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Will US Mid-Term Elections become the Battle of Existential Threats?

In the July issue of the Analytic Insider, I hypothesized that in the months leading up to the November 2022 mid-term elections, Americans would turn away from their preoccupation with inflation, gas prices, COVID-19, and the availability of infant formula to focus more on what they perceived as “existential threats.” How correct was this prognosis? In conducting my own Foresight Analysis, was my understanding of key drivers correct?

For conservatives, the term existential threat often appears in discussions about:

  • Societal change that is fundamentally challenging our Christian values, long-established social norms and traditions, and even the “look” of the towns where we grew up.
  • Immigration policies that allow for an “unregulated border” with Mexico, allowing drugs, terrorists, and criminals to cross in growing numbers.
  • Abortion laws that do not protect the life of the unborn—and some would say even life from the moment of conception.
  • Gun control measures that undermine our second amendment rights to own guns (including assault rifles).

Liberals, for their part, have increasingly adopted the phrase when discussing:  

  • Abortion restrictions spurred by the Supreme Court’s decision to strike down Roe v. Wade, state legislation to disallow exceptions for rape, incest, and the health of the mother; and federal law to ban abortions country-wide.
  • Gun violence threatening the lives ofour school children.
  • Climate change that poses a rapidly accelerating threat to the earth.
  • The right to vote—or even to have one’s vote counted–that is being eroded in many states.

Rating the Prediction

After peaking in June, the price of gasoline has declined for almost 100 straight days—from $5.02 to under $3.70, inflation eased but then rebounded, supply chain problems eased, and infant formula is available. Meanwhile, President Biden signed major bills into law that over time will mitigate the cost of living by increasing medical insurance availability, reduce the price of prescription drugs, and launch the largest green energy program in the history of the United States.

The biggest shift over the past three months, however, is the increasingly sharp debate over existential threats.

  • The Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe v. Wade has galvanized both the right (to legislate more restrictive abortion regulations) and the left (to challenge these state laws in court and implement executive measures to limit their impact). In many states, women are registering to vote in unprecedented numbers for candidates who believe women should have control over their bodies. Many Americans were stunned when Nebraska law enforcement authorities decided to prosecute a 17-year-old girl in early August with three felonies for using a mail-order abortion pill and burying the miscarried fetus. Senator Lindsay Graham’s proposed legislation to pass a nationwide ban on abortion after 15 days has further enflamed debate.
  • Volatile weather produced by global climate change is dominating the news with reports of massive floods, uncontrolled wildfires, and more recently crisis-level droughts in the United States, Europe, and China. Since the end of July, six 1,000-year rain events have hit the United States. Meanwhile, sections of Los Angeles are losing access to Colorado River water. Los Angeles, which gets 40% of its water from the Colorado, is imposing increasingly drastic restrictions of water consumption, especially in urban areas. An above-average season for hurricanes is predicted with at least four major hurricanes expected.
  • Mass shootings once again dominated the headlines in July. Seven were killed and many wounded at a July 4 parade in Highland Park, Illinois, just as coverage of the 10 shot in Buffalo and 21 killed in Uvalde, Texas was beginning to fade. In an 5-9 August Gallup Poll, 3 in 10 respondents said they fear for their child’s safety in school. Death threats are becoming common place, and as the political rhetoric heats up so does the potential for a political assassination.
  • A new gun controversy emerged in mid-August as Republican office holders and conservative commentators began making false claims that the 87,000 soon to be hired IRS agents will be carrying high-powered guns and taking guns away from US citizens.
  • Press attention is growing on the impact of voter restrictions in red states. In a 22 August NBC News poll, 21% of respondents ranked threats to democracy as the most important issue facing the country, followed by 16% who cited the cost of living, and 14% who said jobs and the economy.
  • Immigration is once again capturing the headlines with Florida Governor DeSantis’s move to fly migrants legally seeking asylum in Texas to Martha’s Vineyard and Texas Governor Abbott’s efforts to bus migrants to the Vice President’s home, Chicago, and other cities.

Early indications are that the growing polarization of society and the growth of an “us versus them” culture will stimulate increasingly angry political discourse. Tensions will be exacerbated by disinformation campaigns propagated on social media and broadcast channels and reinforced by echo chambers. The coming months could become the Battle of Existential Threats.

  • Politicians on the left and the right will be tempted to adopt Destructionist rhetoric by stoking fear (both legitimate and illegitimate), inciting anger, and motivating core constituents to seek salvation by voting for them.
  • A Constructionist “way forward” out of this conundrum would require new approaches for reducing the impact of disinformation campaigns. In addition, laws against threatening public officials need to be enforced more vigorously, especially in the wake of recent threats to assassinate the Attorney General and kill FBI and law enforcement officials following the FBI’s seizure of classified documents at the former President’s Mar-a-Lago estate. Other potential solutions would be to spur greater media coverage of constructionist solutions; elect new leaders committed to solving, not capitalizing on, the nation’s problems; and refocus public debate on the key drivers that are exacerbating the polarization of society (for a discussion of these key drivers see the May issue of the Analytic Insider).

You can learn more about the use of Foresight Analysis to anticipate the potential for dramatic political change in Structured Analytic Techniques for Intelligence Analysis, 3rd ed. (2021)