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The Pattern of Historical Political Disruptions

I've spent half a century writing for radio and print (mostly print). I hope to still be tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

Wrenching dislocations happen in societies regularly and are usually the result of similar preconditions. America is in the midst of one such period of turmoil now.

The Preconditions for Disruption

History professor David Potter writes (Aeon) that we can learn lessons from the past about what leads up to revolutionary change. He cites three preconditions:

  • A “loss of faith in a society’s central institutions.”
  • Establishing “a set of ideas from what was once the fringe of the intellectual world, placing them at the centre of a revamped political order.”
  • “A coherent leadership group committed to the change.”

Prof. Potter notes that “These disruptions are apparent in, but not synonymous with, some of the events commonly called revolutions. Disruptions don’t always change who is in charge—they are, in fact, sometimes necessary to preserve a government that is on the verge of failure. But they will at the very least change the way that a governing group thinks and acts.”

In The Guardian Michael Massing adds another criterion for the instability that is happening in so many countries: “In each instance, the match may differ, but the kindling has (in most cases) been furnished by the gross inequality produced by global capitalism.”

Examples of Disruptions

Russia in 1917 was in a state of turmoil. The autocratic rule of the tsar had lost legitimacy. A fringe idea, Communism, was gaining traction. A dedicated cadre of people under the leadership of Vladimir Lenin sought to bring about revolution. Russian peasants and workers were living in squalor while aristocrats enjoyed lavish lifestyles in palaces.

By late October 1917, the revolution that Lenin sought started and, after several years of conflict and millions of dead, the Communists took over.

Earlier, other commotions ran through societies in Europe. Monarchies were overthrown sometimes violently sometimes relatively peacefully. Again, we can see Dr. Potter's sequence of events at play.

The people lost confidence in the benevolent governance of kings and queens. The radical idea that monarchs are not appointed directly by God took hold. And, motivated parliamentarians forced the royals to accept the new reality. As well, there was the wide gulf between regal wealth and a struggling citizenry to prod things alone.

More distant from our own times is the change wrought by the Roman Emperor Constantine I. In the fourth century of the Christian Era, the empire and its governance were shaky after military defeats, plague, and inflation. Constantine adopted the fringe notion of Christianity in unifying and creating “a distinctively Christian culture that prepared the way for the growth of Byzantine and Western medieval culture.”

Potter goes on to point out that his three preconditions can be seen at work when:

  • ‘Abd al-Malik made the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad the central governing principles of the Umayyad caliph;
  • Martin Luther challenged the supremacy of the Roman Catholic Church;
  • The 13 North American colonies rebelled against King George III; and,
  • Hitler seized power in the chaos of the Weimar Republic.

The following video about Hitler's rise has numerous echoes today for those who wish to hear them:

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  • The big lie that Germany could have won the war.
  • The blaming of troubles on others.
  • Stirring up nationalist sentiments.
  • A promise to restore Germany's former greatness.
  • And, I am the only one that can save you.

The Threat to Liberal Democracies

Potter issues a warning that liberal democracies are threatened: “Factors such as the willingness of Western governments to allow widespread impoverishment, the weakening of labour organisations, and the failure to provide adequate healthcare and other necessities, feed into powerful movements seeking to undercut the mainstream political system.”

So, let's look at how this fits in to the learned professor's preconditions for upheaval in the United States:

  • A “loss of faith in a society’s central institutions,” such as questioning the validity of the most secure election in America's history. Political journalist Tom Murse has written (ThoughtCo) that distrust of institutions goes deeper, “The American public has spoken and it has almost zero confidence in their lawmakers' ability to solve problems.”
  • Fringe ideas moving into the mainstream. Outrageous conspiracy theories propagated by the likes of QAnon, Newsmax, and Fox News have now infected the mainstream body politic. A Public Religion Research Institute study in 2021 found that 15 percent of Americans believe that “the government, media, and financial worlds in the U.S. are controlled by a group of Satan-worshipping pedophiles who run a global child sex trafficking operation.” That adds up to 31 million people, most of whom, we assume, have opposable thumbs.
  • A committed group dedicated to pushing a new agenda. Donald Trump has proved himself totally unfit for office, yet he commands the support of increasing numbers of voters. According to a Quinnipiac poll late in 2021, 78 percent of Republicans want the former president to run for the presidency again in 2024. This is a 12 percentage point increase from May 2021. Meanwhile, Trump supporters are rejigging election rules to make it more difficult for opponents of Republican candidates to vote in what has been called a slow-moving coup.

