This essay was submitted to Open Philanthropy's Cause Exploration Prizes contest.

If you're seeing this in summer 2022, we'll be posting many submissions in a short period. If you want to stop seeing them so often, apply a filter for the appropriate tag!

 

Highlights

  1. Polarization plays a role in nearly every causal pathway, and there is no indication polarization will decrease.
  2. The United States mostly fits the pattern of past democracies that have descended into authoritarian regimes.
  3. The most recent empirical research on civil conflicts suggest the United States has a 4% annual risk of falling into a civil conflict.
  4. Destabilization could be the biggest setback for great power conflict, AI, bio-risk, and climate disruption.
  5. Destabilization of the United States could wipe out billions of pledged EA funds.
  6. For every dollar spent on depolarization efforts, there are probably at least a hundred dollars spent aggravating the culture war.

Preface

This is a submission to the Open Philanthropy (OP) Cause Area Competition. The word limit and scoring structure affected the final product. I may do another post doing a deep dive into the possibility of destabilization (because what else would I do with my 40 pages of notes).

Epistemic status:

  • Very confident that destabilization is more likely than EAs appreciate.
  • Confident the consequences of destabilization make it an x-factor.
  • Confident its neglected financially relative to being an x-factor and relative to money injected annually in polarization (read: culture war) efforts.
  • Very confident the problem is quite difficult to solve.
  • Very low confidence in most proposed interventions; modest confidence on a couple.

Acknowledgements

Rawan, Woody, Paul, and public libraries.

Summary

The trajectory of polarization, minoritarian rule, and erosion of democratic norms and the rule of law in the United States is unsustainable. The forces that are driving this trajectory (the revenue models of social media and news media, and structural political incentives) are deeply entrenched and are known to us. Yet, if there was going to be an intervening force sufficient to alter our trajectory, it should have appeared by now (especially in the wake of the January 6th insurrection).

Continuing on this path, in addition to high levels of government dysfunction just short of destabilization (also worthy of EA’s attention), eventually reaches destabilization. Destabilization which would likely manifest as an authoritarian regime or civil conflict (likely sparked by a failed authoritarian power grab).[1] The consequences of destabilization of the world’s most powerful superpower are immense, (including for suffering, x-risks, and the long-term future) and could be the catastrophic event that cascades into an existential event. Destabilization of the nation that is home to the largest efforts addressing artificial intelligence, bio-risk, and climate disruption would also be devasting for the EA movement because of the amount of EA talent in the United States and the degree to which the handful of fortunes (of Americans) that represent the vast majority of pledged EA funds are tied to the health of the America system. For example, a right-wing authoritarian could shutdown Facebook or take other actions that would wipeout most of its stock value; Forbes states that the majority of the net worth of Dustin Moskovitz—the principal source of OP’s funding—is from his estimated 2% stake in Facebook; billions of dollars of EA/OP funding would evaporate if this scenario were to happen.

OP and the Effective Altruism community can take a multitude of actions, many of which not only decrease the chance of destabilization but also have the upside of making our government function better, thus having a force-multiplier effect on the outcomes our trillion-dollar government. Action is urgently needed, but unfortunately most interventions have either a very unclear cost-effectiveness or appear to not meet OP’s typical 1000x standard in short-term measurements. However, a medium-level investigation could change the perspective on return on investment. Effective Altruism at large needs to explore the risk of destabilization of the United States, given the possibility it could become one of EA’s top X-factors.

If anyone reading this would like to discuss or collaborate on this topic, please reach out! Also, let me know if this changed your opinions/priors at all.

Possibility

Here is a distillation of my argument: the experts that I’ve read understand the situation as the elements and dynamics depicted on this flow chart. The reasons they cite for why they aren’t pessimistic about the worst-case scenario don’t address the mechanisms of the situation and are more so hunches, each of which has a strong counter argument. They openly give the impression they are optimistic because it’s practical rather than intellectually merited. I am merely looking at the trajectory (where the flow chart is taking us) and the inertia (the fact that nothing has intervened to change the trajectory after an unprecedented presidency, pandemic, and insurrection), and making the logical jump that the end point is eventually destabilization.

Diagram, schematic

Description automatically generated

Big picture

Authoritarianism

Democracies have fallen into authoritarian regimes throughout the past 100 years, and scholars have studied those instances to create a playbook of how tyrants successfully come to power in democracies.[2]  Trump has partially or completely checked off every box except for crippling the opposition and wresting control of the security forces[3] (the latter being the most important).

