Jack Cafferty on CNN is never one to miss an opportunity to be an alarmist for the purpose of stirring the pot and starting conversations. That is potentially a useful function in a media culture that prioritizes cheerleading and the defense of the status quo. Sometimes, though, I can't tell if Cafferty is asking serious questions or merely going for shock value. Every C-list talk radio host understands the fine art of asking something offensive – "So let's open up the phones to hear what you think about my proposal to mark Muslims with a hot cattle brand…" – to generate interest. That may have been Cafferty's motive when asking viewers to sound off on, "What are the chances the U.S. economy could eventually trigger violence in our country?"
Is that a serious question? I feel like treating is as a serious question even if it isn't.
The knee-jerk answer is "Oh yeah, stock up on guns and MREs. It's gonna be all Thunderdome up in here by 2014 – or possibly even beyond Thunderdome." That answer passes the smell test. Americans have more household debt, less savings, less wealth, and poorer job prospects than at any point since the Great Depression. People increasingly feel strained to the breaking point, frustrated, depressed, powerless, and desperate. Those who don't feel like that are fearful of the people who do. Income inequality is appallingly high, and historically that's an excellent predictor of civil disorder. We already have a higher percentage of our population in prison than any other Western nation. Oh, and we're tits-deep in guns. So sure, the ingredients for violence prompted by economic conditions are there.
That said, I tend to think that the prospects for violence are poor for a number of reasons.
1. Americans are too lazy, uninterested, disheartened, docile, or busy supplicating themselves before their economic betters to put together a half-decent protest rally.
1a. The closest we've come to a half-decent sized rally involved elderly, ignorant, porcine reactionaries waving around misspelled signs and screaming for more upper class tax cuts. I don't think we can even rebel correctly.
2. There's no common purpose. Sure, everyone's angry. Maybe even violently angry. At what? Half of us are ready to start a class war and the other half are polishing up their guns to defend upper class tax cuts, shoot at Mexicans / Muslims / black people, and basically form a circular firing squad rather than focusing on the problem. We'd fight about what we are fighting about. I can't think of anything more pointless.
3. As individuals get closer to their own breaking point, resorting to crime or lone acts of violence seems more probable than any kind of collective action.
The only thing that makes collective violence seem like a plausible outcome is the sense of a very real, profound, and widespread loss of hope in this country. Does anyone actually look forward to the future? Think that sunny days are on the horizon? Believe that the political system can solve our problems (without 1000 unrealistic "ifs")? People who feel that way probably exist, but either they're very quiet or there aren't many of them. The 2008 and 2010 elections both generated a lot of excitement among different portions of the electorate and to say that the results have been disappointing is a rank understatement. Do Obama voters think four more years will bring "change"? At best they consider him the less-terrible of two options. Do Republicans really believe that going to rallies in stupid hats and voting for clueless ideologues who will Go Native the second they enter their offices is going to balance the budget and solve our problems? I doubt it, a small, vocal minority of true believers aside.
The biggest problem is that young people are more pessimistic about the future – their own and of this country – than ever before. If you're under 40, do you even have any long term plans, goals, or hopes anymore? The short- and long-term pictures are both bleak. We're unemployed, marginally employed, or tenuously holding onto one of the few decent jobs to be had in the short term, and in the long term we can look forward to…I don't know, working until we drop dead. And we'll do it in a country that will keep getting dumber, more dilapidated, poorer, and more like the average Banana Republic than the Super Great Land of Success we were told we live in.
Personally I don't think I'm going to live to see a civil war or mass rioting. I'm not confident that what I will live to see will be much better than that, though.