We focus so much on arguing over who is at fault in this country that I think sometimes we fail to alert on what's actually happening. I would just like to point out, without attempting to assign blame, that American political institutions appear to be losing common knowledge of their legitimacy, and abandoning certain important traditions of cooperative governance. It would be slightly hyperbolic, but not unreasonable to me, to term what has happened "democratic backsliding". 

Let's imagine America of 2012 was measured 0.8 on the fictionally accurate "legitimate democracy index", and Hungary of 2012 was measured 0.5. My thesis is that we'd now be at 0.75, and that our regressions seem to have calcified despite a calming culture war. Within the last three or four years we have seen:

  • The world's largest protest-riot ever, when measured by estimated damage to property.
  • The leader of the opposition party being arrested on a mix of real and recently-invented process crimes in several different jurisdictions a year before his campaign.
  • A presidential candidate openly contesting an election as fradulent; a third[1] of Americans coming to believe that our last presidential election was probably or definitely illegitimate.
  • Spontaneous mob assaults of the capitol building.
  • Recent, and novel, legislative movements by Republicans to censure and fine Democratic congressmen millions of dollars outside of the criminal justice system.[2]
  • Serious and underreported attempts at dramatically expanding political control over the civil service[3] and, if you'll permit me to speak anecdotally, serious and successful attempts at unprecedented political loyalty testing of appointed silovik.

You can disagree with how any one political faction is characterizing the above events, or how I'm characterizing the above events. But I think that's missing the point. Maybe Donald Trump is a clown and all of his indictments are perfectly legitimate and that they ultimately demonstrate the dispassionate fairness of our nation's prosecutors. Even if that's the case, perception is the leading indicator for democratic stability, and a large amount of Republicans do not agree. Since Republicans now believe that the arrests are politically motivated, and that Democrats are defecting against longstanding political norms, they are pressuring their politicians to escalate[2][4] and calling them traitors when they refuse to do so. Democrats, in turn, will see this behavior and change their posture whether the election was actually stolen to begin with or not. 

It's possible to exaggerate the danger. I do not expect the entire political system of the United States to change anytime soon. But since 1989 I think it has been appropriate to have a degree of knightian uncertainty in predicting the eternal dominance of this or that regime, on the basis that modern technology and secret police make resistance impossible. If you currently habitually round probabilities of serious repression or further democratic backsliding in the West to zero, I suggest moving that up to 1%-per-decade and spending a little bit of time thinking about what you'd do if this continues for five more years and your estimate increases to 5 or 10 percent.

  1. ^
  2. ^
  3. ^
  4. ^

New to LessWrong?

New Comment
66 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 7:50 AM

The first contested presidential election in the history of the country; an election now considered probably or definitely illegitimate by nearly a third of Americans.

...You can disagree with how any one political faction is characterizing the above events, or how I’m characterizing the above events.

Rest assured, there is no 'can' about it; anyone with a middle school-level knowledge of American history is disagreeing with your characterization of those events. (I'm sorry, what? The first? Er, how about the 2000 election going to the Supreme Court, which you should remember personally? The 1960 election? The Compromise of 1877? The 1864 election where half the states didn't even vote due to a little thing called 'the Civil War', how legitimate do you suppose 'a third of Americans' thought Lincoln's re-election? The 1824 election where the allegations of illegitimate corruption & election theft helped the populist fury elect Jackson the next time around in 1828? The 1800 election which killed Hamilton?)

You don't need to be rude. I'll modify that part.

I had not heard about the controversy with the 1876 and 1960 elections. WRT 2000 and 1824, I meant something beyond contesting the way the votes were counted or hypothesizing a backroom deal, and more the allegations of rampant illegal ballot stuffing, which is a much more dangerous thing to be disputed. The civil war is a good point but that doesn't really provide evidence against my thesis that the country is destabilizing.

The 1964 elections caused democrats and republicans to basically switch sides permanently, between that and the Vietnam War movement (with possibly substantial Soviet involvement) caused massive instability within the US and very extreme geopolitical weakness throughout the 70s (which happened to ultimately end up being reversed in the 80s, when the US made a comeback so big that it literally steamrolled over the Cold War order).

People with a college-level understanding of US history know that anything from the 1800s was out-of-distribution, mainly due to technology and civilization differences. People with an expert-level understanding usually know that the 1800s were back when democracy was an extremely new and unfolding global affair, and nowhere near a stable institution that could be considered the backbone of the western word.

Every single election date that Gwern mentioned after 1850 was almost immediately followed by a rather severe information war, and each one after 1900 was followed by either the Cuban Missile Crisis and the US becoming substantially geopolitically weaker than the USSR after losing the infowar over Vietnam, which both only ended up fine due to good luck, and the War On Terror which did ended with an unshakeable AI-powered surveillance state and ubiquitous network-connected sensors around 10 years later. However, all dates after 1850 were accompanied by massive lasting political shifts that dominated the trajectory of the US, each vastly larger and more powerful than the size of the entire AI safety movement today.

each one after 1900 was followed by either the Cuban Missile Crisis and the US becoming substantially geopolitically weaker than the USSR after losing the infowar over Vietnam

I'm sorry, what? That's a huge assertion. The Vietnam War was a disaster, but I fail to see how it made the US "significantly geopolitically weaker". One has to remember that, at the same time that the US was exiting Vietnam, its main rival, the Soviet Union, was entering a twenty-five year period of economic stagnation that would culminate in its collapse.

