Monday, March 28, 2016

Thoughts on the 2016 Election and the Regeneracy of the Fourth Turning

On June 5, 2009, I posted a blog entry here entitled: Of an Ominous Financial Crash, An Ordinary National Election, A Trivial Tea Party. That entry celebrated how I found a book I had been looking for, Strauss and Howe's The Fourth Turning: An American Prophecy: What the Cycles of History Tell Us About America's Next Rendezvous with Destiny. I wrote:

As the strange and apparently ominous events of the past half-year have been accruing, I have wanted to re-read The Fourth Turning, but all my rooting in the accessible boxes in the garage came up wanting. So I was anxiously on the lookout for the book as I began the task of making my library as planned in the Chem Geek Princess's old room (now the Guest Room/Library). Thus I was amazed when finally, I found the book and read the page that fell open, and that last, pregnant sentence:

" . . . the spark might seem as ominous as a financial crash, as ordinary as a national election, as trivial as a Tea Party."
The context Strauss and Howe were referring to is the spark that sets off the transition into the Fourth Turning, the Crisis period of our time.

In the summer of 2014, while writing my Ph.D. Comprehensive Exam Paper, I checked in on the Fourth Turning Discussion Groups that I have been a part of since 2002. There, I saw a link to a Neil Howe blog post ( in which he stated that he and Strauss had decided that the Fourth Turning of our era, the Millennial Saeculum, had likely begun with the Global Financial Crash in the fall of 2008. I believe that this timing may well prove to be right. The ages of the generations was right, with the Millennials fully occupying young adulthood, Generation X fully in mid-life, the Boomers fully occupying elderhood, and the very elder GIs leaving the planet. The generational archetypes were also aligned: the Prophets in elderhood, the Nomads in middle-age, the Heroes in young adulthood, and the young Artists arriving as children.

Recently, I have noticed that people are beginning to talk about the dire nature of the current election. I have also heard forebodings about another economic shock to the system from people I am talking to for my dissertation research and from those involved in other projects with me. These premonitions of dire events to come are not directly a part of my research, but the Strauss and Howe theory may explain some of what I am finding. This was unexpected.

 I have also been anxious and upset about this election, and I have had to take a short break from Facebook in order to keep my focus on my dissertation work. I have been thinking about the election as part of a linear trend toward some totalitarian future, a fascist or socialist dystopia. So I pulled out The Fourth Turning and read it again, paying attention to the cyclical nature of Awakenings and Crises it describes. This gave me hope for the future despite the stresses to the current system that seem to be reaching a saecular maximum.

In the Strauss and Howe Generational Theory, a saeculum is a cycle in time that "spans the length of a long human life, roughly eighty to one hundred years. Each cycle is comprised of four Turnings which are eras that come in the same order, saeculum after saeculum since the end of the Middle Ages. Strauss and Howe define the turnings as:

  • 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 an 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. (Strauss & Howe, 1997, p. 3)

In my re-reading, I noticed that some of what I remembered from the book was not quite right. I had expected the Fourth Turning Crisis to erupt as the-end-of-the world-as-we-know-it (TEOTWAWKI). But the Strauss and Howe Generational Theory posits a Crisis as a "great gate in history" when civic order reaches its nadir and is rebuilt based on values developed during the Second Turning Awakening. The conclusion of the Crisis and the change in the social mood that follows, marks the beginning of the First Turning High of a new saeculum. Strauss and Howe state that a Crisis begins with some random event that causes a sudden change of the social mood. This happens when the generational archetypes are aligned in a certain order, as I noted above. At that point, members of a society stop drifting along and begin to take responsibility for problems they had ignored during the 3rd Turning Unraveling. The order of the generational archetypes is important, because each one has a particular character marked by their age and place in history.

In the Fourth Turning, Strauss and Howe looked at other Crises in the Anglo-American Saecular history. They identified patterns common to each Fourth Turning, even though the particulars of each were different in their timing and events. They wrote that a Crisis has an identifiable morphology. From the Fourth Turning:

Fourth Turnings have provided the great pivot points of the Anglo-American legacy. dating back to the fifteenth century, there have been six. Each produced its own Crisis and its own facsimile of the halcyon spirit today's World War II veterans remember so vividly. From the similarities of these eras, a morphology can be constructed:
  • A Crisis era begins with a catalyst--a startling event (or sequence of events) that produces a sudden shift in mood.
  • Once catalyzed, a society achieves a regeneracy--a new counterentropy that reunifies and reenergizes civic life.
  • The regenerated society propels toward a climax--a crucial moment that confirms the death of the old order and the birth of the new.
  • The climax culminates in a resolution--a triumphant or tragic conclusion that separates winners from losers, resolves the big, public questions, and establishes the new order. (Strauss & Howe, 1997, p. 256). 
According to Strauss and Howe, the regeneracy is a process. It's beginning is marked by the nadir of social order that has been decaying through the Unraveling and into the crisis. The regeneration is complete when "out of the debris of the Unraveling, a new civic ethos arises. One set of post-Awakening ideals prevails over the others" (p. 257). At this point, people use the new synergy to strengthen their communities and instruct their government officials on how to reinforce it.

Before a Crisis begins, say Strauss and Howe, people can foresee the fault lines along which a spark may ignite, but they cannot predict its regeneracy, climax or resolution. However, they say that a regeneracy can be expected 1-5 years into a Crisis. But not all Fourth Turnings are the same. If Strauss and Howe are right about the beginning of this Crisis, we are more than seven years into it, and still the fragmentation from the Unraveling continues. We can see the splintering of our politics continuing among and within the major political parties, and most of the people have not yet united around a particular vision of civic order. In his blog posts on the topic, Howe also stated that the regeneracy is bumped into being by a spark or series of sparks that are more serious than the initial catalyst for the Fourth Turning. However, from the Crash of 2008 until now, the Great Recession has continued, with no marked repair and no sudden change. Although the Obama administration calls it a "recovery," many Americans point out bitterly that it is a "jobless recovery," if a recovery it is.

