Friday, December 04, 2015

The Fourth Great Crisis in American National Life

     [Note:  The original draft of this article was written earlier in this year.  I regard it as one of the most important that I have ever written and I cherished the hope that it might be published by a major media outlet. My editor at Time liked it but said it was too long for them.  Several other friends whom I enlisted to help in the marketing were also impressed--even though some of them knew nothing about Strauss and Howe--but not a single publication or web site expressed any interest. It did made the first cut and was "long-listed" in a prestigious British essay contest earlier this year, but that was as far as it got. Thus I finally decided to post it here.  Should it come to the attention of some editor who does, they need only contact me via a comment here and I am sure we can work something out.
      The failure of any publication to take any interest is, in my opinion, yet another symbol of the crisis in American civic institutions.  For one thing, the left and the right are both so set in their ways of thinking that they cannot believe that they missed anything as important as the theory upon which this piece is based.  For another, there are too few editors left with any training in large-scale, long-term historical thinking.  Great historians, I often remark, do not argue with history, and I must accept the nature of the world in which I live.  Fortunately I do know that, thanks to the web,. several thousand people will read this piece carefully, and I hope that you all will circulate it as widely as possible.  Thanks very much for your continuing interest over the years.]

In 1991 and 1997, two amateur historians, William Strauss and Neil Howe, published two books presenting a new scheme of American history, Generations: The History of America’s Future, and The Fourth Turning: An American Prophecy.  Strauss was a lawyer who had worked in Congress and become a very successful entertainer as producer of the Capitol Steps comedy troop; Howe had abandoned graduate study in history and become a speechwriter for the Concord Coalition think tank. No contemporary professional academic would ever have attempted, much less completed, books like these.  They divided the American people into generations and American history into eras of approximately 80 years in length, what they called a saeculum.  Each saeculum concluded with a great crisis, what they called a Fourth Turning, which marked the death of an old order, the triumph of a new set of beliefs, and the creation of a very different America.  These crises had indeed occurred at regular intervals: the Revolution and the Constitution (1774-1794), the Civil War and its immediate aftermath (about 1861-8), and the Depression, the New Deal and the Second World War (1929-45).  Doing the math in the early 1990s, they predicted a fourth one beginning sometime between 2005 and 2015.  That prediction--that the United States would in the early years of the 21st century find itself in another great crisis that would reshape American life at home and our role abroad—has now come true.  It has not, however, turned out in the manner that they had hoped, for reasons which they could not foresee.

The reception of Strauss and Howe’s ideas has varied widely.  The reviews of their books were decidedly mixed.  Their most enduring contribution will apparently be the term the Millennial generation, which they coined in the early 1990s to describe children born since 1982, and whom they expected, quite correctly, to be very different from Generation X.  With the exception of myself, one other now-retired professional historian and a few social scientists, professional academics have taken almost no notice of them.   I have incorporated their insights into two books on different eras of recent history, and have also applied their model to Western Europe.[1] The corporate world, on the other hand, became very interested in their generational analyses, and Strauss (who died of cancer in 2007) and Howe have been much in demand as corporate speakers, discussing the managerial and marketing implications of their views of different generations.  And meanwhile, thanks to social media, a nationwide network of acolytes has grown up, continually exploring the implications of their theories for history, literature, films, education, and just about everything else.  

Again and again in American history, new generations have destroyed an old order.  In the second half of the 18th century, a new King, George III, tried to impose larger burdens on his American colonies. They disputed his right to do so, fought a war against him, and eventually won their independence and wrote a new Constitution.  The Founders generally viewed slavery as an unfortunate evil, confined it to where it already existed, and expected it to die off, carefully omitting any explicit mention of it from the Constitution.  But the generation born after the birth of the new Republic—the Transcendental generation, as Strauss and Howe called them—put slavery at the center of our political life.  While northern abolitionists demanded its extinction, southern fire-eaters praised it as a positive good and demanded that it be extended both to the west and to the south.  The Webster and Clay generation, the Compromise generation, had been born early enough to remember Washington in the White House.  They fought valiantly to keep the Union together, but when they died the civil war became inevitable.  One key American who had foreseen this was Abraham Lincoln, who anticipated Strauss and Howe’s theory very accurately in a speech he gave in Springfield, Illinois when he was not yet 30 years old.[2]  In 1861, Lincoln defined the secession crisis as a test of whether a democratic government could maintain itself against a rebellion. Thanks to him, the war ended with the reunion of the nation and the end of slavery. Unfortunately, determined white southerners restored white supremacy within another decade, while corporations and urban machines took over politics in the north.