I looked into it, this is the kind of research that's really hard to get good info on. I need to do some digging, but generally, it's well known that the US had a historically unprecedented public opinion catastrophe (basically in free fall, by the standards of the time), was militarily weakened severely which was why the US allied with China against the USSR (the USSR asserting military forces on China's border was a costly indicator of Soviet strength and Chinese turmoil), and failing to prevent the oil shocks in formerly US-friendly middle eastern regimes, which were economic catastrophes that each could have done far more damage if luck was worse (if they were mission-critical for the US economy, why couldn't the CIA keep the oil going?). Meanwhile, the USSR remained strong militarily in spite of the economic stagnation.

I just found out that some historians might be claiming that the US wasn't really weakened much at all, which absolutely REEKS of the usual suspects. Of course, it's not hard to believe that the US moved much closer to parity with the USSR whereas during the 50s 60s and 70s it was the leader due to being vastly economically superior and substantially technologically superior. But the idea that the US was doing fine after Vietnam, including relative to the Soviets, is not very easy to believe, all things considered.

was militarily weakened severely

That's another highly contentious assertion. Even at the height of Vietnam, the US never considered Southeast Asia to be the main domain of competition against the Soviet Union. The primary focus was always on fielding a military force capable of challenging the Soviets in Western Europe. Indeed, one of the reasons the US failed in Vietnam is because the military was unwilling to commit its best units and commanders to what the generals perceived was a sideshow.

why the US allied with China against the USSR

Was the US ever allied with China? What we did as a result of the Sino-Soviet split was simply let the People's Republic of China back into the international system from which they had been excluded. The US certainly did not pursue any greater alignment with China until much later, at which point the Soviet Union was well into its terminal decline.

failing to prevent the oil shocks in formerly US-friendly middle eastern regimes, which were economic catastrophes that each could have done far more damage if luck was worse

More evidence is needed. The oil shocks were certainly very visible, but it's not clear from the statistical data that they did much damage to the US economy. In fact, the political response to the oil shocks (rationing, price controls, etc) did arguably more to hurt the economy than the oil shocks themselves.

Meanwhile, the USSR remained strong militarily in spite of the economic stagnation.

The actual readiness of Soviet forces, as opposed to the hilariously false readiness reports published by unit commanders, is a matter of great debate. After the Cold War, when US commanders had a chance to tour Soviet facilities in ex-Warsaw Pact states, they were shocked at the poor level of repair of equipment and poor level of readiness among the troops. Furthermore, by the Soviets' own admission, the performance of their troops in Afghanistan wasn't very good, even when compared against the relatively poor level of training and equipment of the insurgent forces.

But the idea that the US was doing fine after Vietnam, including relative to the Soviets, is not very easy to believe, all things considered.

Vietnam was certainly a blow to US power, but it was nowhere near as serious a blow as you seem to believe.

Also

The world's largest protest-riot ever, when measured by estimated damage to property.

seems an oddly specific definition to me. Surely riots that have led into revolutions must have done even more property damage? Is the line drawn at "causes damage, but not to the point where it straight up erupts into civil war"?

I hope the claim was normalized and inflation adjusted, otherwise it's the same as 'the latest protest-riot in the world's richest country'!

Agreed - measuring the magnitude of ongoing effects in property damage is very vulnerable to the rising amount and value of property.

I strongly agree that this is a serious concern. In my opinion, I think 1-2% per decade is the wrong model; I think the risk is higher than that in the next decade, but front-loaded in the next couple of presidential elections, which could get especially weird with AI-powered election interference. My primary threat model here is of the form "Trump (or a Trump successor) attempts another bureaucratic coup, but this time succeeds." I am particularly worried about this because I think it would very substantially undercut the possibility of international cooperation on AI governance, as I mentioned here.

That being said, one other thing I'll add is that I am less concerned about this right now than I was before Moore v. Harper. That case was definitely a positive update for me here that a second attempted bureaucratic coup would be harder than the first. Of course, a second attempt need not follow the same pathway as the first, so Moore v. Harper might not actually matter that much.

which could get especially weird with AI-powered election interference

Something to clarify here: AI interferes with people in general, not just elections. There is a ludicrously wide variety of ways that AI-powered interference can cause haywire, notably including but not limited to targeting people who don't use social media. I'm particularly interested in systems that target specific elites and compromises networks, not just berlin-wall-fall-style erosions of regime legitimacy in public opinion that pulls out the rug from under them.

My primary threat model here is of the form "Trump (or a Trump successor) attempts another bureaucratic coup, but this time succeeds." I am particularly worried about this because I think it would very substantially undercut the possibility of international cooperation on AI governance, as I mentioned here.

My model of that was that if a Trump faction took control (assuming that such a faction existed and was capable of doing that, as opposed to the default explanation of it being not even the top 10 political PR stunts in history), history would have been written by the victors and constitutional rule probably would have continued by Trump and the democrats accusing eachother of stealing the election. It wouldn't have been great for AI governance, but it probably wouldn't be nearly as impactful as transformative paradigm shifts involving the security services, such as AI-powered IoT surrounding every government building and penetrating most homes, corporate/executive offices, and conversation zones like restuarants.