Trump was unsuccessful in seizing power, however many people have interpreted the wrong lesson—our institutions work, we can be optimistic about democracy. The process of resisting Trump’s power grab and January 6th made them weaker, and they continue to be eroded—not rebuilt—to this day.[4] The pathway to power has been illuminated for other would-be authoritarians. The Trump-wing of the Republican party is finding decent success in replacing non-radical Republicans in critical positions to enable a future “constitutional coup.” The next authoritarian in the White House, be it Trump or someone more competent, will have much more success. These are the concerns of a number of serious scholars and pundits.[5]

Civil conflict

Civil conflict would most foreseeably manifest from a failed authoritarian power grab. We saw these dynamics play out on January 6th of 2021. The base of an aspiring tyrant faithfully believes their leader’s declarations that the opposition is illegitimately grabbing power. They respond to this perceived existential threat to democracy with violence.

This danger is underpinned by the proliferation of armed groups, alarming number of extremists in law enforcement, easy accessibility of weapons, and historically-high population sentiments tolerating or advocating for political violence.

Barbara Walter, author of How Civil Wars Start, makes an empirical case that the United States is vulnerable to a civil war. Her co-research found a 4% annual risk of civil conflict in anocracies with ethnic mobilization. Walter makes the point that the United States is on the bubble of an anocracy using the Center for Systemic Peace’s polity scale.[6] Daniel Ziblatt makes a similar point that the United States has a long constitutional tradition but only became a full democracy after the civil rights movement.[7]

For brevity, I have omitted a discussion of a serious shortcoming of Walter’s empirical-based argument.[8]

Polarization

Nearly every causal pathway (ultimate to proximate causation) of authoritarianism and civil conflict converge on polarization[9] at some point.

Polarization is driven by polarized content/rhetoric from politicians[10], media personalities[11], and political entrepreneurs[12] which reaches the population through news media and social media.[13]

Social media and news companies, especially cable news, earn the majority of their revenue through ads. The product they are selling is the attention of the audience.[14] Their revenue increases by maximizing the aggregate amount of time viewers spend watching their content. Directing/providing the audience towards polarized content that triggers their ape brain is one of the most effective ways to increase time spent consuming media.

Politicians are incentivized to engage in polarization to increase their visibility in the media and because of structural incentives—most decisively: the combination of party primaries, single-member districts, first-past-the-post voting—to appeal to an unrepresentative and highly politicized “base”.[15] This combination is one of the worst configurations of election methodology possible.[16]

We have reached a toxic level of polarization because of alternate information ecosystems. Robert Evans describes this as when people can watch and hear the same thing and come to wildly different conclusions (e.g. Kyle Rittenhouse Shooting). Ezra Klein finished his book, Why We’re Polarized, stating he suspects “we can't reverse polarization.” He wrote the book before the COVID-19 pandemic and the January 6th insurrection. 

So what is the end point of continual toxic polarization? I think that it is destabilization. I believe this because of how it drives the inputs into authoritarianism and civil conflict. I also contend that a society can’t be sustained if the two major factions can’t have a shared set of facts/truths about which they base their disagreements on. Despite the latter being purely my intuition, it is a view voiced by some experts[17] and I would speculate that it is most of our views if confronted with that question.[18]

Even if a toxically polarized United States can resist destabilization for a long time, it would be highly dysfunctional (keep that in mind as you read the “Importance” section). Ezra concludes his book that the United States must reform its political system to function amidst polarization. For reasons discussed in the “Tractability” section, this is very unlikely. This resigns us to a perpetual state of government dysfunction (which gradually decays the nation) and vulnerability to destabilizing events. The authors of The Paradox of Democracy, Sean Illing and Zac Gershberg, believe this eventually has to course correct back to liberal democracy or to the end of liberalism and democracy, with the predisposition being for the latter.[19]

A note on the military counter argument

Arguably the strongest guardrail against authoritarianism and civil conflict is the professionalism and strength of the United States Military. Here is my top concern:

  • We have no confidence that the military would act to stop a constitutional coup.[20] The military is not calibrated to decisively intervene in a gray area that is nominally legal/constitutional but is fiercely antidemocratic. Imagine if on January 6th there were no insurrectionists, but GOP senators presented false slates of electors and Vice President Mike Pence certified these electors and the Supreme Court knocked down any legal challenges.

Top reason why the United States wouldn’t destabilize

American rhetoric supporting political violence could be all bark but no bite. The biggest indicator is that millions of Americans claim they believe Biden illegitimately seized power, yet only thousands showed up on January 6th to do something about it.[21] However, this is also one of the strongest reasons to worry that a constitutional coup would prevail.