Corporate America ruled the world left behind by the Civil War.  The Gilded Age saw the growth of huge fortunes, frequent booms and busts, and widespread poverty.  Two new generations, the Progressives (children during the Civil War) and the Missionaries (born in its wake) reacted by arguing that science and reason could reorder modern life and create a better world.  When economic catastrophe struck the country in 1929, the leading member of the Missionary Generation, Franklin Roosevelt, led a crusade to remake our economic life based upon moral principles, rather than the pure pursuit of private gain.  Banking was tightly restricted, labor unions won federal protection, the New Deal built new roads, bridges and schools, and Congress passed social security.  Then, when the world war broke out, Roosevelt, as I showed in my last book, recognized it as a struggle to define not only the future of the United States, but of the whole planet.  We prevailed.[3]  Roosevelt had an even more acute sense of the 80-year rhythm of American history than Lincoln, and more than once he compared his own era to the period of the Revolution and that of the Civil War.

In the wake of the victorious war—and especially in the early 1960s—another generation, the GI or “greatest” generation (Strauss and Howe used GI), extended Roosevelt’s work still further.  They built interstate highways, ended legal segregation, and vastly expanded public education.  They also put American troops on the borders of Communism around the world.  They had numerous progeny—the Boom generation—whom they simply assumed, as parents so often do, would follow in their footsteps.  But that was not to be, largely, but not solely, because of the GIs’ catastrophic mistake, the Vietnam War.  The Boom generation was questioning by nature, and eagerly sought out the flaws in their parents’ edifice.  They argued that women enjoyed inferior status, that civil rights legislation was not enough, and that, as one of their most famous members argued in a valedictory address in 1969, we needed “more immediate, ecstatic, and penetrating modes of living.”[4]  Like Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, they insisted on defining good and evil according to their own lights.  In academia, they rapidly concluded that no one had had a truly important idea before about 1968.  While the Missionaries and the GIs had tried to organize society and the world, the Boomers focused above all on individual self-expression.  They also led a religious revival and an unprecedented growth of religious influence within politics.  Meanwhile, they took their parents’ and grandparents’ economic and social achievements for granted.  In 1993, a Boomer reached the White House.

It was at this point that Strauss and Howe—two Boomers who had grasped that history had not begun with their own generation--stumbled upon the overarching pattern of American history and predicted another coming crisis.  The Fourth Turning in particular focused on the immediate future.  Written in the midst of the economic boom of the 1990s, after two decades of sexual license and bitter conflict over social issues, it anticipated that some striking event, a catalyst, would force the nation to organize to save itself.  Once again, they expected a leader like Lincoln or FDR to emerge, and once again they thought the heroic virtues of courage and sacrifice would become crucial to the nation’s survival.  In the concluding chapter of The Fourth Turning, which appeared in 1997, the authors tentatively listed five possible scenarios that might trigger the crisis.  In the first, one or more states laid claim to federal revenues and defied the federal government.  In the second, terrorists threatened American cities with nuclear weapons.  In the third, an impasse between the Congress and the White House led to a government shutdown.  Their fourth scenario turned on an epidemic of a new virus, and in the last, Russian attempts to regain former Soviet territories brought Russia and the United States to the brink of war.  Perhaps at this point, even skeptical readers will have to agree that Strauss and Howe were on to something.

Now, nearly twenty years after The Fourth Turning appeared, students of generational theory agree that we are in the crisis they predicted, but they differ over when it began, how far along it is, and how it is going to turn out.  Neil Howe dates the beginning of the crisis only to 2007, and until July 2010, I agreed.  But at that point, I decided that he and I had been mistaken.[5]  It was suddenly clear that Barack Obama was not going to reverse any of the major changes in American domestic and foreign policy that had been undertaken by his predecessor, George W. Bush.  Bush was, in fact, the Lincoln or FDR of our time, however much he may have differed from them in values, vision, and ability.  He, not Obama, created the new order that replaced New Deal America, and the changes his Administration implemented will define American life and our role in the world for decades to come.