Worrying about AI governance is of course the right approach here, because the enemy's gate is down and AGI is the finish line for most things. I'm just disagreeing on the details of whether political organizations or security organizations are more relevant in this post's particular context.

since 1989 I think it has been appropriate to have a degree of knightian uncertainty in predicting the eternal dominance of this or that regime, on the basis that modern technology and secret police make resistance impossible.

This heavily revolves around the definition of "resistance". Generally, opposition from elites (who are decentralized in the US) is what's considered here, and those are very complicated dynamics.

I'm positing that public opinion is probably riding the current rather than driving it (still being an indicator as you said). The current post-WWII system is less than 8 decades old, while the War on Terror is more than 2 decades old, the end of the Cold War is more than 3 decades old, and ubiquitous smartphones are around 1 decade old. The world as we know it isn't just changing faster, it's just not very old to begin with; every passing decade is 10% of the distance from 100 years ago when everything was massively different.

In this specific case, democracy is not as intuitive to people as it was 20 years ago because millions of people now have a more nuanced understanding of corruption (long time coming over the last 60 years), how the military controls the military, etc and the old gentlemanly system where politicians step down for the sake of institution strength is not believable anymore, even if it was desired (which people don't desire because of the intense political environment that everyone now has exposure to due to social media).

The idea of public opinion hacking is less than 8 years old in the public conscious (accusations of russian social media bots in the 2016 election), so that sticky situation is very much unfolding (if you ask people about russian bots being AI-powered, most people stumble, even EA adjacents, but that domino could fall at any time). But, at the same time, something that extreme is exactly the sort of thing that democracies and autocracies around the world look at and think "oh yeah, if anything could be the nail in the coffin for democracy, that would be it". But at the same time, you can have the elections and public opinion twist inside and out, get inverted, etc, it doesn't have to pull the rug out from under the elite networks and regime like in East Germany.

On a different note, a quote someone emailed me today shows the Ukraine war isn't even 1.5 years and it's still a new paradigm that's unfolding:

Remarkable how seductive folks find the 'tough guy' rhetoric of authoritarians, which invariably posit liberal democracies as 'weak,' when a fair reading of modern history suggests the deep legitimacy of democracies makes them terrifying when they 'go mad together' as it were.

We don't know which side will win the war, only that it's a war of attrition, and many people are arguing that Russia was betting on the possibility of western unity dissolving in order for the invasion to be positive-EV (I have no idea whether they're right). If true, then we have to wait to see the outcome of this specific war in order to know what's going on with democracy, and the people running each side of the war probably know this.

I don't think it's mild.  I'm not American, but follow US politics with interest.

A majority of blue-collar/conservative US now see the govt as implacably biased against their interests and communities, eg see recent polling on attitudes towards DOJ, FBI eg https://harvardharrispoll.com/wp-content/uploads/2023/05/HHP_May2023_KeyResults.pdf

There is widespread perception that rule of law has failed at the top levels at least - with politically motivated prosecutions (timing of stacked Trump indictments is clearly motivated by his candidacy) and favored treatment of Hunter (majority of US population see corruption in Biden's VP doings).

And worst of all a substantial fraction of US do not believe results of 2020 elections were legitimate.  In recent polling: "61% of Americans say Biden did legitimately win enough votes to win the presidency, and 38% believe that he did not".

The traditionally middle seeking and sense-making Media has become implacably polarised, with steadfast silence on or spinning of stories inconvenient to their 'side'.

The greatest concern must be that the rate of descent into extreme political and institutional Tribalism and differential treatment on that basis. Long term that can only lead to a violent collapse in rule of law, or repressive policing.

The only antidote is dogmatic enforcement of even-handed treatment at all levels, govt employees must be seen to be scrupulously non-partisan or everything will inevitably fall apart.

There is widespread perception that rule of law has failed at the top levels at least - with politically motivated prosecutions (timing of stacked Trump indictments is clearly motivated by his candidacy)

is it clearly motivated by trump's candidacy? he officially announced in november 2022, he was dropping un-subtle hints about running for 2 years, and he started his 2020 campaign on inauguration day, 2017. maybe the timing of indictments was motivated by the republican primaries, but election season is 2 out of 4 years.

nit-picking aside, i agree with you and OP. not sure why other people are so confident in US stability when political and cultural health are obviously declining

I agree that this is happening to some degree, but I think it is at least plausibly more of a symptom of the adoption of dumber / more insane / more extreme object-level beliefs (which itself might be an effect of some other cultural or technological phenomenon, e.g. social media, cost disease, safetyism), rather than a cause.

Or, put another way: while the examples of democratic backsliding described here are alarming, it would possibly be even more disconcerting, or at least very strange, if people and factions in power continued to adopt more and more insane and extreme object-level behaviors and beliefs without damaging their legitimacy or having any other negative knock-on effects.

A possible implication is that, to improve democratic legitimacy, we should focus on fostering the adoption of saner object-level beliefs and positive-sum policies that lead to noticeably good outcomes. Do enough of that (via ordinary activism within the existing system), and maybe democracy will naturally heal itself.

