In 1995 I first read Generations by William Strauss and Neil Howe, and it changed my life. Two amateur historians had identified an 80-year cycle in American history--a cycle that also applied, as I realized fairly quickly, to modern Europe and East Asia as well. Three great crises: the American Revolution and the adoption of the Constitution, the Civil War, and the 1933-45 period--had each created a new order, a new set of allegiances, and a new consensus about political and even social values. That was almost 25 years ago and there has not been a week in all that time that I did not think about this view of history and what it meant for the future--since the next crisis was due to arrive by 2010 or so, if not sooner. I now think, as I have said here many times, that began in 2000-1, marked by two key events: the election of 2000, in which a partisan Supreme Court and an inept Gore campaign did not allow us to discover who had actually won the presidency, and 9/11, which started a new era in American foreign policy that continues to this day. Yet it now seems clear that this crisis will not end like any of the others, and that it will have weakened our institutions to the point that I am wondering if they will begin to function effectively any time soon, and even if they will survive at all.
We tend to assume in the United States that the excellent design of our institutions guarantee that they will survive, but that has never really been the case. In 1860-1 secession would have destroyed the Union had not Lincoln refused to recognize it and undertaken a war to prove that a democratic nation could preserve itself. The victorious Republican Party, which remained in power for another 20 years, abolished slavery, paid off most of the national debt, established high tariffs, and turned loose a gigantic wave of industrialization. The Civil War experience effectively assimilated Irish and German minorities whose presence had been quite controversial as late as the 1850s, and new immigrants flooded in at a rapid rate. In 1932 the Depression threatened the economic and possibly the political collapse of the nation, but Franklin Roosevelt restored confidence in the government, found ways to put many of the unemployed back to work, and changed the whole relationship of the federal government to the economy. Confronted by the rise of aggressive dictatorships in Europe and Asia, he warned the people that the western hemisphere was threatened, won an unprecedented third term, and prepared the nation not merely to fight, but to win, the greatest war in history. That war assimilated new waves of immigrants and created a bond between the government and the men who had fought it and their families. After the the war, the US embraced a new world role. The postwar consensus, however, did not really survive the Vietnam catastrophe, and by the 1980s, the Republican Party had embarked, slowly but surely, on the destruction of the New Deal legacy.
We easily forget, now, that George W. Bush and Karl Rove--whether or not they ever read Strauss and Howe, which I suspect that Rove did--wanted to build a new Republican consensus around another great foreign crusade. After 9/11 they embarked upon the conquest and transformation of key parts o the Middle East. Yet their new crusade proved disastrous both in the targeted area and here at home. While they could destroy organized enemy forces in Afghanistan and Iraq, they could not govern them effectively, and they created power vacuums in which chaos and extremist movements thrived. Meanwhile, at home, they remained true to Republican principles, and cut taxes instead of raising them while piling up trillions of dollars of debts to fight these wars. The failure of their wars, in my opinion, has destroyed the national consensus on behalf of an activist foreign policy--something which Donald Trump does seem to have understood. Yet while cutting back on the Iraq war, the Obama Administration continued the crusade to democratize the region in Libya and Syria--both times, with disastrous results.
In 2008 the financial crisis swept the Republicans out of power and gave President Obama a chance to reverse course domestically and re institute a New Deal--but he did not take it. Relying on centrist economic advisers, he restored the deregulated financial system that had emerged in the last two decades rather than replacing it. Losing the Congress, he had to accept big cuts in government spending, and the Affordable Care Act was his only important domestic achievement. Then, in 2016, a huckster who had survived repeated bankruptcies and become a reality tv star decided to run for President, and neither major party could produce a candidate that could beat him. Three years later the Republican Party is completely in thrall to him, and cares nothing about his clear unfitness for office.
I think the chances are somewhat better than 50-50 that Trump will be defeated next fall, but I have no confidence that the election of Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg, or even Elizabeth Warren will restore a vigorous and effective national government. Voters under 60--the vast majority of them--have literally never seen the government do anything big and effective over a sustained period of time. Partisanship has paralyzed the Congress and will probably continue to do so no matter who wins. Under our system as it has evolved, many key decisions are now the province of the Supreme Court. Worst of all, as this election shows, it has apparently become impossible to become a national political figure by making an impressive record of public service. As I write, the RealClearPolitics average of Democratic polls shows Joe Biden with 27.8%, Bernie Sanders with 15.6, Elizabeth Warren with 14.2, and Pete Buttigieg with 11.4 Biden leads for one reason: he was Vice President for 8 years, giving him name recognition and a reflected glow from Barack Obama. Sanders is second because he has won the allegiance of some millions of voters by bluntly speaking his mind, and Warren has established herself as a genuine heir to the New Deal tradition. Buttigieg, like Barack Obama in 2008, is drawing on general personal qualities and the novelty of his candidacy. Three other Senators have a total of 7.8%, and none of them (Harris, no longer in the race, Klobuchar and Booker) has any legislative accomplishments to their name--largely because the whole Congress doesn't.
The American people have lost a sense of citizenship based on participation in a great common enterprise that serves us all. The Republican Party wants nothing but to set private capital and private enterprise free; the Democratic Party is making some noises about equality, but focuses more on social issues, including gun control and minority rights, and pays lip service to the very serious crisis of climate change. We also desperately need a huge common enterprise to integrate our millions of now-illegal immigrants into our polity, rather than continuing to rely upon a large working class that cannot vote. But a common enterprise would require a common view of certain problems facing us and a broad faith that we can use our brains and energy to solve them, and these things are lacking as well. Our faith in rational solutions to problems peaked quite some time ago, and only effective action can restore it--but where will this come from?
A Democratic victory would at least temporarily restore some respect for our institutions, and Democratic appointees, unlike Trump's, would make a real effort to make the federal government function. That alone would represent a significant gain from our catastrophic state under Trump. But it will not solve the crisis of democracy that has struck not only the United States, but Europe and some Asian nations as well. Of all the major nations, only France at this moment appears to have a leader with a strong majority behind him and a definite course of action. Inevitably he has aroused a great deal of opposition, as de Gaulle did before him in the last stage of the previous great crisis, but if he can prevail against it he will have shown that democracy can still work.
In the 1990s Strauss and Howe showed how disunity and strife had threatened the nation and, crucially, how we had overcome them. That is what we have failed to do this time. Perhaps historians in a century or two will conclude that the United States of our time--by which I mean the nation of the last 50 years or so--was too spoiled and too self-confident, and came to believe, in many different ways, that old rules no longer applied to it, and that, like Athens in the 5th century BCE, we could have whatever we wanted by wishing for it. We couldn't. No one, I think, really knows where this will lead.