Add to these disturbing trends the staggering inequality within the United States. Senator Bernie Sanders provides some of the evidence:

  • “The top one percent now own more wealth than the bottom 92 percent;
  • “The 50 wealthiest Americans own more wealth than the bottom half of American society—165 million people;
  • “Low-income Americans now have a life expectancy that is about 15 years lower than the wealthy. Poverty in America has become a death sentence.”

Where Is America Heading?

Professor Thomas Homer-Dixon is a political scientist who has spent four decades studying the causes of wars and social breakdowns. In December 2021, he wrote in The Globe and Mail (Canada) “By 2025, American democracy could collapse, causing extreme domestic political instability, including widespread civil violence. By 2030, if not sooner, the country could be governed by a right-wing dictatorship.

“We mustn’t dismiss these possibilities just because they seem ludicrous or too horrible to imagine.”

Homer-Dixon is not alone in his Cassandra-like warning. In November 2021, 150 scholars of American democracy warned that “The partisan politicization of what has long been trustworthy, non-partisan administration of elections represents a clear and present threat to the future of electoral democracy in the United States . . . Defenders of democracy in America still have a slim window of opportunity to act. But time is ticking away, and midnight is approaching.”

Barbara Walter is a political science professor at the University of California at San Diego and an adviser to the Central Intelligence Agency. Her 2022 book, How Civil Wars Start and How to Stop Them, looks at the state of affairs in America. She says that the United States is “closer to civil war than any of us would like to believe,” and warns against “using racial, religious or ethnic divisions to try to gain political power.”

Of course, all these academics can be written off as elitist policy wonks, but there are also voices from the right expressing the same views. Here is Andrew W. Coy in the conservative online magazine American Thinker: “It looks to me as if we are about to enter a very dark and dangerous political storm such as our nation has not seen. The sunlight of a free exchange of ideas, of thought-provoking discussion, of attending church, of tolerating a simple different point of view appears close to being extinguished.”

Coy's villains battering at the defences of freedom are left-wing liberals, which sums up the divide in the U.S.; right and left fear the same outcome and each is blaming the other for provoking it.

The January 6, 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol was the work of the far-right and journalist David Shribman asks “Will Jan. 6, 2021, be seen as the opening of a multi-act tragedy, rather than as a one-act drama?” What do you think?

The Threat to Democracy

U.S. President Joe Biden Attacks his Predecessor for Fomenting an Attack on Democracy

Bonus Factoids

  • The 17th century philosopher John Locke said that if a leader governs in a way that is not approved of by the majority of the people, then the people are under no obligation to obey the leader.
  • Republican representative Liz Chaney says you can love Trump or the Constitution, but you can't love both.
  • Beginning in 2016 and continuing through 2020 the Economist Intelligence Unit has labelled the United States a flawed democracy.


  • “How Disruptions Happen.” David Potter, Aeon, December 23, 2021.
  • “The American Polity Is Cracked, and Might Collapse. Canada Must Prepare.” Thomas Homer-Dixon, Globe and Mail, December 31, 2021.
  • “Constantine I.” Donald MacGillivray Nicol, Encyclopedia Britannica, undated.
  • “Reasons Americans Hate Congress.” Tom Murse, ThoughtCo, July 28, 2019.
  • “Over 30 Million Americans Believe in QAnon’s Most Outrageous Conspiracy.” David Gilbert,, May 25, 2021.
  • “A New Poll Found that 78% of Republicans Want Trump to Run in 2024, which Is a 12-Point Increase since May.” Bryan Metzger, Yahoo News, October 19, 2021.
  • “The Rich-Poor Gap in America Is Obscene. So Let's Fix it – Here's How.” Bernie Sanders, The Guardian, March 29, 2021.
  • “ 'Midnight Is Approaching' to Pass Voting Rights Protections.” Margaret Talev, Axios, November 21, 2021.
  • “Juan Williams: American Democracy Is in Peril.” Juan Williams, The Hill, January 3, 2022.
  • “In a Deeply Divided U.S., Americans Struggle over how to Commemorate Jan 6.” David Shribman, Globe and Mail, January 4, 2022.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Rupert Taylor

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