I do not think that many informed people would disagree that the United States and the whole world are in a deep crisis. At home we have a President who was probably elected with the help of a foreign power to whom he may have financial obligations, and who seems unable to run his administration competently and to secure and keep competent subordinates. Our engaged population is divided into two roughly equal factions that agree on almost nothing. Headlines, meanwhile, proclaim, correctly, the death of the post-1945 international order, and authoritarianism is on the rise in both Asia and Europe (although it has made fewer gains, so far, in the Americas. ) It is extremely difficult, in such times, to keep a clear head and a long-term perspective on events, but that is what I am trying to do.
It was more than 20 years ago, now, that I first discovered Generations and The Fourth Turning by William Strauss and Neil Howe, and realized that they had indeed unlocked a key to history. I knew enough history to evaluate what they had to say in a great many contexts, and it made an astonishing amount of sense. That is why I have incorporated their insights into several books and why I did what I could in the classroom to spread them further. My new intellectual interest raised a lot of eyebrows among some friends and colleagues, but I took that in stride.
Bizarrely, many of those eyebrows have not lowered, and those books have not, become more popular in mainstream media or academic circles in the last decade, even as their major prediction--that the United States, if not the world, was going to enter a crisis comparable to 1774-1794, 1860-68, and 1929-45, sometime in the first 15 years of the 21st century, has come true. That is partly because of the death of Bill Strauss in 2007, and Neil Howe's decision to spend most of his time on the managerial and marketing implications of their theory, but it is also, I am convinced, because that kind of long-term perspective gets crowded out during a crisis in which all sides are equally convinced of their own righteousness and equally incapable of putting their own views in broader perspective. We are now living, once again, in the world Orwell described in his essay "Notes on Nationalism," which was written in the mist of the last crisis, during which he managed to keep his head while all around were losing theirs. I shall return to him later.
Strauss and Howe grasped that history was dominated by a cycle of birth, maturity, death and rebirth--a cycle that affected both institutions and ideas. Every 80 years, a great crisis created a new order, and the generations that were young adults and children during that crisis remained committed to it, essentially, for the rest of their lives. But about 60 years later, when the postwar generation came into power, the old order began to crack, as different factions within the new generation struggled to replace it. Eventually, one faction triumphed, establishing new institutions and a new consensus, and the cycle began again.
The crisis of 1774-1794 (latter date approximate) overthrew British rule, drove perhaps 200,000 Tories out of the new nation (although quite a few eventually returned), and established the Constitution. A battle between the Federalists and Republicans immediately arose in the 1790s, but Jefferson managed quite successfully to bring it to a close beginning in 1801, when he declared, "We are all Federalists, we are all Republicans." His party established a national consensus (climaxed in the near-unanimous election of 1820) around certain principles. But beginning in 1820, the issue of slavery began to destroy that consensus, and eventually divided the nation even more sharply than it is today.
The Civil War, Lincoln explained at Gettysburg and on many other occasions as well, was being fought to determine whether democracy could preserve itself. Even abolition, as carried out in the Emancipation Proclamation, was a means to that end, not an end to itself--the confiscation of rebel property, designed to make it easier to break the rebellion. The Civil War remains the bloodiest conflict in the history of the United States--in absolute, not relative terms. It ended with the Union preserved and slavery abolished. But the nature of the new order that it created took a little longer to establish. As it turned out, it gave unprecedented economic and political power to an industrial and financial elite, bred a corrupt form of democracy, and re-established white supremacy in the former Confederacy. By the 1880s, the vast bulk of the nation (there are always a few exceptions) accepted this new order and it faced no major political challenges.
