The phrase “history repeats itself” isn’t just an old idiom — it’s a scientific truth, according to researchers who believe in cliodynamics, a transdisciplinary area of study that treats history as a science. Cliodynamics states that the United States is caught in a cycle where the whole country freaks out every 50 years, and if this theory is correct, we’re due for another “cycle of violence” really, really soon.
Peter Turchin, a scientist who specializes in population biology at the University of Connecticut, is one of the leading proponents of cliodynamics. Shortly before the last presidential election in 2012, Turchin explained his cyclical prediction for America’s future in the journal Nature. By applying mathematical techniques that he once used to track predator-prey cycles in forest ecosystems to human history, Turchin was able to identify three major periods of unrest in American history.
The country experienced a wave of racial and political tensions in the wake of the American Civil War, and Turchin says everything peaked in 1870. In 1920, 50 years later, things got dicey again as anti-Communist fears, race riots, and workers strikes plagued the States. The most recent “cycle of violence,” as he calls them, was in 1970 during the civil rights movement, though this period wasn’t as extreme as its predecessors, according to Turchin’s data.
Turchin predicts that the next peak will come in 2020. As a reminder, Donald Trump won the presidency while losing the popular vote last week, so things in America are already pretty tense here in 2016.
Most historians are suspicious of cliodynamics at best. In their view, history is too complex — driven by chance and individual moments — for any sort of scientific study to capture so broadly, let alone predict. Cliodynamics works by studying population numbers, social structure, state strength, and political instability throughout history. Researchers then plot that data (which is derived from quantitative proxies as best they can), and look for trends.
One such trend — the one that might doom America to a crisis every half-century, is the “fathers-and-sons cycle,” according to Turchin. Faced with injustice, a father takes violent action, leaving his son to deal with the miserable aftermath. Then, his grandson starts the whole thing over again. This 50-year cycle works alongside a much grander “secular cycle” that takes centuries as population growth and demand for labor leads to massive inequality and eventual downfall of nations.
If Turchin is right about all this, then, well, 2020 is gonna be lit.