The salient political issues of the present differ greatly from those of a couple of decades ago, albeit with some continuities as to how parties and ideologies align. In the early-2000s, intelligent design and embryonic stem cells were flashpoints in the “culture war” (a term that had only recently become prevalent). Intelligent design faded as a political issue after a federal court found in 2005 that it was a religion-based doctrine that didn’t belong in public schools. Restrictions on federal stem-cell funding have been imposed and lifted repeatedly with changes in administrations, but this dispute too has declined in visibility, with early expectations of the technology now seeming overhyped.
It wasn’t obvious in the 2000s that transgenderism would become a focus of major political conflict two decades later, though the subject was gradually rising in public consciousness. The first transgender pride flag was flown in 2000, for example, and within a decade openly transgender people had started to appear in political offices and on lists of bestselling books. In 2016, legislation about what public restrooms people could use in North Carolina brought transgenderism into a national political spotlight.
It’s a safe bet that many political issues of coming decades will be over matters that generate little controversy or notice today, and that some of today’s issues will have receded from the attention of politicians and the public. Still, one might find hints of what’s to come in areas of contention that are discernible today. Though it’s a matter of speculation as to what issues will dominate public consciousness in a couple of decades, one can try to make informed guesses based on matters already stirring or analogies to current disputes. Below are some prospective political controversies of the not-distant future:
Biohackers vs. Traditional Humans. Plausibly, the transgenderism clash will turn out to be a prelude to a broader conflict over transhumanism, in which individuals’ rights to alter their own and their offspring’s genetic, biochemical and physiological composition will be the subject of fierce contention. Current-day efforts to tweak one’s musculature or other features through techniques including rudimentary genetic re-engineering have been controversial, and it can be expected that further opposition will arise as technological developments give such efforts greater credibility and effectiveness.
Novel political alignments may form over this transhumanist biohacking, with opposition coming both from left-wingers concerned about implications for inequality, and right-wingers seeing it as an affront to traditional religious values. Non-religious rightists, however, may embrace it on libertarian or Nietzschean grounds. Controversy will intensify as prospects develop for parents to engineer their children in the womb and beyond. Conservatives opposed to such actions may come to regret the 2020s parental-rights campaign in public education, including such phrasing as that children “belong” to their parents, as rife with unintended implications.
Geoengineers vs. Cautionaries. For decades, the politics of climate change have generally consisted of disputes between progressives alarmed about the issue and eager for conservation and cleaner energy, and conservatives skeptical about the existence, severity or tractability of the problem. However, many progressives have opposed geoengineering—efforts to counter climate change through direct technological interventions, such as dispersing particles to block sunlight—as both dangerous and a distraction from a needed decarbonization of the economy.
I’ve wondered, as in a 2014 blog post, whether there might eventually be a partial role-reversal, where right-wingers take an alarmed view of climate change and demand action in the form of geoengineering, while progressives wary of such measures decry their opponents’ reckless alarmism and call for a more cautious approach. Nothing like this has happened, and I’ve become skeptical that such a realignment will occur. Substack writer Damon Linker recently noted a growing tendency toward fatalism on the right, evident on issues ranging from climate change to Covid to gun violence; this is an astute point that suggests gung-ho right-wing geoengineers are unlikely to emerge as a significant political force.
Moloch vs. Pazuzu. I recently wrote about the cultural and political significance of the demon Moloch, viewed diversely as a spiritual entity demanding child sacrifice and as a metaphor for destructive forms of competition that yield negative-sum outcomes. The Moloch metaphor has been deployed in recent warnings about artificial intelligence, in that companies and countries are incentivized to undertake AI development without adequate consideration of the technology’s potential to be misused or to autonomously destroy or enslave humanity.
The demon Pazuzu, like Moloch an entity from Near Eastern mythology but also familiar as the possessing demon in the book and film The Exorcist, may similarly come to be a metaphor for certain attitudes regarding AI and civilizational risk. Traditionally, Pazuzu, though malign, could be invoked against other evil forces, such as the demon Lamashtu. It makes sense that, if Moloch refers to the dangers of untrammeled AI, Pazuzu could be the champion of those who wish to develop AI programs that can serve as countermeasures against other AIs. A pro-Pazuzu political constituency could form along such lines, especially as cultural memories of The Exorcist fade.
—Kenneth Silber is author of In DeWitt’s Footsteps: Seeing History on the Erie Canal and posts at Post.News.