This article is part of the Futures Forecasting series. We’ve asked experts to identify crucial trends – from a shortlist of categories – that will influence national security out to 2035 and how those trends might intersect in a future scenario.

In this article, which explores the future of governance, Vasabjit Banerjee concludes that competing identities and ideologies will increase economic protectionism whilst decreasing political freedom.

Key trends

1Democracy: New social movements are undermining political consensus in the united states

Billions of people across the world have been lifted out of poverty due to economic reforms that eased capital and labor flows. Yet left wing activists in the United States are increasingly critical of how these capital flows have captured democratic politics, increasing wealth inequality, and concentrating political control among economic oligarchs. They allege that political donations – classified as speech by the Supreme Court’s ‘Citizens United’ decision repeated tax cuts benefiting the wealthy, and deregulation of financial institutions all advantage the richest ‘one percent’ of Americans. 

These appeals have gained traction among young Americans born between 1981 and 1996, whose economic prospects were shaped by the uneven effects of the 2008 global recession triggered by high-risk lending practices and the on-sale of debt within the finance industry. The financial and banking sector quickly recovered, and stock markets reached record highs. But the recession ravaged social welfare systems and lowered the possibility of stable employment with benefits like health insurance and pensions. The high-tech sector continued to provide well-paid employment, but accounts for only 10 percent of total jobs.

Two major social movements arose in response: the Occupy Wall Street Movement of 2011-2012, focused on issues of political corruption and inequality; and the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, begun in 2013, that initially protested institutionalised racism in law enforcement organisations and subsequently expanded to cover issues of racial inequality. The shared premise of both movements has been the accusation that political leaders are controlled by the wealthy and remain unresponsive to popular interests. Although activists from these movements gravitated toward various candidates in the Democratic Party both for Congress and during presidential primaries their social movements continue to challenge the party’s  post-Cold War acceptance of free markets and limited government through a mélange of social media activism, primarying established candidates, and engaging in protests.

2Authoritarianism: Racialised policies are reducing scope for compromise solutions  

A majority of white Americans – especially non-college educated men over 50 – supported President Trump in the 2016 election. Non-white immigration, and the loss of well-paying jobs with perks like healthcare and pensions ­– as manufacturing moves to developing countries – are key concerns for this demographic. Although their economic demands – more jobs, fewer free-trade agreements – overlap with the left wing activists, white Trump voters in the ‘rust belt’ seek a return to a white-dominated social and cultural order that the the social movements, such as BLM vehemently oppose.

As a result, President Trump’s policies on curtailing free trade were supported by many Democratic presidential candidates, and his anti-illegal immigration stance merely continued and expanded Democratic President Obama’s policies. But Trump’s attempt to retain white racial dominance by leveraging curtailment of free trade and immigration has galvanised his opponents. As shown by research in political science, issues of identity are less open to political compromise, prone to violence, and can reshape state institutions. Thus, President Trump’s political tactics may also threaten American democracy.

Fearing electoral defeat by non-white voters, President Trump has used an Executive Order (akin to a Presidential Decree) to stop the redistricting of constituencies in the U.S. House of Representatives based on comprehensive demographic data. He also continued to delegitimise the electoral process with accusations of voter fraud, creating fears that he may not cede power after an electoral loss in November 2020. He has also refused to condemn white supremacist militias and organisations and cut funding for federal investigations into such groups.

3Black Elephant: A pandemic that increases opposition and authoritarian pressures

The COVID-19 Pandemic acted as an external shock in two ways. First, the Trump administration’s failure in controlling it, due in part to the President’s mistakes and in part to the crumbling state of public health infrastructure, lost him support among elderly whites – a core part of his electoral base who are among the most prone to being infected and dying. Second, it has allowed BLM protests – renewed by the police killing of African American man George Floyd – to merge with an array of anti-Trump groups that now enjoy broad social support.

The protests and the President’s attempts to repress the protestors and exploit a white backlash against BLM have resulted in unmitigated pressure on law enforcement organisations. Confrontations between BLM protesters and local police and paramilitary forces of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) have occurred across the United States, but the military’s role in clearing protestors during the June 2020 protests in Washington, D.C., threatened an unprecedented breach in civil-military relations: the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff subsequently publicly apologised for the military’s involvement, and distanced the military from the President’s partisan agenda. In July 2020, DHS paramilitaries brutally confronted protesters in Portland, Oregon, resulting in the city’s police refusing to cooperate with the DHS. 

