THIS WEEK’S POST IS DRAWN FROM MY NEW BOOK: AMERICAN REQUIEM–WHY THE USA FALLS IN THE LAST DAYS. FROM CHAPTER ONE, I SHARE BUT ONE OF THREE WITNESSES TO OUR DIRE STRAITS. MUCH MORE TO COME.
The Fourth Turning
“Though we live in an era of relative peace and comfort, we have settled into a mood of pessimism about the long-term future, fearful that our superpower nation is somehow rotting from within,” lament authors William Strauss and Neil Howe in their best-selling book, The Fourth Turning, An American Prophecy. The book has had an enormous impact on intellectuals in America—well, at least conservatives and libertarians. It heavily influenced Steve Bannon, the not-so-appreciated strategist for Donald Trump, and, therefore, through him, the plans and programs for the Trump Administration.
Strauss and Howe chronicle the litany of perceptions and issues that spell ‘danger ahead.’ But what stands out as objectively true about our situation? According to Strauss and Howe, there are genuine reasons to be concerned:
Public debts soar, the middle class shrinks, welfare dependencies deepen, and cultural arguments worsen by the year. We now have the highest incarceration rate and the lowest eligible-voter participation rate of any major democracy. Statistics inform us that many adverse trends (crime, divorce, abortion, scholastic aptitudes) may have bottomed out, but we’re not reassured.
However, this despair is not a new phenomenon. It arises roughly every 80 to 100 years. The authors argue that this pattern is endemic (i.e., perennial) for human society and always has been. That is, it is not peculiar to the Western World and nor especially unique for the United States. And yet we can say that the cycle of four, 20 to 25-year periods which rotate or cycle through our society every 80 to 100 years, proves to be more precise and predictable in America than most European societies.
The essential point: Our society resembles the life of the human being.
Over the past five centuries, Anglo-American society has entered a new era—a new turning—every two decades or so. At the start of each turning, people change how they feel about themselves, the culture, the nation, and the future. Turnings come in cycles of four. Each cycle spans the length of a long human life, roughly eighty to one hundred years, a unit of time the ancients called the saeculum.
Strauss and Howe summarize the cycle with these words:
- The First Turning is a High, an upbeat era of strengthening institutions and weakening individualism, when a new civic order implants and the old values regime decays.
- The Second Turning is an Awakening, a passionate era of spiritual upheaval, when the civic order comes under attack from a new values regime.
- The Third Turning is an Unraveling, a downcast era of strengthening individualism and weakening institutions, when the old civic order decays and the new values regime implants.
- The Fourth Turning is a Crisis, a decisive era of secular upheaval, when the values regime propels the replacement of the old civic order with a new one.
The authors would assert we entered into about a decade ago with 9/11. This age-defining event came after the book was written in 1997, four years before they predicted such a moment would occur). For them, ‘The Fourth Turning’ could be a time of apocalypse or glory. The crisis moment pushes us into the abyss or becomes the catalyst for necessary change. History does not, they say, tell us which way we will go, only that a cycle plays itself out and repeats again and again. They asserted its beginning would be about 2005 and its end roughly in 2030. Their confidence rests on the pattern they document over a stunningly long period. However, the idea that history is moving toward a conclusion began in earnest in the sixteenth century, say Strauss and Howe. The Reformation spread a sense of urgency along with the Gospel. “Ordinary people began speculating about the historical signs of Christ’s Second (and final) Coming and inventing new sects according to their expectations about this.”
Within two centuries, intellectuals transposed the notion into a secular view of progress—but progress called for by the existence of God (“Progress was Providence”—Lord Acton). America had a “manifest destiny.” The New World was to be a “shining city on a hill” in which we would realize the Kingdom of God (this particular view we call Post-Millennialism today—the idea that Christ would come AFTER the world had been made right—an eschatology common among the sect known as “Dominionism” in today’s world, aka “Seven Mountains Theology”). The authors alluded to Mark Twain’s brilliant wit when he commented on the American mentality, saying, “Nothing is as older than our habit of calling everything new.” The idea that history repeats itself (or as Twain more aptly stated, paraphrasing, “History may not repeat itself, but it rhymes”) fails to find fertile ground in a nation if its culture sees progress as inevitable. (“The happy ending is our national belief”—Mary McCarthy).
This optimism about history crashed in the Twentieth Century with its two world wars. Despair struck Europe once it lay in ruins. But for America, such misery was delayed. This author would say our victory over monarchy-gone-wrong in Europe (World War I); and then later, the fascist axis powers of Italy, Germany, and Japan (World War II) would buoy our optimism. After these two world wars, America was the undisputed leader of the ‘free world’ (its new enemies being the communists in Russia, China, and their proxies). Beginning in the 1950s, it seemed to be “the American Century.”
