Last week, in response to a posting on an internet bulletin board in which I said that the U.S. was now in the third great crisis of our national life, I received an email from an academic friend asking me to elaborate. I replied briefly in terms that would be very familiar to any regular readers here, but I left out one key issue--one that has been bothering me for some time. When, he asked, did the crisis begin? I did not answer that directly, partly because I do not think I know. That historians will find a crisis in the early 21st century I have no doubt, but where they put the beginning will largely depend on how it turns out. It could be in 2008. It could also be in 2001. We will probably have a pretty good idea of the answer within another three years--and the answer is very bound up with the issue of the future of America.
A crisis, Strauss and Howe argued, begins with a catalyst. When 9/11 occurred many of us wondered whether we were off an running. The country's mood changed dramatically, overnight; President Bush took advantage of the moment to project an image of strong leadership; and we embarked upon war in Afghanistan. Within two years he had also invaded Iraq, but that had divided, rather than united, the country. The issues of the culture wars became more and more heated during the 2004 campaign. The Schiavo case and Katrina discredited the President among moderates. The electorate swung violently to the left in 2006, and even more so in 2008. Bush, to quote his father, appeared to be history. By early 2009, most students of the generational theory, including myself, dated the actual beginning of the crisis somewhere between 2005 (Katrina) and 2008 (the economic collapse), and looked forward to a New-Deal style regeneracy under Barack Obama.
This could still happen--the outcome of our current political struggles remains much in doubt. But for reasons that I have discussed many times, Obama has not accomplished 1/10 of what FDR did, both because he could not and because he did not want to. He has much smaller majorities and a sense of crisis divides, rather than uniting, the country. He is also surrounded, as Roosevelt was not, by very conventional advisers in the economic and foreign policy spheres, ones with no inclination to make fundamental changes in the policies they inherited. His popularity has fallen a great deal since he came into office. He has two major (and very narrow) legislative achievements to his credit, the stimulus package (which is now starting to run out) and the health care bill, which can only be the first step in a lengthy and very complex process. He is now being hurt, apparently, by the oil blow-out in the Gulf, even though it is in no way his own fault. And the most informed opinion, at fivethirtyeight.com (run by the baseball analyst turned political analyst Nate Silver) predicts significant Democratic losses this fall in both the House and Senate. In fact Silver has just put the Democratic chances of retaining a majority in the House at just 50-50. Unless these trends are reversed more quickly I do not see how Obama is going to score any great legislative victories.
What this means, I am sorry to say, is that George W. Bush may well prove in the long run to have been a far more influential President than Barack Obama, precisely because he took advantage of the post-9/11 crisis mood to make fundamental changes in America. He was in fact already trying to do so before 9/11, having pushed through the first of a series of tax cuts--cuts big enough to re-create a large permanent deficit in a period of Boom, thereby leaving the government fiscally crippled when the next bust hit. He claimed vast new executive powers after 9/11, including the right to torture captives. His successor has not by any means renounced all of those powers, and indeed has intensified legal efforts to stop leaks of government documents, and by failing to punish those responsible for torture, Obama has in effect made torture a Presidential prerogative even as he declines to exercise it himself. Bush accelerated the handing over of the federal regulatory structure to industry and finance, an effort the new Administration has not done much to undo. Last but not least, he has deployed American military power to try to install and maintain client regimes in parts of the Muslim world, and he started a confrontation with Iran that still threatens eventually to escalate into war. The Obama Administration has not in the least repudiated the policy of acting against hostile regimes to prevent them from acquiring nuclear weapons, and has repeated that Iran must not be allowed to acquire them. Nor has been able to reverse the new policy Bush instituted towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, namely, that Israel will continue to settle whatever territory it wants and treat the Palestinians however it wants until the Palestinians capitulate to Israeli terms. If we lose more of our remaining friends in the Muslim world, such as Turkey, the consequences may become serious.
George W. Bush was, in certain respects, the kind of leader who thrives in a crisis. He had very firm beliefs and could not have cared less about those who opposed him, and he appointed men and women very eager to achieve his goals. His policies may have been in many ways disastrous, but he got them in place--and they are still very much with us. Domestically he completed the restoration of the Gilded Age, while inaugurating a new age of American imperialism abroad. These policies may be disastrous, but they have become part of the conventional wisdom, one which Barack Obama has challenged relatively gingerly, if at all.
Liberal optimists on the Fourth Turning website cling to one legitimate hope: that the Millennial generation, which put Obama in power, will more than counterbalance the tea party movement, limit Democratic losses to tolerable levels (whatever that mean), and triumphantly re-elect him in 2012. They could be right--but only if Obama begins delivering for those young people, something he has not yet begun to do. More importantly, Obama must do more than find them work if we are really to replay 1929-45: he must enlist them in a great crusade. And this in turn leads us to one of the most interesting aspects of Strauss and Howe's original theory.
Model builders are notoriously fond of trying to fit data into their model, whether it fits or not. Strauss and Howe defined four kinds of generations, Prophets (like Boomers), Nomads (Xers), Heroes (Millennials and GIs), and Artists (now represented by the Silent Generation--all of it past retirement age--and infant and toddler Homelanders.) They recognized two critical Hero generations in American history: the Republicans (Jefferson, Hamilton, Jay, Madison, Monroe, Marshall, and many more), and the GIs (every President from JFK to Bush I, and all their contemporaries.) But somehow, while writing Geenrations, they recognized that the model did not seem to fit the Civil War era. In the 70 years before the war broke out they found a huge Prophet generation, the Transcendentals, born from the early 1790s to the early 1820s; a Nomad Generation, the Gilded, born about 1822-41; and the Progressive Generation, which I would put at 1842-62. The Progressives, they decided, were being raised to be Heroes, but the Crisis came too soon and ended too quickly for them to play their proper role. Relatively few fought in the war, and the Gilded eclipsed them in the postwar world. Because Nomads like the Gilded and Gen X have no faith in institutions, the post-Civil War institutional structure of the US remained very weak--even weaker than it is now. The Progressives became Artists, focusing on making American society kinder, gentler, and more regulated. They were more effective at the local than the national level for a very long time. The same thing could happen to the Millennials.
So, twenty years from now, one of two things will have happened. On the one hand, we might have a new structure of financial regulation, heavily progressive taxation, and health care, and we might be relying on green energy for a substantial portion of our needs, allowing nations like Afghanistan and Iraq to return to the relative obscurity they so richly deserve. Barack Obama would rank as a great President, workers' rights would have made some gains, and higher education might even be starting a comeback. Or, on the other hand, we will still have armies of occupation in the Middle East; economic inequality will have grown; a nativist frenzy will have driven a significant number of immigrants out of the country; and the historical rehabilitation of George W. Bush will be well under way. Perhaps my generation, having been born into a world of such strong institutions, was simply destined to spend its energies overturning them. Or perhaps we can save them yet again. Like my inspiration Charles A. Beard in the 1930s, I have reached one definite conclusion: there are no laws of progress that humanity is destined to obey. Beard died shortly after my birth, utterly disillusioned with the world his contemporaries had made. Should Bush, rather than Obama, turn out to have been the critical crisis President, I shall be deeply disappointed, but I shall die with confidence that the rhythms of history will eventually turn back in the other direction once again. I am sure quite a few abolitionists born around 1800 died at 85 or 90 awfully disillusioned with what their contemporaries had wrought, too, but we know that the story was not yet over. Meanwhile, the battle continues.