The Progressive Era--coinciding, once again, with the rise of a new, postwar generation--challenged the foundations of that order in the economic sphere, and also witnessed the first direct challenge to white supremacy and segregation. Yet the old order was still quite intact during the 1920s--until the economic crisis destroyed it. Then, the Missionary generation (b. 1863-83, in my judgement) seized the opportunity to create new orders both at home and abroad. The New Deal put very real limits on wealth and its power, gave new rights to labor, and gave the federal government a critical role in planning the nation's future and maintaining its economic health. In response to the rise of aggressive totalitarian states, FDR made the US a military and naval power second to none, forged alliances, defeated Germany and Japan, and bequeathed the United Nations to the world. As always, domestic political conflict remained heated for much of a decade after the end of the crisis in 1945, but by the late 1950s, there was, once again, a bipartisan consensus on the shape of the nation at home and its role abroad. That consensus, and the relatively effective government that went with it, allowed most of the American people to live their lives in peace, in a thriving economy, and to make progress in intellectual pursuits. It was during that period that I discovered Orwell--particularly his essays. Some of them had had far fewer readers than these blog posts when they were written in the 1930s and 1940s, but in the calmer atmosphere of the postwar era, they developed a wide following, while 1984 became one of the century's best sellers. A new round of intellectual and artistic ferment began in the late 1960s, and I was very fortunate to share in it.
In 1964, Barry Goldwater ran for President opposing Social Security, Medicare, the Tennessee Valley Authority, progressive taxation, the rights of labor, the United Nations, and the Civil Rights Act of 1964--all the major achievements, in short, of his own era. In the spring of 1963, I discovered recently, he told the Harvard Young Republicans that his generation had gotten the nation into trouble, and that he was counting on their generation to get it out of trouble. He was prophetic--although it was Ronald Reagan, from his own generation, who began the attack on the New Deal in the 1980s. Since then, we have seen the steady erosion of the limits on economic activity and profit imposed by the New Deal and in subsequent decades (ending, I would say, in 1970 with the Clean Air and Clean Water acts), While, as always happens, the Democrats from the Boom generation (such as the Clintons) seemed to assume that the status quo, being just, would continue forever, the Republicans waged a long, coordinated campaign to build a new America. It featured a coalition of energy barons (the Koch brothers and their friends), Evangelical Christians, and disaffected white Americans. It stopped Barack Obama from reviving economic liberalism, and it has now taken over most state governments and all three branches of the federal government. That is serious enough, but that is not where I want to end today. Instead I would like to turn to the question of our new national consensus.
While some of our previous crises have turned out better than others, it is fair to say that every new national consensus so far as represented some kind of advance. The revolutionary and constitutional period introduced a new form of government to the entire world, with consequences that endure to this day. The Civil War abolished slavery. The 1929-45 period left us with a more just society (and laid the foundation, in many ways, for the success of the Civil Rights movement) and created a relatively stable world order. The same cannot be said for the impact of many previous crises in other lands--such as Europe after 1815, or the Soviet Union after the Russian Revolution. Now, too, it seems to me likely--though not certain--that in 20 years, authoritarian governments will once again be the norm in a good deal of the world. But in any case, I am convinced by history, this kind of resolution, leading to a couple of decades of stability ruled by some new broad consensus, is a necessary part of the rhythm of history, one that societies need. And since I believe (and have argued here many times) that our current crisis began in 2001, it is due to end pretty soon, somehow or other.
What frightens me is this: the end and resolution of every previous crisis has involved the application of a great deal of force and violence. The first two, the revolution and civil war, were violent by their nature. The 1929-45 crisis was relatively peaceful at home but involved the greatest war in human history abroad. The extraordinary demonstration of military might by the US, the USSR and the UK established those three powers, and particular the first two, as the leaders of the new era for decades to come.
The two questions that trouble me are these: first, do we in fact need some new consensus that will put an end to the chaos of our current political scene, to allow government and society to function? And secondly--particularly since we lack a Lincoln or Roosevelt in the White House, and our political system in general commands to little respect--how can it be brought about? Must it involve some forcible exercise of governmental authority, at home, abroad, or both--as it has in the past? Or is it possible, as Bill Strauss used to speculate 15 years or so ago, that the United States is genuinely threatened, as in the 1850s, with a breakup? I do not know the answers to any of these questions, but I am convinced that, in one way or another, the nation will have to find answers in the next ten years.