The kind of object-level positive-sum change I have in mind, and how to go about it, is what Balsa Research is working on, I think:

Low-hanging improvement is often as simple as not restricting supply and not subsidizing demand. A sample: Reforming NEPA, the NRC, zoning and the FDA including a right to try for drugs, pandemic preparedness, repealing protectionist policies (Jones Act, Dredge Act, ‘made in America’, etc), ending qualified immunity and civil forfeiture, legalizing marijuana, avoiding 100%+ marginal tax rates, increasing high-skill immigration, fixing student loans, and NGDP level targeting by the Federal Reserve. The civil service and procurement urgently need reform.

 

There is far more hope for improvement than almost anyone realizes. Lobbying when done right is remarkably cheap and effective. Secret congress can be productive. Many marginal improvements are highly valuable, with no substantial downsides and compounding benefits.

It seems like anger against the exact kind of neoliberal technocracy you propose was a major source of energy for the 2016 Trump campaign, as well as the highly contentious Sanders campaigns.

The policy proposals I quoted are probably heavily mood-affiliated with candidates or policy wonks that both Trump and Bernie supporters wouldn't like, yes. But I don't think either campaign was fueled specifically by anger against specific proposals to repeal the Jones act or NEPA or anything else Balsa lists as low-hanging fruit. 

There was some anger at specific policy proposals, e.g. Trans-Pacific Partnership. But the TPP isn't actually in the list above, since (for precisely this reason) it's not exactly low-hanging fruit. So I think your choice of the word "exact" is a bit too strong; it's more like anger against this general flavor of neoliberal technocracy was a driver of some reactionary campaigns on the left and right.

What object-level beliefs did you have in mind?

By "more insane and extreme object-level behaviors and beliefs" of people and factions in power, I am mainly referring to beliefs of mainstream U.S politicians and political beliefs, on both / all sides of the political spectrum.

e.g. COVID restrictions which aren't based on any actual model of the world, tariffs, immigration policy, environmental policy, a general preference for talking about (or legislating on) culture war things which are usually more symbolic or mood-affiliation than actual policy choices. A few examples which were initiated by high-level elected officials or received significant / outsize attention from them or mainstream media:

And the point is that, regardless of your views on any of these specific things (or the underlying policy issues or culture war topics for which these examples are often proxies for), if these are the topics your elected officials and mainstream media are spending their time and energy arguing about, something has gone seriously wrong, and it shouldn't be surprising that the system itself is losing democratic legitimacy as a result.

I don't see how things like crazy culture war politics or COVID reactions lead to a breakdown in democratic norms unless those crazy beliefs imply shifts in strategy. The bud light boycott seems plausibly good; it teaches Republicans that they have alternative tools of influence.

It's less about specific issues, and more like a sense that the general sanity waterline has been perceptibly trending downwards in mainstream politics for decades. Politicians and institutions in general are less effective, less trustworthy, less coherent, etc. than they were in the relatively recent past (I claim, but this seems to be a fairly common sentiment among both rats and non-rats of various political stripes).

And then I'm further saying that if I'm right about my claim that the general sanity waterline has fallen, then a decline in democratic legitimacy is justified, or at least expected, in the sense that less sane institutions will be trusted and respected less, because they are in fact less trustworthy and less deserving of respect. Or, in more rationalist-y terms, a model of institutions and politicians as less trustworthy and less legitimate will be both more predictively accurate and more instrumentally useful than a model in which they are relatively more trusted and treated as legitimate democratic actors.

If you disagree, is is your disagreement more with the first claim (the sanity waterline in mainstream politics has generally been falling), or the second (this explains at least a significant part of the democratic backsliding that we've seen)?

I largely agree with the sentiment of your post. However, one nitpick:

The world's largest protest-riot ever, when measured by estimated damage to property.

This claim is questionable. The consensus is that the economic cost of the George Floyd Protests was between one and several billion. Perhaps it was the most expensive riot in US history (though when inflation-adjusted the LA riots may give it a run for its money) and the most expensive to be cleanly accounted for economically, but intuitively I would imagine many of the most violent riots in history, such as the partition riots in India and Pakistan, caused more economic damage.

Some possibly relevant data:

  • As of 2020, anti-government protests in North America rose steadily from 2009 to 2017 where it peaked (at ~7x the 2009 number) and started to decline (to ~4x the 2009 number in 2019).
  • Americans' trust in the US government is very low (only ~20% say they trust the USG to do what's right most of the time) and has been for over a decade. It seems to have locally peaked at ~50% after 9/11, and then declined to ~15% in 2010, after the financial crisis.
  • Congressional turnover rates have risen somewhat since the 90s, and are now at about the same level as in the 1970s.
  • Congress seems to pass fewer bills every year since at least the mid-1970s (though apparently bottoming out in 2011, following the 2010 red wave midterms).
  • The volume of executive orders seems fairly stable or even declining since WWII.
  • DSA membership is down to 85K in 2023 from a peak of 95K in 2021. I can't think of an analogous right-wing group that publishes membership numbers.

I've noticed this and been worried, but there's one thing about the US which makes me slightly less worried, which is that the US has a natural release valve for a lot of these issues if people are finally forced to pull it, and that's devolution.

