The most influential President of our time is. . .
This year will mark the twentieth anniversary of the appearance of Generations by the late William Strauss and Neil Howe, which identified an 80-year cycle in American history and predicted a new great crisis within another 15 years or so. They assigned a key role to the Boom generation, which they expected to produce a new "grey champion" parallel to Lincoln and FDR--both, interestingly enough, the subject at this moment of popular movies. Among their acolytes today, a debate has been raging for some time over when the current crisis began, and, by implication, when it will end and what it will accomplish. No one knows what Bill Strauss would be saying today, five years after his untimely death, but Neil Howe is inclined to believe that the crisis started in 2007 and still looks forward to a real "regeneracy" in which we "fix things" some time during the next ten to fifteen years. Should it take that long, it will betray one key aspect of the theory, since Boomers will no longer be holding power then. My view, however, remains different. It was only two and a half years ago that I realized this, but after the events of the past week I am more convinced than ever that the crisis began on 9/11/2001, if not ten months earlier in the disputed election of 2000. George W. Bush did what grey champions do: he took advantage of a situation not of his own making to transform the nation and the world. Certainly he did a wretched job of it and made the nation and the world worse places in which to live, but having studied many countries in which these great crises or "fourth turnings" have turned out badly, I am not too surprised by that outcome.
George W. Bush was determined to reduce the federal government's share of national income, just as his hero Ronald Reagan had tried (but failed) to do before him, and he had already passed his first round of tax cuts when 9/11 took place. He reacted rhetorically to that event in classic Fourth Turning fashion: he declared, in essence, a third world war, frequently comparing the Islamist threat to those posed earlier by Fascism and Communism. Yet he did not do what Lincoln and FDR did and mobilize large, unprecedented resources to meet that threat. It was the paradox of his rule that the Republicans had decided they could have whatever they wanted on the cheap, and rather than raise taxes, like every other long-term war Administration in American history, they cut them again. That created a permanent deficit of several hundred billion dollars a year, and Bush doubled the national debt in eight years of his Presidency. Karl Rove shamelessly used the powers of the federal government in any way possible to reward friends, punish enemies, and cement a new Republican majority, and even though Bush was almost certainly not elected at all in 2000 and was only re-elected thanks to the votes of a single state four years later, Bush did essentially whatever he wanted. The events of the last week seemed to guarantee that the key aspects of his work--the fiscal crippling of the federal government--will survive for some time to come. As I mentioned last week, Barack Obama has now passed up two opportunities to return to the Clinton tax rates--under which the United States enjoyed prosperity that it has not known since--and has agreed to make most of those cuts permanent. The richest among us will pay 3% more; the rest of us will continue at the low rates we have enjoyed for twelve years. The end of the payroll tax cut was in my opinion a good thing, but the federal government does not have enough revenue even to maintain, much less expand, domestic discretionary spending. Meanwhile, the Republican Party, using Rove's take-no-prisoners style of politics, has used its power in state houses to gerrymander the house majority into long-term job security, slash state budgets, and mount the biggest attack upon unions seen in this country in more than a century. It is worth noting, by the way, that Bush did what he did without ever enjoying a super-majority in Congress. Because Democrats believe that government is necessary, they would never have used filibusters to cripple the executive the way the Republicans have for the last four years. I doubt the Democrats will find the courage to do anything about filibusters now.
In another move, Obama this week signed the Defense bill which guarantees that Guantanamo will remain open and attempts to impose unprecedented limits on his own powers. With the single exception of torture, the key aspects of Bush's war on terror, including indefinite detention, targeted killings of suspects, inroads upon civil liberties, and cases against "terrorists" who appear to have been entirely inspired by federal informants, have been either maintained or expanded. The Obama Administration has taken an even harsher attitude towards media leaks than Bush did. In this respect, too, Bush set the tone for the future.
And Bush also bears a heavy responsibility for the developments now taking place in the Middle East. Here we come to a critical difference between this crisis and the last one. Strauss and Howe, like myself, grew up in the shadow of the Depression and the Second World War, events which, we can now see, marked one of the high points of institutional authority in the modern history of mankind. They--and I--therefore expected the coming crisis to increase governmental authority once more. But the whole trend of our times, literally the world over, is against governmental authority, and especially (except in western Europe) against the kind of government based upon reason which the Enlightenment produced. The authoritarian states that grew up in the Middle East in the 1950s and 1960s were a mixture of survivals from colonial rule and neo-totalitarian movements under the Ba'th Party. Bush's decision to smash the Iraqi government, we can now see, was the first of a series of blows to those regimes that has unleashed a Shiite-Sunni civil war that killed tens of thousands and displaced four million people in Iraq, and is now doing the same thing in Syria and threatening Bahrain and, eventually, Saudi Arabia. Bush also in 2003 turned down an Iranian offer to discuss all issues between us and curtail Iran's nuclear program--this before Achmedinejad had come into power. Meanwhile, he stated publicly that Israel in any peace settlement could take advantage of "facts on the ground" to keep any land it wanted, and that has been Israeli policy ever since. The new governments in Iraq, Tunisia and Egypt have one thing in common: all are more religiously based than their predecessors. I would not argue that none of this would have happened without Bush, but he surely took a critical step that got this particular ball rolling. Just last week Juan Cole reported that Iraqi Sunnis were now staging their own Arab Spring.
Barack Obama is a Nomad like Grant or Eisenhower, not a Prophet like Lincoln or FDR. He never wanted, really, to be a Crisis President; he yearns for normalcy, which is why he is always willing to make a deal with Jacobin Republicans. More importantly, with the exceptions of Bill and Hillary Clinton, the Democratic Party produced almost no Boomer politicians of note, and seems to be producing even fewer from Gen X. The Republicans have shaped the country and the world, in many critical respects, because they wanted it more.
Many respects--but not all. Social issues and ethnic divisions have cost the Republicans the last two Presidential elections. They are evidently the issues the younger generations care about the most, perhaps because they are the only issues that Boomer academics taught them to care about. Gay marriage, it seems, will be the major enduring left-wing achievement of our era. (Civil rights and women's rights came much earlier.) It is a very real achievement, but you can't eat your race, gender, or sexual orientation. The Republicans won't turn the values clock back half a century, but they have raised inequality to levels unseen for more than 100 years, and nothing suggests that that process is anywhere near stopping any time soon.
Howe's scenario, involving a crisis that lasts 10-16 years and culminates in a better outcome, does have a parallel in the era of the American Revolution. The victory over the British in 1783 was followed by four years of deepening chaos and threatening anarchy, leading to the calling of the constitutional convention in 1787. That convention was dominated by a younger generation of leaders, what Strauss and Howe called the Republican generation, including Madison, Hamilton, Jay, and the rest. But whether today's equivalent--the Millennials--can achieve real positions of power within such a short time is a very open question.
Our era, like every other, illustrates certain aspects of human nature. In the interwar period the most popular history teacher at Harvard, Roger Merriman, taught that history featured a fundamental alternation between eras of authority and eras of chaos, while concluding that in the long run, civilization seemed to progress. We can now see that when he gave his last lecture in the spring of 1941--only a few years before the first Boomers were born--an era of authority was reaching its climax. We have been moving in the other direction now for about 45 years. When the history of these times is written decades hence, George W. Bush may well get the attention he deserves.