Is an Obama versus McCain campaign evidence of a "Fourth Turning" as described by William Strauss and Neil Howe? I know some of my readers roll their eyes at this stuff about generations but a couple of years ago I did an eleven part series (Index) on Strauss and Howe's work, focusing primarily on their books Generations: The History of America's Future, 1584 to 2069 and The Fourth Turning: An American Prophecy. An Obama versus McCain campaign seems to reflect what Strauss and Howe (S&H) would predict during our era. Iâve got to give some considerable background to get to my point, so here goes.
At the core of S&H's thesis is the idea that there is a repeating cycle of four generational archetypes. Each generation consists of people born within approximately a twenty year period; give our take a few years. The types are the Hero, the Artist, the Prophet, and the Nomad, which repeat in that order. Every twenty years one archetype is dying off while society is giving birth to the successor version of the dying archetype. This is not to say that everyone in a given generation exhibits the characteristic of the archetype but in the aggregate, and in terms of the type leadership that emerges, the archetype gives each generation a distinctive feel.
About every twenty years there is an alignment where each generation is located overwhelming within a particular part of the lifecycle: childhood, young adult, mature adult, elderhood. This alignment signals a shift in the culture from one turning or "mood" into the next. There are four turnings that follow in succession: 1. High, 2. Awakening, 3. Unraveling, and 4. Crisis. (They can also be likened to spring, summer, fall, and winter.) The high comes in the wake of resolving a great crisis and is characterized by a civic spirit and general optimism. The Awakening is a period of spiritual awakening and turning more inward to address issues that have been suppressed in the previous Crisis and High periods. The Unraveling is an increasingly inward focused era where societal institutions begin to fray and come apart. Escalating rancor and coarseness become part of life. The Crisis usually features escalating societal division that finally gets resolved in the midst of addressing some major social crisis like a war or economic collapse. The resolution gives way to a new High and the cycle starts again. A complete cycle is called a saeculum. S&H would suggest we are in the first 5-10 years of a Fourth Turning, a Crisis era.
The four generations driving events in this Crisis era are categorized as follows:
- Silent Generation (Artist). Born 1925-1942
- Baby Boom Generation (Prophet). Born 1943-1960
- Thirteenth Generation or Gen X (Nomad). Born 1961-1981
- Millennial (Hero). Born 1982-2000?
The Prophet Generation, in this case Boomers, is the wild card in the Crisis era. Boomers were brought up to question things, were told they could accomplish anything, and were filled with visions of making a new and better world by their parents who had just endured tremendous crisis. They had a destiny to fulfill.
In youth, Boomers began challenging tradition with idealistic visions that ranged from the noble to the utterly narcissistic. As they moved into adulthood they became increasingly inward focused while still bending the world toward meeting their perceived needs. In the Crisis era, a prophet generation enters a stage of life where they begin to confront their own mortality. The kids are grown and there is a pressing awareness that all those idealistic visions of youth have not be realized. Suddenly the clock is running out. Urgent action is needed in order to fulfill the idealism they once felt in there youth.
Yet there is one problem: there are polar versions of what the new vision should look like within the generation. For instance, polls on controversial issues like, say, the Vietnam War, show that Boomers register the highest percentage of people who intensely feel the war was wrong. But Boomers also register the highest percentage of people who intensely feel the war was right. This dynamic tends to lead to a combative, winner-takes-all, take no prisoners mindset in the public square.
Meanwhile, the Boomers are sandwiched between two very different generations. The Silent generation (Artist) grew up in awe of the sacrifices and accomplishments of the G.I generation (Hero) that preceded them. But they often found themselves uneasy with the self-confident, often cold and mechanistic feel of the G.I. generation. They value the more humanistic and idealistic elements of the Boomers but are often disturbed by the Boomers disregard for what those before them have contributed and are particularly put off by the Boomersâ rancorous way of addressing problems. The Silent generation is the generation of consensus, bi-partisanship, and fair process.
Meanwhile, the Gen X generation (Nomads) have grown up in a time of decaying institutions and child neglect. While they were children, divorce increased and adults went off somewhere to find themselves. As the Fourth Turing unfolds. Gen Xers are evermore focused on what kind of world their children will inherit. They want them to have a better and more wholesome world than they grew up with. Societal institutions are not seen as allies and all of their energy is consumed with trying to make life work at the most elemental levels. They grow increasingly impatient with the grandiose idealism of Boomers and their antics, pushing things ever closer to the brink of chaos.
Finally, there is the Millennial generation (Hero) emerging on the scene. Boomers see this new generation as the folks who are going to partner with them in there idealistic visions, whichever variety of visions that may be.
What S&H suggest is that in the Fourth Turning, idealism is needed to surmount the Crisis problems. The Prophet generation often plays an important role in this respect but they are ever at the brink of spiraling out of control. The Artist generation and the Nomad generation act as a brake on the Prophet excesses.
So far in American history, the Artists and the Nomads were successful every time but one. That was in the 1860s. Idealistic Prophet abolitionists and Prophet Southerners succeeded in leading others into their idealistic crusades that resulted in the American Civil War. At the beginning of the war about 90% of congress was of the Prophet generation. In 1865 it was still 73%. In the two elections after the war, the Prophet generation dropped to 44%. S&H point out that this the only time in American history where the stats show an entire generation being voted out of office in such short order.
So what does all this have to do with McCain and Obama? John McCain is of the Silent-Artist generation (b. 1936). What is his big appeal? He is an independent Republican who crosses party-lines to build consensus. He will supposedly draw independents into the fold and talks optimistically with straight talk, not moralistic sanctimony.
Barak Obama is of the Gen X-Nomad generation (b. 1961) and seems likely to be the candidate for the Democrats. What is his big appeal? He speaks of hope and change with an optimistic vision of the future while trying to avoid rancorous behavior.
In other words, the voters are applying the brakes to the political rancor of Boomer leaders and locking out the Boomers from the presidential office. Fred Thompson is barely of the Silent generation by four months but I believe all the other major candidates are Boomers by S&H's definition.
I'm not thoroughly sold on S&H's approach to things but I gotta admit that it is an interesting lens to look through ever now and then. What do you think?