The US used to be more devolved, and that time is still technically within living memory. The federal government grew tremendously in power between 1930 and 1990, which most of the growth happening in the years between 1940 and 1970. This reflected the needs of the country given the times it found itself in: the Great Depression, then WWII, and then the Cold War.

But since roughly 1990 the federal government hasn't made big power grabs. Mostly this is because it's already made all the useful grabs to make and has mostly been expanding its power within the domains it already controls, but also because there's a contingent of folks in the US who continue to support the right of the states to govern themselves without federal interference. Although "states rights" is right coded, it's in practice employed on the left as well. On the right this is used for things like limiting taxes, restricting abortion, and protecting gun ownership. On the left for raising taxes to support more generous social services, permitting federally-prohibited drugs by hampering enforcement, and restricting access to guns.

If faced with a crises at the federal level, the natural move would be for the US to devolve powers back to the states. Although states are not as robustly independent as they were 100 years ago, because they are so heavily involved in the day-to-day administration of the state they would be able to carry on and rebuild local capacity to make up for lost federal assistance in several years.

Devolution seems likely to me because any would-be dictator or just sufficiently hated president would, given the current political climate of the US, find that ~half the population doesn't like them and a sufficient majority of ~1/3 of the states would not like them enough to rebel in various ways. I don't mean a civil war, but more like kicking out federal agents and taking local control of services and institutions. This is likely to work because of an extremely strong norm within the military to not move against its own citizens or getting involved in politics, and the January 6th riot was an excellent demonstration of their continued restraint here.

Thus I expect that if political conflict at the federal level comes to a head, some of the states will just nope out. Not of the US entirely, but of permitting the federal government to exercise all powers that it's claimed in the last 90 years. And after a lot of noise, they'll basically be allowed to do it, same way this is being permitted today on a small scale with things like drug decriminalization, gerrymandering, and sanctuary cities.

I don't expect devolution to be painless, but I do expect it to be functional and for the US to come through surprisingly intact. Internally may look like things are falling apart, but on most measures we will barely notice that anything is happening.

But since roughly 1990 the federal government hasn't made big power grabs.

In what way wasn't the Patriot Act a huge power grab?

I see the Patriot Act as a grab to expand the reach of existing powers rather than a move into new powers. The powers it granted mostly fit within the existing constitutional framework of what the federal government is allowed to do rather than asserting new powers. I see this as meaningfully different, as the federal government could have enacted something like the Patriot Act at almost any time after WWII but never chose to, likely because it was technologically infeasible to carry out.

It also wasn't a power grab against the states so much as a power grab against the privacy of individual citizens, and the Supreme Court has made it clear on multiple occasions that there is no general right to privacy, only privacy as a consideration.

Whether it's a power grab against states depends on whether the surveillance powers would be used in cases where the states try to defy the Federal government. 

If a state would try to throw out all Federal agents, the power would likely be used to fight such attempts. 

I think you can see this happening more today. States like Florida and Texas are marketing themselves as bastions for those on the right to escape overly invasive federal/state policies, particularly those that appeal to the LGBTQ/gender/racial culture war talking points. On the left, you have states like California, Washington, Oregon, and Colorado leading the charge against overly invasive federal/state policies against bodily autonomy WRT drug usage and now abortion.

I'd like to know why you term this "devolution," as this seems to be the intended modus operandi of the United States. My only hope is that this "devolution" continues further to the point that local, municipal politics becomes most important. I view this as the fastest way out of the political gridlock we face ourselves in. If Americans can view neighbors as neighbors again, working together to make their communities better for one another, rather than enemies trying to overthrow the government or prosecute political opponents, I think tensions will ratchet down dramatically. 

I'm not sure how we can take steps to change the culture to view local, municipal politics as most important. I think it's a very difficult walk. I think community-based news and dialogue is key to start. Local news outlets are disappearing, with corporate consolidation favoring a "cookie-cutter" / "assembly line" approach to journalism favoring national news stories. On top of this, I believe social media timelines (particularly Reddit, Twitter, and Facebook) lead users to engage with national or international news stories as those are most likely to go viral (they're "bigger" or "more impactful"). This idea that these stories are "more impactful" is a red herring, in my opinion. They really don't have an impact on one's day-to-day life quite like the story about what new zoning laws your city council discussed in last Thursday's meeting.

Why devolution? Because the thing I'm describing is just what the word means: "the transfer or delegation of power to a lower level, especially by central government to local or regional administration."

It's always been the case that the US is more devolved than typical countries, but the constitution is quite clear that power is devolved to the states from the federal government, and not that the federal government is granted power at the behest of the states (as was the structure of, say, the articles of confederation).

I agree with you that I think devolution is generally a good thing. Policies don't work well when they try to address the needs of too many people with too differing of needs and desires. Most of our problems today come, in my estimation, from overreach by the federal government and fights over what that overreach should do. This does mean accepting some undesirable outcomes, like allowing states to enact policies I disagree with, but I see this as the price of peace. Thankfully the US Constitution is designed to enable such a system, and I expect we'll naturally fall back on it if a strong national government becomes more than people will tolerate.

the constitution is quite clear that power is devolved to the states from the federal government, and not that the federal government is granted power at the behest of the states

The 10th amendment to the US constitution says:

The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.

which sounds like the opposite of what you say.  Of course, practice may be different.

