Symposium | Decision 2024: Our Parties, Our Politics

The Coming Resource Wars

By Kevin Drum

Tagged Climate Change

Asking where our politics will be in 2024 can be reduced to a simpler question: What will we still be fighting about in 2024? And on the flip side, what fights will we all have gotten tired of? I’ll take a crack at that shortly, but first here are six trends that I think are likely to continue for the next dozen years and beyond.

Trend #1: America will continue getting older. Today about 13 percent of the population is over age 65. Within 20 years this will be close to 20 percent.

Trend #2: Unless the Supreme Court overturns it, Obamacare will soon be solidly entrenched and well on its way to becoming as popular as any of the big New Deal programs. This means the social welfare state started by FDR and extended by LBJ will finally be more or less complete.

Trend #3: Slower economic growth is going to be the norm. Partly this will be due to the aging of America, partly to global energy constraints, and partly to plateauing educational achievement. From 1940 through 1980, the number of high school graduates doubled from 40 percent to more than 80 percent, and the number of college graduates skyrocketed from 5 percent to more than 20 percent. Over the past three decades, however, both have grown only a few percentage points.

Trend #4: The fact of climate change will become undeniable. The effects of global warming, discernible today mostly in scary charts and mathematical models, will start to become obvious enough in the real world that even the rightest of right wingers will be forced to acknowledge what’s happening.

Trend #5: The Republican Party will continue to become ever more dependent on the white vote, while the Democratic Party will depend ever more on minorities.

Trend #6: Computational horsepower, even if Moore’s Law doesn’t hold up forever, is going to continue growing, with benefits accruing mostly to the well educated and to owners of capital. This may not lead to true artificial intelligence by 2024, but it will certainly lead to much more intelligent artifices. The uneven distribution of benefits means that income inequality is likely to keep growing, and high school graduates are going to fall ever further behind.

So what does this all mean? With the usual caveats taken—world events can change things, anything can happen, etc.—here are some guesses.

One: Certain aspects of the culture wars will heat up. In particular, thanks to the increasingly polarized demographics of the two main political parties, fights over immigration and race may well be even more acrimonious than they are today.

Two: Some other aspects of the culture wars will start to fade away. This has always been a generational fight among children of the 1960s, and as the boomer generation ages, the battles will start to run out of steam. By 2024, fights over gay marriage will seem as antique as fights over mixed-race marriage seemed by the 1990s. Drug legalization will become more widely accepted, and even abortion politics may start to fade, perhaps with a shaky consensus on the European model, which generally allows most abortions between 12-24 weeks and forbids them after that.

Three: At the same time that the generational fight over values starts to cool off, the generational fight over resources will heat up. Partly this will be because of the increase in the elderly population. Partly it will be because of slower growth and the increasing stagnation of the working class. And partly it will be because the parties will be increasingly split by age group.

Four: With national health care steadily putting down roots, fights over the expansion of the welfare state will largely die off. With all the big-ticket items in place, the economy growing slowly, and health-care spending continuing to rise, there won’t be any appetite for big expansions even among Democrats.

Five: As a result, we can expect increasingly vicious fights over how to divide the existing pie. With slow growth, declining opportunity for the modestly educated, and an expanding elderly population, interest-group protection of existing perks and programs for the working-age population will become the primary battleground of domestic politics.

Six: Energy policy and national-security policy will become more and more intertwined and important. Constrained energy supplies combined with climate change will produce more frequent resource wars, many of which the United States will take sides in. Proxy fights with other major powers, along with American occupation of foreign countries that have newfound strategic value, may become a routine part of our future.

This is a fairly bleak picture. But it seems likely given current demographic trends, current energy trends, and our worsening political paralysis. That last is important, though, because things don’t have to turn out this way. If we recognize the natural effect of increased computing power on the fortunes of the working class and commit ourselves to responding in a fair-minded way, and then combine this with a serious devotion to renewable energy, resource wars could fade away instead of dominating our future, and economic growth could reach its postwar levels once again.

I’m not sure how likely I think this more positive alternate future is. It will probably happen eventually regardless of what we do. But if we recognize it now, and start preparing for it instead of continuing to fight over the reactionary dreams of the Tea Party, we could get there a lot faster and with a whole lot less pain.

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Kevin Drum is a political blogger for Mother Jones. Prior to that, he was a contributing writer for The Washington Monthly and authored their blog, "Political Animal."

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