When 9/11 occurred it was tempting to believe that it was the catalyst for the new crisis.  Both Strauss and Howe speculated about this possibility, but when 9/11 failed to lead to the kind of changes they had in mind—specifically, a more civic spirit and a decline in the importance of social issues—they both decided that it had not. So did I.  Now I would date the beginning of the Fourth Turning not on September 11, 2001, but in November and December of 2000, when the Republican Party, taking advantage of its control of the government of the key state of Florida and the conservative majority that it had put in place on the Supreme Court, managed to thwart the expressed will of the voters of Florida and the nation and get George W. Bush into the White House.[6]  That, like the prior impeachment of President Clinton on truly laughable grounds, confirmed that the Republicans had no respect whatever for competing views, the law, or the traditions of the nation, and that they would do whatever was necessary to get what they wanted.  Our fourth great crisis, it turns out, has been a second, non-violent civil war, in which Republicans have fought to undo the history of the twentieth century with far more zeal than Democrats have fought to preserve it.   That is why they, rather than the Democrats, will emerge as the victors in the current crisis—whether they regain the White House in 2016 or not.  

Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and their extragovernmental allies such as Grover Norquist did not wait for 9/11 to begin implementing their agenda.  Cheney’s energy task force, which met in secret, evidently laid out the strategy for US energy independence, partly with the help of fracking, that we have been pursuing ever since.  In 2003 the Republican Congress slipped an amendment to the Clean Water Act into a larger bill that made fracking exempt from regulation by the EPA.  Inheriting a budget surplus, Bush immediately put through the first of several rounds of tax cuts, most of which remain in place, and created a permanent federal deficit.   His Administration, as is well documented, began planning the invasion of Iraq.  Then came 9/11, a shock probably without parallel in American history—and George W. Bush knew what to do with it.

Bush himself may never have read Generations or The Fourth Turning, but I would not be at all surprised if Karl Rove had.  A Texas friend of mine has pointed out that John Sharp, a Texas politician close to Bush who is now the Chancellor of Texas A & M, frequently mentioned Strauss and Howe on his website.   When I personally queried Rove’s administrative assistant as to whether Rove had read the books, she said his schedule was too full to respond.  Certainly Bush’s response to 9/11—to declare a generational struggle, a global battle against terrorism that might last for decades—was very much in the spirit of Lincoln and FDR.  More importantly, Bush immediately and explicitly repudiated some of the key foreign policy principles of earlier generations.  He approved the torture of prisoners in violation of the Geneva Convention, his Administration kidnapped and incarcerated people, some of them completely innocent, from all over the world, and he decided to invade Iraq on a flimsy pretext which the UN, crucially, would not endorse.   That was why his own father, acting through Brent Scowcroft, tried to head off the war, and several Foreign Service officers resigned in protest.  But in the post-9/11 wartime mood, the opposition to the Iraq war was limited to a tiny minority of the House and Senate.  Bush evidently saw himself as the new Franklin Roosevelt in at least one respect: he honestly believed that he need only topple a few dictators, and democracy would spread through the Middle East.  High-ranking Administration officials spoke freely of impending wars against Iran and North Korea, after Iraq was taken care of.  Bush lined up behind Ariel Sharon and the Likud Party in Israel, publicly repudiating the traditional American support for the 1967 borders. A new national security strategy replaced the philosophy of the old nonproliferation treaty with a declaration that the United States would unilaterally decide who could possess certain weapons and who could not.    

The results have, of course, been very different from what Bush anticipated.  When things began to go badly, beginning with the failure to find a WMD program in Iraq, the Bush Administration undertook vendettas against troublesome domestic opponents like Joseph Wilson.  Bush’s response to the opening stages of his great crusade makes an interesting contrast with both Lincoln and FDR.  In 1861 both the North and the South confidently expected the war to be over by Christmas, but when things went badly, Lincoln set about mobilizing armies of unprecedented size.  Roosevelt, as I have shown, asked in July 1941—five months before the United States entered the Second World War—for an estimate of what it would require to defeat all our potential enemies, and that estimate was ready by September and became the basis for our war plans and our victory.  Bush, confronted with the inadequacy of our forces to achieve the results he had in mind, did nothing and continued cutting taxes.  Convinced, like so many of his contemporaries all across the political spectrum, of his own moral rectitude, he apparently believed that he could have anything he wanted just by wishing for it.  Meanwhile, in response to the “global war on terror,” a new military-intelligence complex grew up in the Washington suburbs, draining away money from domestic needs and creating a permanent lobby for a permanent war.

