In 1996, William Strauss and Neil Howe published The Fourth Turning: An American Prophecy. Drawing on their earlier work in Generations: The History of America's Future, they predicted that a great crisis would strike American life sometime around the year 2005. On pp. 272-3, they tentatively predicted five ways in which this might come about.
1. A state, nearing bankruptcy, lays claim to its federal tax payments, setting off a constitutional crisis.
2. A global terrorist group "blows up an airplane," leading to American retaliatory strikes, and terrorist threats to blow up an American city with nuclear weaspons.
3. The President claims emergency powers after Congress refuses to pass a budget, forcing a government shutdown.
4. After an epidemic of a new communicable disease hits American cities, the President mobilizes the National Guard to impose quarantines, and large-scale violence breaks out.
5. Anarchy breaks out in the former Soviet Union, threatening local war and the lives of American citizens. (They specifically postulated a civil war in Lithuania.)
While none of these events, obviously, has occurred in exactly the way they speculated they might, I think it is fair to say that all but the first either happened in some form, or are well on their way to happening as I speak. To this list I would add the possibility of a large-scale cyber-attack in response to sanctions imposed upon Russia or, perhaps at some later date, China. More importantly, however, the mood of crisis within the United States is not passing away. It is getting worse.
Thus, despite thirteen years of trying fruitlessly to roll back Islamic militance in the Middle East with American military power, the Obama Administration has reacted to the beheading of two Americans in exactly the way ISIS hoped it would: by launching another war. Having reached the United States and killed one American resident, Ebola is now causing panic and some are calling for closing our borders to travelers from affected West African states. Today's New York Times reports that the Republicans, in a last blitz of campaign ads, are claiming that the Obama Administration cannot handle the problems of our out-of-control world. They are calling for stronger action, both to close borders and to destroy ISIS in the Middle East. This might mark the beginning of a critical new trend.
A great deal, it seems to me, is going to depend on next months' elections. Republican control of the Senate is now the more likely outcome, but far from a certain one. Should it occur, I suspect the last two years of Obama's presidency will rival the last two years of Andrew Johnson's as one of the most turbulent in American history. Mitch McConnell recently told a Koch brothers-sponsored conference that in that event, the Republicans will use the power of the purse to defund every part of the federal government that they do not like. Yet the Republican call for stronger government is a countervailing trend--all the more so since the world is out of control and nowhere near stability.
I feel sure there will be more individual Ebola cases in the United States, and it is possible that new cases are already incubating in Dallas it, like HIV, gets into the right (or wrong) population at the right or wrong time. The war with ISIS, meanwhile, is not likely to go well. I personally don't think ISIS is likely to mount a major terrorist attack in the US, but if they could, there would undoubtedly be a strong push for some devastating action in return. And Putin could try to pull off a quick occupation of one of the Baltic states at almost any moment, calling our bluff (which is all it is so far) and leaving NATO in disarray. If one or more of these events takes place, it seems possible that in the 2016 election each of the two candidates might be trying to persuade the nation that he or she has what it takes to take drastic action abroad and at home to deal with a new set of problems. Hillary Clinton might have the chance to be not only the first female president, but also one of the most powerful and impactful presidents in our history. This would be an enormous departure from either her husband's or Barack Obama's administration, but times are changing fast. Republican candidates are also beginning to talk tough, and it will be interesting to see exactly what they propose.
I am not proposing these scenarios optimistically. It has been a very long time since our political class was as unimpressive as it is now. Increasingly it is the product of an educational system that tells its graduates very little about what the world is really like, and how people have managed to improve it in past eras. Private wealth as been getting stronger and public authority weaker for a very long time. We also have a very substantial body of opinion that will shrink from any kind of drastic measure to solve any problem, out of hostility to the very idea of coercive government. Things have gone far enough, however, to say bluntly the Strauss and Howe's works have been born out as prophecy, as well as history. The outcome, which they were much too wise to predict, remains undetermined.