But even this confidence was short-lived and shaken by the misery of the Viet Nam War, the national division commencing in the 1960s and lasting through the 1970s. The media’s portrayal of Nixon’s ‘Silent Majority’ vs. the ‘Hippie Counter-Culture’ captured the conflict. Undoubtedly, the dispute existed between traditional mores compared to the new (e.g., using recreational drugs, having ‘free-sex’). Less apparent but more substantial was the Baby-Boomers’ disparagement of conventional perspectives on Capitalism and Consumerism. The new enemy was corporate power that increasingly dominated American life (a latent perspective which Conservatives have begun to hold today).
There were some good times but many bad ones. America became “damn Yankees” worldwide (the catchphrase was ‘the ugly American’). The Iranian Hostage crisis demonstrated how much the Islamic World hated us and how powerless we were in many places regardless of Hemisphere. Except for the Reagan years, which reversed the inward self-hatred that characterized the Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter years of the 1970s, the unraveling of America’s position (and self-image) was the primary ‘Zeitgeist’ of the last quarter of the Twentieth Century. This situation turned into the crisis period during the George W. Bush years, post-911, with twenty years of war in Afghanistan and Iraq. In 2020, now 20 years into the fourth turning, the pessimists still own the day:
Best-selling books envision a postmillennial America of unrelenting individualism, social fragmentation, and weakening government—a nation becoming ever more diverse and decentralized, its citizens inhabiting a high-tech world of tightening global ties and loosening personal ones, its Web sites multiplying and its culture splintering. We hear much talk about how elder life will improve and child life deteriorate, how the rich will get richer and the poor poorer, and how today’s kids will come of age with a huge youth crime wave.
But is all lost? Strauss and Howe assert in The Fourth Turning that we can alter today’s experience of chaos. Although we no longer believe progress is our predestined fate, we can find hope. We should not see ourselves trapped in ‘entropy’ (which I would characterize as randomness seen in meaningless events amid an amoral universe). So we should expect better days ahead. To regain a touch of Pollyannaism, we must drop our reliance on the ‘linear’ understanding of time (i.e., we are heading upward or downward with little we can do to affect the outcome). Strauss and Howe argue our outlook should shift back to a cyclical view of history—that we are just in a downturn, a slump, from which we will be able to free ourselves. Although today is a crisis, crises can be resolved, and regeneration can still occur. For the optimist, a new birth may lie just around the corner.
Nevertheless, existential questions remain: Are we just in a slump? Or are we on the edge of oblivion? Can we regain our footing? Or are we, to quote the title of a Tennessee Williams’ play, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1952), soon to slide off the edge and land hard on the concrete? Unlike the cat, we may not have nine lives. So, what is most likely to happen?
In The Fourth Turning, we read how history proves cyclic time turns the blackest nights into bright days once more. Therefore, shouldn’t we be singing “Que Sera, Sera?” Can’t a rising tide raise all boats in the United States? Or to mix a metaphor, can a laissez-faire attitude (usually applied to economics) right the ship?
If we believe in the Second Coming of Christ, are we dubious that ‘cyclic thinking’ can pull us out of the nosedive? The authors discuss a technical aspect of time, whether it is cyclical or linear. They indicate that since the time of Christianity, Western history has been seen to be linear. What is past is past and we are heading toward a crescendo or conclusion of history that may be delayed but not averted. This would consist in the notion of apocalypse. Jesus of Nazareth was, as a teacher and preacher, was an apocalyptic rabbi. He believed the Kingdom of God was coming and would reverse fortunes and inaugurate God’s rule on earth, in Jerusalem, on the throne of David—Israel’s greatest king. The Messiah was a Prince that was to come, be put to death, Jerusalem destroyed, then an undisclosed time would pass before the Messiah would come again (see Daniel 9:24-27).
Where should we place our hope?
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An Important and Timely Discussion
Reviewed in the United States on May 22, 2016
 Strauss, William & Howe, Neil. The Fourth Turning: An American Prophecy. New York: Three Rivers Press. 1997.
 Strauss, op. cit., p. 2-3. Wikipedia has a solid article explaining the history of the term. “A saeculum is a length of time roughly equal to the potential lifetime of a person or, equivalently, of the complete renewal of a human population.”
 Ibid., p. 3-4.
 Ibid., p.4.
 Ibid., p. 9.
 Ibid., p. 19.