The crises that convulse our (and other nations') body politics every 80 years or so, as Strauss and Howe showed, stem from several related causes. The first is the death of the old order, which comes about as those generations who helped create it pass from the scene. Currently those generations were the GIs (born around 1904-24) and the Silent generation (born 1925-42), the former of which, in particular, had a lifelong commitment to a particular set of beliefs and values by around 1950, as well as a terrific talent for politics. They valued rational thought over emotion; they produced dozens of Nobel Prize winners in the sciences, but only one, Saul Bellow, in literature. Yet their calm and deliberate approach to problems did not prevent them from making a catastrophic mistake in Vietnam, as I showed at length in American Tragedy, and creating a confidence gap, if you will, which their Boomer children eagerly filled. That leads us to the second source of crises: the coming to power in one institution after another of the Prophet generation, that grew up under unusual conditions of stability and therefore took its parents achievements for granted and gave its own feelings free rein. Blessed or cursed by an overwhelming sense of right and wrong, the older Prophets become the leaders of crusades. The catch is that the wisdom of the particular crusades upon which they embark will determine whether they lead to triumph or to catastrophe.
American history includes examples of both kinds of crusades. The Transcendental generation, born from the 1790s through the 1810s, polarized around the idea of slavery and eventually tore the nation asunder and plunged it into civil war. Abolition, which inevitably became the goal of the North two years into the war, was surely a worthy cause, and one which triumphed; but by 1868 the country was sick of the Transcendentals, North and South, and swept them out of power. (Members of the younger Gilded generation--the generation that had actually fought the war--beat Transcendentals in the first three postwar Presidential elections.) The Prophets in any case, while seizing upon the right solution to slavery in principle--the transformation of slaves into full citizens--lacked the perseverance, organizational skill, and vision actually to make it happen, and white southerners re-established white supremacy. Politically the civil war created the Republican ascendancy that lasted, with rare and more or less accidental exceptions, until 1932, but its results were hardly commensurate with the sacrifice involved, and racial problems persisted for another one hundred years.
The next Prophet generation, the Missionaries (born 1863? - 1884 or so) did better. They were probably the least religious of any American prophet generation, and their leadership was probably the best educated (and indeed, they created the modern American educational system.) Because there was no Vietnam-like catastrophe during their youth, they had to maintain some respect for their elders. Many of them, like many of today's Prophets, adopted a religious faith in free markets, but others adopted the cause of economic reform, first in youth and middle age (in the Progressive Era) and then, after the stock market crash, during the New Deal. Helped by younger generations, they developed the regulated capitalism that created the longest era of equitable economic growth since the industrial revolution. And in the Second World War, Roosevelt led the nation into a genuine crusade to save western civilization.
Vietnam was not the Boom generation's mistake, but it released their most calamitous instincts. Faced with clear proof that their elders had been wrong, they were confirmed in their belief that they must be right--that the whole word was corrupt and in need of the redemption only they could provide. I will not rehash again the effects this impulse has had in various spheres of American life, but will skip to the present--encouraged in this respect by an excellent review by Max Rodebeck, an Economist correspondent,. of a new book by Kenneth Pollack on the Middle East. (I can't find any information either about Rodebeck's national origin or his generation, but he is a man of good sense). Like his fellow Boomers George W. Bush, Al Gore (whom I finally got around to watching in An Inconvenient Truth), and Thomas Friedman, Pollack's first principle is an unshakable belief in his own rightness, even when what he is saying today is the opposite of what he said a year ago. As Rodebeck points out, Pollack has not significantly been chastened by the impact of a previous book, A Gathering Storm, which in 2002 made a frightening and, as it turned out, completely fallacious case for invading Iraq, which he was sure was soon to have nuclear weapons. Now he wants to push ahead with reform of the Middle East, and refuses to admit (as Rodebeck points out) that the Israeli-Palestinian question might have anything to do with our problems there. But Pollack is part of something much bigger.
It was George W. Bush who escalated the American crusade for democracy by pursuing it through conquest, but it was his fellow Boomer Bill Clinton who started it. Clinton gave us both NATO expansion and the war over Kosovo. Indeed, Boomer Democrats are generally nearly as interventionist as Boomer Republicans--they simply tend to prefer more humanitarian causes. Together, Clinton and Bush have left a legacy of confrontation with Russia--still heavily nuclear armed--over the political allegiance of the states on Russia's borders. John McCain--a Silent whose Administration, if he has one, will be completely dominated by Republican Boomers in the same way that James Buchanan's was dominated by Democratic Transcendentals--will apparently escalate that confrontation if he wins. What would Barack Obama do?
Just this past week Obama gave an extraordinary interview to Time that showed an astonishing awareness of the issues I have been discussing here. I quote:
Does it make a difference that you are the first presidential candidate who came of age after the 1960s?
Yes, I think that the ideological battles of the '60s have continued to shape our politics for too long. They haven't shaped the lives of the American people. The average baby boomer, I think, has long gotten past some of these abstract arguments about are you left, are you right, are you big government, small government. You know, people are very practical. What they are interested in is: Can you deliver schools that work? I'm working really hard, can I get some health care that I can count on? Do we have a foreign policy that deals with our enemies but also has some sense of humility about it, so that we are able to gain cooperation from our allies around the world?
People recognize that government can't do everything and that most of us have to take individual responsibility, but what we do expect is that government can help. So those kinds of arguments have been resolved in the minds of the American people for a long time, but they still drive politics in Washington. And one of the things we have to do in this campaign is to break out of some of those old arguments. And what, frankly, the McCain campaign wants to do is to try to push us back into those old arguments. So the campaign they're running is a reprise of the Republican greatest hits of the last 25 years. "He's going to raise your taxes. He's not patriotic. He's going to be soft on our enemies."
Well, I don't blame them for that. It's worked for them. But it doesn't solve problems. It's part of the reason they've been governing so poorly, because what they campaign on doesn't have anything to do with the problems we have right now. He's got an energy policy that has been nonexistent for the last eight years, at a time where everybody could see that this is going to have as much to do with our national security, our environment, our economy as anything out there.
Obama is essentially making a generational gamble, betting that the Boomers have burnt themselves out in 16 years of fruitless ideological struggle and that the country is ready for what amounts to a post-crisis approach to its problems. The two younger generations--his own Xers and the Millennials--are surely ready for that, but Boomers will still dominate the media, Congress and the Supreme Court for a long time to come. And how exactly will President Obama sell, for instance, a less confrontational approach to the Soviet Union? Could he ride out a deluge of accusations of "appeasement?" And is there enough understanding of domestic affairs even among the younger generations--who were educated by Boomers who have never been very interested in domestic policy at all--to begin moving towards a more sanely regulated economy? I don't know.
Strauss and Howe's theory was flexible enough to account for anomalies, such as the one they found in the Civil War, which did not produce a Hero generation like the GIs (another reason why its results were so fleeting.) A successful Obama Presidency would be another such anomaly. But perhaps Boomers have been hoist on their own petard. They were the chief popularizers of postmodernism in academia and of "staying on message" in politics--in short, of the idea that only feelings and ideas, not results, matter. Perhaps they have indeed fought one another to a standstill on that terrain, sparing us another civil war, and allowing younger generations to get on with the business of rebuilding the country. But while I am hopeful, I am not convinced.