Conclusion

  1. Democracies do die and we check most of the boxes of democracies that have descended into authoritarianism and civil conflict.
  2. Polarization is a convergent instrument in most of the causation pathways.
  3. The forces of polarization are entrenched. If there was going to be change, we likely would have seen it by now.
  4. Without an intervening force, we head towards an end point of destabilization. Even if we stop just short, the concomitant governmental dysfunction would still have highly undesirable consequences on the issues laid out in the “Importance” section.

My current personal prediction is that if we play out our present scenario ten times, six of those times would result in destabilization (at least eclipsing the point of no return) in the next ten years—civil conflict or authoritarianism, including minoritarian rule an order of magnitude greater than what we already have. Mike Berkowitz, executive director of Democracy Funders Network, believes there is a 50% chance that “democracy fails,” particularly an illegitimate election, in the next 4 to 6 years.

Importance

Authoritarianism[22] and civil conflict have reliable negative consequences, such as economic decline[23] and increased violence. However, the consequences of destabilization of the United States would constitute an X-factor and a historic setback to alleviating suffering and stewarding the long-term future.

Global ramifications and great power conflict

Destabilization of history’s most powerful superpower would hijack global attention from other issues (e.g. eradicating abject poverty, developing better PPE). It could also disrupt the current liberal-led world order. Multiple international democracy experts think failure of American democracy would result in a global decline in democracy.[24]

The decline of the world’s superpower and/or the disruption of the Western hegemony would reduce the power disparity between China and other members of the Western alliance and incentivize competition in artificial intelligence and bio-capabilities for military purposes. 

Superpower decline, disruption of the dominant alliance, a superpower led by an authoritarian with little checks on power, and a civil conflict of the 2nd largest nuclear arsenal (think rogue nukes) all increase the likelihood of a great power conflict. The risk of nuclear war, engineered pandemics, weaponized AI, and development of new WMDs all go up.[25] Cooperation on climate disruption, AI safety, and biosecurity all evaporate.

Artificial Intelligence and bio-risk 

Applicable to both

The United States is the home of the top hubs (both policy and technical) for artificial intelligence safety and biosecurity, thus magnifying destabilization’s impact.

San Francisco, the world’s capital of AI and Bio-technology, is also a prime target of an authoritarian regime or belligerents in a civil conflict. San Francisco is a liberal bastion that is a national symbol of Leftism and cultural openness—perceived opposition to the Right-wing. It could be the target of punitive policies by a tyrant,[26] domestic terrorism, or combat operations attacking the metropolitan areas supply lines.[27] This point is highly speculative but illustrates plausible scenarios on the darker side.

Artificial Intelligence

An authoritarian will have the incentive to develop AI recklessly to enhance their suppression of the American population.[28] An authoritarian could foreseeably be less likely to listen to technocrats warning about AI safety and engage in a great power competition over development of AI.

Accelerating climate disruption

Authoritarianism

A regime[29] would most likely stop taking serious proactive action, rollback efforts to combat climate disruption, and not push other nation’s to do better. The regime might also be derelict in fighting wildfires, especially in coastal states perceived as bases of opposition support (namely California). California wildfires in 2020 contributed to 1.7% of the nation’s GHG emissions[30] and it gets worse each year.[31]

Civil conflict

Not only will conflict-affected populations neglect environmentalist behaviors, conflicts themselves release ridiculous amounts GHGs. The first five years of the Iraq war released the GHG equivalent to putting 25 million more cars on American roads.[32] From 2001 to 2018, USM has emitted 280 million metric tons overseas to directly support combat operations[33] representing 22% of the entire DoD’s GHG emissions for that period.[34][35]

Combat operations in wildfire-vulnerable areas will almost certainly cause wildfires.

Effects on the Effective Altruism movement

Talent

According to the 2019 EA survey,[36] the plurality of EAs (39%) are Americans.[37] The destabilization of the United States would realistically disrupt the work of a substantial portion. This would also apply to EA organizations based in the United States.

Funds

The majority of the tens of billions of dollars pledged to EA is tied up in the fortunes of Americans Cari Tuna, Dustin Moskovitz, and Sam Bankman-Fried.

There is not a clear answer for how much authoritarianism and civil conflict would hurt the value of the equity behind the majority of pledged EA funds. It depends on how instrumental American consumers, American workers, American intermediaries, and the value of the dollar are to the net worth of the people behind OP and FTX. However, it reasonable to believe that such a catastrophic event would reduce them by a substantial amount, even most of the value under some scenarios.

