This website is relatively popular, as geopolitical websites go. But I’ve certainly noticed that websites with more comments, more debate, and greater popularity often express strong anti-institutional bias; that is, they’re on about how the government or corporations or whatever are utter shit and then tinge that with whatever political views they have. People jump onto discussions either attacking or defending; like-minded communities share and spread their message.
I understood why I wasn’t getting the same traction well enough – generally, my writing reflects that I favor standing institutions and believe most of their actions make sense most of the time (with their fuck-ups being notable but also exceptional). This isn’t a popular viewpoint right now. Why, however, made a lot more sense when I started to read about the Strauss-Howe Generational Theory.
Humans are humans and kids don’t want to be like their parents
Underpinning the theory is the assumption that human nature doesn’t essentially change. Your kids, if you have any, will not want to emulate you very much and will focus on overcoming whatever shortcomings you had in their own lives. You, meanwhile, did the same to your parents. Ironically, by rebelling against your parents, you end up accidentally copying aspects of your grandparents. You don’t mean to, but suddenly, at a certain age, you start to really get why grandpa was the way he was.
The theory really applies most heavily to American history (so we won’t use it internationally here, although some aspects of it could be said to exist in other societies), and relies upon American society slipping in and out of four phases of broad generational attitude. They are:
1). The High – A period of time when Americans empower strong government, institutions like universities and academia, and engage in public works and acts of civil obedience. It’s a time of great conformity but high stability; American power expands and is most effective during this time. The generation that lived through World War II and the Great Depression experienced this.
2). The Awakening – Following the High, the kids of the generation that came of age during the High begin to question the stifling social and cultural conformity that allowed their parents to achieve such great things. Relatively secure, they are free to break ranks without dire economic or social consequence and see the short-comings of their parents as the inevitable result of failing to focus on the individual. This era gave us hippies and the 60s in general.
3). The Unraveling – By the time the kids of the Awakening come of age and start to vote and lead, individualism at the expense of community is riding high. No great external force is threatening the country, so there’s no need to close ranks. However, by now individualism has become excessive – people snipe at one another about the best lifestyle and atomize into sub-cultures, eroding the ability of the state to organize people into effective geopolitical forces. (You’ve seen this as one asshole argues with another about being a “true fan” of some bullshit band). Moreover, the strength of individualism is so great that government, academia, and other institutions are widely distrusted and unable to do the things they could during the High and Awakening periods. According to Strauss and Howe, this happened from the 1980s until about the mid-2000s.
4). The Crisis – With no cultural center and the inability to organize America’s considerable might to break up geopolitical threats before they become serious, the country enters a period of crisis. Leadership is infected with individualism and political parties no longer command discipline among their ranks; collective action is nearly impossible and factionalism pulls government apart. Something internally or externally gives way and creates a crisis that threatens the Republic itself. According to the theory, we’re in the middle of a Crisis period right now.
During a Crisis, America mobilizes and conforms to survive the onslaught. The cult of individualism is wiped out during this great upheaval and, following the successful conclusion of the challenge, the country enters another High and starts the whole thing over again.
Putting it into context
The current crop of American leaders come from the Awakening period. The largest block of voters are Baby Boomers, again from the Awakening period. Their individualism and deep distrust of the state has given the U.S. a flourishing period of cultural creativity but an increasingly dysfunctional domestic political environment and drifting foreign policy. Elections are won more and more narrowly or more and more by self-interested bases turning out to impose their zero-sum values on the rest of the country. Compromise is, to an individualist, a dirty word – hence the reason the budget battle keeps happening again and again.
The World War II generation would have, by now, sorted the budget through a grand compromise. That was because they were raised during a Crisis, where they had to either conform or witness the destruction of their country. The current crop of Baby Boomer leaders (as well as those of Generation X, who were raised during the last bits of the Awakening and during the first parts of the Unraveling) have never known a true existential threat to the U.S. Terrorism briefly, after 9/11, looked like it could ignite a Crisis. But the threat diminished over time; no further major attacks happened; and eventually, Americans learned that terrorism, while lethal, could not destroy the nation-state.
The Crisis Generation won the Cold War because of the values they learned during their upbringing
From Truman to Bush Senior, where every president came of age during the Crisis of World War II and the Great Depression, American foreign policy was focused like a laser on corralling and eventually eliminating the Soviet threat. All of these presidents understood that the Soviets, like the Nazis and Japanese they themselves had fought, constituted a vital threat to the U.S. and conceivably could conquer the country. They were willing to have ends justify the means; they had few regrets about overthrowing democratic governments that hued Red or supporting nasty men who killed communists.
The one was exception was, to a certain extent, Jimmy Carter, himself a member of the Crisis generation but elected by a surge in voters coming from the Awakening generation, whose primary focus was on self-actualization and feeling good about themselves. They didn’t like a government that allowed ends to justify any means. Carter, as a result, didn’t step in to save the Shah when necessary and pushed against American geopolitical trends when he tried to start a green energy revolution that wasn’t quite needed just yet. Not surprisingly, he lasted only one term, replaced by a leader who was better tuned to America’s strengths and weaknesses and more committed to the foreign policy started by Truman.
