Regular readers know that I believe our history is shaped by great crises, occurring roughly every 80 years, that mark the death of an old order and the creation of a new one. It was William Strauss and Neil Howe who identified this pattern more than 20 years ago, and subsequent events have only confirmed it. The old order that was still very much alive when they wrote their key works in the 1990s is now dead, along with the generations that made it, and we are struggling to create something new. They also noted, in Generations and The Fourth Turning, that great wars had played a key role in this process, inevitably raising the question of whether another such war would take place in the opening decades of the 21st century. I still believe that the answer is probably that it will not--but at the same time, I am increasingly worried that those wars, from the American Revolution and Napoleonic Wars through the Civil War (and its counterpart in Germany) and the Second World War, did create the basis for future stability in ways that we desperately need now, and have found no other way to bring about.
Simply put, the wars of the modern era have been fought for ideas, and the victory of one side or the other has validated certain critical ideas that have dominated political life for the next 60 years or so, until those who remember the last great war have died off. In the United States, the Revolution validated the idea of national independence, elaborated within a decade in the new Constitution, and those ideas withstood various challenges until the late 1850s, when the postwar generation took power. The outcome of the Civil War had even more far-reaching effects on both sides. In the North, it established the Republican Party as the ruling party in most of the nation, and that party kept the loyalties inspired by the war alive nearly into the twentieth century, while also dedicating itself to the triumph of the great business enterprises that the war had helped to bring about. In the South, the white ruling elite re-established its supremacy after Reconstruction and dedicated itself to maintaining the racial status quo. The Second World War was the largest war in history, and had the greatest effects here in the United States. The generation that fought the war--the GI or "greatest" generation--earned the gratitude and support of its fellow citizens, reflected in higher wages, guaranteed mortgages, highly progressive taxation, and support for growing families. The nation's foreign policy, designed to resist a new totalitarian threat, reflected the lessons of the war as well. A remarkable consensus developed over much of the country in the 1950s and early 1960s, but the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War destroyed it. Still, the GI generation and key elements of the order it helped create remained the status quo into the 1990s. The Clinton Administration even took one step back in its direction by raising everyone's taxes, although it also dismantled a critical piece, the Glass-Steagall Act. By this time, however, the Republican Party--dominated since Newt Gingrich by the postwar Boom generation--had completely repudiated our parents' legacy, and George W. Bush destroyed a great deal more of it, both at home and abroad.
I still do not know if any leading figures of the Bush II Administration had read Strauss and Howe--Karl Rove's office, as I mentioned, refused to tell me if he had--but certainly George W. Bush conceived of the "war on terror" as his generation's new world war. It was, he explained, nothing less than a generational struggle to shape the development of the Muslim world. But in sharp contrast to Franklin Roosevelt's endeavors in 1940-45, Bush's enterprise was poorly conceived, and carried out on the cheap. Rather than raise taxes and mobilize the country, he repeatedly cut them. He removed a key government without any plan to put anything in its place. Now, 14 years after the invasion of Afghanistan, we remain locked in an endless, indecisive war, fought by a tiny portion of the population, and which is no longer the focus of major interest among the population. With the rise of ISIS, some presidential candidates are talking about a bigger war, but none are being very clear about how big it might be, and no one is calling for the return of a draft.
My purpose today is not to debate the wisdom of a big war in the Middle East, however, but to ask how the divisions that have arisen in the United States are going to be healed. This election looks most unlikely to create any new consensus. Donald Trump is the most polarizing candidate to emerge yet, and is basing his campaign on explicit attempts to divide the American people. Even if he loses the nomination, whoever wins it will be paying close attention to the views of his supporters. Hillary Clinton, if elected, will be just as despised by large numbers of Americans, and for similar reasons, as Barack Obama, and the same would probably be true of Bernie Sanders. There is a very real chance, it seems to me, that we will become two countries, de facto if not de jure, just as we were in the years immediately before the Civil War. In theory, a great foreign war, fought with millions of troops to a successful conclusion, might create a new consensus. But no such war is on the horizon, and even if it were, a lifetime of the study of war makes it impossible for me to welcome such a conflict, no matter how much good it might do.
History suggests that there are other alternatives. After 1945 the nations of western Europe, all of whom, in one way or another, had been defeated, built new orders at home based on the need for reconstruction and economic justice. By the 1950s they were busy with another even larger project, the creation of what is now the European Union. That edifice is also cracking, once again because those who originally put it together are gone. The French, the West Germans and others proved that nations could rebuilt, ideologically as well as physically, without large, victorious wars. But they had no choice, precisely because they had been defeated. The United States is not going to face that kind of situation. Some do believe that the impact of climate change might force us into a different kind of mobilization, but so far, it is dividing us, not uniting us.
There is, perhaps, one other possible alternative: a new cold war uniting the West against radical Islamic territories, not for the purpose of wiping them out or converting their populations, but to contain their ideology and re-assert western values at home. Certainly the first Cold War helped the west assert its values of democracy, economic growth, and a measure of economic justice, and kept the best parts of the spirit of the Second World War alive. It did something similar in the Soviet Union, but there, too, the existing order--Communism--could not survive the death of the generation that had put it together as young adults. Some, in our age of individualism and identity politics, prefer to believe that we can simply continue as we are, fragmenting into different subcultures with completely different values. I however doubt very much that this can preserve our society and government as we known them. Eventually we will need some way to establish a consensus, whatever it turns out to be. Barack Obama, in his famous Democratic convention keynote in 2004 and during his Presidency, assumed the consensus was abroad in the land, beneath the heated political rhetoric of the Boom generation. He was wrong. He will leave the almost hopeless task of building a new one to his successor.