Plausible scenario

The principal source of OP’s funding is Dustin Moskovitz’s estimated 2% stake in Meta (formerly Facebook) worth X billion USD.[38] OP is very vulnerable to any changes in Meta’s stock value. An authoritarian’s attempt to control the information ecosystem could lead to a shutdown or crippling of Facebook. The likelihood is probably related to the degree the authoritarian views the organization, its users, or its discourse as adversarial to the regime. There is an extra risk if the authoritarian is Trump because his ownership of the social media platform Truth Social is more incentive to target Facebook.

Neglectedness

Preventing destabilization of the United States is dangerously neglected when taking into account its probability and importance which make it a major X-factor. Additionally, it will have substantial reverberations in suffering and likely the long-term future. It is also very neglected when considering the investment in forces that are actively making the problem worse.

Given the gravitas and tractability (covered in the next section) of the problem, there is a deficit in funding, scaling, and longitudinal efficacy in depolarization interventions, and, possibly, innovation to produce new effective strategies and tactics to advert destabilization. I suggest interventions in the “Prescription” section.

The rest of this section examines neglectedness through a financial lens.

Through the lens of polarization

I did a “back-of-the-envelope calculation” (see my BOTEC here) to estimate the amount of money going into American depolarization and polarization efforts.[39] Depolarization efforts are at best outspent ten to one by polarizing efforts. My best guess returned a ratio of 278 dollars spent on the culture war for every dollar spent on depolarization efforts.

Unfortunately, it’s likely that each dollar spent on polarizing efforts is substantially more effective than an equivalent dollar spent on depolarization.[40] Our ape brains are wired for identity, fear, and disgust.[41] These triggers will often supersede the more taxing cognitive activities of deciphering complexity and nuance.

Tractability

Reducing the risk of destabilization is, at the least, difficult. The solution generally breaks down as a combination of structural reform, halting the forces driving polarization, and actively depolarizing the population. Ballot initiatives are arguably the best available vehicle for accomplishing structural reform and getting polarized Americans to work together in a constructive way that humanizes each other.

Here is my depiction in a flow chart.

 

Diagram, schematic

Description automatically generated

 

Polarization brakes down into stopping the drivers of polarization and depolarization itself. These two approaches are analogous to addressing climate disruption through reducing GHG emissions and the creation of carbon sinks. One attacks the source of the problem, the other tries to undo the damage. I’d give preference to shutting off the sources over reversing damage already done, whereas Berkowitz prefers the latter.  

For the former, our problem is not a lack of solutions but a lack of political will. We know what the problem is at both the macro and micro levels, and we have solutions ranging from rough ideas to proposed policies. However, decision-makers are unwilling to act forcing us to circumvent them—the same is true of structural reform. The latter is an issue of funding and a lack of practical solutions. If we can’t overcome the former’s issues of political will, then we are stuck trying to scale one of the largest social projects in American history amidst competing polarizing forces.

What is needed

The broad needs

  • Change the incentives so the GOP pursues diversifying their voter base instead of minority rule.
  • Stop would-be tyrants from being elected.
  • Stop Americans from viewing each other as the enemy and the stakes as existential (especially on the Right).[42]
  • Increase the quality of life of regular Americans to reduce the potential for radicalization.

Structural-reform needs[43]

  • Address weaknesses of the primary system through[44]:
    • Voting reforms that don’t reward extremist candidates or polarizing political behavior (e.g. approval voting, ranked-choice voting).
    • Multi-member districts (or other form of proportional system) to break the two-party duopoly.
    • Creating a universal/non-partisan primary.[45]
  • Reform minoritarian institutions
    • Abolish the filibuster
    • (These are not imperative at the moment, but it’s an eventual necessity to avoid a legitimacy crisis and other bad outcomes of minoritarian rule. By 2040, 70% of the population will live in just 30% of the states—15.)[46]
      • Make the Senate proportional or abolish it.
      • Abolish the electoral college
  • Curb money in politics[47] --> better policies --> more prosperous Americans --> less economic populism that is co-opted by demo gauges
    • Campaign finance reform
    • Lobbying reform
    • Cracking down on the revolving door

Needs for stopping polarizing forces

  • Decrease incentives for politicians to play to the culture war.
  • Alter the revenue model or decrease optimization of the revenue model of:
    • New media companies, particularly cable news
    • Social media companies
      • Social media companies are more tractable because of bipartisan anger at them for their effects on mental health and to a lesser extent their polarizing algorithms and disinformation.

