Since I read it a dozen years ago, The Fourth Turning by Williams Strauss and Neil Howe has lingered in my imagination because it has captured so much of the historical movement of the time since. Their approach is nonlinear, like my business cycle forecasting model. Although they are economists, their theory is a qualitative one of a generational long-wave spanning the length of a long human lifetime, the saeculum, with each of four generational archtypes changing places as the seasons turn. They discern a pulse of about 80 year length in Anglo-American history, punctuated by crises (p. 259):
- Wars of the Roses (1459-1487), Late Medieval Saeculum
- Armada Crisis (1569-1594), Reformation Saeculum
- Glorious Revolution (1773-1794), New World Saeculum
- American Revolution (1773-1794), Revolutionary Saeculum
- Civil War (1860-1865), Civil War Saeculum
- Great Depression and world War II (1929-1946), Great Power Saeculum
I quoted at length in a previous post, “The Crisis at the End of the Saeculum,” passages that I thought captured many elements of the Panic of 2008, which they would call the catalyst of the Crisis. If you haven’t read it, I suggest you read the prior post before continuing. The Crisis has only just begun, in the authors’ view, from this catalyst, and can be expected to mount in intensity until a crescendo in about 2020, plus or minus a few years:
Soon after the catalyst, a national election will produce a sweeping political realignment, as one faction or coalition capitalizes on a new public demand for decisive action. Republicans, Democrats, or perhaps a new party will decisively win the long partisan tug-of-war, ending the era of split government that had lasted through four decades of Awakening and Unraveling. The winners will now have the power to pursue the more potent, less incrementalist agenda about which they had long dreamed and against which their adversaries had darkly warned. This new regime will enthrone itself for the duration of the Crisis. Regardless of its ideology, that new leadership will asset public authority and demand private sacrifice. Where leaders had once been inclined to alleviate societal pressures, they will now aggravate them to command the nation’s attention. The regeneracy will be solidly under way.
In foreign affairs, America’s initial Fourth Turning instinct will be to look away from other countries and focus total energy on the domestic birth of a new order. Later, provoked by real or imagined outside provocations, the society will turn newly martial. America will become more isolationist than today in its unwillingness to coordinate its affairs with other countries but less isolationist in its insistence that vital national interests not be compromised. The Crisis mood will dim expectations that multilateral diplomacy and expanding global democracy can keep the world out of trouble. Even before any conflicts arise, people will feel less anxiety over the prospect of casualties. Old Unraveling-era strategies (flexibility, stealth, elite expertise, stand-off weaponry, and surgical goals) will all be replaced by new Crisis-era strategies (mass, intimidation, universal conscription, frontal assault, and total victory) more suitable to a fight for civic survival. By then, people will look back on the Unraveling as the time when America evolved from a postwar to a prewar era.
The economy will in time recover from its early and vertiginous reversals. Late in the Crisis, with trust and hope and urgency growing fast, it may even achieve unprecedented levels of efficiency and production. But, by then, the economy will have changed fundamentally. Compared to today, it will be less globally dependent, with smaller cross-border trade and capital flows. Its businesses will be more cartelized and its workers more unionized, perhaps under the shadow of overt government direction. And it will devote a much larger share of its income to saving and investing. Fourth Turning American will begin to lay out the next saeculum’s infrastructure grid—some higher-tech facsimile of turnpikes, railroads, or highways. The economic role of government will shirt toward far more spending on survival and future promises 9defense, public works) and far less on amenities and past promises (elder care, debt service). The organization of both business and government will be simpler and more centralized, with fewer administrative layers, fewer job titles, and few types of goods and services transacted.
Meanwhile, Americans will correct the Unraveling’s social and cultural fragmentation by demanding the choice that era never offered: the choice not to be burdened by choice. As people again begin to trust institutional authority, they will expect that authority to simplify the options of daily life—at the store (with more standardized products), on TV (with fewer media channels), at the office (with one pay scale and benefit package), and in the voting booth (with one dominant party). Institutions will be increasingly bossy, limiting personal freedoms, chastising bad manners, and cleansing the culture. Powerful new civic organizations will make judgments about which individual rights deserve respect and which do not. Criminal justice will become swift and rough, trampling on some innocents to protect an endangered and desperate society from those feared to be guilty. Vagrants will be rounded up, the mentally ill recommitted, criminal appeals short-circuited, executions hastened.
