America appears to be going insane.
Protests over the horrific police killing of George Floyd have devolved into looting, vandalism, and arson that destroyed black lives, black livelihoods, and black monuments — in the name of “Black Lives Matter.” An “autonomous zone” took over territory in Seattle and the government effectively endorsed this mini-rebellion. Vandals are targeting statues — of Confederate soldiers … and Union soldiers, even black volunteers in the Union army. They got Ghandi, George Washington, and Junipero Serra — and may be coming after Jesus. A cancel culture has revved into high gear, claiming scalps — including that of a New York Times editor. Meanwhile, Democrats are demonizing President Trump’s calls for law and order, and blaming Republicans for the “murder of George Floyd” — because Republicans put together a police reform bill. Oh, and the Supreme Court is making law, in the name of Originalism.
What in the hell is going on?!
Back in 1997, the authors William Strauss and Neil Howe fashioned an important key to unlock the mystery of America’s current insanity. Their book, The Fourth Turning: An American Prophecy – What the Cycles of History Tell Us About America’s Next Rendezvous with Destiny, helped me piece together what’s going on in American society and why it seems to be on the brink of collapse.
Strauss and Howe present a cyclical theory of history based on the life cycles of generations. They use the ancient Roman idea of the saeculum to map out American history, and it’s eerily accurate.
Every eighty years, the ancient Romans would celebrate a new saeculum — the span of a long human life that represented an important milestone in Roman history and culture. Strauss and Howe map out the major turning points in American history and find that every 80 years, the United States goes through a major crisis.
About eighty years after the American Revolution (1776-1783) came the American Civil War (1860-1865), and about eighty years after that came the Great Depression and World War II (1929-1945). If Strauss and Howe’s calculations are correct, the United States should be going through a major convulsion right about… now.
But the real force of the book comes in the details of the generational archetypes and the overall cycles of history. Strauss and Howe reference many ancient myths to explore four different archetypes: the hero generation that works to achieve success, the prophet generation that seeks wisdom to solve the next crisis, the artist generation that seeks personal fulfillment and helps unravel society, and the nomad generation that grows up in a crisis and seeks to hold society together.
Then they plot history out in four roughly 20-year phases: the high (which correlates to a kind of spring), the awakening (a kind of summer), the unraveling (a kind of fall), and then the crisis (a kind of winter) — the titular “fourth turning.”
In a “fourth turning,” America faces a crisis, and the hero generation looks to the elderly prophet generation to give orders, while the nomad generation between them holds society together. After victory is achieved, America experiences a high, a period of societal stability, as the nomad generation holds the social order together, rewards the heroes, and inspires a rising generation of artists. Between roughly 1945 and 1963, America experienced a period of prosperity and social peace in the wake of victory in World War II.
Yet the social peace and stability of a high leave Americans anxious. They suddenly worry that things are working too well. They think of citizens as drones, all following the same tasks when they should be seeking new areas of fulfillment. As the hero generation ages into the leading role of society, a rising generation of artists begins to raise objections, and the new young prophet generation seeks societal change. This period of awakening leads to a flourishing of a new culture — the hippie movement and the evangelical explosion of the 1960s and 1970s.
As the awakening takes off, Americans become more isolated and seek their own personal fulfillment. This leads to an unraveling — a period of introspection and social isolation. Tribalism and polarization rise as trust in institutions wanes. Strauss and Howe suggested the unraveling would last from the mid 1980s until around 2006.
Then the crisis comes. In The Fourth Turning, Strauss and Howe predicted that the crisis would start around 2006, hit a fever pitch around 2020, and turn towards resolution by 2026.
This saecular cycle of generational change flips the modern wisdom on its head. Many Americans think linearly, assuming that current trends will continue. Yet each generation is slightly different from the one before, and not always in the same ways. Strauss and Howe’s archetypes provide a helpful schema to understand the turnings of history, and they suggest a few important lessons about America’s current moment of insanity.
First, it helps make sense of what is going on. Americans’ trust in other people and in institutions is at an all-time low. For this reason, major reforms on hot-button issues like whether LGBT identities should be protected in civil rights law are not likely to pass Congress and get signed by the president. So the Supreme Court acted, instead. Similarly, rioters — who are mostly voters with the ability to impact government through the legislative process — have taken the law into their own hands to redistribute wealth and topple supposed symbols of “white supremacy.” Americans are more capable of tearing things down in this generational season of crisis.
Sadly, things are likely to get worse before they get better. Americans need a crisis to jolt them into true social cohesion. Our political polarization and tribalism seem particularly nasty at the moment, and only a true crisis will force conservatives and liberals to get over their differences and work together on a national project. I would hope that the destruction of the riots would bring liberals and conservatives together in a desire for law and order, but that seems not to have happened.
There are a few candidates for the key crisis of this “fourth turning.” At the moment, an odd sort of “race war” between Black Lives Matter and antifa radicals (many if not most of whom appear to be white) and patriotic Americans seems the most likely. Eric Kaufmann, professor of politics at the University of London, ran a study finding that a huge percentage of self-described liberals are open to ideas of radical change to America’s national institutions, from scrapping the Constitution to changing the names of states in order to reflect racial diversity.
The coronavirus crisis is another candidate for the “fourth turning” crisis. While the economy appears to be on the mend to some degree, the coronavirus pandemic is not over and we are still in a recession.
Speaking of the Chinese coronavirus from Wuhan, China, the Chinese Communist Party seems newly emboldened, from its heinous malfeasance to accusing the U.S. of racism to engaging in border skirmishes with India. A war with China would be devastating, but the prospect seems increasingly likely. China is the kind of existential threat that would force Americans to come together for victory, and the Chinese Communist Party is evil enough to unite conservatives and liberals against it — since it persecutes Uyghur Muslims in concentration camps as well as Christian minorities.
Nuclear North Korea also shows signs of aggression, as it blew up the embassy with South Korea just last week.
Due to the global nature of World War II, many countries — particularly in Europe and Asia — are in the same generational phase as the United States. This makes war in East Asia that much more likely.
Whatever happens, America faces a serious test ahead. Can the Baby Boomers lead Generation X and the millennials toward a cohesive national vision through this moment of crisis? If we fail, America will lose prestige, and perhaps its freedom or prosperity. If we succeed, America will enter a new “high” period, another 1950s era of social harmony fueled by a spirit of victory.
American culture appears in shambles now, but that is likely only a seasonal trait. Soon, the country will have to band together, and a new civic spirit is likely to emerge. I only hope and pray that it makes room for conservatives…
Tyler O’Neil is the author of Making Hate Pay: The Corruption of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Follow him on Twitter at @Tyler2ONeil.