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Four Radical New Trajectories for US Politics

With the surprising result of the US Presidential election, a fundamental question is whether the American system of governance will undergo a major transformation. One tried-and-true technique for addressing such a question is Strategic Foresight Analysis. This article applies the Alternative Futures method to identify major drivers—forces, factors, or trends that will determine how the system will evolve—and pair these drivers to generate alternative scenarios of how the future will evolve. In this case, two key drivers are identified and displayed on a 2-by-2 matrix. For each quadrant of the matrix, a unique trajectory can be identified defined by the two ends of each spectrum.
When analyzing the current US political landscape, several drivers appear to have played a major role in the presidential campaign:

  • 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 US 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:

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

Arraying these spectrums on an X and a Y axis (see graphic below) enables the generation of four mutually exclusive stories or scenarios represented in each quadrant of the matrix. Each scenario represents a mind-stretching but plausible potential trajectory representing how the US political system of governance could change radically in the next ten or more years.

Established Multi-Party System:  Over the next decade or so, the Republican Party could fracture into two or three parties, the Democratic Party could split into two parties, and new political movements could emerge. Because political parties are not mentioned in the US Constitution, a move from a two-party to a multi-party system would not require a Constitutional Amendment. The Electoral College, however, will certainly come under increased scrutiny now that two Presidential candidates—Al Gore and Hillary Clinton—have won the popular vote but were denied the Presidency in the Electoral College balloting. If multiple national parties emerged, each would have to develop independent political machines and sources of funding, and many longstanding administrative procedures for conducting elections at the state level would be revised. Pressure could also emerge to move to a parliamentary system of governance.

One Party Rule.  If only one of the two dominant parties fractures, the dominant party would increasingly win elections against a fragmented opposition. Over time, it would gain unchallenged control over most political processes and budgets. Mexico offers a good historical example of this when the PRI used to dominate the state. As this scenario develops, the ruling party would become more and more susceptible to corruption, but the populace might prefer a more autocratic—yet still “democratically” based—approach to today’s increasingly dysfunctional two-party system.

Fascism. Growing levels of social discomfort and increasing political polarization accompanied by outbreaks of anti-administration violence could open the door for the emergence of a “political savior” to impose stability on the system. Such a candidate would tap nativist sentiments, offer simple solutions, undermine or even subvert existing institutions, and create new vehicles for promoting a cult of personality.

Celebrity Democracy.  As the influence of political parties wanes, candidates for political office would increasingly be drawn from the ranks of millionaires, celebrities, or charismatic individuals supported by extremely rich donors. Political campaigns would reflect increasingly sophisticated advertising techniques. Democratic processes would be retained, but political parties would no longer orchestrate who runs for high elective office. Success would be measured mostly by a candidate’s “popularity” as reflected in polling before the election and his or her approval rating after the election.

A simple analysis of the matrix reveals that the more the key forces and factors of change drive US politics to the top-right corner of the matrix (and away from the bottom-left corner) the healthier the political system. The other two quadrants represent less optimal alternative paths that may not have been previously considered but merit serious exploration. They could be seen as either temporary way stations in a move toward a multi-party system or as stepping stones to an authoritarian or even fascist system of governance.


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