Democratic Discontent, Black Swans, Constitutional Conventions, and Civil or Foreign Wars

By Peter Daniel Haworth for FRONT PORCH REPUBLIC

Could the United States radically change via another constitutional convention, experience a new civil war, split into multiple confederacies, and/or engage in a massive foreign war in order to preserve its cohesion?[i] According to conventional thought, such possibilities are improbable. Nevertheless, while significant attention has been focused on recent riots in other parts of the world, some pollsters are measuring high levels of discontent here in the United States that might make such improbable events seem more plausible. Recently Paul Joseph Watson reported the following:

“Americans’ lack of confidence in their leadership is so fervent that they are now ‘pre-revolutionary,’ according to pollster Pat Caddell… A new Rasmussen poll shows that just 17 per cent of Americans believe that the U.S. government has the consent of the governed, an all time low. This dovetails with a record low for Congress’ approval rating, which stands at a paltry 6 per cent, while 46 per cent of Americans think most members of Congress are corrupt, with just 29% believing otherwise.”[ii]

When considering Americans’ skepticism about the legitimacy of their government, it is appropriate to question whether a “black swan” political-event (like one of the above) is in the making. Deriving its name from the surprising discovery of the first black version of a swan in Australia (after millenniums of the Old World believing all swans to be white), a black swan event is one that most people consider highly improbable, that is often associated with and catalytic for major paradigm shifts in the course of history, and that people tend to make retrospective explanations for so as to hide (often for the sake of maintaining peace of mind) its outlier status.

In the paragraphs that follow, I elaborate on the theory of black swans and, then, describe some outlier that are, at least, conceivable when hypothesizing about the future of the United States. These are not predictions; rather, they are merely possible events that convention trains us to ignore. However, though some balk at such possibilities, measurements of major political discontent (see above) could be a “trails of bread crumbs” that make such outliers intuitively more plausible. Ignoring the possibility of outlier events (like the ones discussed in this essay) is unwise, for they are frequent within and largely mold human history. Moreover, their occurrence would likely change the substance and course of the life that we are now accustomed to living.

Black Swan Theory and American Possibilities:

The concept and the above three-characteristic definition of “black swan” events were recently made famous by Nassim Nicholas Taleb (investment theorist and author) in his book, The Black Swan. Taleb discusses how many events in history actually qualify as black swans, and the list includes the world wars, the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, the spread of the internet, etc. According to Taleb, the irony is that most important changes in the world are actually black swans, but, yet, there is so little focus on them qua black swans in the social sciences. This is, in part, due to the conventional methodology of focusing on statistically probable phenomena, rather than the possibility of outliers. Taleb, moreover, goes beyond mere theory. He also describes how investors have and can employ black-swan analysis in their work; anticipating and preparing for the improbable can bestow significant rewards[iii] Thus, his insights about outliers have practical implications for how people prepare for the future.

Given both (1) Taleb’s analysis of black swans’ dramatic implications and (2) the high level of contemporary political unrest in America, is it possible that we are on the verge of a statistically improbable, paradigm-shifting event here in the United States? If so, it is worth speculating on the possible black-swan manifestations that Americans’ “’pre-revolutionary’” sentiment might precipitate. Before considering the more extreme outliers, I will consider one that is part of the current constitutional framework but which has never actually been employed: the states exercising their Article V powers to compel Congress into calling a constitutional convention for proposing amendments to the Constitution. The last time that states came close to reaching the two-thirds necessary to accomplish this was during their struggle to enact the 17th Amendment, which made direct election the means of selecting U.S. Senators. Faced with the prospect of having to call a constitutional convention, however, Congress preempted the states by proposing the 17th Amendment, which was then ratified. Is it possible that frustration about the current governmental system could spark another drive by the states for constitutional change? Could such an effort actually be successful because the Federal Congress is sufficiently disliked and, hence, could not successfully preempt a state-driven convention?

With respect to more extreme outliers, some have already started to consider the various possibilities, but their predictions are often discounted because they conflict with conventional thinking. Russian scholar, Igor Panarin, for example, has predicted that there will be another American civil war that separates the United States into four separate confederacies.[iv] Could this be possible?

