A number of historians and commentators have noticed that American history seems to have gone through cycles averaging just over 70 years in length. This is roughly the time between pivotal events that shaped the next seven decades. For example, in 1787, a group of men met in Philadelphia to revise the Articles of Confederation. They emerged with a quite different document, the U.S. Constitution. The next few years witnessed a battle over the new document's acceptability. Out of that battle came the Bill of Rights-and a changed country.
In 1860, South Carolina became the first state to secede from the Union. Very shortly thereafter, the Confederacy was born. Seventy three years had gone by. The worst war in U.S. history ensued, and again the country was transformed.
In 1929, the stock market crashed. The Great Depression followed, and set the stage for the rise of the welfare-warfare state. Number of years passed: 69.
It is now 2000. Do the arithmetic. Unless the time spans between the above three events are just coincidence, we are due for something. There are plenty of signs that the time is just about right.
The most systematic recent account of this cyclical view of history is found in The Fourth Turning, a book published in 1997 by William Strauss and Neil Howe that deserved far more attention than it received. The Fourth Turning is about historical cycles, generations and culture. Unlike microspecialized academic historians, Strauss and Howe look at the Big Picture. The results are vast and panoramic in scope, offering a fresh perspective on today's events-and a warning.
According to Strauss and Howe, history has indeed moved in 70-plus year cycles which go back well before the founding of our Republic. Each cycle is divided into four periods called turnings, each turning lasting 14 to 20 years. Each turning has its own distinct mood. Transitions from one turning to the next are sometimes precipitated by unexpected and sometimes nasty jolts.
The first turning in any cycle is a High. The second, an Awakening. The third, an Unraveling. The fourth, a Crisis. Highs are periods of strong institutions and weakened individualism. Respect for authority is a typical High value. Highs are periods of public spiritedness and cultural optimism. They are times of achievement, but also of conformity. Most of the conformity is voluntary. The dominant mood of a High is governed by consensual belief in the "system" and its leading institutions.
Awakenings begin when something happens to call the dominant institutions and values of the High into question. Awakenings are scenes of social upheaval and intense questioning. Conformity is rejected, but optimism remains. Idealistic political movements rise and thrive during Awakenings.
Unravelings are periods of weakened institutions and strengthened do-your-own-thing individualism. Older values such as corporate loyalty and hierarchy are seen as discredited. But there is nothing to take their place. Hence Unravelings are more pessimistic and even nihilistic. Political movements begun out of the idealism of the preceding Awakening may display a distinct dark side.
Finally, a national shock occurs, and a Crisis emerges. Crises are periods of turbulence that can unite or destroy. In previous Crises, a new national consensus emerged, creating new institutions and values. The country was transformed in ways no one could have predicted. The stage was set for the next cycle, and a new High began.
Given this framework, the period that began just after the end of World War II and continued through the 1950s and into the early 1960s was a High. This period still exercises influence via the images of better and safer times conveyed by old television reruns such as Ozzie and Harriet, Leave It To Beaver, and The Andy Griffith Show. Today's appeals to family values reflect longing glances back at images of the stable, middle-class two-parent family evidenced in such shows. Meanwhile, the economy really did take off like a rocket. A rising tide really did lift all boats. People identified with the institutions in which they worked. It was the period of William Whyte's classic The Organization Man, and in it the organization men were mostly content. A number of factors began to interfere with that mood: early civil rights clamorings, Beatnik culture, the ongoing Cold War and rising trouble in Southeast Asia. However, the catalyst for the transition to the next turning was clearly the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963. If there are defining moments in twentieth century history, the dark and grim scenes of JFK's coffin moving slowly up Washington, D.C., streets were surely among them-and this is true whatever one thinks of Kennedy's presidency. Large numbers of people-even those of us who were small children (I was 6 years old!)-still have vivid recollections of where we were the day Kennedy was shot and what we were doing (I was home, sick with strep throat). The ensuing Awakening saw hippies and antiwar activists; "old wave" feminists and civil rights laws; rock and roll, open drug use, sexual liberation. The mood of the period was distinctly Utopian and communal. This is the great danger associated with Awakenings: they combine the optimism carried over from the preceding High with a new and often reckless social experimentation. The limitations imposed by human nature are largely forgotten.
