In Generations (1991) and The Fourth Turning (1997), William Strauss (1947-2007) and Neil Howe laid out an 80-year cycle in American history, punctuated by great crises. These included the American Revolution and the writing of the Constitution (1774-1794), the Civil War (1861-65), and the Depression and the Second World War (1929-45). Doing the math, they predicted another such crisis in the first 15 years of the 21st century. In the closing section of The Fourth Turning they made a remarkable list of events that might trigger the crisis, including a terrorist attack and conflicts between state and federal authority. To get us out of the crisis they counted on their own (and my) Boom generation, whom they expected to produce a leader comparable to Lincoln in the Civil War crisis or FDR in the last one. Such a person would define a new path for the nation and mobilize resources and young people to create it. They counted on the Millennial generation (born 1982-1996, it now seems) to play the role of the GI or "Greatest" generation in the Second World War, both as the foot soldiers of the crises and the founders of a different United States after it was over. They expected the experience of the crisis to unite the country and create a new set of values, just as the previous crises had done.
Two events--9/11 in 2001, and the financial crisis of 2008--did briefly galvanize the nation and offered our leadership the chance to put us on a new path and create a new consensus. Unfortunately, both the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations--which in many ways marked a single new period in US history--failed to grasp the opportunity to do so. The three earlier crises in our national life, I now believe, renewed the bonds that held us together and revitalized our democracy. Because the new crisis failed to solve any big problems in foreign affairs, domestic affairs, or within our political system, we are now sailing in uncharted waters with no idea what the next twenty years have in store. I am now inclined to believe that the whole period of 1774-1964 may, like the Roman Empire, have marked a great exception in human history in which, for various reasons, civic virtue was unusually widespread and civic achievements unusually striking. And because this crisis was a failure, we may have left that era behind, not to return for a very long time.
The book The Fourth Turning also gave birth to an internet forum for the discussion of its ideas--one of the most exciting intellectual arenas, in its early years, that I was ever part of. It has now been archived. In this thread, Bill Strauss, two days after 9/11, suggested that the attack on the trade towers might well begin the Crisis, depending on the response to it. In my opinion, George W. Bush, Karl Rove (who may well have read Strauss and Howe himself), and other figures in their administration wanted to use the aftermath of the crisis in this way. In the eighteen months that followed they laid out sweeping new foreign policy goals, including the democratization of the Middle East and the destruction of hostile regimes that in their view were trying to acquire weapons of mass destruction. Neoconservatives talked of "World War IV" (World War III, to them, was the struggle against Communism), a generational crusade to extend western values further. And although we may forget it, the country, led by a bipartisan elite, rallied enthusiastically behind Bush in those months. Nearly everyone supported the invasion of Afghanistan and every few Senators and Congressmen opposed the invasion of Iraq. For two major reasons, however, 9/11 failed to become the new Fort Sumter or Pearl Harbor.
The first reason was strategic. The war in Afghanistan as it evolved, and the war in Iraq from the beginning, sought to achieve the impossible: the creation of US client states that would use democratic procedures in those nations. In Afghanistan, 20 years of war and $2.3 trillion led last year to the restoration of the Taliban, whom we had invaded to overthrow. In Iraq our invasion triggered a brutal civil war between newly liberated Shi'ites and hitherto dominant Sunnis, culminating in the mid-2010s in the rise of ISIS. The Obama administration did initially withdraw from Iraq but returned when the government faced a threatened collapse. More importantly, at the time of the Arab Spring, it too adopted the Bush policy of spreading democracy, disastrously in Libya, where the overthrow of Qaddafi started another civil war, and with no success at all in Syria, where the Assad regime was too strong to overthrow. Nor was this all. The emphasis on the "war on terror"--really, a new era of imperialism in the Third World--led our leadership to discount any threat of great power war. That threat has just re-emerged with a vengeance with Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
The second, equally important reason for the Bush II administration's failure was its failure to mobilize human and material resources for civic goals. The Boom and Silent generations that dominated that administration had enjoyed the benefits of the world their parents and grandparents created for the whole of their adult lives. Their better-off members--who dominated that administration--had also benefited enormously from the Reagan tax cuts and economic deregulation. They saw no need for sacrifice to meet their big new worldwide goals. Instead of raising taxes, they cut them twice. They did not reinstate a draft. While FDR had demanded of Americans that they save, Bush exhorted them to spend. Bush in his second term even tried to dismantle one of the key civic legacies of the previous crisis, the Social Security system. That turned out to be a bridge too far, but he never built a new domestic consensus--winning re-election by a very narrow margin--and, as it turned out, presided over the growth of a most unstable economy. Meanwhile, Karl Rove in 2004 relied on social issues like gay marriage and abortion to hold Republicans in line, preferring divisive issues to unifying ones. By 2006 his dream of a Republican majority was clearly fading anyway, as the Democrats gained control of both houses of Congress.