President Trump’s political strategy to shore-up his fraying support by repressing protests presents the different coercive arms of the state with a terrible choice: either disobey an elected leader’s orders, in order to retain organisational cohesion and protect citizens’ rights, or obey the leader’s orders to violate those rights and risk organisational fracturing as personnel from minority groups or with opposing political beliefs resign or defect. The ongoing deployment of DHS paramilitary forces to repress protestors also creates jurisdictional tensions between the traditionally separate federal, state, and local law enforcement organisations. 

Consequences

Reducing representation

As the social consensus about political goals, democratic processes, and state institutions is threatened, cries for limiting democracy may arise from Trumpist Republicans and their opponents. Both sides would want to permanently curtail the other’s political power. Strategies could extend from making voting increasingly costly for poor minorities, which would favour Republican candidates, to removing the Electoral College system entirely, which would marginalise rural states, and therefore reduce the voting power of Republican strongholds.

Increasing public welfare and economic protections

The Trump administration and its Democratic opponents seek restrictions on flows of international capital and labour: Trump for a subset of Americans and the latter for all. Incentivising re-shoring of manufacturing to the United States, increasing minimum wages, and increasing tariffs to favor U.S. products may have bipartisan support. The economic costs of the pandemic could also foster bipartisan support for a public primary healthcare system and increase taxes.

Reintroducing second-class citizenship and authoritarian enclaves

Given coalitions built on shared racial identity are often unwilling to compromise because of their zero sum identarian politics, economic solutions may fail. In response, the Republican Party may attempt to introduce a form of second class citizenship status for undocumented immigrants – typically non-whites – which would deny them political rights like voting and running for political office There could also be bipartisan support for implicitly accepting sub-national white-dominated authoritarian regimes because of the high costs of repressing potentially violent rural opposition and low benefits from retaining control over such areas. Such a system would be akin to the one that existed from the 1870s till 1965 in the South, but with a newer group of states that would exclude some states in the South and include some in the Midwest.

2035 future forecast

Semi-authoritarian leaders and economic elites will increase control over society and markets enough to sustain their interests.

With the trends in the United States emblematic for a number of countries worldwide, should current trajectories continue, the age of free trade and democratization may well be over by 2035.

Free trade via the rules and mediation of global institutions like the World Trade Organization would likely be replaced by competing regional trading blocs like the Mercado Común del Sur (MERCOSUR) in Latin America and new cross-regional ones aligned with China or the United States akin to Britain’s erstwhile Imperial Preference System. 

Many countries will have stable semi-authoritarian regimes with regular elections, a partially free media, and some actual opposition, but with no meaningful turnover in power. The prevalence of semi-authoritarian regimes would be in stark contrast to the Cold War era with its contrasting democratic and totalitarian political systems, as well as authoritarian military dictatorships in many developing countries. However, it would harken back to the pre-Great War era when powerful European monarchs backed by the military and economic elites delegated limited powers to elected legislatures and permitted partial freedoms of thought and expression.

Given the size of the American economy, the U.S. Dollar’s continued role as the world’s reserve currency, and the country’s overwhelming conventional military superiority compared to even its closest security rivals, Russia and China, the country’s political and military hegemony of world politics will likely continue in the short term. By 2035, however, its protectionist position on foreign trade and domestic divisions may cause economic decline and political weakness, which would mirror that of Britain in the 1910-1930s.

China will be set to directly challenge U.S. dominance of the Pacific and indirectly force smaller Asian neighbours into a pro-China alignment, which will be leveraged upon the fulcrum of economic ties Beijing has developed via the Belt and Road Initiative. Domestically, China will continue to back a free market system accompanied by single party rule and the suppression of minorities. Taken together, China’s 2035 position would mirror that of Germany in the 1910-1930s.

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Vasabjit Banerjee

Assistant Professor of Political Science and Public Administration, Mississippi State University