Sept. 2012 

          Assessment of the threat of social instability is fairly well worked out in the research literature.  The assessments relate to both crisis situations and situations that develop over time.  The first situation, crisis, refers to threats that arise rapidly due to extreme emergencies such as wide-spread earthquakes.  These kinds of threats lead to temporary or transitory social instability that can be mild or severe, but which do not cause significant long term effects.  That is, the effects occur during the emergency but dissipate quickly as soon as the short-duration emergency ceases.  More severe and society-changing incidents of social instability are of longer term, both in the build up and the duration of the instability as well as its evolutionary and building severity.


Crisis instability


          Crisis instability happens when a large scale emergency event occurs with little to no warning, is significantly severe, and which temporarily overwhelms normal political, social, and public services which incur a disruption to the extent that the public is temporarily convinced that the normal services have shut down.  Typical examples include delayed or no answer to 911 calls, non-responsive police, fire, or ambulance service, and/or cessation of essential utility service (electric, water and so on cut-off).  Social instability in such cases often appears as minor, contained-area riots and looting.  Normal services, when restored in a few days, stops the unrest as the public realizes regular social controls and services are back in operation.  The Katrina storm and flooding can be cited where, although much time was taken to recover to social normalcy, consistent contact with the outside world showed the public that even if they were, months later, still in noteworthy trouble, help was possible and even on the way.  The crisis passes and social stability returns quickly.  The possible residual effects of a crisis situation can be a lingering feeling of vulnerability in the public and perhaps a bit of lingering doubt about the social and governmental services’ ability to provide for the public.  If this doubt is real and long lasting, it can bloom rapidly into a much larger social instability in the cases of truly catastrophic events, such as sun emissions damages, or possibly into a general lack of respect of social authority which can escalate into longer term social unrest.




Evolutionary Situations


          Evolutionary social instability can develop over longer time periods (but may or may not be triggered by a crisis), do extensive damage, and make momentous changes in social and governmental structures.  The U. S. Department of Homeland Security (2008) issued a chart* of social instability indicating severity and public behavior associated with various levels of instability.  It is possible to use this chart and associated research to apply to relative levels of social instability in the U.S.A. in September 2012.


          September 2012 contains a milestone memory of the 9/11 WTC and Pentagon attacks and is two months from a Presidential election.  What are the conditions of American society now that may predict levels of social unrest for the near term future?  *(, page 37).


          Interestingly, the chart does not, by interpretation, indicate a consistent threat of social instability for today’s situation.  Some threat behavior is mild and some severe.  In the chart’s “psychological impact” category, there is only minor change in population behavior and minor disruption of non-essential social functions, but arguably moderate and temporary disruption of essential social services, such as interruptions of ADC, refusal of police to enter certain neighborhoods or to enforce certain laws, and likely a lingering general doubt that the government bodies can continue to hold on to current levels of services.  The scale cites also “intensive scapegoating and hate crimes; decrease in positive altruistic behaviors; increase in survival behaviors” in the Attributes category, along with “Workplace, school, or event attendance” moderate drop-off.  Most disturbing in the chart is the description of today in its citation of “general loss of belief in government institutions; and widespread disregard of government instructions.”  The latter is listed as catastrophic, the most dangerous level for social unrest. 


          Taking the chart as a whole, there is a definite indication of significant social unrest bubbling under America’s social scene.  The chart suggests that a large-scale crisis and failed government response (the “failure” graded by the public which may be grounded irrationally but also real in the public’s mind) could easily be the tipping point.  A few symptoms are self evident.  Confidence in Congress is at an all time low;  the inability of government to protect ordinary citizens from ruinous personal financial collapse triggered by forces beyond their control is actual;  and the failure of a clear national consensus to emerge in federal politics are very real dangerous warning signs.  Coupled with these factors are a failure of investigative journalism and encroaching limited plural ownership of news outlets;  political pundits and some clergy spreading messages of division and hate;  a reduction in the general level of public education, especially in civics and history relevant areas;  a wide-spread increased dependence on “the government” to answer many social problems with a concomitant, if ironic, drop in confidence in government’s abilities;  a reoccurrence in racism and use of racism as a political tool;  lack of understanding of the valuable functions of labor unions;  and a failure at all levels, public and individual, to seek compromise as an essential factor of democracy.  Some may argue that this list signals a failure of mature democratic capitalism and a decline in the ability to sustain basic American freedoms.  Certainly, the maintenance of a series of long-running small American wars, none of which can possibly produce the feeling of a “win” like WW2 does, has destroyed the economy and further undercut citizens’ faith in government.  Couple that with the exposure of the lies about WMDs in Iraq, for only one of many possible examples of government lies now uncovered, the American public and its core values are terribly battered and the resultant cynicism erodes the chance for a turn for the better.  Sadly, this is not a complete list of the degraded current state of affairs and a situational analysis predicting large social instability has to dawn on any fair and thinking person. 