This question is very serious in light of the late work of famed international systems expert, George F. Kennan, who was a major impetus for the United States’ early containment policy of the Soviet Union after World War II. Kennan’s book, Around The Craged Hill: A Personal and Political Philosophy, suggests, in a manner somewhat similar to Panarin, that the United States is a highly inefficient union that could (and probably should) be divided into multiple sectional republics, albeit while retaining a loose con-federal union. After some discussion of the problems of centralization, Kennan makes this bold statement:

It is under the influence of these views about the disadvantages of ‘bigness’ that I have often diverted myself, and puzzled my friends, by wondering how it would be if our country, while retaining certain rudiments of a federal government, were to be decentralized into something like a dozen constituent republics, absorbing not only the powers of the existing states but a considerable part of those of the present federal establishment. I could conceive of something like nine of these republics—let us say, New England; the Middle Atlantic states; the Middle West, the Northwest (from Wisconsin to the Northwest, and down the Pacific coast to central California); the Southwest (including southern California and Hawaii); Texas (by itself); the Old South; Florida (perhaps including Puerto Rico); and Alaska; plus three great self-governing urban regions, those of New York, Chicago, and Los Angles—a total of twelve constituent entities. To these entities I would accord a large part of the present federal powers than one might suspect—large enough, in fact, to make most people gasp.[v]

If, for the sake of argument, Kennan is correct, it seems possible that future historical events will transpire to correct such disequilibrium. Could war between Americans be an unfortunate part of this correction? Hopefully, the answer is negative, but such hope should not impede serious consideration of the question.

Aside from sectional divisions, one can envision a slightly different mode of American conflict via reflecting upon Taleb’s own account of the Lebanese civil war. Here Taleb’s analysis can offer possible insight into the American scenario in that Taleb’s presentation reveals the Lebanese war as being both an outlier event and an example of civil war that was non-sectional in character. According to Taleb, the war in Lebanon seemed highly improbable to most given Lebanon’s history as place where different religious groups had lived in remarkable concord for several centuries.[vi] Furthermore, when the war occurred, it was fought between people-groups occupying the same territory; it was not a sectional fight akin to the 19th century American Civil War.[vii] If Lebanon could have such an unexpected struggle that destroyed its long-standing paradise, it seems conceivable that a similar non-sectional civil war could erupt in the United States among hostile groups—e.g., secularists versus religious-traditionalists. Such a war might involve neighboring town versus town and individual neighbor versus neighbor.[viii] This possibility might, then, be different from Panarin’s prediction of the American union rupturing into four confederacies, and it is another possible example of an outlier event that most now view to be improbable.

Another reflection entails the possibility of America becoming involved in a major war that results from economic and political unrest. Here I employ the insights of Stanley Hauerwas, a prolific theologian and philosopher at Duke. Hauerwas argues that American unity is often generated via the conjuring of civil religious symbols through American war-making:

War is a moral necessity for America because it provides the experience of the ‘Unum’ that makes the ‘pluribus’ possible. War is America’s central liturgical act necessary to renew our sense that we are a nation unlike other nations.[4] World War I was the decisive moment because it was that war that finally healed the wounds caused by the civil war.[ix]

The realistic possibility of this statement has unsettling implications. If American unity is ever in jeopardy due, perhaps, to pathetic centralized economic and political policies and events, it might become politically (albeit, not ethically) intelligible for Americans to plunge themselves into a war with a foreign enemy, especially given our outstanding military capacity and the possibility of acquiring new economic assets during such a campaign.

Regardless of whether we are (a) on the verge of a black swan and (b) whether it could take the form of a new constitutional convention, civil war and disunion, non-sectional civil war, new foreign conflicts that create patriotic unity and economic opportunity, or some other manifestation, the outcome of any such mode of an improbable game-changer would be immensely disruptive for life as we know it. In following Taleb, we should realize that preparing for major outliers is both practical and often rewarding. Given both these considerations and the realization that black swans are (as Taleb argues) frequent in history, it seems prudent to continue exploring these issues. In fact such an examination might be one of the saner actions for us to pursue at this juncture.

[i] With respect to the title of this essay, I am in partial debt to Michael Sandel because I am playing off the title to his interesting book, Democracy’s Discontent.

[ii] Paul Joseph Watson, “Pollster: Americans are ‘Pre-Revolutionary’,”,, Accessed on August 10, 2011.

[iii] Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable (New York: Random House, 2010), xxi-xxxiii.

[iv] Andrew Osborn, “As if Things Weren’t Bad Enough, Russian Professor Predicts End of the USA,” Wall Street Journal, , Accessed on August 10, 2011.

[v] George F. Kennan, Around The Cragged Hill: A Personal and Political Philosophy (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1993), 149-150.

[vi] Taleb 3-10.

[vii] It is difficult to ascribe the term “civil war” to the great American war between the Northern and Southern states during the 19th century. This was NOT a struggle to control the federal government; rather, it was a war to prevent the Southern states’ from seceding.

[viii] Here I want to tip-my-hat to American historian, Walter McDougall, who mentioned this as a prediction made by a contemporary international relations analyst.

[ix] Stanley Hauerwas, “War and the American Difference,” The Harvard Icthus, , Accessed on August 16, 2011.


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