Several key triggers may rapidly accelerate our national collapse from a slow decline into an irrecoverable avalanche. Each of these scenarios could cause the effective breakdown of Federal government authority over at least a portion of our national territory. These triggers will probably not occur in isolation; systematic upheavals tend to exacerbate each other. Several of the following developments could occur in rapid succession, leading to a deepening and self-perpetuating crisis across multiple economic, social, and political fronts.
Disputed Election Leads to Divided Authority
Any Federal election that results in contested authority could tear the United States apart. As supporters of the parties in our political duopoly increasingly view their rivals as threats to America itself, presidential elections are becoming more acrimonious and fought to (or beyond) the bitter end. Three of our last six presidential elections resulted in major political controversies – namely, a case decided along partisan lines by the Supreme Court, accusations of malign foreign support influencing the ultimate outcome, and an outright rejection of the official results by one of the contenders. There is no indicator that these contests will become less acrimonious in the future, especially as economic conditions deteriorate and our cultural divides grow larger.
There are essentially two ways in which a contested presidential election could cause the Federal government to lose control over some of its current territory. In one scenario, election controversies lead to a contested Presidency. Two main candidates could both claim victory. More importantly both candidates convince different segments of the Federal government to recognize them as legitimate victors. The loyalty of various Federal agencies and armed forces would be key in supporting any bid for power in a contested election. If both individuals claiming the Presidency could attract support from some military commanders or other armed organizations, then a standoff could quickly escalate into localized bloodshed, with violence subsequently fanning out across the country.
A contested presidential election could also lead to one or more states, either individually or in a regional grouping, to attempt secession from the United States. Such a scenario is especially likely if a large portion of a states’ population views one of the candidates as being particularly odious, dangerous, or illegitimate.* While such a break-up could theoretically be peaceful, an attempted separation by one or more states would almost certainly result in organized violence. Unless it was greatly weakened by various circumstances, the Federal government is unlikely to peaceably let a part of its territory breakaway. Furthermore, armed organizations within a breakaway state may seek to use force to keep it within the Union.
Economic Breakdown via Hyperinflation or Mass Unemployment
If the American economy experiences a sufficiently severe and prolonged crisis, then the other elements of our national system will also probably break down. Joblessness and hunger can rapidly destabilize any society. An economic crisis of sufficient intensity will devolve into violence, from spontaneous looting to organized attempts to overthrow the existing political structure.
As of 2022, a critical increase in unemployment or inflation (or both) appears especially probable in the near-to-medium term. Prices are rising at a faster rate than most Americans have ever experienced. Inflation-adjusted hourly wages decreased 3.6% over a period of a year to June 2022. While the Federal Reserve is raising interest rates to curb inflation, they remain near historic lows. In the early 1980s, when inflation was as high as it is now, the Federal Reserve charged over 18% interest per year to slow the economy and tame rising prices, instead of a mere 2.5%. Increasing interest rates enough to curb inflation may dramatically slow down economic activity and increase unemployment. Failing to curb inflation would damage our consumption-driven economy, as Americans reduce spending in response to dramatically increased prices – ultimately, this could also lead to unemployment.
The fact that Federal government debt is 140% of annual GDP further constrains the tools available to navigate the growing economic crisis, as raising interest rates will dramatically increase government spending on the debt it owes. The US government and economic elite have been borrowing against the future and kicking the grenade of economic correction down the road for years. As of writing, our national debt is worth over $90,000 per US citizen. If a truly systematic crisis breaks out, the US dollar could lose its position as the global reserve currency, opening a flood of dollars held abroad flowing back into America. Washington’s sanctions on Russia in response to its 2022 invasion of Ukraine, its various other sanctions on other countries, along with escalated contention with China, have all incentivized many foreign governments to seek alternatives to the US dollar for savings and trade. While the exact form of a major systematic economic crisis remains unclear, some form of truly unpleasant, and potentially stability-threatening development is likely over the coming years.