My understanding is that since the Civil War the interpretation of the 10th Amendment is that states retain powers not because they are independent states participating with the federal government, but are explicitly subject to federal authority and maintain their powers only insofar as the constitution protects them and the federal government doesn't move to take them by rule of law. Prior to the end of the Civil War it seems to have generally been held that states were independently associated with the United States and could leave, and we fought a war to assert that they could not. This makes it clear that any powers they have are because the federal government lets them have them rather than the other way around.

Well, given that the text of the US constitution seems to clearly state that all powers not explicitly granted to the federal government belong to the states (or the people), I don't see how "power is devolved to the states from the federal government". It seems that the states don't need to wait for the federal government to "devolve" power to them in order to do something. As indeed we saw recently with respect to covid policy.

You could argue that the federal government "lets" the states do this, in the sense that the federal government has more guns than the states, and hence could stop them it it wanted to. But this would be naive. These guns are operated by people, whose loyalty to the federal government if there were a conflict would not be automatic.

Your textual interpretation of the constitution may be the right one, but it is not the one that governs as law in the US. Supreme Court has been very clear for the past 100+ years that the 10th amendment means literally nothing.

Since Republicans now believe that the arrests are politically motivated, and that Democrats are defecting against longstanding political norms, they are pressuring their politicians to escalate

The problem is that Donald Trump in turn broke democratic norms hugely on January 6th 2021. And so if you don't prosecute him in any way for it, that just sends a signal instead that such things will go unpunished, and therefore, why not try them every time?

The rift and erosion of unspoken norms are a problem either way. But the question is which one is the biggest, and appeasement in general doesn't have a great history of working.

Your "world's largest protest-riot ever" measure ought to adjust for inflation.

Honestly if inflation = population in this case this might unironically be true.

Interestingly (or perhaps not), I read the word "destabilitzing" in the title as "US is causing instability in other places" rather than "US is in the process of becoming less stable".

I don't actually disagree, but you could easily set the starting point much earlier than 1989.  Riots in the 60s, Vietnam war failure and reaction to it, and Watergate are all likely contributors to the overall decline of belief in legitimacy of government.  I also suspect the trend is worldwide, not just the US.  

I don't have a strong opinion on whether the trust and legitimacy that seems to have held earlier in history was ACTUALLY legitimate.  There were large parts of the population seriously dienfranchised, poverty was common and much deeper than today, and it seems to have been common belief that the class and race disparities were God-given correct expectations.  I find it easy to believe that things are unstable BECAUSE the stability we used to have was based on a bad equilibrium.

you could easily set the starting point much earlier than 1989.

OP is not asserting that the current period of instability started in 1989: his reference to that year is his (too concise?) way of saying that if the Soviet Union could suddenly unravel, it could happen here.

IMHO the current period of instability started about 10 years ago. Occupy Wall Street happened in 2011, and although it got a decent amount of press (and the most dissatisfied elements of society hoped that it would be start of a broader upturning of society) it had almost no effect on the broader society. Moreover, the mere fact that the more radical parts of the press put so much of their hope into it is a sign that in 2011 there was actually no hope for radical change.

In other words, I'm taking Occupy as evidence of stability: radical journalists are pretty smart as a group, so if the only thing they can find to write about is Occupy, that is a strong sign that there's actually no hope at present of radical change.

George Friedman says that the US undergoes intervals of unrest about every 60 years. The previous period of unrest IMO ended about 1973, the year when the US military completely withdrew from Vietnam. Remember that during the previous period of unrest, there was an organization (the Weather Underground) of at least 1000 members actively trying to overthrow the US government using riots and bombs.

During the period from 1973 to about 2013, which I claim was a period of stability, the professionals that run election campaigns learned that conservative Christians could be harnessed as a powerful voting bloc because they're "well organized" (i.e., can be effectively led by church leaders) and of course the liberals reacted against that (successfully, IMO) in what is usually called the Culture Wars, but IIRC the Culture Wars never went beyond words and votes whereas the 2020 BLM protests had a few politically-motivated killings, e.g., https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Killings_of_Aaron_Danielson_and_Michael_Reinoehl

I don't have a strong opinion on whether the trust and legitimacy that seems to have held earlier in history was ACTUALLY legitimate

I mean, is it ever? All countries have good and bad sides; a country is not a person, it contains multitudes, and is under no obligation to have a single coherent moral code or personality. It has at best vague guidelines, often contradictory ones. Trust and legitimacy are often the result of focusing on some aspects rather than others. It would be bad to be completely blind to the negative sides of a country, but I also feel that utterly cynical "everything is rotten" thinking often tends to lead to nothing good. Yeah, supposedly the criticism is meant as a first step to improving things, but very often it actually never really gets to that part (also because once you're too trained at rationalising why Things Are Bad you'll find that every proposed solution is also Bad in some way). No sense of proportion leads to absurdities like arguing that the war in Ukraine is pointless because the US are as bad as Russia and it's just two imperialistic powers dishing it out, no asymmetry, no way to tell which side is more right. That's actually fairly nihilistic.

Is it ever? no.  Is it overall better or worse?  this is a question to explore - it's multidimensional and different people will have different weights (and even directional preferences) for most of those dimensions, but that can be discussed and explored too.