But this year, people are facing a presidential election that is unique in American history. There is no incumbent candidate. Obama is term-limited out. His party controls the executive branch, but does not control the Congress. The Court is divided, and could lean toward constitutional anarchy with the appointment of the president's nominee. Garland is opposed to the Second Amendment, causing Second Amendment groups and gun-owners to consider their response should the Court try to violate their right to keep and bear arms.

One major party, the Democrats, is running a corrupt criminal who may yet be indicted for mishandling government property. She is also responsible for the deaths of four Americans in Benghazi, and yet cannot remember that any people were "lost" there under her watch. Their only other declared candidate is an aging "democratic" socialist who promises to continue the trend of taxation and deficit spending that has thus far enslaved our grandchildren to unprecedented debt.

The other major party has gone against the wishes of its conservative base over the course of the last three elections. The Republican front-runner is a Boomer, an inside trader who calls himself an outsider, and he cannot articulate a single policy. But he is popular among true-believers because they think he can, with his pen and phone, make the budding executive branch tyranny stop. But he has unfavorable polls approaching 70% and he is unlikely to be able to win the election. His only serious challenger is a Gen-X outsider, a constitutionalist, who is hated by the party establishment. In fact, the Republican establishment wonks have proposed inserting their own preferred insiders into the process through a brokered convention, which is not the same as a contested convention in which the existing candidates duke it out for the nomination. This would be unique in history. Many observers think this would destroy the credibility of the Republican Party, causing its voters to stay home or vote third party in unprecedented numbers.

The largest "third party," the Libertarian Party, will likely run a popular former governor of New Mexico, who has considerable executive experience and was known for his promotion of individuals rights and liberty, and his use of veto power to keep the budget balanced and stop the state government from violating the liberty of the people. Some Republican wonks are threatening to try to take over the Libertarian Party, should an unwanted candidate be nominated in their own party. Although the threat is unlikely to be successful, because the Libertarian Party National Convention will take place in May, which is before the Republicans have finished their primaries, it is an indicator of the instability within the GOP.

When faced with such an election, many people I know personally or on social media resort to bitter humor, anger, and a sense of impending doom. That sense of doom is only increased by the predictions of further shocks to the economy that may occur as early as this summer. Some economists say that it could result in The Great Devaluation of the American dollar. This would render our money worthless and stop commerce.

These are things that I have had nightmares about.
However, if these are the things of which a regeneracy may be made, so that the old, decaying civic habits are replaced with something new--a new economy, a new political outlook, a new liberty--then the nightmares might be worth it. After the Great Depression and World War II, some people thought that the piper of the old order would still have to be paid, and that the Depression would re-establish itself. Instead, as Americans worked through the war, they developed a new economy, new industry, and a new social ethos. When the war was over, people moved on. They did not go back. They had reset their systems, remitted their debts and established the beginning of new social habits through the regeneracy of that Great Power Crisis.

I posit that this year and this election will mark the regeneracy of the Millennial Crisis. The faults in the old order that the election and the economy are revealing are similar to other saecula. They are also directly related to the values changes precipitated in the 2nd Turning Awkaening and the problems revealed in the 3rd Turning Unraveling. We still cannot foresee what great and perilous events will mark the climax of our passage through this "great gate" in history, and what future will be built out of its resolution. However, we can know that the Fourth Turning is proceeding in a familiar pattern, and that we are not stuck in some nightmare Crisis without end.

My re-reading has given me hope. A good outcome is not a sure thing. Of the ten crises that the Anglo-American generations have passed through, some have had the best possible resolution, some have had good resolutions, and some have had mixed results. However, none so far have ended the civilization that sustains these cycles, and TEOTWAWKI has not happened. It could happen. But I think it is more likely that if we stay the course, fight for our values, restore the power of the civil society and take control of our government, we will see a good resolution to this Fourth Turning. If we work for it, the generations now living can become "repairers of the breech."

OK. Now I can go back to my dissertation with some equanimity.
And yes, I am back to blogging. In late 2013, I had my own crisis, which caused me to reorder my priorities, write and defend my Comps (November 2014), form a dissertation committee, write and successfully defend my dissertation proposal (November 2015). I am now in the "valley of confusion" that is part and parcel of qualitative research. Yes, it is fun! Yes, I will tell you all about it in another post.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this article. I read the Fourth Turning for the first time when it came out in the 90s and I heard the authors talking about it on NPR. Even then, they predicted the economy would play a big role in this Crisis turning. I think they discussed bubble economies starting to burst one by one. Unable to get the book out of my mind, ever, a few years back I read a blog post by Howe I believe where he also used Katrina as a marker for the beginning of the crisis. Most people thought it should have been 9/11 that marked the start, but we didn't really start to unravel until we watched an American city nearly wiped off the map. It was horrifying to think our gov't couldn't respond and in fact, it was gov't negligence that led to the levies failing. I know I was naive, but I just wouldn't have thought something that put so many lives at risk would be allowed to go unrepaired. Our gov't failed us on many levels in full color on TVs around the world for weeks. You can't unsee all that. 8 years later, many more are wising up to what's needed: accountability at all levels of community/society. When Americans are all in agreement that things need fixing AND they are willing to do their part and not just tear each other apart on social media, that's when we'll be ready to move through the climax (gently I hope!) and back into the High. Like you, these theories give me hope. Thanks again! Julie