The current focus of the news, in virtually every country in the world, is on the American election. To the relief of many and the dismay of not a few, it now looks likely that Joe Biden has won.
An analysis framework originally developed to explain why, and where, the Arab Spring happened suggests that even assuming that Biden has won, unless he takes a hard, clearheaded look at the country he has inherited from his predecessor and acts fast, America’s problems could be just beginning.
Biden should be aware that he has inherited a country whose stability is far from guaranteed, and take immediate steps to restabilise it:
- Four key factors determine country stability; and
- The US is looking extremely vulnerable; so
- Biden’s agenda should address these issues immediately.
Four key factors determine country stability
Using the analogy of a pressure cooker is helpful in thinking about what makes a country explode.
With a pressure cooker, an explosion is most likely if a) there is strong heat under the cooker, b) the lid is on firmly, c) there is no safety valve and d) the liquid inside is volatile. The analogy with a country is set out below.
|Strong heat||Poverty affecting many of the population|
|Lid is on firmly||The police and/or the military have control of the streets – ‘the rule of law’|
|No safety valve||Lack of effective democracy|
|Volatile liquid||A population divided along racial, religious, tribal or class lines|
These four factors combine to form a maximum of 16 possible states that a country could be in. In the diagram below, we have grouped some of them, so there are only 13 separate states.
There is one green cell in the diagram: Thriving Democracy. In this cell there is an effective democratic safety valve, there is little poverty, the population is united, and the rule of law is maintained. This is the most peaceful and stable state.
There are several amber cells: some of them are amber because the country’s citizens are suffering significantly from poverty; others because although there is little poverty there are problems with the operation of democracy or the rule of law which mean that it is unlikely that the population will continue to thrive.
And there are six red cells in which the population is already suffering and there are problems with lack of democracy or the rule of law. These are the least stable states.
The countries which have suffered riots, revolutions and coups tend to be those in the red cells. In the case of the Arab Spring, many of the countries were Ready To Explode or Ready for Revolution when in December 2010 the Tunisian street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi committed suicide in the town square after being harassed and publicly humiliated by the police. A similar event in a thriving democracy would not have produced a rebellion.
So the model gives a simple indication of the propensity of a country to erupt in violent conflict of some kind.
And the model has a second function: countries do not remain in one place on the diagram, they move around. In principle, a country could move from any cell to any other cell, but in practice they tend not to do so. To move to an adjacent cell means only one of the four factors needs to change. To move to a cell which is not adjacent (subject to the comment about the doughnut, below) requires two, three or even all four factors to change simultaneously, which is of course less likely. It is therefore more common for countries to move to a cell adjacent to the one in which they are currently sitting.
If you are very alert, you will have noticed that in the diagram above, that is not quite true. For example to move from Contained Conflict to Ready To Explode requires only one factor to change: the extent of poverty among the population. To make it quite true that all such transitions are two adjacent cells, we have to wrap the diagram around a torus (doughnut-shape) so that the left- and right-hand edges meet each other and the top and bottom edges also meet.
Once this is done, the model gives useful hints not just about the propensity for violent uprising, but also about possible future states of the country.
The US is looking extremely vulnerable
The US, of course, has a history as a thriving democracy – indeed it has often held itself out as a model of democracy. But if we use this model to assess the current state of the US, the results are concerning.
|Pressure cooker||The US today|
|Strong heat||Poverty affects many of the population. The US has a long-standing issue of mass impoverishment; and since COVID unemployment has risen and over 20% of US children are living in poverty
|Lid is on firmly||
America has a proud history as a law-abiding nation, but it is unclear how long the rule of law can be maintained.
|No safety valve||
If Biden is confirmed, many Trump supporters will feel that Trump was cheated out of victory – not least because of the consistent message that the President has been putting out over the last few weeks. And they may well be prepared to take extreme measures to act on this belief.
And, of course, were Trump to find a way to cling to power for another four years, many people on the left will feel that democracy in the US is broken.
There are deep divisions within American society on issues such as race discrimination, abortion and of course the election itself.
There is also a high rate of gun ownership among US citizens which means that violence is more likely to be deadly.
If Biden is confirmed as president, there will be a temptation to breathe a sigh of relief. But none of these four factors will be immediately affected unless he takes action. That would leave America in a position similar to that of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and the Yemen before the Arab Spring took place – extremely vulnerable.
As the chart shows, although we tend to think of America as a thriving democracy because of its long and successful past, in recent decades, it has begun to fail significant parts of its population who have been pushed into or towards poverty. More recently, the population has become increasingly divided; and most recently, there are questions about the soundness of American democracy.
If a large proportion of the American population becomes convinced that the election was stolen, then both Gangland and Ready to Explode look like plausible scenarios. The kind of armed riots that we have seen so far may be nothing in comparison with what is to come.
Biden’s agenda should address these issues quickly.
For the US, the path back to being a thriving democracy looks like this.
The deep divisions among the American population are a critical problem, but they cannot be addressed quickly – though they could easily be worsened very fast. So Biden’s priorities should look like this:
|Pressure cooker||US Issue||Action|
|Strong heat||Poverty affecting many of the population||Immediate and generous COVID-support package (which will also make compliance with medical guidance far easier).
Longer term, implement 5 key actions to rebalance the economy.
|Lid is on firmly||Uncertain whether the police and/or the military have control of the streets – ‘the rule of law’||
Liaise immediately with all branches of Police, Military and Security services to agree protocols in case of violence — contain but do not inflame.
Longer term: reform to address institutional racism.
|No safety valve||Widespread perception of lack of effective democracy||
Immediate action to prevent further disinformation by Trump and his associates. Negotiate elements of a pardon conditional on his handing over power andpublicly recognising the election as fair.
Longer term electoral reform of the multiple anomalies in the US system. Make interference in democratic processes a serious criminal offence.
|Volatile liquid||A population divided along racial, religious, tribal and class lines||
Immediate action: strong, repeated unifying rhetoric.
Longer term: Review of media and social media to ensure that they cannot play a role in propagating divisive misinformation. Review of education to ensure that Americans are taught to unify rather than divide.
If Biden understands the risks and acts accordingly, America can once again become a thriving democracy. If he does not, a range of far less appealing futures opens up.
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