Mostly, I see this post as "things are getting worse (less stable) on this dimension", and I wanted to point out that they are getting better on other dimensions, and if it's the same cause for both changes, it's perhaps an overall positive direction.

I think there's a fallacy where people think of countries as if they were people, and then start associating the good with the bad and inevitably feeling that if there was good and bad, then the hypocrisy taints the good, and surely the good must have only been some kind of façade to hide the bad, or even be itself actually secretly bad, because obviously good and bad things couldn't coexist within the same entity.

So honestly I think it's fully possible that some aspects of the US in the past were utter trash and some aspects were admirable; that the country is not, actually, some kind of monolith is fully demonstrated by the fact that there was a little thing called a "civil war" fought exactly over one of these major divisions. But lots of political culture wars seem to be between two sides perched up on idiotic views of "it was ALL good" vs "it was ALL bad" and obviously not only there's no reconciling that sensibly, but it weakens overall trust put in the system as a whole.

I think "The US is becoming less stable" is a better title, probably.

Yes? Obviously? 

This is not something you need to piece together yourself from first facts, nor is doing so likely to keep up with the state of the field. A lot of very solid work on this has been done, already collecting a lot of evidence, getting a lot of perspectives, doing a lot of reasoning and historical comparisons and sociological analysis.

This has been extensively discussed in mainstream news in the US and internationally, analysed academically (e.g. whether this will necessarily escalate to another civil war, and how the dynamic might be different under modern conditions, how the US is situated in global democratic backsliding trends); this topic became popular to the point where there are TED talks and books on it, just google US second civil war. It is essentially accepted fact internationally, to the degree where large scale nations and unions have altered their internal and foreign policy under the assumption that the US is now an unreliably ally or weakened enemy because their political system has become unstable, though we have been watching curiously whether Biden might stabilise some of this again. The current instability is not without historic precedent, but is still unstable to an extremely worrying degree in a country so powerful. "Do you reckon the US will slip into civil war?" is absolutely something you can discuss with friends in a bar in the EU, and everyone present will have an opinion on whether, when and how (e.g. whether we would see one massive escalation past a tipping point, or intermittent escalations). In Germany especially, we are analysing parallels to Germany's own fall extensively, down to students discussing it in school. From ordinary housewives to conspiracy theorists, everyone agrees that this situation in the US is unstable, the question is mostly how and whether it can still be stabilised, and what exactly will happen if it is not. Our politicians have been holding speeches over how the EU can be changed to deal with the US suddenly getting flaky, because everyone agrees we cannot bank on the US functioning anymore. Heck, the literal Wikipedia article on democratic backsliding ended up with such a long subsection on democratic backsliding in the US that it became its own article. You could present this conclusion as a premise at a conference, and if anyone actually spoke up and disagreed, I would suspect the person is disingenuous and wants attention unless they had a really great argument coming through historical comparisons on how this stuff historically righted itself and they are seeing hints of that now.

I think putting it at 0.8 to 0.75 is putting it very charitably.

Heck, this list is incomplete.

The US supreme court was politically vulnerable from the start (the judges are appointed by the president?!?), and is now politically stacked (a supreme court, politically stacked, how is this even a thing?).

The US voting system is absolutely not fit for purpose; it is crazy to me that the candidates getting fewer votes can still win, that one can only choose between two parties, that if you live in the wrong state, you might as well not bother to vote at all; the Bush vs Al Gore thing was already a travesty, and by the time Trump got elected, outside observers in the EU plain lost it, it was marked as complete madness. By the time the capital got stormed, this all just felt like watching a dumpster fire.

The US executive is scarily strong - the US president combines three roles that in European countries tend to be separate - and many Americans are in favour of making it stronger, not less strong.

Both parts of the US feel under existential threat, but for different reasons. E.g. in the left wing camp, the loss of reproductive rights has been felt by many not just to be inconceivably bad backsliding in rights, but a harbinger of more losses in rights to come, e.g. losses of privileges to queer people. Queer folks are terrified, women are furious. Fictionalised accounts of how the US might turn into a dystopia became bestsellers and extremely popular series, because this is on people's minds; there is a reason people dress like handmaids from The Handmaid's tale at protests - Atwood precisely wanted to drive home that rights can be lost again, and that we are seeing the warning signs. Meanwhile, the American right also feels existentially threatened. I think their fears are misguided, but they are legitimately agitated.

Throw into the mix that your country has a highly armed populace due to the gun rights, a hyper armed police and military wing and the death penalty, racial tensions, tensions on gender issues, climate catastrophes, the Russian interest in stoking riots in the US, a radical right actively preparing for combat, and modern social media escalating things, and the potential for violence is terrifying. Which is why people are putting a lot of thought into how this might play out, and how it might still be mitigated.

You cannot just take what TED talker say about politics for granted. People in the media, academia, etc. talk about civil war because it's exciting and they want to believe they live in an era of history where such things are still possible, not because they actually think insurrections are likely.

The claim was the we "fail to alert on what is happening", namely democratic backsliding in the US.

I pointed out that, to the contrary, this topic is absolutely on people's minds, widely analysed and discussed. People are completely aware. There are lots of exciting things one can talk about, there is a reason this is the one people keep reaching for.

A lot of these people do not think it will come to a violent civil war like we saw previously, because they believe too many circumstances have changed. But that generally does not mean that they do not think the situation is dire. 