The 2008 financial crisis hit all Americans in a way that 9/11 did not. Six million people lost their homes and the stock market collapse cut net worth all across the country. The irresponsibility of our new deregulated financial system became clear. The crisis allowed Barack Obama to win a big victory in the elections and bring a larger majority in the House and a filibuster-proof one into the Senate with him. The media in 2009 filled with comparisons between him and Franklin Roosevelt. Yet the 47-year old Obama turned out to be a child of the system as it had evolved over the last 20 years. His senior economic advisers taught him, in effect, that the crisis did not mean that the new economic order was fundamentally unsound--but only that it needed trillions of dollars of liquidity from the Fed. In contrast to FDR, Obama neither did very much for the ordinary Americans most affected by the crisis--the ones that had lost their homes--nor mobilized the nation's anger against "the money changers in the temple," whom FDR had attacked in his first inaugural address. His stimulus package was not big enough to reverse the economic trend in his first year in office, and he spent the rest of his political capital on a health care plan that would not come into practice for years. Meanwhile, the Tea Party managed to mobilize the nation's rage in the way that he had decided not to attempt. In November 2010 the Republicans regained control of the House of Representatives, and any possibility of a second New Deal evaporated. Prodded, like Bill Clinton, by a Republican Congress, Obama had to focus for most of his term on cutting the budget deficit. In 2014 he lost the Senate as well as the House.
The nomination and election of Donald Trump, as I have written many times, documented the bankruptcy of our political system and our political elite. Neither party could produce a candidate who could defeat him. Although Trump failed to repeal the Affordable Care Act, he did put through another huge round of tax cuts and the deficit ballooned again during an expanding economy. Trump used the presidency for his personal gain in unprecedented ways, and tried to overturn the results of the 2020 election. He failed.
The pandemic that struck in early 2020 confirmed the collapse of our civic order. Trump, not surprisingly, insisted on pretending that it was not happening. The private sector rose nobly to the occasion, developing two vaccines within a year, but the American people could not agree on the simplest precautions to prevent COVID's spread, costing us tens or hundreds of thousands of lives. The government's relief efforts kept the economy alive, but also--like the post-2008 bailouts--made gigantic gifts to corporate America again. President Biden came into office with narrow Congressional majorities and passed on infrastructure bill, period. That is not all.
The three great challenges to our international, economic and medical well-being--9/11, the 2008 collapse, and the pandemic--have left Americans frustrated and angry. That happened in the earlier more successful crises as well. The John Adams administration (1797-1801) introduced hyper-partisanship to young America, with Federalists and Republicans accusing one another of treacherous subservience to foreign powers. The bitterness of reconstruction was at least as bad as the bitterness of the Civil War, and took thousands of additional lives. 1946-54 was an era of domestic reaction led by the House Un-American Activities Committee and Joseph McCarthy, practicing their own form of cancel culture. This time, however, we do not have a very widely respected figure such as Thomas Jefferson, Ulysses S. Grant, or Dwight D. Eisenhower to rally around, and no great national achievements or tasks to focus on and divert attention from partisan resentments. It is a very long time since any politician really made a national name for himself by solving problems. Two opposing ideologies have filled the vacuum--both dating from the 1960s when the challenge to the postwar order began.
On the right, the Republicans oppose any effective government at the federal and state level. (They do not control any major cities and thus have not been able to use them as laboratories for their free market paradise.) The Federalist Society incubates, identifies and lobbies for conservative appointments to the federal judiciary, and now dominates the Supreme Court. ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council, provides hundreds of draft bills to Republican state legislatures to roll back regulations, promote fossil fuels, chip away at public education, and alter election rules to suit Republicans. Donald Trump, who insists that our political system was rigged to deny him a second term, remains by far the most powerful person in the Republican Party and stands an excellent chance of being nominated again if he decides to run. The Republicans argue, in effect, that American history was a terrible mistake from the Progressive Era through the age of Reagan, and they are still busy trying to correct it without regard for democratic norms.
The views of many Democratic activists are equally destructive for civic virtue and real civic action. They originated in embryonic form on campuses in the late 1960s, and had taken over most campuses by 2000. Rather then attempting to draw upon the positive traditions in the US historical experience, they argue in effect that American society and government have been an instrument of oppression from the very beginning, founded on genocide, slavery, and patriarchy. As a result, many young people now believe that no black Americans had any rights before 1964 and that relations between the sexes until the 1970s are fairly represented by The Handmaid's Tale. US history, they feel, has always been dominated by a conspiracy of straight white males determined to oppress and exploit the rest of the population and the world. "Diversity, Equity and Inclusion" are code words for accepting this view, while placing as many nonstraightwhite males in positions of power as possible, since only they can be trusted to pursue justice. I do not believe any real civic virtue or civic action can be built on this foundation ever. Instead, I think it has triggered a kind of nuclear chain reaction within our society, turning the powerful energy that held us together in earlier years against one another.
The era of 1870-1965 (roughly) might be a unique one in western history, marked by an unprecedented faith in reason and government which allowed governments to mobilize their nation's resources on an undreamed of scale. That enabled different governments to achieve great benefits for their people, and also to perpetrate disasters like the holocaust and the area bombing of cities in the Second World War. Its net effects, in my opinion, were very beneficial. It was an era of consensus thinking in which many outside the consensus faced severe hardships, and opportunities were not equally distributed. The revolt of the late 1960s, I see now, targeted the whole system of loyalties and constraints that had kept society and government growing. It obviously drew on profound currents in human nature and its effects continue to grow. At bottom, the individual rather than the family has become the basic unit of society, and the right of self-definition is becoming the most prized right on earth. Probably an actual majority of Americans on both the left and the right would now oppose the degree of authority that a successful fourth turning requires. The real question before us is whether modern society can survive and prosper without the degree of consensus that has held us together in the past. I do not know. Strauss and Howe understood what kind of crisis we needed to renew our national identity. We didn't get it, and we aren't going to get it now.