worst of what this country has seen. But it’s worth noting the particular moment in which these mass protests are occurring.

First, as CNBC reports, the United States has been experiencing its most massive spike in unemployment since the Great Depression. And that unemployment has developed at a pace unlike anything in our nation’s history, or indeed most of modern history. Most recessions and depressions are marked by job losses that are spread over several months and even years, not suffered within a matter of days and weeks. 

Second, as a recent Pew Research Center survey found, the partisanship of our present moment is near its apex. It’s not just that there’s a partisan divide in the country, it’s that the split is deepening and intensifying.

We saw some of this directly in the 2018 battle over Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination and also during the impeachment of President Donald Trump. A fair analysis of the impeachment proceedings themselves shows that the substance of the charges mattered little to either side, and in the end, all came down to political expediency. The end product was considerable partisan rancor that has yet to abate.

Third, the coronavirus has upended the entire world in the span of a few months. Kids are no longer in school, and their parents are either out of work, working from home, or risking their health to work in an essential industry.

With the advent of widespread protests in major cities, some are emerging from their homes and joining large groups for the first time in months. People are at last moving from isolation to close-quarters contact, not just in the protests, but in all phases of life.

During the period of social isolation, people relied more heavily on the internet and social media to keep in contact with friends, families, classmates, and coworkers. It’s not unthinkable that human behavior and perception could have been altered during that time to reflect, at least for a short time, the internet’s “virtues.” Returning to pre-pandemic thinking may therefore be akin to expecting a robot to learn the finer points of chivalry after forcing it to read the comments section of YouTube.

Taken together, the coronavirus pandemic, the escalating tensions with China, and the typical partisan intensity of an American presidential campaign present all of the key ingredients for a potentially explosive time in U.S. politics. We are unmoored and being tossed around by a new event seemingly every month, and while it may feel like some events — such as impeachment — took place years ago, the impacts from those events are still rippling through the body politic.

Our predictive powers may be admittedly weak, but taking note of historical precedent is still helpful for observation purposes.

In 1919, the world was emerging from the first World War, and the 1918 Spanish flu was beginning to lose strength. Black soldiers returning from WWI who were trained in the use of firearms were rightfully disgusted with the regard in which they were held by far too many of their fellow Americans. Instead of gratitude and honor for serving and fighting, they received abuse and mistreatment. That led to the “Red Summer,” in which hundreds of Americans died in race riots across the country.

It’s also common among pundits to compare 2020 to years like 1933, the worst year of the Great Depression, the year Hitler rose to power, and a period in which other major global shifts occurred. But to do so is not unlike predicting a tornado just because similar ingredients are in the air. The fact that common elements are in place doesn’t guarantee a whirlwind, and if you get one, it probably won’t be the same as any prior tornadic storm.

Another useful comparison point is 1968, when political discontent was the standard all across the nation. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy were both assassinated. The country elected Richard Nixon in apparent response to race riots and the Vietnam War deceptions of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, and divisions were deep.

The bottom line is that while the specifics may be different, the prevailing cultural and political winds of today have created the conditions necessary for an explosive weather pattern for the remainder of 2020. We don’t know what or whether anything will happen, but it is clear that the atmosphere is heavy with the elements required for intense storms. It won’t take much to set off a major event, either, as the populace is on edge and on hair-trigger alert.

History may not always repeat itself, but it can sometimes rhyme in unique ways. We live in unusual times, and while the basic elements of our current circumstances are known, the manner in which this unique environment rectifies itself will almost certainly surprise us.