Needs for Depolarizing the population

  • Massive efforts that:
    • Humanize Americans to each other (i.e. empathize).
    • Get Americans to not see the opposition as an existential threat and believe that we can move forward without getting everything we want (i.e constructively disagree)

Why it’s difficult

Structural reform

Enacting structural reforms are a herculean task for two reasons. The American government is built for gridlock[48] and has minoritarian institutions. Therefore, a polarized reform, such as abolishing the electoral college, will not pass under current conditions. A popular non-polarized reform, such as multi-member districts that would lead to a multi-party system,[49] doesn’t have traction with politicians because they are incentivized to not change the rules that they came to power under.

Stopping polarizing forces

The forces that are driving polarization are heavily entrenched. We know this because the majority of elected Republicans and media executives have doubled-down on those forces despite Trump’s election in 2016—the first undeniable sign of how far polarization had come—the politicized pandemic that killed 1+ million Americans, and the January 6th insurrection. If these people’s red line wasn’t crossed by the attempted coup, it’s hard to believe that it exists somewhere where it won’t be too late.

If GOP and media elites won’t voluntarily reverse course, then there are three paths forward: 1) pass structural reforms that eventually lead to politicians that have the political will to regulate social media and news media, 2) mass mobilization of citizens to create a pressure to reform that is untenable for these elites to resist, 3) effectively personally lobbying decision-makers to take these actions. The first is an undesirably long feedback loop. The latter two need innovation to be more effective than they have been in the past.

Epistemic notice:

I am confident that politicians and news media have doubled down on it. I am uncertain if social media execs have taken low-visibility actions to reign in their algorithms. I am aware that they enhanced their operations to purge extremists and extremist groups on their platforms.

Depolarize the population

Depolarizing the population is a problem of immense scale—Mike Berkowitz questions if we have historical precedent for it. Tens, if not a hundreds, of millions of Americans are unhealthy polarized. One-time interventions rarely change attitudes; longitudinal interventions are required. Additionally, we lack the scientific literature to know what interventions have longitudinal efficacy.[50] If the problem is as urgent as I describe it, then we don’t have the time to wait for that research either.

Interventions can also make the problem worse if not thoughtfully constructed. A common oversimplification is that Americans need to watch more news of opposing viewpoints or interact with more compatriots that are different from them. Research finds that more informed citizens, especially when they consume news of the opposition, are more likely to engage in motivated reasoning.[51] There are also studies that find that exposure to opposing media can moderate beliefs under specific conditions.[52] Constructive direct interactions with a person of contrasting beliefs is dependent on the circumstances (e.g. do they feel pressure to preform for an audience, does the opposition concede points to be intellectually honest).[53]

“Once a society becomes deeply divided, it is very difficult to heal.”[54]

Polarization is expected to worsen as the development of artificial intelligence exacerbates social media algorithms and propagates deepfakes.[55]

Where there is traction

Ballot initiatives

Given the incentives for political actors to not pass popular structural reforms, multiple organizations and leading advocates[56] in the structural reform space opt for ballot initiatives to circumvent legislatures. Ballot initiatives are not a perfect tool,[57] but they are arguably the best direct intervention available.

Ballot initiatives can also contribute to depolarization by bringing heterogeneous ideologies and identities into the same team working for a unified cause. This is applicable for structural reforms that are popular across the Left-Right axis (e.g. ranked-choice voting).[58] This is congruent with Ziblatt and Levitsky’s position that saving democracy necessities coalitions of dissimilar views.[59]

Prescription (what OP/EA could do)

I offer a curated menu of interventions. Given the level of uncertainty in these interventions, a cost-effective approach would likely invest broadly in the upstream interventions and carry out narrow experimentation with downstream interventions. Lessons learned from these actions will enable more effective and aggressive downstream interventions.

Funding and scaling existing efforts

Fund existing efforts and help scale

I spent two hours listening to semi-public meetings of 75+ civil-society leaders in the protecting-American-democracy space. The field has developed dramatically since 2018 and organizations are now developing robust coordination capabilities. The most significant value-add that OP and EA could have is funding and helping the field scale. Not only is the field not adequately prepared to scale, but the scale likely needed to advert serious threats to democracy is immense.[60]

Create an operation focused on recruiting more funders and key non-funder partners to this effort

Part of scaling up depolarization and structural reform efforts is increasing the capital (and maybe talent) going into them. OP could spin-up an operation that focuses on recruiting big-dollar funders to the effort. The operation would specialize in researching potential targets, identifying the network to reach them, developing a pitch that persuasive in their own worldview, and maintaining relationships with them. My understanding is that this is somewhat neglected in the space.

