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Saturday, June 19, 2010

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.


Bozon said...

Great 'Untitled' essay.
Really paints a picture.
I agree with most all of this assessment.

At this late date, could it really have been otherwise?

Is the 'office' of the presidency, after about 1970, politically/structurally well placed to instigate and then accomplish really thoroughgoing domestic reforms?

I doubt it.

Real 'reforms' I suspect, but not necessarily those anyone thinking hard rationally would affirm, are more likely to come, as the crisis in the 1860s did, from states, sectional groupings, or splinter groups running across states, not from the Presidency.

Thanks for posting this.

All the best,
Gerald Meaders

Anonymous said...

Fascinating. An incomplete cycle. Still, we have ten years till the 80 years from 1940 and "crisis war" start. There are term limits. Obama would be gone by then at any rate. FDR was perhaps so successful because of the inconclusive change after the Civil War. Conservative cynical forces won much and so they could be pushed back tdue to the succeeding progress of worker's rights, etc. in the 1900, 1910s and spread of new technologies to make the common man rich (electical devices, radios, telephones, cars).

Now the USA is maxed out on power, overstretched (per capita energy usage and wages in decline or flat for 40 years) militarily to maintain its power (hundreds of bases globally) as new countries come to the fore to claim their ancient right (China was long a premier world power, Europeans usurped premier Asian role in 16th century).

So essentially if America is on the wrong side of history this time around then history will see justice in a bad ending for this crisis for the USA. The imperial power exploting global workers (Wal Mart factories globally) and oil sources (Saudi,Mexico, Canada) declines due to having a more wasteful, extravagant , debt dependent lifestyle. Essentially we can imagine USA as Rome on steroids. Wicked and profligate. "Marie Antoinette" saying to the impoverished Banghladeshis slaving for Wal Mart in sweat shops, "let them eat cake" as their food runs out due to USA Ethanol requiring all USA corn be put into hummers of soccer moms.

Essentially millenials have a bad future but were massivley spoiled beforehand and are for example not fitted to a hero role and there is no clear vision to be heroic towards as there is no visionary to give it. Take current Germany. Similar crisis without a military possibility. Technical adjustment ot resoruce decline and population decline is not very heroic but in a shrinking world and destroyed environment humans are not Odysseus or Vikings anymore. Perhaps a global war of desperates to keep the growth ball rolling will happen. USA vs. China all out for control of Saudi oil, etc. t keep infinite grwoth going and this would be a GW Bush tpy eof war, a pure power play without careful consideration of long term realities in the world. Thios can perhaps only happen if the Xers of the right take on the reins of power and get rid of Obama after 2012 closing off USA to reaobnableness, making America more feared and hated than even under Bush. Only if all else fails miserably, very possible given the current dire circumstances of debt and cluslessness, could the Tea Party desroy America and perhaps the world.

Anonymous said...

I'm inclined to think the real parallels lie between 1685 and 1688 -- same constitutional doctrines, strikingly similar personalities. In terms of local references, Sir Edmund Andros of the Dominion of New England would have fitted admirably in the Bush administration. And, slightly further afield, Judge Jeffreys would have felt quite at home with Messrs Alito, Thomas, Yoo et al. Lest we despair, 1649 and 1688 did resolve things even if, amazingly, the political generation of 2001 is trying to take us back to James II.

Nur-al-Cubicle said...

I think that one of Obama's problems is that he is an outsider and probably beholden to people he would be better off not being beholden to (Chicago personalities, the Clintons, etc.). They have him boxed in.


Professor, i read your commentary each week with interest, but forbear comment in most cases because i defer to your greater expertise.
Perhaps, like Beard, we are all destined to die disappointed? Although it is encouraging and welcome to read of ultimate hope, it is without doubt frustrating to find oneself having to push back that hope until it is so far beyond the horizon that it is purely an expression of faith that flies in the face of what we see.
I have recently been reading of the “Dark Age of Greece” (although it was clearly not just Greece which was impacted) whose causes are still obscure though major archaeological, geological and linguistic advances have provided some firmer ground for speculation. It has got me to thinking about ages in which civilizational advances grind to a halt and are then reversed, and the centuries it takes to generate new and successful human organizations.
There is as much evidence today to indicate that possibility lies before humanity as there is to assert continued progress.
Faulkner said in his Nobel speech that “man willl prevail,” but he didn’t expand on that much and he didn’t give a timeline for it. There is genetic and geological evidence to suggest that prehistoric mankind was nearly destroyed by natural disaster with perhaps 75,000 humans able to survive from whom we all now trace our roots. Those natural disasters are no less possible today than they were then. And mankind has created its own Dark Ages plenty of times all round the globe, leaving a legacy of whole centuries of lost knowledge, lost progress, and large scale, long term wretchedness and misery that leaves one gaping in wonder that mass suicide was not the result.
These manmade dark ages have been relatively localized since 4,000 B.C., however, mankind now has not only the power to eclipse all but the worst natural disasters, we also have the same widespread stupidity whose only check in times past was a lack of reach.
So, to your two alternatives of what America will be like in the next 20 years, let me add a third and a fourth: (3) collapse of the global financial structure with America plunged into semi-feudal exploitation of a moribund and coopted national government; and (4) a general war which will swell to global conflict, necessitating more desperate measures to “win,” ultimately resolving itself in a series of nuclear explosions.
In either of these events, President Obama’s place in history will be assured because he did not radically change course from the evil incarnate that was George W. Bush.

Anonymous said...

Dr. Kaiser:

some gilded facts.

Rich got richer, paid more
taxes under Bush


Anonymous said...

Justice John Paul Stevens, in
one of the final cases of his 35-
year-career, joined the Court's
five-member conservative majority
in ending a 12-year-long challenge
over the "material support"

Elena kagan argued and won the case
for the government.

How does this differ from previous
administration's position?

Supreme Court Backs Use of Broad
Law in Terrorism Prosecutions


Anonymous said...

The Runaway General


Anonymous said...

US Four-star general or flag officers relieved of command:

a.) Navy Admiral Richard C. Macke
was relieved of command in 1995
for remarks concerning a case of
US Marines accused of ra ping a
12-year-old Japanese girl

b.) USAF General Michael Dugan,
was relieved as Chief of Staff of
the Air Force in 1990 for comments
to reporters about operational
planning for the 1991 Gulf War.

c.) US Army Genral Kevin P.
Byrnes, commander of US Army
Training and Doctrine Command
(TRADOC) was relieved of command
for se xual misconduct (extra-
marital affair) by then Army Chief
of Staff in 2005.

Other cases against general officers:

a.) US Army 2-star Major General
John K. Singlaub was relieved as
Chief of Staff of U.S. Forces in
South Korea after publicly
criticizing President Jimmy
Carter's decision to withdraw U.S.
troops from the Korean peninsula,
overstepping his bounds and
failing to respect the President's
authority as Commander-in-Chief.

b.) USAF 2-star Major General
Harold N. Campbell in 1993 called
President Clinton a "dope smoking," "skirt chasing," "draft
dodging" commander in chief, was
relieved of his command, fined
$7,000 of his pay, given an
official letter of reprimand and
was forced to retire.

c.) US Army 1-star Brigadier
General Janis Karpinski was
relieved of command in May 2005 by
President GW Bush and demoted to
Colonel for prisoner abuse
occurring at the Abu Ghraib
Prison in Iraq.

Anonymous said...

You just might enjoy these musings.

McChrystal, Obama, and Authority