Jun 3, 2020 - Politics & Policy

American society is teetering on the edge

Illustration of US stripes falling like dominoes pushed by one star

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

The COVID-19 pandemic, record unemployment and escalating social unrest are all pushing American society close to the breaking point.

The big picture: Civilizations don't last forever, and when they collapse, the cause is almost always internal failure. Even in the midst of one of our darkest years, the U.S. still has many factors in its favor, but the fate of past societies holds frightening lessons for what may lie ahead.

If America seems like a country on the brink, it may well be. Experts who have studied the collapse of civilizations in the past warn that the U.S. is exhibiting symptoms of a society in real existential peril.

  • "The U.S. is at risk of a downfall over the coming decade," says Luke Kemp, a research associate at the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk at the University of Cambridge. "There are early warning signals and the different contributors to collapse are rising."

Those factors include:

Disease: The U.S. wouldn't be the first civilization overthrown by a microscopic pathogen.

  • The "Antonine plague" struck the Roman Empire at its height in the late second century, spreading via trade routes to kill an estimated 7 million to 8 million people. Another plague in the mid-sixth century — a precursor to Europe's "Black Death" — may have killed half the Roman Empire, and its aftershocks "helped push the Romans past the breaking point," as the University of Oklahoma classics professor Kyle Harper wrote in 2017.
  • COVID-19 almost certainly won't exact a human toll anywhere near as large. But its rapid spread has underscored the downside to globalization, while the struggles of the U.S. government to control it has exposed institutional failure and ingrained inequities in American society.

Inequality: One factor that recurs again and again in the collapse of civilizations is the rise of inequality, as elites increasingly accumulate wealth and power at the expense of the masses. Inequality creates social unrest, but it also undermines the collective solidarity needed to respond to other threats, both internal and external.

  • Even before the pandemic, the gap between the richest and the poorest U.S. households in 2019 was the largest it had been in 50 years. While the income of the poor had been rising thanks to years of economic expansion, that growth was dwarfed by the wealth flowing to the richest of the rich — and as historian Patrick Wyman told me, "the perception of social inequality is as important as what people objectively have access to."
  • COVID-19 will almost certainly worsen inequality, especially if employers take the opportunity to accelerate automation in the workplace. The pandemic has also shown the vulnerability of Black workers, who disproportionately either work in sectors that have been hardest hit by the lockdown or in front-line positions that put them in the crosshairs of the coronavirus.

Social unrest: Every state has experienced street protests in recent days, while Washington, D.C., has been transformed by a massive security clampdown. What Americans are witnessing "is what happens in countries before a collapse," as a former CIA analyst told the Washington Post.

  • President Trump's willingness to push past norms by threatening to unleash the military — in what he characterizes as an effort to combat the looting that has accompanied some protests and critics argue is a naked grab at authoritarianism — risks even greater violence.
  • A deeply polarized electorate is facing a presidential election that could be disrupted by the pandemic, an election whose outcome may well be disputed and even resisted by many Americans, no matter which candidate wins. No less a mainstream voice than New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman warned on Wednesday that the U.S. is "edging toward a cultural civil war."
  • That entrenched division — aided by the polarizing effects of social media and increasingly punctuated by real violence — threatens to cripple America in the face of external threats, from the ongoing pandemic to the rise of China to the deepening tide of climate change.

Yes, but: Look back over American history and you can find more dire examples of each of these factors. The social unrest in 1968 was far bloodier; the 1918 flu pandemic killed far more people; and, of course, ending the original sin of slavery required a civil war that resulted in 750,000 deaths.

  • But as Friedman noted in his column, "Abraham Lincoln is not the president."

The bottom line: America's record of weathering past existential crises gives us hope of survival, but not certainty. The next few months could tell us whether the U.S. is ultimately on the road to renewal or ruin.

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