After winning re-election in 2004 by quite a narrow margin, Bush hoped to privatize Social Security.  He could not however do so, and meanwhile, Hurricane Katrina exposed the inability of the federal government to function effectively.  The war in Iraq reached its most critical stage in 2006-7, but General Petraeus managed to bring the Sunni areas under control.   Still, the Bush Administration was so unpopular that it lost control of Congress in the 2006 elections, and some of us looked forward to a New Deal-style Fourth Turning under a Democratic president.  Then, in 2007-8 came the Great Recession.

The collapse of our major financial institutions was also, of course, a very generationally inspired event.  Roosevelt and the Congress had separated investment and commercial banking with the Glass-Steagall Act and had imposed such strict regulations on banking that for several decades, banking was no longer a good way to get rich in America.  But those regulations had begun to loosen in the 1980s, and the Clinton Administration, itself utterly in thrall to Wall Street, had overseen the repeal of Glass-Steagall. Since then we have entered a new era of booms and busts, of which 2007-9 was of course the worst.  Meanwhile, income inequality has reached staggering proportions.  To many of us, in 2009, when Barack Obama entered office with 60 votes in the Senate and a substantial majority in the House, it seemed time for him to revive the spirit and some of the measures of the New Deal.  That, as it turned out, was not to be.

Several important factors kept the nation going in essentially the same direction in economics and foreign policy.  To begin with, the combination of Bush’s tax cuts and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan had created a permanent deficit of about $500 billion a year even before the crash, and the government therefore lacked the available resources needed for a successful countercyclical policy that would do more than simply stop the economic bleeding, as the stimulus did.  Secondly—in sharp contrast to 1933—there was a great shortage of even moderately left-wing economists, reformers and politicians who would provide the advocacy for real institutional change, and the energy to make it work.  The New Deal had begun approximately 40 years after the dawn of the Progressive Era, but liberalism, and especially government regulation, has been on the decline since the late 1960s.  The Republican Party, meanwhile, decided to do everything it could to make Obama fail, and completely opposed everything he did, making it much harder for him to accomplish very much even in the first two years of his Administration, when he controlled Congress.  It was impossible in any event to undo many of the Republican achievements of the previous 40 years, such as the re-shaping of the judiciary, and thus, the Supreme Court handed down the Citizens United decision, with fateful consequences, during Obama’s first term.

 Last and hardly least, there was Barack Obama himself—a man, it rapidly became clear, who trusts the system which has been so good to him for the whole of his adult life.  The appointments of Tim Geithner as Secretary of the Treasury and Larry Summers as his chief White House economic adviser told us all we needed to know about his plans.  Obama agreed, in effect, that the system that they had created under Clinton merely needed a bit of tinkering and a huge bail-out from the Federal Reserve.  As a result, and despite Dodd-Frank, that system remains in place today.  That was not all.  Obama, temperamentally, is not a crisis President.  Both Lincoln and especially FDR knew how to arouse the nation’s anger against enemies foreign and domestic.  That is not Obama’s style.  He is not a Boomer, and has made clear that he wanted to put Boomer conflicts behind us.[7]  Because he wanted to put an end to the partisan divisions of the 1990s, he allowed the Republicans, and especially the Tea Party, to turn most of the nation’s anger at the big banks and mortgage holders against his own Administration.  Obama never wanted to be FDR.  He wanted to be a combination of Eisenhower and JFK, as shown, very revealingly, by his declaration some years ago that we faced a “Sputnik moment.” “The shadow of crisis has passed, and the State of the Union is strong,” he declared early in 2015.    He would have been a fine President in an era of consensus—but that is not the nature of our times. 

