Monday, July 05, 2010

The Regeneracy may not be televised

William Strauss and Neil Howe, the authors of Generations and The Fourth Turning, grew up, as I did, in the shadow of the Depression, the New Deal, and the Second World War. As they explained to a group of their acolytes in the late 1990s, they began early in that decade to write a book about American generations, focusing on what each of them had contributed to our national life. Both had been involved in government for about a decade, and both had lived through the cultural cataclsym of the 1960s and early 1970s. But their critical discovery, Bill explained, occurred when they were studying the first half of the nineteenth century, when control of national politics passed successively from the Republicans (Jefferson, Hamilton, Madison, and Monroe) to the Compromisers (Jackson, Daniel Webster, Henry Clay), and hence to the Transcendentals (Lincoln, Jefferson Davis, Sumner, John Brown, and the rest of the Southern fireasters) who brought about the Civil War. Suddenly they recognized the remarkable similarities between three pairs of generations: the Republicans and the GIs (the Presidents from Kennedy through Bush I), whose lives had been shaped by the previous crises; the Compromisers and the Silent Generation, who remembered those crises from their childhoods and sought to moderate emerging conflicts; and the Transcendentals and their own generation, the Boomers, all focused upon throwing out the old and bringing on the new. A new theory of history was born--and they began predicting a new crisis era, set to begin around 2010.

Crises of this type represent the death of the old order and the birth of a new one. The two most inspiring in American history were the late-eighteenth century crisis that gave us the Revolution and the Constitution, and the Depression and the New Deal, which culminated in the Second World War and the creation of the welfare state. The Civil War, as they recognized, had much less of a legacy, failing even to solve the racial problem that had brought it about. It is now clear that their prediction of a crisis was right on the money in both the economic and political spheres--but it seems increasingly likely, I am sorry to say, that we are not going to experience a rebirth or regeneracy comparable to that of the 1780s-90s or the 1930s-40s. The hopes that so many of us shared for a New Deal are retreating further every day, and while I am not yet entirely giving up, my head tells me that we are indeed headed for a new age of corporate supremacy parallel to the 1890s.

Today's New York Times gives a typical example of the reasons for my despair. Earmarks, we all know, are detested by all and sundry (except those who receive them), and the Congress has passed new regulations against them, specifically forbidding their award to private businesses. No sooner was this rule passed, however, than Congressmen and private companies found away around it. They are busily founding non-profits who will control the money and pass it on to the very same private firms that will do the work involved. Nothing, in short, is going to change. In the same way, the new financial reform bill, now nearing passage, will not substantially reduce trade in derivatives or force the big banks to stop trading on their own account. Even its consumer protection provisions contain loopholes. Reducing the influence of money on our politics seems as futile a task as civil service reform or railroad regulation in the 1870s--and that leads me to my next, even more controversial point.

Back in the 1990s Strauss and Howe made another prediction: a member of our own Boom generation would lead us in a new world, like the Transcendental Lincoln and the Missionary Franklin Roosevelt. When 9/11 occurred--only 72 years after the beginning the last crisis in 1929--we all held our breaths to see if it might indeed be the beginning of the crisis, or, as they called it, "Fourth Turning." When George W. Bush failed to unite the United States most of us concluded that it was not. But now, I am not so sure--because it seems that George Bush did far more to pout the United States on a different path, both at home and abroad, than Barack Obama will be able to do. Let us look, as Al Smith used to say, at the record.

Abroad, George W. Bush abandoned most of the principles that had governed our parents' foreign policies. He denounced a critical arms control treaty, the one that had banned ABMs, and began deploying missiles that still have not been proven to work. The Obama Administration has modified his plans, but it has not abandoned them. He invaded Afghanistan and Iraq on the grounds that we could not allow Al Queda to have safe havens, and we remain in Iraq while escalating our presence in Afghanistan, even though it is not clear that any of this has made us more secure. These wars have enormously raised the prestige of the military in American life for the first time since the early 1960s. In the Middle East Bush told Israel it could keep any territory it settled in a peace agreement, and the Obama Administration backed down from its first attempt to challenge that position. President Obama initially tried to recast our relations with the Muslim world but he has stuck, essentially, to the same policies, provoking individual Muslims (usually ones who had lived in the US and even become US citizens) to carry out terrorist attacks. Should one of those succeed on a fairly large scale we have no idea what the consequences might be.