Some saw the Reagan years as a period of reaction against the "gains" made in the 1960s and 1970s. Others saw them as embodying a national recovery that pulled us back from the excesses of those years. In this view, both are wrong. We were actually entering a period of mounting uncertainty and national drift as the Awakening ended and the Unraveling began. By the early 1990s, the optimism was gone. A kind of nihilism had set in, exemplified in the "culture wars." Movements that had seemed healthy during the early Awakening, such as civil rights and "old wave" feminism, had evolved into the angry, repressive agendas of political correctness. Our current Unraveling has also seen a lot of denial, exemplified by the hoopla over the economy despite the huge income gap and the most massive credit expansion ever.
Turnings are different because different generations come of age, and come to dominate a culture at different times-again, at roughly 14 to 20 year intervals. In Strauss and Howe's vocabulary, a Prophet generation is born during a High and comes of age during an Awakening. It may lose its sense of direction during the ensuing Unraveling. Witness the Baby Boomers, the most pampered generation ever. Heirs of the High of the 1950s, they experimented with dope during the Awakening, then became "yuppies." Suddenly aware of their advancing years, some frantically embraced the very values they had rejected in their parents; others became disciples of New Age nuttiness.
A Nomad generation is born during an Awakening and comes of age during an Unraveling. Witness "Generation X." Those X-ers who develop a sense of direction find it in something individualistic and often highly idiosyncratic. The e-commerce revolution, being led by this generation, is a good example. However, their individualism can deliver less wholesome-appearing results. Witness the black clothes, dyed hair, tattoos, body-piercing, etc., also associated with many X-ers.
A Hero generation is born during an Unraveling and comes of age during a Crisis. Here we have to go back in time. A distinct group was born between 1914 and 1929, the last Unraveling. This group survived the Great Depression, and went on to fight and win World War II. According to Strauss and Howe, the next generation of Heroes began to be born around 1984, and its leading edge is inching its way through high school.
Finally, a Silent generation is born during a Crisis and comes of age during a High. Silents tend to exist in the shadows of Heroes. The Silent is the "man in the gray flannel suit."
Why these generational differences? Because of the different circumstances in which they are born and grow up. Coming through the Depression created the Heroes of our century, and they developed a sense of life's precariousness that led them to overprotect their young (the Boomers), who then grew up without any such sense. Hence the latter's greater willingness to experiment and question authority-often without any sense of limits. The Boomers were self-obsessed and self-absorbed-leaving their Generation X children underprotected. Lack of clear guidelines, when spread across much of a generation, helps create a Nomad sensibility.
These are tendencies, of course. They do not by any means describe every person or institution. However, today's cultural ambience is clearly that of a late Unraveling. Institutions and values of yesteryear have weakened. Do-your-own-thing individualism is evident from the popularity of "home-based businesses" to the idea that the President's sex life is "his own business." Our decade is quite comparable to the 1920s, the Unraveling of 70-plus years ago. The Fourth Turning predicts the similarities. Both periods witnessed ill-advised government prohibition movements: the 1920s had the original Prohibition; we have our "war on drugs." Both were periods of massive amounts of credit-spending. Both saw the rise of nihilistic philosophies and literary movements: the 1920s gave us logical positivism and The Great Gatsby, while our time has given us postmodernism. Both periods witnessed unprecedented changes in technology: in the 1920s came the automobile; in our period, the Internet and the World Wide Web. Such changes create new jobs while rendering old ones obsolete, with the changes often coming very quickly; hence a sense of instability and uncertainty. And finally, Warren Harding, President during the early 1920s, also cheated on his wife. We've been here before.
The importance of all this is that if we are in a late Unraveling today, then tomorrow's Crisis is just around the corner. This is the warning of The Fourth Turning. Of course, Strauss and Howe aren't offering benchlab science. They don't predict the event, just the timetable, and only that within a range. The question, though, is not if, but when. And, perhaps, what.
If Strauss and Howe are right, then in the next few years (possibly around 2004 but it could be sooner) an event will occur that will send shock waves through the country. It will make the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal look like a playground romp by comparison. It will dwarf the fight over the Confederate flag in South Carolina in magnitude. It is hard not to speculate on what might happen. Another economic crash is a possibility, if our present bubble of credit-created pseudo-prosperity bursts. We know that many so-called dot-com stocks are grotesquely overinflated, creating multimillionaires-on-paper whose companies haven't actually earned a profit. Another possibility lies with an attack in an American city by domestic or international terrorists, prompting whoever is in the White House to declare a national emergency. A third possibility is that Quebec will follow through with its efforts to separate from the rest of Canada, giving instant credibility to secessionist stirrings in Hawaii, Alaska, Texas, Arizona-and here in the South. This would surely trigger a Crisis-particularly given increasing public resentment against the massive and growing powers of the Federal Government in every area of command and control. A fourth possibility is Beijing's invading Taiwan. Given how the Clinton Regime has helped the Beijing communists build up their technology (which was once our technology), this is not as unlikely as it would have been eight years ago. Finally, we could see some combination of two or more of these. All are just conjectures; a Crisis could emerge around some event no one has thought of yet. In any event, this country will be transformed again.