 Obama in 2009 made a fatal political miscalculation.  When Roosevelt entered office after three years of depression in 1933, he managed to help millions of Americans improve their lot during the next two years, and was rewarded by even larger Congressional majorities after 1934.  Obama had to do something similar, such as providing relief for delinquent mortgage holders—but he did not.  The Republicans swept House elections and took over key state governments in 2010. Any chance of a liberal regeneracy died for the remainder of his term and the foreseeable future, thanks to relentless Republican gerrymandering in states like Florida, Pennsylvania, and Ohio.  And the Republican propaganda machine has managed to define the public debate on several important issues, scaring Democratic candidates away even from taking credit for the Administration’s biggest achievement, Obamacare.

Bush’s influence, meanwhile, has been even more enduring in foreign policy.  Obama has ordered that torture cease, although he did so in a way the leaves any future President free to resume it.  He has also reached a nuclear deal with Iran and opened diplomatic relations with Cuba.  But at the same time, he has retained two crucial elements of Bush’s disastrous policies in the Middle East.  During the Arab spring he assumed, like Bush, that the fall of any authoritarian regime must be a good thing and a step towards democracy.  These hopes have been seriously disappointed in Egypt and even more in Libya, where his successful attempt to bring down Qaddafi has led to anarchy.  For years he has advocated the removal of Bashir Assad in Syria, even though this would almost surely be followed by bloodbath comparable to what happened in Iraq.  He has done nothing effective to stop Israel’s move towards the annexation of the West Bank and a one-state solution.  And although he pulled American troops out of Iraq, he has now committed us to war against ISIS.  Make no mistake: George W. Bush is largely to blame for ISIS.  Removing Saddam Hussein ignited a very bloody civil war between the majority Shi’ites and the minority Sunnis, and it is now well documented that Iraqi Sunnis turned to ISIS when the Maliki government continued to persecute them.  ISIS—a direct offshoot of Al Queda in Iraq-- is now a magnet for disaffected young Muslims all over the world, and American attacks only make it more so.  Obama has not come close to acknowledging that the nations of the Middle East will have to work out their political problems on their own.

The nature of today’s Democratic Party has also militated against any fundamental change of course in either economic or foreign policy.  Simply put, those are not the things that Democratic activists care about, and have not been for decades.  They care about climate change and the environment, and the status of women, minorities, immigrants, and gay men and women.  And indeed, this crisis is going to end, apparently, with gay marriage firmly established within our culture, and with the rights of upper-class women very much intact.  As a result, the Democratic Party depends for its victories in presidential elections upon cultivating those communities, and upon young people, the majority of whom also support these positions.  This coalition won Obama a solid re-election victory two years ago, but it is not at all clear that they will do the same for another Democrat in 2016.  

Bernie Sanders’s emergence as a serious candidate has interesting generational implications.  Sanders is nearly old enough to FDR’s death, and like Roosevelt, he is making a moral attack on our economic system which evidently has a good deal of appeal.  But even so, there does not seem to be much chance that next year’s election will undo what has happened in the last fifteen years.   If a Republican wins next year’s election, the dismantling of the Great Society, the New Deal, and the Progressive Era will accelerate.  If either Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders is elected, more stalemate is likely, since the Republicans are almost certain to control the House and retain more than 40 votes in the deadlocked Senate.  All-out Republican political warfare has continued during the last three years.  The Benghazi investigation, we now know, was an attempt to once again use subpoena power to embarrass a presidential candidate named Clinton.  Even if Clinton wins, her track record suggests that she will be just as much a free-marketeer and foreign interventionist as Bush or Obama.   Sanders would try for new policies, but he could not do much without a Republican Congress.

In the Strauss-Howe historical cycle, Crises give way to Highs—consensus periods in which the differences between the two parties shrink, ideology fades into the background, and respect for institutions rises once again.  The Highs of American national history include the period from Jefferson to Monroe, the Gilded Age, and “the fifties,” really the years 1946-64.  The first and third of those eras were relatively prosperous and institutionally creative.  The Gilded Age was much less so—and it is clearly towards the Gilded Age that we seem to heading.  Writing in 1870 about how financiers Jay Gould and Jim Fisk had nearly brought down the currency of the United States with irresponsible speculation, Henry Adams concluded that their Erie Railway, a typical example of great new corporations, had “shown its power for mischief, and has proved itself able to override and trample on law, custom, decency and every restraint known to society, without scruple, and as yet without check.  The belief is common in America that the day is at hand when corporations far greater than the Erie. . .will ultimately succeed in directing government itself.”[8]   Now we have reached that point once again.

