As long-time readers know, I believe in the theory of fundamental crises in the lives of nations every eighty years or so. The last such period of crisis extended from the late 1920s (in Germany and the United States into at least the 1950s (in Britain and Western Europe), and produced the defeat of Nazism and Fascism, the rise of the welfare state, and the Common Market and European Union. A nearly simultaneous but even more protracted crisis in East Asia eventually made Japan a member of the western alliance as well, but established China, North Korea, and eventually Vietnam as Communist states. Eastern Europe has consistently been 10-15 years in advance of Western Europe. The First World War, rather than the Second, transformed Eastern Europe and the Middle East, and much of that legacy--including the states of Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, and the Soviet Union--died in the 1990s. (In his new book The End of Iraq, my contemporary Peter Galbraith--who does not seem to be aware of the broader Strauss-Howe theory--points out that Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, the USSR and Iraq were four multinational and multi-religious states created after 1919, and makes a powerful case that Iraq, like the others, is destined for the dustbin of history.
Certainty, ironically, breeds crisis. The American and western European establishments from about 1870 to 1929 were certain, as Herbert Hoover wrote Woodrow Wilson in 1919, that they had created an unrivalled, almost miraculous system for the production and distribution of goods and services. Even the economic turmoil of the First World War did little to shake their basic faith. Then came the Depression, which swept away the German government, made way for Nazism, and split the industrialized world with disastrous consequences. Franklin Roosevelt's great achievement was to prevent the economic catastrophe in the United States from creating a similar political crisis, and instead to use it to redefine the role of the American government. The British and French were far less affected by the depression, and only the great shock of the war forced them to make fundamental changes.
As I have noted before, especially in my review of Kevin Phillip’s new book, we have plenty to worry about economically today, but it seems to me that the real crisis we are going to face during the next twenty years will be more political than economic. Here again, certainty is leading us to disaster. I quote once again from that most revealing document, the current national security strategy of the United States. "The great struggles of the twentieth century between liberty and totalitarianism ended with a decisive victory for the forces of freedom—and a single sustainable model for national success: freedom, democracy, and free enterprise. In the twenty-first century, only nations that share a commitment to protecting basic human rights and guaranteeing political and economic freedom will be able to unleash the potential of their people and assure their future prosperity. People everywhere want to be able to speak freely; choose who will govern them; worship as they please; educate their children—male and female; own property; and enjoy the benefits of their labor. These values of freedom are right and true for every person, in every society—and the duty of protecting these values against their enemies is the common calling of freedom-loving people across the globe and across the ages." The blueprint, just as Hoover wrote 77 years ago, is laid out; only the execution remains.
Just fifteen years after Hoover, however, the historian Charles A. Beard began his important and neglected work, The Open Door at Home, by stating the obvious: the worldwide depression showed beyond doubt that there were no immutable laws of human development leading inexorably towards progress. (Beard is often characterized as an economic determinist--most recently in Sam Tannehaus’s review of a new biography of Richard Hofstadter in today's New York Times--but Beard had obviously moved way beyond determinism by the mid-1930s.) From this obvious fact Beard drew another important conclusion, that ethics and aesthetics should play a role in designing the particular future that we sought. Beard himself rejected American involvement in quarrels on other continents and even wanted to solve our economic problems in relative (though hardly absolute) economic isolation from the rest of the world. That, of course, was not the path we took, but Beard's comments, it seems to me, need to be recast today to recognize the political crisis that the whole world is facing.
The most obvious symptom of the crisis is in the Arab world, where traditional authoritarian regimes have obviously lost touch with their peoples and where radical movements like Hezbollah and Hamas clearly seem to have the upper hand in the struggle for popular allegiance. Although no reporter had the temerity to ask President Bush and Prime Minister Blair about this during their joint press conference recently, democratic elections in Palestine brought Hamas to power--hardly the kind of outcome the authors of the 2002 national security strategy had in mind. The radical movements, helped by the overthrow of the Iraqi government, have become strong enough to threaten Israel, and Israeli retaliation, justified or not, seems to be further undermining existing governments and making them even stronger. The refusal of the Administration to acknowledge any of this is bound to make it worse.
That, however, is only one symptom of a much broader problem. Most of the governments of the successor states of the Soviet Union, including the Russian one, are becoming increasingly authoritarian and unable to cope with large criminal enterprises. In China the Communist Party has overseen an extraordinary social and economic transformation over the last thirty years, but it is certainly not clear that it can either maintain itself indefinitely or yield gracefully to something new. The rejection of the new European constitution by French and Dutch voters last year showed a populace out of touch with its leadership. In Britain Tony Blair has singlehandedly pursued a foreign policy at odds with most of his party and public opinion--hardly a sign of a thriving democracy? But nowhere, perhaps, is democracy in worse shape than in the United States itself.
It seems amazing to me that no one wants to discuss this very much, but we are certainly at a low point politically unmatched since--strikingly--the 1920s. A totally pro-business Republican administration (albeit far less successful at the polls than Harding and Coolidge were) has relentlessly cut taxes and regulations without any thought of what this means for the future. The Democratic Party, now as then, seems unable to offer any alternative. The Republican Party itself is controlled by a juggernaut of well-0rganized minorities who most certainly do not represent the American people as a whole. In many states the Republicans are trying to cement their hold on power by making it more difficult for poor people to register or to vote. And the media seems extraordinarily unwilling to go deeply into the corruption of Washington, even though the Cunningham, Abramoff, and Enron scandals should each by rights have gotten at least ten times the ink that Whitewater or Monica Lewinsky did. To focus on our actual state, apparently, would reflect so badly on the Administration that it would open the press to the charge of trying to "get" Bush, and thus such a focus must be avoided. This is hardly the role the Founding Fathers envisioned for the free press.
When I first became aware of Strauss and Howe about twelve years ago, I was initially intellectually excited. Later, as the Republican Party began to exploit (and exacerbate) the crisis in domestic and foreign policy, I was frightened. I still am, but I am learning to see the bright side as well. All the great political achievements of the past were, in one way or another, responses to crises. Yes, it is sad that my generation has done so much to land us in the mess we are in; but getting out of it will open up unparalleled opportunities both for a few of us and for the younger generation to put things back together. The Boom generation never had the opportunity to create a new world, much as they dreamed of doing so. Their parents and grandparents had bequeathed a relatively just one to them, and their only means of distinguishing themselves, sadly, has been to tear it down. Our own children, like our parents the GIs, will have the chance to put it back together, and 20 years hence, they, like our parents around 1950, may have a great deal to be proud of. Just as oppression breeds nobility, disaster breeds greatness. Such is my hope. Of course, by then our children, too, will have children of their own whose ingratitude will one day burst forth--but that will be another story altogether, one which few of us are likely to see.