The great crisis of 1914-45 (1914-21 or so in Eastern Europe, 1933-45 in Western Europe, East Asia and the United States) pitted competing authorities against one another. Beginning in 1917 in Eastern Europe, centuries-old empires gave way to Communist revolution and, after a failed attempt to introduce democracy, military and authoritarian rule in most of the region. In Western and Southern Europe several totalitarian regimes took power, and in Japan, an effective dictatorship of Navy and Army officers terrorized the civilian government. The new governments of Japan, Germany and Italy unleashed a world war. It becomes clearer and clearer that we will not face anything similar in our lifetime. Instead of competing authorities, our problem is a collapse of authority.
Although we are once again distracted by a natural and man-made catastrophe--the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, which has brought about a meltdown at a nuclear plant--the situation in the Middle East has much greater long-term implications. Like the Communist regime in Eastern Europe, Middle Eastern regimes are collapsing more or less on schedule. The post-colonial Tunisian and Egyptian regimes dated from the early 1950s, and Egypt experienced an Awakening (largely thwarted by the government after Anwar Sadat's assassination) in the 1970s. Now they are 60 years old, the age at which old regimes begin to totter. They are not, however completely dead: although their leaders have been forced out, their militaries and governments continue to function, rather like Russia in the first half of 1917, and their future remains completely uncertain. Qadaffi's regime in Libya, however, is almost twenty years younger, and he can still draw on a cadre of middle-aged subordinates who were only children when he took power. After appearing to teeter on the edge of collapse, he now seems to have recovered the initiative, and the West is faced with pressure to intervene. News reports today suggest that the highly touted no-fly zone may well prove ineffective, since Qadaffi is not primarily relying upon air power as he roles back the rebels. The American foreign policy elite, however, is still in the grip of the idea that it should not allow evil to continue to exist in the world, and the pressure on the Obama Administration will grow. Secretary Gates has emerged as the somewhat unlikely hero of the drama, swearing off any further large-scale military interventions in Asia (or presumably Africa) at West Point, and trying at last to push for more reasonable foreign policy objectives.
Trouble continues, meanwhile, in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. In Bahrain a Sunni monarchy rules a Shi'ite majority; in Saudi Arabia the Shi'ite minority is restive and the whole people may be chafing under dictatorship. Bahrain hosts the U.S. naval presence in the area and Saudi Arabia is of course the world's leading oil producer. The Saudis are a completely traditional society that has never known western institutions or western rule, and I have never succeeded in identifying any generational rhythm in their politics. Something similar could have been said of Russia before 1917. We do not know where this will go.
In 1933-45, the governments of Germany, Japan, the Soviet Union, Great Britain (after 1940), and the United States became much stronger to deal with foreign and domestic problems. Now the government of the United States is getting steadily weaker. The new Republican House majority is determined to do away with much of the federal government as we have come to know it, including the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the Legal Services Corporation (which for decades now as provided poorer Americans with the only access to the courts that they have), and much of Head Start. They are also trying to destroy Planned Parenthood, a purely ideological move. Those cuts are already part of the House Budget proposal. Michelle Bachmann has just introduced a bill to end the regulation of light bulbs as well, allowing to continue relying on 100-watt incandescent bulbs rather than save energy with the new generation that we now use in my house. So far the Republicans have not, of course, done anything about the real sources of our financial problems, our income tax rate (too low since 2001), the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the economic downturn, and the exploding cost of health care. Indeed, they rode into office promising to repeal the Administration's attempt to get health costs under control, and the Supreme Court may eventually collaborate in that effort.
In the last few months, jousting with some (but not all) of the posters from Generation X on fourthturning.com, I have come to understand that there is a powerful generational component to what is happening in the United States. The Boom generation rebelled against the institutions created by its parents and grandparents, but assumed that all would be well as soon as they got in charge of institutions themselves. (The result, of course, has been the opposite, in the economy, in universities, and in politics.) Generation X, however, was born in the era of collapsing authority, the 1960s and 1970s. It is not much of an exaggeration to say that they have never seen the federal government accomplish a major task successfully. Many of their childhoods were marked by the collapse of their parents' marriages and that helped give them a lifelong distrust of institutions. They care fiercely about their own families and will do anything to give their children the security their own childhoods lacked, but they have no faith in political parties or politicians. This is not new. Previous Nomad generations showed the same pattern. The Gilded generation (born about 1822-41) brought government in the United States to a low point late in the nineteenth century, and the Lost generation (born 1884-1903) generally disliked FDR and even voted for Barry Goldwater in 1964, the only generation to do so. The Lost, however, lost the great political battles of their age to a coalition of the older Missionaries, led by FDR, and the younger GIs, who provided the votes for him. It seems clear that there will be no similar coalition between a left-wing Boomer President and the young Millennials this time. Governor Walker and the Republican legislators who have just rolled back workers' rights in Wisconsin belong to Gen X, and so do many (I don't know how many) of the new Republican members of Congress. We have reached the point where few if any new Baby Boomers will be entering elective office any more.
President Obama, meanwhile, continues to put the best face possible on everything that is happening and shies away from any direct confrontation with the Republicans. In a rare press conference on Friday, he bragged that domestic oil production was at its highest level since 2003, while looking forward to the promotion of new energy sources, and insisted that the housing market would slowly recover. He committed himself once again to the idea that Qadaffi should leave Libya but was very cautious about how the United States might bring this about. Regarding the ongoing budget negotiations, he pointed out correctly that even the maximum proposed Republican cuts, which have now been rejected by the Senate, would not make a significant dent in the budget deficit, but he asked only for a "conversation" on what we could do about Medicare and Medicaid, rather than make any proposals of his own. He cited just two programs--Pell Grants for college students and Head Start for children--in which he said he would not accept cuts, and he said nothing about planned parenthood and nothing in support of NPR. I was struck that not a single major newspaper, as far as I can see, printed the text of the press conference, and even more amazed that the White House web site has not posted the transcript. I honestly have begun to think that the Presidential handlers have decided that presidential exposure is bad for his poll numbers.
I am disturbed that earthquakes in Asia and revolts in the Middle East are forcing our own domestic crisis off the front pages. The outcome of the Republican attack on public employee unions remains uncertain. Governor Walker and many of the Republican legislators will be the subject of recall petitions and some polls suggest they have overplayed their hand, but they may yet succeed, and similar battles continue in many states. There is no real counterbalance in our political life to the Republican attack on government. Slowly but surely, we are being forced, finally, to let more of the rest of the world take care of itself. The Afghan government--the one in the rest of the world on which we are spending by far the most money--evidently does not even want us there. But sadly, it does not seem that we have developed the will to take care of ourselves.