If the Crisis ends sometime between 2016 and 2020, the next twenty years will see America more and more in thrall to its corporations, with inequality increasing still more.  While the upper reaches of society will be open to women, minorities, and gays, the lower reaches will increasingly have to fend for themselves, regardless of race, creed, gender, or sexual preference.  Undocumented immigrants may well continue to make up a substantial portion of the work force.  The energy industry and the financial sector will essentially control government at every level, just as the “trusts” and railroads did in the late nineteenth century.  The endless war in the Middle East will continue.  Periodic terrorist attacks at home will occupy much too much of our attention, and keep that war going as well.  Protests will be shrill, relatively unorganized, occasionally violent, and generally ineffective, like the Wobblies and Coxey’s Army.  Indeed, the Occupy movement and the Black Lives Matter movement already fit this pattern, as observers such as Oprah Winfrey have noted.  Intellectual life will stagnate, in part because rampant individualism rules the academy as well.  We cannot yet say what the effect of the decline and fall of magazines, newspapers, and even serious films will be, but there is little cause for optimism.  It is possible, of course, that some genuine national catastrophe or even a massive foreign war could still force the nation to pull together, but I will be very surprised if it does.  We lack the capacity for mobilization and organization that earlier generations had—and so, for better or for worse, do the other major states of the world.

There are many broader lessons from what we have been through.  The Republicans have won a series of spectacular victories on the economic front because they have been trying so much harder than the Democrats for the last forty years.  Conservative business interests saw themselves as the losers in the last crisis, and their children have been fighting hard and well to redress the balance since 1964.  Liberals, meanwhile, took their parents’ achievements for granted and focused upon a relatively narrow set of issues.  Strauss and Howe argued that the movement of history is cyclical, but not linear.  The decline of civic culture was very noticeable to older, educated observers after the Civil War, just as it has become obvious to many of us now.  Meanwhile, by the time the new Crisis ends, a new generation of Prophets, parallel to the Transcendentals, the Missionaries, and the Boomers, will have begun to be born.  Growing up an era of inequality and chaos, they will, I predict, grow up to be young adults dedicated to order and justice.  Slowly but surely, they may begin to reverse these trends by about the middle of the century.  That is the way in which man, again and again, has restarted the clock of history, and we owe it to William Strauss and Neil Howe for bringing it to our attention in time at least to understand the troubling times in which we live.

[1] David Kaiser, American Tragedy: Kennedy, Johnson, and the Origins of the Vietnam War(Cambridge, Mass., 2000); David Kaiser, No End Save Victory: How FDR Led the Nation into War(New York, 2014); and David Kaiser, Neither Marxist nor Whig: The Great Atlantic Crises, 1774--1962, and the Foundations of Domestic and International Order" by David Kaiser, The Monist, vol. 89, no. 2, pp. 325-355.
[3] See Kaiser, No End Save Victory.
[4] This was, of course, Hillary Rodham.

[5] See my blog post, “The Regeneracy may not be televised,” July 5, 2010,
[6] For the record, it is clear, to begin with, that the government of Florida, led by Jeb Bush, had purged more than enough minority voters from its rolls in the months before the election to have given Al Gore a clear majority.  Secondly, in one of the more influential accidents of history, the butterfly ballot in Palm Beach County cost Gore another several hundred votes. Lastly, the most thorough study of the voting, completed well after the election, found that a complete recount of the state would in fact have shown Gore to be the winner.
[7] Before Strauss and Howe the Baby Boom generation was defined demographically, to include those born from 1946 through 1964.  They described the Boom generation based on life experience, and dated it from 1943 through 1960—in other words, anyone who does not remember FDR, but does remember JFK.  Obama, like the vast majority of Americans born in 1961 or later, does not identify as a Boomer, and he had a classic Generation X childhood, raised by a single mother, a stepfather, and his grandparents.
[8] Henry Adams, “The New York Gold Conspiracy,”  in George Hochfield, ed., The Great Secession Winter of 1860-61 and other Essays(New York: Sagamore Books, 1958), p. 189.