          One must ask what will cause a turn-around from the continual slide into evolutionary social instability.  Surely America must have been in similar conditions in the past, for example, in massive opposition to entry into WW2 prior to Pearl Harbor, the very slow recovery from the Great Depression, and the sad state of journalism then, too.  It could be argued that WW2 and immediate aftermath turned the country around economically, had galvanized and united public opinion, and continued American’s basic faith in government.  Since then, however, small, continuous wars have not “done the trick,” public opinion has nothing today to unite around, and there is a total loss of faith in government.  The middle and lower classes feel like suckers in the hands of a distant rich as the difference between rich and others becomes a canyon.  Too, the benefits of becoming a leader to a return to basic democratic values of compromise and a leader with a concrete, visibly-workable, fair, beneficial plan for all are simply not present.  No national leader has anything to gain for taking such a real stand, although many pretend to it.  The few who have attempted such have been thrust aside by powerful self interests of big business or single-issue pressure groups and, most importantly, by a public no longer able to think clearly about these issues and certainly too cynical and burned for believing before to support such a leader.


          The result for the next fifty years for America is a gradual decline, similar to that of the United Kingdom.  But, the evolutionary social instability, that is definitely emerging, could go beyond the UK’s and into outright or modified civil war.  The desperate economic conditions of many of the states and the polarization of their citizens could lead to groups of states withdrawal from the Union.  Governors already have command of a National Guard and numerous police powers.  One must ask what would be the federal government’s response?  Could the federal government actually somehow force departing groups of states to stay in the Union?  Would Rumsfeld and Cheney and “Continuity of Government” types send in the federal military or would business interests join alignments for their self interest within various new state/nations and the transition could be relatively bloodless?  Is the 1% so firmly above all these matters as to not care?  The ordinary American people are definitely “mad as Hell” and could be tipped over into “not taking it anymore” with street actions and state withdrawal from the federal system.  Some threat signs are already well developed.


Susan Cutter (2003) of the University of South Carolina‘s Hazards & Vulnerability Research Institute concludes that higher socio-economic people, clustered in geographic centers, are better able to cope with crisis emergencies.  Those lower on the scale, such as the people in the Super Dome in New Orleans during Katrina, cope less well.  By analogy, is it possible to use that same “scale” to predict those states with trouble but with citizens higher on the ladder;  will they just face facts and pull out of a federal government that takes more from them than it puts back in.  New York state and California come to mind in economic terms and Oregon and Washington, for example, seem to live environmental and other life styles rather distinct from, say, Mississippi residents.  Texas may never have been firmly in the Union.  If the common American bond is breaking, it appears that threat analysis methodology is a good way to observe that.


It can be argued that the threat analysis method is correct.  It is a pressing open question if the American “house divided can long endure.”  In our age of instant communication between many individuals, one could think that everyone, reading everyone’s opinions, could see a broader picture where we can see that we are alike, all have the same human needs, and, with compromise, can all “just get along.”  Threat analysis can indicate, however, that with all our immediate and wide ranging communication, we just retreat into our own hard-held opinions that are made even more hard-held by encountering nasty, disparaging disagreement on our Internet and television channels.  Pushed to the economic wall these days, ordinary Americans are ornery and in no mood to give up a little of “me first” to get to a “we first” society.

October 2013
The threat assessment of a year ago remains, but with interesting modifications. The resilience or lack of caring of the American public remains, with a definition depending on one’s charity for the public. The nation just endured a “partial shutdown” on “non-essential” services and the threat of a default on its loan obligations. One could say that the public was resilient enough to weather this storm because it just did not believe that much really bad would happen. Conversely, it is possible to say that the public just does not care. Further, a vocal minority actually said they would like a shutdown to force the American government to live within its means. It did not seem to be resilient, just intractable on the intention to put the nation in such jeopardy that cuts would have to be made, etc.

Of course, no specific cuts were even identified, and there was only a half hearted media speculation about the ripple effect of cuts–cut National Park guard staff and get wildfires which can not be extinguished because the fire department had been cut which resulted in laid-off firemen defaulting on loans which resulted in banking problems which….. The tangle woven around federal government support is so complex and thorough-going that a rapid cutting is truly impossible. The intractability of those House members who tried to pull the trick of forcing a federal shutdown was easily seen and ultimately rejected by the great middle of the American people.

In some, more excitable, nations one could predict massive social unrest in response to what was a real crisis. American simply did not pay much attention. Americans know the federal government is very well beyond any reasonable sustainable level of debt, and they themselves are in the same condition, especially regarding credit card debt. If one adds in the shock of having housing values drop by nearly half, one could postulate a very angry citizenry. But, no real effects of whatever anger there is has shown up not even in large street protests nor massive protests to Congress. America appears to be a very large pillow that can stand punching in many areas without the punches making much of a dent.

Some factors mentioned about last year are looming larger–racism which tarnished the nation’s character seems to have hardened and the federal government seems definitely closer to cutting back on social services payments. Certainly, the radical right-wing politically has hardened but having been beaten soundly last month, it does not seem to have learned anything and continues to consider rational political compromise equal to a sin. The amazing thing, considering the very real dangers, is that there were no real signs of increased social unrest.

One item to watch for is if Hillary Clinton decides not to run for President. Surely she knows the office is hers as a walk-in. If she stays out for a long time, or even takes herself out of contention, that may well be the signal that she does not want to be President when the real social fabric breaks deeply. Perhaps this will be a signal from she and Bill, two of the most astute politicians of our time. Right now, America is on hold, but no music is playing.


About Charles Henry Harpole

Retired college teacher of cinema studies and film-making. Film Dept/Program founder and administrator. Buddhist. Amateur "ham" radio operator, HS0ZCW. Prepper evaluator
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