Fund ballot initiative efforts and organizations

Ballot initiatives at this moment are the most tractable means of accomplishing structural reform. They also can be used to depolarize politically active Americans.

Historically, the cost per signature (to get a measure on the ballot) has ranged from 1.30 USD to 32.49 USD.[61] Smaller states can act as experiments, only costing six-figures to get a measure on the ballot. California could also be targeted for the “California effect.” The most and least costly measures to get on the 2020 ballot were 6 and 2 million dollars respectively.[62] These figures do not include costs to campaign for measure after it’s accepted onto the ballot.

Fund experiments/projects that will give us information on the impact and

OP could fund select projects or experiments in downstream interventions that are promising but untested or are missing crucial information. These projects/experiments would be similar to a minimum viable prototype and offer information that could lead EA to go deeper on a particular intervention or pivot away. An example would be funding a ballot initiative slate (e.g. voting, money in politics, and structural reforms) to contrast it with existing piecemeal ballot initiatives (e.g. just ranked-choice voting).

Fund existing depolarization efforts and organizations

Organizations like Braver Angels already exist. A study[63] (n=1,800) of their red-blue workshops found that roughly 75% felt less angry about the other side.[64]

Here is a fairly comprehensive list of organizations and projects that engage in depolarization: https://icccr.tc.columbia.edu/media/media-library-2018/centers-amp-labs/icccr/Organizations-Bridging-Divides-Nov-2020.pdf

Miscellaneous interventions

Invest in mutual aid networks

Mutual aid networks are the “voluntary reciprocal exchange of resources and services.”[65] They often arise to address material inadequacies when the government fails to do so. Robert Evans advocates for mutual aid networks to bring together people across the ideological spectrum in a depolarizing situation (i.e. helping each other).[66]

Preempting accelerationist events

The United States is vulnerable to attacks by accelerationist[67] groups/individuals that seek to destabilize the nation through strategic acts of violence that create cascades of upheaval.[68]

Imagine how things would spiral out of control if a lone wolf assassinated AOC and then two weeks later there was a retaliatory assassination of Lauren Boebert. This is very unlikely but completely possible.

One intervention could be to provide security details to visible elected-office holders (credit goes to fellow EA Woody Campbell for this idea). This is one of the most cost-effective interventions I propose. OP or other EA funders could fund a lobbying operation for this measure. I’ll take a guess that the cost wouldn’t exceed seven figures.

Invest in local journalism

According to Mike Berkowitz, revitalizing local journalism is imperative for:

  • Combating disinformation
  • Keeping federal, state, and local political actors accountable

Philanthropy has been taking a more active role in supporting journalism during the digital age and that need will exist for the foreseeable future. This intervention is favored by Mike Berkowitz and Zac Gershberg and Sean Illing (authors of The Paradox of Democracy)

My personal favorite[69]

Left-Right coalitions to run a slate of ballot-initiatives for structural reform

Features:

  • Ballot-initiative process
    • Most viable option for enacting structural reform currently.
  • A slate of ballot initiatives
    • Current efforts are afflicted by piecemeal implementation (ranked-choice voting in one county, public campaign finance in another county). A slate of initiatives branded as one bundle to the public is a means for enacting comprehensive structural reform through the ballot-initiative process.
  • Coalitions of the anti-establishment Left and Right
    • There are structural reforms that are popular with both sides (which can be bundled together in a slate). E.g. unmasking dark money, multi-member districts, and ranked-choice voting.

Outputs

  • Structural reform (long-term feedback loop)
  • Depolarization (short-term feedback loop)

Innovation:

  • Focusing on slates instead of single ballot measures
  • The combination of the above features in one intervention

Uncertainties (why OP/EA should do a medium-level investigation)

These are my chief uncertainties/concerns/action items that would be worth exploring further in a medium-level investigation:

  • How long can a society function with the population being divided into two incompatible meta realities?
  • Why haven’t millions of Americans that believe Biden illegitimately grabbed power resorted to force yet? Is there an identifiable point where they would likely resort to force?
  • How much would authoritarianism and civil conflict hurt the net worths behind EA?
  • Is there a viable window for eliciting action from GOP and media elites through innovative and effective lobbying?
  • A better quantification of the ROI and cost effectiveness.
    • Quantify the consequences I mapped out in “Importance.”
    • What amount of money spent do we think leads to an X% decrease in the likelihood of destabilization. Could be broken down into specific causal pathways:
      • How much money into depolarization efforts results in X units of depolarization in X number of citizens?
      • How much money would an aggressive lobbying and public opinion campaign cost to increase the chance of social media regulations being enacted by 50%?
  • What is the best value add of EA to the saturating field of democracy protection efforts?