At home, the reckless pursuit of deregulation by every Administration from Reagan through George W. Bush gave us the financial crisis of 2008--but before Bush left office, Henry Paulsen, it is now clear, had managed to make sure that all the banks' losses on derivatives would largely be made good through the huge bailout of AIG. Most importantly, the Bush tax cuts destroyed the surplus that Bush inherited and recreated the permanent deficit so dear to the heart of Ronald Reagan. That, combined with conservative fiscal orthodoxy which Obama seems reluctant to challenge, has crippled the government's response to the highest sustained unemployment since the 1930s. The Obama stimulus stopped the job loss but was not big enough to reverse it, and now it is coming to an end. The Republicans are fighting even modest moves like another extension of unemployment benefits--so far, at least, successfully. They seem certain to gain seats in both the House and Senate this fall, which will make any radical economic moves impossible.

Perhaps we were wrong; perhaps the crisis did begin with 9/11. Certainly George W. Bush took advantage of the shift in the national mood to move forward on a great many fronts, and his work has proven lasting. What is happening now is by no means all his fault. The Democratic Party effectively abandoned New Deal principles years ago--Bill Clinton, in fact, bragged about doing so. Now a Democratic Administration has very little to offer to the millions of new unemployed. They may not become enthusiastic Republicans, but they will not be enthusiastic Democrats, either--even though the younger voters among them are closer to the Democrats on social issues.

The politics of the Gilded Age were dominated by money. They were much more hotly contested than most people realize. U. S. Grant won two terms by huge majorities, but the next five elections--from 1876 through 1892--were all extremely close, all close enough to be decided by shifting a single state. The Democrats should have regained the White House in 1876 and did so in 1884 and 1892. Our politics may be similarly contested for the rest of my lifetime, since no government will be strong enough, it seems, to embark upon the kind of great crusade at home or abroad that will create a new consensus.

All this has enormous consequences for the Millennial generation (born 1982-2002?), whom Strauss and Howe expected to be the new GIs. Such, it seems, is not after all their destiny, since no Boomer leaderhip is going to enroll them either in massive public works programs or in a crusade abroad. Like the GIs in the 1930s, they will be preoccupied for a long time with finding work and setting up families. Their idealism and willingness to tackle problems may still do a lot of good, but mostly, it seems, at a local level and on a relatively small scale. In the same way that the GIs did so much to undo prejudice between religions and even between the races, the Millennials will finally break down prejudice based on sexual orientation, and they will probably begin a move away from strong religious belief. But for a variety of reasons, which I hope to explore in months and years to come, it seems that no one alive today is likely to see any kind of replay of New Deal America.

9 comments:

Anonymous said...

"President Obama initially tried to recast our relations
with the Muslim world but he has stuck, essentially, to
the same policies, provokingindividual Muslims
(usually ones who had lived in the US and even
become US citizens) to carry out terrorist attacks.
Should one of those succeed on a fairly large scale
we have no idea what the consequences might be."


Dr. Kaiser:

I am still searching for words, since English is not my mother tongue, to express my abhorrence and
disagreement with your contention and assertion
that the current president shoulders ANY
responsibility for Muslim terrorist acts on american
soil.

When I emigrated from what used to be Yugoslavia, before it splintered into too many little states, and
gave my oath during my citizenship ceremony
there were words and pledges in there dealing
with future conduct and behaviour in my adopted
country.

When President Clinton bombed Serbia, I was NOT
provoked into any acts of terrorism.

I do sincerely hope that all such PROVOKED
citizens are dealt with swiftly and to the full
extent of the applicable law.

I do hope that someone, from the US governmental
forces will catch up with the guy who escaped
from the DC area to Yemen and is these days
encouraging acts of terrorism on US soil and
against US citizens and interests, and make sure
thathis words can only be heard from a tape.

Jordan Greenhall said...

You are making two mistakes:

1. You are trying to extrapolate too closely from past data to future possibilities. Anyone who was sitting in the turn of the century with an eye towards a generational crisis looking back at the Revolution and Civil War would have been hard pressed to predict the Depression and WWII. The concepts of crisis are more abstract: a sudden intense breakdown of the current order of things combined with a sudden intense increase in the degrees of freedom. How these degrees of freedom play out are highly dependent on actual conditions on the ground.

2. You are failing to think big enough. IMHO, the most likely scenarios include the dissolution of the nation-state into the formation of some new pan-geographic institutions (probably conjoined with more local geographic institutions) and some kind of forward projection of everything that has been going in when information technology disrupts some existing system (i.e., take "newspapers vs. the blogosphere" and expand to include all institutions). In any event, the conflux of global debt implosion, peak oil, climate disruption, asymmetric warfare (including terrorism, cyber and WMD proliferation), etc. leads to easy paths of very significant military conflict - the likes of which would make Iraq and Afghanistan look like the Crimean War compared to WWI. In *that* kind of circumstance, you would see real crisis politics.