Steven Winsor said...

Very good missive, David. As a conservative, I agree with much/most of what you say in it. I am most concerned about what you mention in the next-to-last paragraph...that corporations will continue to exert more and more dominance over our federal government. And Glass-Steagal...what a terrible loss.

I once again enjoy your remarkable ability to put things in historical perspective. I am saddened to hear that the historians of yesteryear, and the manner in which they pursued their craft, are becoming fewer in number.

I am 66 years old...and fully old enough now to realize that each generation is unique and thus seeks its own way...though (sadly), each refuses to look back at the lessons earlier generations learned the hard way.

Ed Ciliberti said...

Dr. Kaiser,

As a career public affairs specialist in the military and the Federal government, I’ve always been concerned with the “big picture”. My “Generations” eureka moment was reading the Time magazine review of the book in 1991. I hurried out to buy and read the book.

So, I agreed with almost all of the excellent essay you’ve written about our present state of affairs. You seem to say that the Crisis is indeed upon us; that our political disfunction is indeed a bloodless civil war and that the GWOT is the conflict characteristic of a Crisis climax. I disagree.

All the Crises have climaxed in a war, a bloody one, in which the nation faced an existential threat. Look at them: Revolutionary War, Civil War, World War 2. In each of them, the nation was mobilized, citizens took up arms, significant numbers of them died or were wounded. In contrast, the US, as a nation, has not been mobilized for GWOT. Combat deaths over the past 14 years don’t even begin to approach the 30,000+ that die each year on America’s highways. So, how is this existential?

From my perspective, we are still in the unraveling stage, only this time the unraveling is global as much as it is local (to the US). As I tuned into the terrorist attack on the World Trade Towers and the Pentagon, It suddenly occurred to me that I might be seeing the catalyst for the Fourth Turning’s climax. I grabbed the book and read the page that described that catalyst. On the bottom of the page S&H wondered what would happen is the catalyst came early, before the Prophets mellowed out. If it happened early, they cautioned restraint in reaction.

You have seen the question, I’m sure, about whether other nations/societies experience the generational/saecula phenomena that S&H described for America. S&H track generations forward from the Hundred Years War (1400s) between England and France. In the Revolutionary Saeculum they branch off onto a purely American track. Yet, while America was reorganizing itself after the Revolutionary War, England was locked in what it perceived as a existential struggle with France, a 23-year, bloody, world-wide conflict known as the Napoleonic Wars. From a world-view, how does that fit into who’s generational/saecula scheme?

No, Dr. Kaiser, I think the war-beast of the our (or the world’s) Fourth Turning still lies ahead. The terrorists are ankle biters. From their efforts we, as FDR said, have only to fear fear itself. On the other hand, we are tweaking the Russian Bear on Europe's Eastern edge and China is flexing its military muscle in the Western Pacific. Only we three have the ability to light off a truly existential conflict. Only America is currently a disorganized, dysfunctional society. A lot may depend, going forward, on who the American electorate puts in the White House on November 8. Even that choice may not bring us safely through the Valley of Death. We are no longer the meanest MF in the valley.

David Kaiser said...

Dear Ed,

Thank you for your comment. I'm sorry our paths never crossed during my own long association with the military. Let me explain why I disagree.
The general decline in authority and broad loyalties that has hurt civic life in the US so much has affected the whole developed world. Very few countries have conscription any more. I honestly don't think they are capable, politically, of the kind of mobilization that characterized the Civil War or the Second World War. While developments in Russian-American relations are alarming, even there I think we will see nibbling around the periphery, not general war.
Lastly regarding the election, what candidate of either party do you think might play the role you have in mind?

Assurance-First-Assurance said...

This is amazing. Thank you for your work. I also do not see any political figure on either side who is uninterested in more than just getting rich and important.

No care at all about what this will do to the nation.

I wish I could see a way this all turns out well but I just can't. Balkanization is the more likely outcome.

Thanks again.


John Michael Greer said...

