Ethel Kennedy opened the door in her bathrobe, welcoming us in from the blizzard. The snowstorm had made it impossible to reach Harpers Ferry, where a retreat had been planned for a gaggle of Washington-based Generation Xers, as we were called then. So one participant, Doug Kennedy, asked his mother to let us relocate to their Hickory Hill estate. Over the next hour that Saturday morning in March 1993, twentysomethings of diverse stripes including Jon Karl, now of ABC News, Jon Cowan, now of Third Way, and Eric Liu, now of Citizen University, streamed in for a weekend of debate.
The confab was hatched by a man much older than we were—William Strauss, a charming, gray-haired congressional staffer known in Washington for founding the Capitol Steps, a troupe of Hill aides who performed mildly funny political satire in a small Georgetown theater. One typical parody featured a George Bush Sr. impressionist lamenting his lack of the common touch with a song called “If I Weren’t a Rich Man.”
Strauss (who died in 2007) and his collaborator, Neil Howe, another onetime Hill aide, have vaulted back into the news lately as intellectual influences on Steve Bannon, President Donald Trump’s chief strategist. Their 1997 historical manifesto The Fourth Turning, an iteration of their generational theories, posits that the tides of history have placed America on the cusp of a world-historical crisis—akin to the Revolutionary War, the Civil War and World War II—that could plunge the nation into disaster. And Trump’s self-styled intellectual guru reportedly is so taken with the book that, according the New York Times, he has read it three times and shelves a marked-up copy alongside his most admired volumes at his father’s Virginia home. Bannon has described the book’s arguments as central to his worldview, and his 2010 documentary, “Generation Zero,” rested on its claims. As a result of his reported regard for it, The Fourth Turning is now a No. 1 Amazon best-seller—in the category of “divination.”
Back in 1993, though, Strauss and Howe didn’t yet have a cult following. They were just getting to be known for their first book, Generations, a best-seller that analyzed all of American history as the experience of successive generations, to whom the authors assigned distinct, coherent and predictable personality types. More recently they’d published 13th-GEN, which sought to capitalize on the Baby Boomer-dominated news media’s sudden and faddish interest in my generation. Strauss, a fiscally conservative centrist, believed that his generation, for all their change-the-world idealism, had screwed things up royally by saddling their children with insurmountable debt, environmental disaster and other long-term headaches. By gathering our group together, he thought he could orchestrate a Port Huron Statement for the Gen-X era, one that would, in line with his book’s picture of our cohort, preach solutions that were pragmatic, middle-of-the-road and “post-partisan” (a buzzword at the time)—ideas of the sort Ross Perot might have espoused in the previous year’s presidential campaign.
Of course, Perot had finished third in the 1992 election while waltzing to Patsy Cline’s “Crazy,” and, despite the best efforts of a few Strauss disciples at Hickory Hill, the weekend’s project also collapsed in incoherence. Most of the policies that the conservatives proposed were anathema to the liberals, and vice versa. (I remember one of the ideological conservatives present being demolished in an impromptu debate by a young Andrew Cuomo, who had dropped in out of curiosity; he was visiting with his then-wife, Kerry Kennedy.) At one point, Cowan and Rob Nelson, of a deficit-reduction group called “Lead or Leave,” proposed that we all accept their idiosyncratic mix of proposals, but that didn’t satisfy anyone. By the end, I had become convinced that the members our supposedly “post-partisan” generation had no more in common with one another than did the members of Congress. Although some participants in the end crafted a document, not everyone was happy with it and not everyone signed. It got a little attention and was then forgotten.
One lesson of the failed post-partisan manifesto was that political differences matter a lot more than generational differences. And as I went off to study history in graduate school, I came to see even more clearly just how superficial Strauss and Howe’s ideas were. Their books argue that major political or social events will provide shared foundational experiences for people of a certain age—think of the G.I. Generation of World War II, or the Boomers coming of age in the turbulent 1960s. That’s true enough. But what they didn’t appreciate is that the resulting sensibilities are always far from universal, and don’t always align with the prevailing popular-culture images. The young 1960s radicals of Students for a Democratic Society, after all, may have turned out to be less important than those of Young Americans for Freedom, and Generation X turned out to be much more diverse—politically, and in every other way—than Strauss and Howe’s typology allowed.