I don't think academia, the media, or even the average person on the street is an idiot who cannot think for themselves. I've talked to a lot of people who are clearly sincerely concerned, and have original thoughts on the topic that clearly arose from reading up on it, speaking with others, and reflecting alone in the dark hours, because they are very worried. The writing for this one is really on the wall.

I'm glad to see one commenter has already mentioned George Friedman – I got a lot of reassurance from this podcast interview in April 2020, and by reading his book "The Storm Before The Calm".

Just hearing someone articulate a plausible-sounding theory for why the current instability is expected/predictable makes it a lot easier for me to imagine different futures, even if I don't agree with all of Friedman's premises.

Bonus points to Friedman for writing his theories down in ~2019, just before the notable instabilities started.

There's an old saying among my people about the Stupid Party and the Evil party. Whatever it does to your measures of "democracy" and "stability," the Stupid Party becoming (marginally) smarter is a good thing.

Do you have good reason to think that the changes described here involve "the Stupid Party becoming marginally smarter"?

I think you should distinguish between "is a good thing" and "is not wholly, purely, a bad thing". If something both makes the Stupid Party a little smarter and destabilizes the nation's democracy, it might on balance be either good or bad.

To the extent that "Republicans now believe that the arrests are politically motivated, and that Democrats are defecting against longstanding political norms" is true, that's strong evidence that they're becoming smarter, since it would be typical-for-them stupidity to believe (or act like they believe, which is close enough in this context) otherwise.

I do distinguish those.

I'm puzzled by your first paragraph. You're suggesting that up until now it has been typical for the Republican Party to believe and claim that Democrats are acting sincerely in the best interests of the US and of democracy and aren't politically motivated?

I have to say that that isn't particularly how it's looked to me.

Do you have concrete examples where Republicans (on the whole) treated things the Democrats were doing as sincere and well-intentioned and reasonable where in fact (according to your opinion, or later consensus as more information emerged) they were politically motivated / antidemocratic / contrary to political norms?

I agree with the title, but I don't think there's any dangers lurking per se. I think that the damage has already happened, and that we're merely seeing the consequences of it. If I suspect something is wrong with me and I want to go to the doctor, then going to the doctor is only going to reveal the truth. My diagnose would not be the cause of my illness, but the effect. Perhaps I'm just being pedantic here?

I think that a lot of things have been going wrong for many years now, and that were starting to see the effects of that. I don't think that these effects are unreasonable either. If the system is lying to you, then you'd be right not to trust it, even though it's problematic that the system can no longer be trusted, and a great shame that people are losing their trust.

The state of politics is far below anything I can respect. I also think that most controversies rely on Not Even Wrong misconceptions. There's such a disconnect that no constructive conversation can even begin. This website is a rare exception, of course.

I personally doubt the legitimacy of the democratic process, but as it's already akin to a giant popularity contest in which the goal is to ruin the reputation of the opponent, and with most people seriously involved here specialize in manipulating public opinion, I have a hard time feeling like we're selecting for anything of quality even if it does turn out to be legitimate. At this point, I think everything is so rotten that a partial reset might be the more healthy outcome. That's just my opinion though, and I expect most people to disagree with me for personal rather than rational reasons. So this comment will help me find out if this website is what it pretends to be.

Anyway. Prediction: We are heading towards a local minimum. There's turbulence ahead for sure. It's difficult to tell how much worse it will get before we'll see a push-back, and I don't know the exact power balance between the vocal crowd and those who are still remaining silent. My perception is likely more negative than reality as negative and extreme information is shared at a higher rate (and thus overrepresented), and I'm hoping this is the case.

On a more positive note, I don't think that election interference will become a very big problem. It can sway results by perhaps 10%, but any more than that and I think it would be easily detected (even the past elections have had a lot of comments from statisticians). Somebody who is hated by the vast majority would never get elected either way.

What US institutions are healthy enough to say that leaving them be would be a path to long-term stability?

I don't understand what you mean by full respect. I think it's better just to model those institutions than to identify with them or develop some sort of political loyalty or enmity. None of them are run by altruists.

I don't see how my agreement or disagreement with any of those things is implied and I don't really want to get into a debate about them here. The OP is about how the U.S. government seems to be destabilizing. Your points are a reaction to an (imagined) accusation against Republicans (edit: And Bernie supporters, AOC, and Occupy Wall Street) for causing the destabilization, where you claim that they had good reasons to; fine, maybe that's what happened, but it doesn't really have anything to do with my post.

Strong-downvoted. Lesswrong isn't the right place for political soapboxing.

I didn't think I was soapboxing.

I've previously seen a lot of instances "the US is de-democratizing" has been used as a stepping stone in a broader argument against a specific political figure or faction (usually either Trump or the federal bureaucracy), and I was pattern-matching your post to them. Even if that wasn't its intended function, non-timeless posts about partisan politics are still close enough to that kind of soldier-mindset discourse that I think they should be discouraged on Lesswrong.

I'm not in charge of whether or not my posts get promoted to the front page, but regardless, I've added the politics tag; feel free to use the feed UI to reduce the sorting score of those posts. In general I think LessWrong should be a place where people feel free to make neutral political projections, because they're an important part of the territory.