But now America’s getting a foreign policy that’s ad-hoc and very leader-centric
The Soviet Union’s death coincided with the end of the age of Crisis Generation leadership – and with it, a focus in American strategy. Bill Clinton was the first of the Awakening Generation to take command of the presidency; his foreign policy mostly focused on America feeling good about itself, either by avoiding American casualties (when he withdrew from Somalia) or by saving some refugees (when he intervened in Bosnia and Kosovo). He did not do the geopolitically logical thing to do, which was to break Russia as a world force permanently. Growing up as he did in an age of deep spiritual questioning and searching, neither he nor the voters who elected him had the cold-calculating mind necessary to secure America’s primacy against Russia forever.
Bush and Obama have both followed the same pattern. Both are Awakening or Unraveling Age men, where, in their pursuit to break the terrible conformity of their parents, people sought to establish goods and evils in relativistic senses. Nobody was interested in a communal good anymore but rather an inherent, internal good. Foreign policy for them is less about ensuring American power than about moral ends. Bush invaded Iraq because Saddam was evil; Obama withdrew from Iraq because war is evil. Both acted in the ways that were morally acceptable to them; moralities that were formed and shaped during the Awakening and then reinforced during the Unraveling.
Neither were doing much that reinforced American power and primacy. Bush shouldn’t have invaded Iraq; it was a taste of talent and lives. But Obama, having inherited the American military legacy there, shouldn’t have withdrawn; that sacrificed what geopolitical gain had been scraped out of a bad affair. Both made mistakes that reduced American power in the Middle East. But both were again acting on moral systems that were relativistic owing to the individualism in the background of their upbringings.
The current Crisis is well underway
While Strauss and Howe couldn’t have known about the recession of 2008, the event probably kick started the Crisis Era America seems to be in. The Republican Party is atomizing; some actively cheer it, a reflection of the individualism at expense of community that is popular among the largest bloc of voters today. The Democrats aren’t under the same strain, but a growing segment spurs compromise and seeks to impose rather than convince. The Obamacare healthcare law was a classic example of this. (On the flipside, the regimentation and standardization of healthcare horrifies many of the individualists of the Awakening and Unraveling generations, hence its unpopularity).
America is also in the midst of a moral retrenching after the perceived excesses of the War on Terror. The Crisis Generation would have intervened in Syria almost immediately to destroy a geopolitical foe and further humiliate Russia. They wouldn’t have done so for humanitarian concerns but because America gained from the destruction of Assad (and best of all, it could have been done on the cheap). But the leaders of the Awakening Generation now in power have quibbled over the morality and efficacy of intervention, fearing blowback or just a lack of gratitude on the part of Syrians. To them, government fucks up more often than it succeeds. Their demand to have a perfect world makes it hard for them to calculate cost-benefit strategies.
Thus American strategy is paralyzed and can’t make the clear decisions needed to secure American power worldwide. Russia and China are both surging into the gaps where they can; Russia has leveraged Syria and China has used its island disputes (and its holdings of American debt) to increasingly portray itself as an equal. Neither development bodes well for U.S. security or the security of its allies.
The way out involves destruction or rising above it
Americans have a choice at this juncture: to face the challenges head on, succeed, and enter a new High; or, to quibble, squabble, and collapse, and lose the nation-state. With the U.S. being a big and powerful place, even when its not well-focused, the former seems far more likely than the latter.
So who are the leaders to save the day? Well, it’s self-serving, but…
Children born during the Unraveling are often taught the communal values and civic virtues of the High period, as this period is held up as a golden age of sorts. But these values are often not practiced by the teachers themselves, who come of age during the Awakening and Unraveling periods. So when myself and my co-generationalists ended up rebelling against our teachers, it wasn’t against the values they taught us but rather the individualism and spirituality of the generation before. After all, the entire counter-cultural movement today is dominated by gray and graying leaders rather than dynamic, young voices. Being a hippie is simply uncool.
This generation will go through a similar experience as that of the World War II generation. They will close ranks, conform, and seek social and civic stability in exchange for the individuality so desperately (and inconclusively) sought by their parents. The meaning of their lives will not be spiritual or cultural originality but social usefulness, a connection to people around them in pursuit of wider communal goals.
It’s a bit deterministic but does explain some stuff
One should allow that there are other reasons why generations behave the way they do and why American power goes through periods of being efficient and being decadent. But it does help explain why the Awakening Generation was unable to keep the social solidarity following September 11, why foreign policy has drifted more and more with each president, and why members of my generation spend a lot less time trying to “find themselves” and have difficulty explaining their “passion” to employers from the Awakening Generation (P.S., employers – many of us bullshit you on that question because we’re just looking for a goddamned job we can tolerate).
The value of the theory comes in viewing how leadership in the U.S. responds to geopolitical events. A president reared in a Crisis would be more likely to understand that trade off is inevitable and that a bit of good is worth the bit of bad that might come with it. A president born in the Awakening, trying to establish new moralities and connect with the spiritual world, would obsess over right and wrong to the point where decision making becomes difficult and power is expressed whimsically.
And it does show why those sites out there busy attacking government, the 1%, etc., get a lot of traction. The generations most individualistic are determining the cultural discourse we’re having. After all, they’ve now in charge of pretty much everything.
It’s hardly a catch-all
And no doubt you can think of exceptions. But it’s explanation for the drift. Will America resolve its Crisis period by the 2020s, as the theory predicts? Does my generation have what it takes to copy the values of the last Crisis Generation? We’ll see.