In the wake of reports about Steve Bannon’s esteem for The Fourth Turning and Strauss and Howe’s generational theories, some alarmist pieces have warned that his interest in its prophecy of a bloody cataclysm bespeaks a dangerous eagerness to court some kind of catastrophic sequence of events that will remake the global order. (“Steve Bannon Wants to Start World War III,” blared a Nation headline.) Others discern a dark religious apocalypticism. I don’t think either worry is very credible. But Bannon’s interest in the book still matters—because its hyper-confident yet shoddy amateur history speaks to the fly-by-night thought process of the brash autodidact who, for all the recent reports of Trump palace intrigue, still has a West Wing office and the president’s ear.
The Fourth Turning is not just a disaster prophecy, like the 1970s bestseller The Late, Great Planet Earth. Couched in learned language, it argues that not only American history but all history proceeds in predictable cycles of about 80 years or the duration of a human life—a “saeculum,” in the authors’ pseudo-scholarly nomenclature. Each saeculum, in turn, moves through four stages of roughly 20 years as inexorably as the seasons of a year: a spring-like “high” of civic optimism (think postwar America); a summery “awakening” of spiritual enthusiasm (e.g., the 1960s); an autumnal “unraveling” of retrenchment and alienation (the Reagan era); and finally a wintery “crisis” in which the old order is swept aside amid total war or some other transformational event. Written in 1997, The Fourth Turning prophesied an unspecified crisis around 2004. Bannon reportedly considers the 2008 crash to have begun this “fourth turning,” which will continue to play out over these next 10 to 15 years—until the last stage of the cycle is complete.
And there’s more to the theory: In each stage a generation is born, with identifiable collective traits. The children born during crises, in Strauss and Howe’s idiosyncratic and imprecise terminology, are “artists,” unassuming and upstanding technicians who work within the system. Then, during the highs, “prophets” are born: passionate and moralistic doers, like the Baby Boomers. The third generation, which is born during the “awakening” and comes of age during the “unraveling,” comprises “nomads,” who are alienated, pragmatic and suspicious of high ideals (Gen X). Finally come the “heroes”—today’s Millennials, if you can believe it—who in their young adulthood use their propensity for teamwork and optimism to help the country to triumph amid major crises.
At first blush, The Fourth Turning—or any book you might pick up from the Strauss-Howe oeuvre/cottage industry—is beguiling in its cleverness. There’s something nifty in the tidy way it bundles into tidy boxes not only all four “saecula” of American history, dating back to 1704, but all of Euro-American history since the Late Medieval period. In short order, however, most readers will find the book maddening in its strict schematization and its hopscotching across history in search of convenient examples.
The dream of formulating a scientific theory of history, with predictive capacities, was once a common project. In the 19th century, as the field of history, like other intellectual pursuits, professionalized, many practitioners sought to put the discipline on a scientific footing by elucidating laws or grand patterns in the past—laws and patterns that might also foretell the future. From Auguste Comte and Karl Marx up through Arnold Toynbee, historians proposed assorted theories about the development of civilization. Ironically, however, the hard-headed empiricism that became central to reputable history also exposed the philosopher-historians’ sweeping assertions as deficient in many of their specifics and untenable as prophecy. Today most serious historians shy away from all-encompassing philosophies of history, while the works of Comte, Marx, Toynbee and others are studied as intellectual artifacts, notable for what they said about their own times, not what they predict about ours.
To be sure, there’s nothing controversial about the basic idea that wars and other conflicts may be followed by bouts of calm, or that eras of far-reaching reform may produce backlashes or cooling-off periods. But few historians today take seriously the idea that an inner logic guides the course of history like a gyroscope, whether it’s a Whiggish theory that assumes a mostly linear progress, a dialectical theory like that of Marx or Hegel or a cyclical theory like that of Toynbee—or Strauss and Howe.
The problems with the predictive schematic history of the sort laid out in The Fourth Turning start with their determinism. One giveaway are the charts, tables, diagrams and bulleted lists that litter the book, which find a way to fit every consequential figure and event into neat patterns. If history unfolds as inevitably as this, then the study of human decision-making in the past—or even in the present—becomes all but irrelevant. This determinism, moreover, introduces all kinds of contradictions for the theory: The Fourth Turning holds out many American presidents as paradigmatic and consequential figures of their eras, for example, but according to its own logic it shouldn’t really matter whether the nation elected Herbert Hoover or Franklin Roosevelt in 1932, Ronald Reagan or Walter Mondale in 1984, or Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump last year, because history was headed in a certain direction regardless.
