Theory of social change and how it applies to 2020

Mallory Menard, Opinions Editor

Among other things, the year 2020 took America by surprise. The Covid-19 pandemic, the rise of BLM demonstrations, growing tensions between political parties, and of course, election 2020. Global health crisis or not, a presidential election was bound to happen this year. Whether you supported Biden or Trump, everyone can agree that this election seemed much more intensified as compared to prior election years. The simple reasoning could be due to a mix of unfortunate events that just so coincidentally occurred this year. However, scientific theories may say otherwise. 

The cyclical theory of change, “rise and fair” theory, concludes that social phenomena of whatever sort recur again and again, exactly as they were before in a cyclical fashion. In other words, this idea focuses on how societies develop themselves to a high point and then exhaust their progressive capacities eventually embarking on a downhill journey until they reach their lowest stage. Thus, the cycle of rising and falling continues one after another. 

The cyclical theory of social change was developed by Oswald Arnold Gottfried Spengler and Arnold J. Toynbee, both famous thinkers who compared and contrasted the idea. Toynbee supported his idea within reference to the rise and fall of the great civilization of Egypt, propounding the theory of “challenge and response” meaning that those who can cope with a changing environment survive and those who cannot die. According to Spengler, every society has a sort of set life cycle of birth, growth, maturity, and decline. 

After passing all of these stages, society returns to its original stage to continue the cycle. Both sides agree to disagree, and society can grow and survive if it can constructively respond to the challenges. We move in circles rather than straight lines. 

So is western society entering a destined period of decay due to social breakdown, or is our fate determined by how society responds to internal and external enemies? 

These are all just theories, of course. Believe them or not, the parallels are undeniably present. Global empires have significantly downsized within the last hundred years as smaller countries have been gaining independence from larger powers. Other superpowers besides America such as China, Russia, Japan, and India are all exceeding and receding at different rates in terms of their economy and political factors. With technological advances and the race to become the best of the best, countries will never stop fighting to get to the top. But with just the push of a button, all of these powers can be demolished through a nuclear bomb. It’s all just a matter of fate though, right? 

As much as some people hate to admit, all things good must come to an end – just as the thousand-year reigning Byzantine empire, Eastern/Western Roman empire, or the Kingdom of Kush all fell to their knees eventually and became a part of the modern-day world. According to some science, an empire such as America may join this history soon. Not with raging war and fire, bloodshed, and how you’d imagine a country to fall through. 

Alfred McCoy developed an idea that America being known as a global superpower may change sooner than any of us could expect it to. 

“The American Century, proclaimed so triumphantly at the start of World War II, may already be tattered and fading by 2025 and, except for the finger-pointing, could be over by 2030,” McCoy wrote. 

This is just one man’s opinion though, right? However, other historians have developed timelines unceasingly similar to Mccoy’s. Peter Turchin puts the millennial generation as the turbulence generation, with major events taking place from 2010-2050. And Richard Duncan proposes his theory that oil-based societies may only last about a century, putting economic collapse around 2030. 

Whether in the next 10 years or the next 80 years, America is bound to endure troubled seas. A crisis – economic, political, militia, or social – will hit the system one way or another. This year, in particular, we’ve seen events like no other that place these theories and others on track to their fulfillment. To kick off 2020, the world saw the pandemic of the century, killing millions and making its mark in American politics. Unrest and protest, concerning BLM and the recent U.S. Capitol upheaval ignited individuals seeking permanent change in our government and racial standings. All of these events and more seemed to fuel the 2020 presidential election like no other year. Conservatism and liberalism have torn communities in half, and the country too. But thanks to science, there may be a reason for that as well. 

Arthur Schlesinger Sr. presented an opposing model of cyclicality relating to the United States political views. According to Schlesinger, from the beginning of democracy, the U.S. can be seen to cycle back and forth between periods of conservatism and periods of liberalism in an average cycle length of 16 years. Although Schlesingler’s chart only dates up until about 1950, the timeline has shown to fill in the blanks in an accurate way as predicted (see bolded print). 