Dear Dr. Kaiser,

Thanks for this very thoughtful essay. I wonder if you've considered relating the Strauss-Howe theory to the broader historical perspective of Arnold Toynbee, which seems very appropriate to your essay's topic. Toynbee argued, if I may summarize a complex theory too briefly, that civilizations flourish as long as they are able to come up with novel responses to the challenges of each era, and begin their decline and fall once they stop doing so and insist on applying the same responses to problems whether those responses work or not.

In the first three of the generational crises you've sketched out here, American society did in fact come up with novel and appropriate responses to the crises in question. This time around, that didn't happen; instead, what Toynbee called "the idolization of an ephemeral technique" led America's leadership to double down on existing commitments and approaches instead of reinventing the American project as Washington, Lincoln, and Roosevelt did. While, as you've pointed out, the social programs of the New Deal are being gutted, the rest of Roosevelt's legacy -- the imperial presidency, the seamless fusion of corporate and government power, a foreign policy oriented toward global dominance, and so on -- remains the keynote of today's America

I would be interested in your thoughts regarding Toynbee's analysis, not least because he -- like Strauss and Howe -- deals with the cyclical dimensions of human history, which have been neglected to an embarrassing extent by the mainstream of the historical profession in recent decades. If Toynbee's analysis has anything to offer, furthermore, it may allow for some degree of prediction over a longer scale than the Strauss-Howe generational model.

Ed Ciliberti said...

Dr. Kaiser,

Thanks for your response to my earlier posting.

True, very few countries have active conscription. Although our draft is dormant, it can be activated quickly enough. (And apparently the girls would be scooped up with the boys, given SecDef Carter’s announcement this week.) I believe S&H’s point about the catalyst (in the face of an existential threat to the nation/society) is that armies would be raised, citizens would be conscripted to defend the homeland. Look at Pearl Harbor. Before 12/7/1941, there was a strong stay-out-of-Europe’s-wars sentiment throughout the country. Afterwards, young men flocked to the military to defend the nation. It may have been less so in the aftermath of the attack on Fort Sumpter, but certainly characteristic of American sentiments in the revolution.

I don’t believe that the climatic catalyst has happened yet. On 9/11, as I said in my earlier post, I wondered if that was it. Even if it wasn’t, GWB over reacted to it, as S&H feared, especially when he used 9/11 as an excuse to invade Iraq. The current consequence of that invasion is the ISIS mess as well as the Syrian mess. Indeed, GWB’s Iraq moves dumped the US into the middle of a resurgent, centuries-old religious war between the Shia and Sunni branches of Islam as reflected in the worldly contest for Middle East supremacy between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Now Turkey (a NATO state) is trying to put its finger on the scale between those two.

The Iraq military adventure was compounded by the poor regulation of US financial business (actually started with Bill Clinton’s approval of the repeal of the 1933 Glass-Steagall Act) that led to the 2009 financial crisis that still hovers over us. That crisis is helping to recreate the economic imbalances characteristic of the Gilded Age. Unease is all around us and the globe. As you wrote: “The general decline in authority and broad loyalties that has hurt civic life in the US so much has affected the whole developed world.”

However, as I said in the earlier post, ISIS does not bring the existential threat. Only Russia or China could become that for the US. The question is, what could be the catalyst? It could be something big like Pearl Harbor. Or it could be something small like the shooting of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria in Sarajevo in 1914. It could be the Russians taking out a Turkish war plane. It could be a Chinese military unit on its recently-built artificial island in the Spratly Islands firing on and damaging or destroying an American ship or plane approaching the site. The fact is, at this stage we can’t know, can’t even guess correctly.

You asked about next year’s presidential election. It’s way too early to tell. There are loose cannons rumbling over the deck. The election is taking place in circumstances that, in some manner or degree, are reminiscent of the 1933 German election that brought Hitler to power. Now, I’m not suggesting any of the candidates bear any resemblance to him. Instead I’m suggesting that the American electorate bears some resemblance to the German electorate of that day: frustrated, fed up, angry with their leaders. They are looking for something very different from the status quo. They are looking for someone to make them feel safe again, to make them feel economically secure again, to make the bad cess go away. If they choose poorly? We’ll have to wait and see.

That Liberal Guy said...

Just a short note concerning the election results in Florida. Both the purge and the butterfly ballot were small compared to the nearly one hundred thousand votes that Ralph Nader syphoned off from Gore.