Conclusion/call to action

Destabilization of the United States is immensely important and quite possible—to the point it is a major X-factor. Work to prevent destabilization is drastically neglected relative to the gravitas of destabilization and the asymmetry between polarization and depolarization funding. There are clear pathways to decrease the risk, but all have great difficulties. Funding opportunities are immediately available for both pre-existing efforts and to explore new novel contributions. Non-fungible funding from OP (i.e. no one else would have provided the funding) for interventions with a force-multiplier effect (e.g. targeting obstacles to scaling depolarization efforts) are conceivably the most likely actions to meet OP’s 1000x impact standard.

OP should conduct a medium-level investigation into the possibility/probability of destabilization of the United States and the adverse impact that it would have i.e. how much of an X-factor is it. The more severe those considerations are, the more willingly OP should be to take big bets even if they appear less tractable or cost-effective. A worthwhile question is how much of pledged EA funds are jeopardized by destabilization. The investigation additionally should look at the return on investment of existing interventions and potential of new innovations in the field. 

OP and the Effective Altruism movement at large should explore with earnest the possibility that destabilization of the United States is the most pressing X-factor.

 

  1. ^

    Another potential form of destabilization is entrenched one-party minoritarian rule.

  2. ^

    Daniel Ziblatt, Steve Levitsky, Jason Stanley

  3. ^

    This includes armed forces, intelligence services, and law enforcement. In the case of the United States, the most important element is its nearly two-million-person military.

  4. ^

    Daniel Ziblatt and Steve Levitsky emphasize forbearance and mutual toleration and the most important democratic norms.

  5. ^

    Daniel Ziblatt, Steve Levitsky, Fareed Zakaria, Jason Stanley, Timothy Snyder, Brian Klass

  6. ^

    It runs from -10 to +10. Positive six through positive ten are democracies, negative six through negative ten are autocracies, negative five to positive five are anocracies.

  7. ^
  8. ^

    I base my concern on civil conflict mostly in a mechanistic understanding of the situation rather than a comparative empirical lens.

  9. ^

    This is not be confused with “political sorting.” The polarization I am referring to includes the identify-based animus and intensity that layers onto political sorting. See Why We’re Polarized for an in-depth description of the distinction.

  10. ^

    E.g. Ted Cruz, Ron DeSantis

  11. ^

    E.g. Tucker Carlson, Ben Shapiro, Jimmy Dore

  12. ^

    E.g. Charlie Kirk, Dennis Prager, Candace Owens

  13. ^

    Social media includes YouTube.

  14. ^

    Noam Chomsky, Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media

  15. ^

    Ezra Klein, Why We’re Polarized 

  16. ^
  17. ^

    Mike Berkowitz, Jason Stanley

  18. ^

    Ezra, in his talk with Lawrence Lessig, notably argues that other political systems have functioned amidst high polarization, but the American system is designed to stagnate amidst political sorting and polarization. I am unsure if the high polarization he describes here is interchangeable with the toxic polarization he characterized in the book. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=11NOuikZHD8

  19. ^
  20. ^

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Constitutional_coup

    “[I]t is important to note that the ‘constitutional’ element of constitutional coups refers more to the exploitation of ambiguity within democratic rule of law, not a truly legal process. This ambiguity, combined with enough political power, allows anti-democratic seizures of power to occur under the guise of constitutionality.”

  21. ^

    Epistemic notice about my prediction track record:

    In August 2020, I correctly predicted there would be an unprecedented violent skirmish in D.C. sometime between the election and the inauguration (my premise was that Biden would win). However, I greatly overestimated the size of pro-Trump belligerents anticipating tens of thousands even eclipsing six figures. I also overestimated the scope of the violence.

  22. ^

    This is not universal. Counterexamples are China, Singapore, Rwanda. Also, some argue that authoritarian government is better calibrated to certain X-risks than other forms of government.

  23. ^
  24. ^

    I learned this second-hand from an American practitioner that interviewed them.

  25. ^

    Toby Ord, The Precipice, pg. 175-176

  26. ^

    Think of Desantis and Disney

  27. ^

    Robert Evans describes how just a hundred organized combatants from the outlying rural conservative areas could cripple the San Francisco Bay area. It Could Happen Here: The Revenge of Rural America

  28. ^

    A right-wing authoritarian is also less likely to care about discrimination and biases being baked into algorithms/training data sets.

  29. ^

    I presume this to be a right-wing regime because an authoritarian regime is most likely to emerge from the far-Right.