Strauss and Howe do not seem to notice that all previous Crises were scenes of Federal power-grabs. The government created when the Constitution was ratified was stronger than its immediate ancestor under the Articles of Confederation in which there wasn't even a president. Victory for the North in the War for Southern Independence helped to create the nation state (references to "these United States" disappeared, along with the legitimacy of the very idea of secession). The Roosevelt Administration of the 1930s gave us the welfare-warfare state, whose tendencies toward internationalist interventionism have grown by leaps and bounds, culminating most recently in the unholy Clinton Regime / NATO alliance and its nasty little war in Kosovo. One of the current specters is of power-grabs by de facto governments operating at an international level, e.g., the United Nations, making use of trade deals such as NAFTA and globalist outfits such as the World Trade Organization, enabling a handful of supranational elites to control the world's economy and, ultimately, its political system as well.
This is something we better notice now. Otherwise we could wake up in the Crisis and find our identity as a sovereign Constitutional Republic gone. Here is yet another Crisis scenario: a sudden Federal Government crackdown, with the full backing of the supranational elites. Imagine what happened to Elian Gonzalez' relatives happening all over the country, all at once! A deadly struggle could ensue between those who want freedom and those who identify with the growing supranationalist megastate.
This fight, of course, is already brewing. On one side of the fence, we are seeing the increasing Federalization of police forces, and an increased Federal involvement in almost every aspect of our lives. Our current "public school" system had already become a haven for moral relativists and statists; it is becoming one for supranationalist propaganda in the guise of creating "global citizens."
On the other side are, for example, homeschoolers consisting of Christians and freedom-lovers generally who are speaking against the government school system with their feet. These and many others have taken to the Internet as the dominant alternative to a national print media they regard as controlled by powerful interests taking us closer to global government every year. There is a good deal of paranoia. Much of it is probably justified. Were the megastate to form in a Crisis, and continue late-1990s tendencies toward employee databases and biometrically encoded national ID cards, it would have at its disposal a technology making it very difficult to oppose. Those in power could make it almost impossible for their opponents to earn a living legally-assuming they could maintain control of the rank and file.
Culturally, though, the United States is not coming together. Its regions are gradually drifting apart. If the supranational elites cannot maintain control over the rank and file, the coming Fourth Turning could be the scene of a national breakup that would provide the best opportunity ever for creating a genuine Southron Republic. Even those who reject such thinking must acknowledge that there is no guarantee that what we now call "the United States" will survive the next Crisis intact.
We cannot stop the Crisis. But we can prepare, and we owe it to ourselves to begin now. The clock is ticking. Our challenges are educational and cultural as well as political and economic. The Millennial generation-the next generation of Heroes-will come of age during the Crisis. Today's children and those now entering their teens will be supremely important in the near future. It would be a good idea to teach them moral virtues such as honesty and honor, a love for God, respect for family and community, respect for the idea of truth, and that of Constitutionally limited government and the rule of law in a divinely-ordered world. A lot of responsibility will fall on the shoulders of that generation to get us through the coming Crisis which, if The Fourth Turning is to be believed, is just over the horizon.
About the author:
Steven Yates is a writer with a Ph.D. in philosophy who frequently writes for LewRockwell.com and The Edgefield Journal. He is the author of Civil Wrongs: What Went Wrong With Affirmative Action (San Francisco: ICS Press, 1994) and numerous articles and reviews in both academic journals and other periodicals. He has taught philosophy at Auburn University, Clemson University, the University of South Carolina, and elsewhere. He has held fellowships with or worked on projects with the Institute for Humane Studies, the Heritage Foundation, the Heartland Institute, the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty, and the South Carolina Policy Council Education Foundation. He currently divides his time between freelance writing and working at a day job to make the rent payments.
There is a large website devoted to Strauss's and Howe's ideas as presented in their book where the discussion continues.
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