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Is the United States Heading toward Radical Political Change?

Since the surprising result of the 2016 US Presidential election, a fundamental—but often unasked–question is whether the American system of governance will undergo a major transformation in the coming decade. This question was previously addressed in the November 2016 Analytic Insider but, with the approach of the 2020 presidential campaign, now is an appropriate time to review our previous scenarios and determine whether they remain valid.

In the 2016 blog, we used Strategic Foresight Analysis to analyze the US political landscape. The drivers we identified as having played a major role in the 2016 presidential campaign appear to be even more influential today:

  • 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 (see graphic below):

  • Who is best positioned to leverage political capital?  Institutions (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 enables us to generate 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. Events of the past two years suggest that all four scenarios now are just as—or even more—likely to describe how radical political change could come to US politics:

Established Multi-Party System. Over the past two years, the Republican party has become more divided, potentially splitting into three factions: one based on the personality politics of Trumpism, a more traditional conservative faction, and an evangelical Christian faction. More serious divisions have begun to appear in the Democratic party as well, as Democrats elected to the House of Representatives in 2018 are promoting a more progressive political agenda. 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 emerge to move to a parliamentary system of governance, but the current level of disarray in the UK could be cited as a good reason not to move in that direction.

One Party Rule. If the Republican Party experiences a major defeat in the 2020 elections and becomes a chronic minority party, the Democrats could gain unchallenged control over most political processes and budgets. Mexico offers a good historical example of the downside to such a development 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 authoritarian—yet still “democratically” based—approach to today’s increasingly dysfunctional two-party system.

Autocratic Rule. Growing levels of social discomfort and increasing political polarization could open the door for the emergence of an autocrat—be it President Trump or a successor—whom a majority of the population might come to hail as a “political savior” who can 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. Ex-New York City mayor and billionaire Michael Bloomberg and former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, for example, have considered runs for the presidency in 2020. In this scenario, 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 pre-election polling and his or her approval rating after the election.

A simple analysis of the matrix reveals that the more the key 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 emerge 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.

A common mental mistake is to assume that change is always gradual or incremental. The coming years could prove that wrong!