Matthew E said...

When 9/11 occurred--only 72 years after the beginning the last crisis in 1929--we all held our breaths to see if it might indeed be the beginning of the crisis, or, as they called it, "Fourth Turning." When George W. Bush failed to unite the United States most of us concluded that it was not. But now, I am not so sure--because it seems that George Bush did far more to pout the United States on a different path, both at home and abroad, than Barack Obama will be able to do.

This is what I've been saying all along. (In broad strokes.) I'm actually a little surprised that this is not the consensus: don't you think everything started feeling different on 9/11, and hasn't stopped? I've never had any real doubts that it was the Crisis catalyst, no matter how early it showed up.

it seems that no one alive today is likely to see any kind of replay of New Deal America.

As you say, it's not time to give up. (It never is.) For one thing, Crisis eras are notorious for their unpredictability, and I'm sure that there's at least one (very likely more than one) major knuckleball still to come over the next, what, decade or so. And who knows what the consequences of that will be?

T. Sparkman said...

Mr. Kaiser, I have become a regular reader of your blog, and I look forward each week to a new posting. I am a boomer (about the same age as yourself) and have come to appreciate the absolute wisdom of "history". While I hated the subject during my school years, I have come to truly love it now, and wished I had paid more attention to it when I was younger. I am grateful for your insights and knowledge, and as I said earlier, I do look forward to your articles. I hope you will forgive me, but I am using this opportunity, this forum, to ask a specific question and I apologize to you and and your readers for using this forum to do so, but I do not know how to reach you otherwise. My question is this: I would like to know if there was ever a time in man's history that you considered was most successful. In other words, of all the known governments, which was closest to being the perfect and most successful system? If you have already addressed this in a previous posting or book, please direct me to that as well. Thank you for the very informative and enlightening articles.

Gerald Meaders said...

Professor:

Thanks for posting this. Great survey of many issues.

Just one comment on one aspect, where some more may help.

Maybe I have got this all wrong, but W was not intended, I don't believe, by his promoters, to be a 'great man'; but rather a sort of safe, Republican, 'place holder', through a time intended, by the big boys, to be one of comparative calm.

That 9/11 occurred wrecked those placid plans, in my judgment. W sort of bumbled through it, taking advantage, it is true, but not according to a prearranged 'Republican' plan.

A gilded age of sorts, I agree, was planned by them to come, but not in a context of world depression, military spending, and global instability on anything like this scale. In fact, no plans had been made for what we have seen unfolding, it seems to me.

All the best,
GM

Seth C. Burgess said...

Dr. Kaiser, I continue to enjoy your thoughtful posts. As a Millenial (b. 1984) who is more active in my local community than most, and also serving our nations' military, much of your historical vs. contemporary analysis is interesting to me...I'm clawing through what my role in "making a difference" might be.

David Kaiser said...

To the gentleman from Yugoslavia:

Whether or not you, or I, think it is justified, I think it is clear that the presence of American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan and the killing of Afghans and Pakistanis by American troops is in fact inspiring a few Muslims in the West to commit terrorist acts and will continue to do so. If I thought the presence of our troops there was doing any good, I might think the price was worth paying, but I don't. We need to make clear that our goal is to live in peace with the Muslim world--not to turn it into something more to our liking.

To Mr. Sparkman: Perfection is not of this world. I think that from the standpoint of economic justice and a well-functioning government the US reached a peak in the twenty years after the Second World War and has been declining, in many ways, ever since. I also think the Western Europeans have preserved a much more civic attitude than we have over the last thirty years and live in more just societies than we do now--but theirs are threatened as well.

Anonymous said...

Dr. Kaiser:

Last time I verified the facts - both the war in Afghanistan and Iraq were subsequent to
9/11.

"We need to make clear that our goal is to live in peace with the Muslim world--not to turn it into something more to our liking."

I find the contention that we need to be touchy feely and do nothing in spite of the attacks
absolutely wrong. They can live as they please
and so can we. I don't see US building churches
in moslem countries, but I do mosques being built in the USA and even being proposed to 9/11 site!!

You don't appease and facilitate a bully - you smack it TWICE as hard.

That is exactly why no one is messing with either Israel or Iran - because neither state will take it.

We need to show - in no uncertain terms - that
whoever wants to attack this country will pay the price for that.

LegalAdvice.com said...

I do not see 9/11 as the beginning of the Crisis. To state so is akin to stating WW1 as the beginning of the Crisis [which it is not as WW1 took place during the unraveling]. Fact is, 9/11 and WW1 are great examples of pre-Crisis Unravelings. Not existential per se but pretty nasty stuff.