Time will pass, perhaps another decade, before the surging mood propels America to the Fourth Turning's grave moment of opportunity and danger: the climax of the Crisis. What will this be? Recall… that a climax takes a form wholly unforeseeable from the advance distance of twenty-five years. Imagine some national (and probably global) volcanic eruption, initially flowing along channels of distress that were created during the Unraveling era and further widened by the catalyst. Trying to foresee where the eruption will go once it bursts free of the channels is like trying to predict the exact fault line of an earthquake. All you know in advance is something about the molten ingredients of the climax, which could include the following:
- Economic distress, with public debt in default, entitlement trust funds in bankruptcy, mounting poverty and unemployment, trade wars, collapsing financial markets, and hyperinflation (or deflation)
- Social distress, with violence fueled by class, race, nativism, or religion and abetted by armed gangs, underground militias, and mercenaries hired by walled communities
- Cultural distress, with the media plunging into a dizzy decay, and a decency backlash in favor of state censorship
- Technological distress, with cryptoanarchy, high-tech oligarchy, and biogenetic chaos
- Political distress, with institutional collapse, open tax revolts, one-party hegemony, major constitutional change, secessionist authoritarianism, and altered national borders
- Military distress, with war against terrorists or foreign regimes equipped with weapons of mass destruction
… Eventually, all of America’s lesser problems will combine into one giant problems. The very survival of the society will feel at stake, as leaders lead and people follow. Public issues will be newly simple, fitting within the contours of crisp yes-no choices. People will leave niches to join interlocking teams, each team dependent on (and trust of) work done by other teams. People will share similar hopes and sacrifices—and a new sense of social equality. The splinterings, complexities, and cynicisms of the Unraveling will be but distant memories. The first glimpses of a new golden age will appear beyond: if only this one big problem can be fixed….
Emerging in this Crisis climax will be a great entropy reversal, that miracle of human history in which trust is reborn…. In the moment of maximum danger, that seed will implant, and a new social contract will take root. For a brief time, the American firmament will be malleable in ways that would stagger … today’s Unraveling-era mindset. “everything is new and yielding,” enthused Benjamin Rush to his friends at the climax of the American Revolution. So will everything be again.
Even if the nation stays together, its geography could be fundamentally changed, its party structure altered, its Constitution and Bill of Rights amended beyond recognition. History offers even more sobering warnings: Armed confrontation usually occurs around the climax of Crisis. If there is confrontation, it is likely to lead to war. This could be any kind of war—class war, sectional war, war against global anarchists or terrorists, or superpower war. if there is war, it is likely to culminate in total war, fought until the losing side has been rendered nil—its will broken, territory taken, and leaders captured. And if there is total war, it is likely that the most destructive weapons available will be deployed.
With or without war, American society will be transformed into something different. The emergent society may be something better, a nation that sustains its Framers’ visions with a robust new price. Or it may be something unspeakably worse….
The Crisis resolution will establish the political, economic, and social institutions with which our children and heirs will live for decades thereafter…. Crisis climax will recede into the public memory—a heart-pounding memory to all who will recall it personally, a pivot point for those born in its aftermath, the stuff of myth and legend for later generations…. (pp. 275-279)
Our politics still looks more Unraveling than engaged in the “great entropy reversal” that the authors say will characterize a successful resolution of the Crisis phase, putting a new social contract in place. But it is still early in the new administration—and earlier yet in the Crisis era, if our authors have their fingers on the pulse. The egalitarian, gung-ho, can-do, WWII GI “spirit of America” has yet to return. We are at the point of recognizing that our social contract is very broken.
Will it take a war to get the “spirit of America” back? See The Elephant and the Donkey in the Room. I hope not.
We live in interesting times.