The Fourth Turning also, like an astrologer or fortune teller, plays fast and loose in shuttling between its big claims and specific evidence. Its contentions are vague enough that it’s easy to justify them with a handful of illustrative examples, with contrary cases simply omitted. It also mistakes symptoms for causes. Consider this paragraph:
Viewed through the prism of generational aging, the mood change between the late 1950s and the late 1970s becomes not just comprehensible, but (in hindsight) predictable: America was moving from a First Turning constellation [a “high”] and into a Second [an “awakening”]. Replace the aging Truman and Ike with LBJ and Nixon. Replace the middle-aged Ed Sullivan and Ann Landers with Norman Lear and Gloria Steinem. Replace the young Organization Man with the Woodstock hippie. Replace Jerry Mathers with Tatum O’Neal. This top-to-bottom alteration of the American life cycle tells much about why and how America shifted from a mood of consensus, complacency, and optimism to one of turbulence, argument, and passion.
But does this idiosyncratic smorgasbord of pop culture references actually explain anything about why American culture changed between the late 1950s and the late 1970s? In circular logic, it posits the “mood change” as the result of a move from one stage to another. And would their story look different if their portrait of the 1950s had included Martin Luther King, Elvis Presley, Jackson Pollock and Jack Kerouac?
Finally, there are errors and inaccuracies committed in the blind search for coherence. In the opening pages of The Fourth Turning, written in 1997, the authors hold up soaring public debts and deepening welfare dependency as signs of the coming crisis—even though the late 1990s were an era of broad-based prosperity, budget surpluses and declining welfare dependency. At the same time, they insist they’re “not reassured” by the official claims at the time about a national drop in crime—even as, a few pages later, they pooh-pooh predictions that “today’s kids will come of age with a huge youth crime wave.” They hedge their bets, too, by shifting their hopes from one generation to the next. After my pragmatic Hickory Hill Gen Xers didn’t deliver the political solutions they sought, they pinned their hopes on the Millennials to deliver the country from its impending crisis.
Needless to say, no one should believe, based on The Fourth Turning, that, as the authors ominously wrote, “history is seasonal, and winter is coming.” But it’s not unreasonable to worry that ideas like these are gaining traction. Over the years, the book has developed an astonishing following, tapping into some kind of popular hunger to find a tight logic within the vagaries of history or to forecast the future. It’s not too different from the cult followings of writers like Ayn Rand or Gore Vidal, or of futurists like Alvin Toffler or Hal Lindsey. As Eric Hoover of the Chronicle of Higher Education writes, the generations books made Strauss and Howe into “media darlings, best-selling authors, and busy speakers.” Howe went on to found a consulting business called LifeCourse Associates and advise colleges, universities schools, businesses (Ford, Nike, Hewlett-Packard, Kraft Nabisco) and public agencies on demographics, social change and the profile of new generations.
If businesses waste money on bogus futurism and visionary claptrap, it’s not particularly remarkable; enterprising consultants have always found ways to tap into corporate fund streams while their buzz is strong. But when the president’s chief strategist is enamored of half-baked theories of history, that’s another matter.
The problem isn’t that Bannon will want to launch a nuclear war; even someone who takes a clash-of-civilizations view of radical Islamism isn’t necessarily jonesing for mass destruction, and, besides, Bannon doesn’t have the power to initiate that if he did. The problem is that admiration for these kinds of crackpot theories reveal, or confirm, the dangerous amateurism about in the White House.
Autodidacts like Strauss and Howe—or Bannon—tend to fall in love uncritically with the seductive insights they stumble upon. They tend to disdain the reasons that more expert students of their subjects may offer for rejecting their overly simplistic claims. The penchant for grand explanatory theories frequently reflects an inflexibility of thought, a resistance to contrary evidence, an eagerness to fit everything into an all-encompassing system. But successful policy making depends on intellectual nimbleness and pragmatism, on being able to revise your ideas based on new events and information, on understanding history as a set of contingent choices. The type of person enchanted by The Fourth Turning’s overly neat diagrams and mechanistic arguments, who isn’t compelled to pick apart its glib generalizations, is not someone whose intellectual instincts encourage confidence.
But then I would argue something practical like that. I’m a Generation X Nomad.