Liberal  Conservative



Bush (R)




Gilded Age II


Sixties Radicalism


Eisenhower Era


The New Deal


Republican Restoration


Progressive Era


The Gilded Age


Abolition of Slavery and Reconstruction


Domination of National Government by Slaveowners


Jacksonian Democracy


Conservative Retreat After War of 1812


Liberal Period of Jeffersonianism


Hamiltonian Federalism

In this model, a liberal period is seen to be when the national objective is to “increase democracy” while in a conservative period the objective is to “contain democracy.” This “democracy” is defined by Schlesinger as pertaining to social, economical, and political status. Schlesinger explained how the nation does not necessarily swing back and forth to the same fixed point of view, rather in a spiral, which a cumulation of change concurring as the alteration precedes at a successfully higher level. When one side of reasoning takes over governing, the other has time to build itself up to take back over but not always in a consistent way as some liberal/conservative presidents serve two terms rather than one, explaining how Americans point of view alters over time due to the actions of governing superiors. 

As of now, America seems to be moving into the next liberal phase as Biden has now been elected president. This shift has been rocky given the transition of power between Trump and Biden, but it was destined to happen thanks to Schlesinger’s early prediction. 

Upon the death of George Floyd in May of 2020, a series of Black Lives Matter protests exploded across the country. Such social unrest only helped fuel the tensions of Election 2020, becoming a huge topic on social media and news sources. Politicians debated on how to properly approach the demands of BLM groups and police brutality all concluding to the overall idea of racial injustice. Formed in 2013, the Black Lives Matter group has seen rising appearances in both 2016 and 2020, both election years. And just recently before President Biden was sworn in, Trump supporters stormed the nation’s capitol. A couple of decades before all of this though, civil unrest seemed to be exhibited less in America. 

Peter Turchin, a Russian-American scientist mentioned earlier, developed a field of study known as Cliodynamics which provides a reasoning for the surge of violence and protest as America experienced throughout 2020. Scientists using the Cliodynamic field of study attempt to find meaningful patterns in history, and in America’s case, a pattern of social unrest. 

The United States is caught in a cycle in which our nation seems to “freak out” every 50 years or so, this year making its mark. Turchin, by applying mathematical techniques previously used to observe predator-prey cycles in forest environments to human history, was able to infer three major periods of American insurrection. He compiled historical data between 1780 and 2010 occurring in the U.S. including terrorism, riots, assassinations, and rampages. In the end, his data concluded that a repetitive cycle of violence renews itself every 50 years in America, peaking in every other generation.

In 1870, the Union defeated the Confederacy in the Civil War. A half-century later, about 1920, anti-Communist sentiment, worker unrest, and racial tensions produced another wave of violence. 50 years later, Vietnam and the Civil Rights movement surged and created a third peak of social, political, and racial unrest. Turchin predicted the next peak in 50 years to be 2020, and he couldn’t have been more correct. Police brutality, BLM protests, the capital riot, all occurring around the exact prediction of Turchin’s data.

Half a century seems to be a random period for surges in violence, but Turchin explained how each cycle begins explosively. Americans experience a need to return to stability following sustained violence, but unfortunately, stability doesn’t last. Those directly involved in the violence occurring in the predicted years are usually the ones to demand peace. Once that conflict-scarred generation moves on, a new group of people inexperienced in such civil disorder causes a new insurrection. This occurs roughly between every two generations of 40 to 60 years, supporting the idea of Cliodynamics in American society. One event triggers another, uproar unfolds, peace is demanded, and violence becomes impatient to appear again. 

COVID-19, unrest and protest, police brutality, the presidential election, the year 2020 seemed to be the perfect storm of all things terrible. If the cyclical, liberal/conservative cycle and cliodynamic theories can all be supported as occurring in such a year, how did we not see this coming? Spengler and Toynbee’s idea of social change veering towards a downward in Western civilization has been evident through the fluctuating economy and government stability, McCoy’s idea of the American Century seeing its end is most probably due to rising powers in the East, Schlesinger chart of ever-changing liberal/conservative views has seen its consistency, and Turchin was spot on about surges of violence.

Scientific theories have yet again proved the future of America, and if society uses this data to our advantage, we can at least prepare ourselves for what is to come. But it’s all just a theory, right?