  30. ^

    91 million metric tonnes of the national 5,222 million metric tonnes

  31. ^
  32. ^

    141 million metric tons. Oil Change International said these were “very conservative” estimates.

    http://priceofoil.org/content/uploads/2008/03/A%20Climate%20of%20War%20FINAL%20(March%2017%202008).pdf

  33. ^
  34. ^

    When accounting for the DoD’s domestic GHGs to support Central Command (the command overseeing Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria) the authors estimate war operations as 35% of DoD’s emissions those 18 years.

  35. ^

    The plurality of emissions from the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars was from jet fuel, thus there is could be a significant difference between the emissions of a high-intensity war overseas and a low-intensity civil conflict in the homeland.

  36. ^
  37. ^

    The number of EAs living in the United States is likely higher than this. Many EAs from abroad come to the United States to study or work on policy, bio-risk, and AI.

  38. ^
  39. ^

    Many people conducting polarization efforts probably don’t explicitly think of their work as a polarization effort. However, that is precisely the effect of political actors and media personalities that engage in the culture war.

  40. ^

    At some point there will be an diminishing marginal returns for polarization efforts because of saturation or a natural asymptote.

  41. ^

    Ezra Klein, Why We’re Polarized

  42. ^
  43. ^

    This list is not comprehensive; I am highlighting what experts, at least the ones I’ve been exposed to, referenced most

  44. ^

    Ezra Klein and Aaron Hamlin say we have one the worst combinations of voting/representation methods.

  45. ^

    See California and Alaska for examples.

  46. ^

    Ezra Klein, Why We’re Polarized

  47. ^
  48. ^

    Ezra Klein, Why We’re Polarized

  49. ^

    I don’t actually know if multi-member districts as a policy are popular, but I do know that a multi-party system is very popular.

  50. ^

    I surveyed the scientific literature for about two hours. This is also similar to the opinion of Mike Berkowitz.

  51. ^

    Ezra Klein, Why We’re Polarized

  52. ^
  53. ^

    An example of some conditions that lead to constructive interactions are presented in Better Arguments’ five principles:

    https://betterarguments.org/our-approach/

  54. ^
  55. ^
  56. ^

    E.g. Lawrence Lessig, FairVote

  57. ^
  58. ^
  59. ^
  60. ^

    Statements from Mike Berkowitz

  61. ^
  62. ^
  63. ^
  64. ^

    Again, there are uncertainties about strength of longitudinal effect. Self-selection bias also distorts the effects.

  65. ^
  66. ^
  67. ^
  68. ^
  69. ^

    I’ve been thinking about this for years.

12

New Comment
2 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 4:01 PM

The most recent empirical research on civil conflicts suggest the United States has a 4% annual risk of falling into a civil conflict.

I think this is misleading, because...

Barbara Walter, author of How Civil Wars Start, makes an empirical case that the United States is vulnerable to a civil war. Her co-research found a 4% annual risk of civil conflict in anocracies with ethnic mobilization. Walter makes the point that the United States is on the bubble of an anocracy using the Center for Systemic Peace’s polity scale.[6]

Being at +5 on a -10 to +10 scale does not mean that the -5 to +5 category is an appropriate reference class. Also, this is very different from the Metaculus community median  of 5% for "civil war" before 2031, defined as below. 

  • The Insurrection Act is invoked.
  • While the Insurrection Act is invoked, there are at least 500 deaths in a 6 month period as a result of armed conflicts between US residents and a branch of the US military, national guard, or in conflicts between/among such branches.
  • All of these deaths occur in any US state(s) (including DC).

What do you mean by it's not an appropriate reference class? If you are saying that being on the edge of the reference class means that the median/mean probability of the reference class is less applicable then I would agree with you.

That is also why I deliberately used the word "suggest" because I am not claiming that the U.S. has a 4% annual risk, but I think it's plausible and it's a point for concern.

I am working on an extended version that should go up next week (because OP had the 5k world limit for these submissions). I hope to do a more thorough job with the significance (or lack thereof) of Walter's book.

Note: I am not heavily persuaded by Walter's empirical case at the moment (as I mentioned in a footnote). I think the mechanistic picture of the situation is the more compelling case for why the U.S. is at risk of civil conflict.

I don't think the Metaculus prediction is right. I am hoping that me pushing this argument will get people to update their priors and that this will be reflected in a recalibration of the Metaculus score. At this moment, my belief is that 15% chance of destabilization (or eclipsing the point of no return on the way to destabilization) in the next 10 years is the lower bound of what is reasonable. (this is something I have included in the extended version).