Cascading Infrastructure Failures
Self-accelerating breakdowns in vital infrastructure may trigger a collapse of our national political system. Key components of America’s essential electrical, transport, and telecommunications grids are outdated and underfunded. Natural disaster or intentional sabotage may eventually knock down these systems for an extended period of time, leading to general economic and social chaos in large swathes of the country. In a worst-case scenario, such failures may feed off each other, leading to cascading and prolonged collapse of the key systems required to maintain normal functioning.
Natural disasters are the most likely culprit for triggering regional infrastructure collapse. Hurricanes, floods, winter storms, earthquakes, and volcanic eruptions are ever-present threats in many parts of the United States. As an illustrative example, an early 2021 winter storm in Texas nearly shut down the electrical grid for days or weeks. If our infrastructure was well-maintained, funded, and resilient, then such threats may be manageable and followed by quick recovery. However, given the general state of material decline in America, natural disasters pose an increasing systemic threat. Our political and economic leadership is too parasitical, too focused on the short-term, and too divided to adequately address our shortcomings in resilient infrastructure. This disfunction, combined with the increasing rate of extreme weather phenomenon, signals serious danger to the normal functioning of crucial systems.
Intentional sabotage could also incapacitate crucial areas of infrastructure. For example, physical or cyber attacks may knock out electric utilities. Threats could come from state-backed or non-state foreign entities angered by Uncle Sam’s various misadventures abroad. Additionally, as our average economic conditions decline and as fringe political elements attract additional adherents, there is a correspondingly increasing risk of various groups conducting attacks aimed specifically at crippling infrastructure to disrupt normal societal and governmental functioning. For example, ethnonationalist extremists, radical environmentalists, and anticapitalist revolutionaries all have plausible and apparently strengthening motivations for seeking to damage or even destroy the current order.
What would happen if most of Texas had lost power for two weeks in February 2021? Many hungry, cold, and otherwise desperate individuals would have resorted to looting to survive. Large-scale violence may have broken out. Now, imagine if most of the United States lost power for two weeks. Supply chain and transport bottlenecks, unclear chains of command, communication failures, and generalized chaos could delay the repairs needed to restore power, both electrical and political. An infrastructure failure that exacerbates itself and deepens social chaos could trigger systematic political collapse.
War with a foreign power could either directly destroy the Federal government, or set off a series of shocks leading to the effective loss of government control over parts or the entirety of the United States Most obviously, nearly any conflict that involved the detonation of multiple nuclear weapons over American cities would obliterate the current system in any remotely recognizable form. Russia, China, and North Korea have weapons systems capable of such attacks, along with serious contention with Washington D.C. While no government is at all likely to intentionally launch an unprovoked nuclear first strike, such a war could be triggered by technical malfunctions, a serious misreading of an adversary’s intentions, or an uncontrollable escalatory chain reaction.
A purely conventional military conflict could also cause sufficient economic hardship as to eventually lead to the collapse of Federal government authority over parts of the United States. For example, a major war between Iran (and its allies) and the US in the Middle East may shut down oil flows from most of the Middle East, grinding most of the global and American to an effective halt. Mass unemployment and accompanying social chaos could follow such a breakdown. A similar economic catastrophe may accompany any war between the US and China. Even if neither side used nuclear weapons, or even if neither side suffered significant casualties, a sudden halt in supply chains would utterly devastate both economies.
Theoretically, the United States could even experience systematic collapse from a war that did not directly involve American participation. Major wars between, say, Iran and Israel, Pakistan and India, or China and Taiwan could cause sufficient environmental or economic shock to completely destroy the current global financial and economic system. The American economy would likely cease to function if completely cut off from Asian electronics or Middle Eastern energy. As the global supply chains and flows of capital have increased in interdependence and complexity, the risks of a sudden crisis in one part of the world triggering a generalized and universal crisis has also correspondingly grown.
Historical Precedents: Contours of Collapse
* This is essentially what happened following Abraham Lincoln’s election in 1860.
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