Escaping the Cycle of History


In today’s episode, we continue our exploration of broad historical trends by reconsidering the notion of historical destiny. If history does not have a particular direction, does it have cycles? What’s that line often attributed to Mark Twain: history does not repeat itself, but it often rhymes? Whether or not we can ever agree on the idea of historical destiny, if we could detect broad historical cycles, then maybe we could still have some basis on which to understand our fate—and thereby, hopefully, better control it.

If everything feels like it’s unwinding today in a society like America—if the norms and institutions of liberal democracy appear to be buckling everywhere under the weight of tribalism, corruption, and ignorance—an important historical question to ask would be: has this happened before? If so, what happened next, and what could we learn from that history to avoid repeating our worst mistakes? As the authors Neil Howe and William Strauss wrote in their best-selling book The Fourth Turning: An American Prophecy – What the Cycles of History Tell Us About America’s Next Rendezvous with Destiny, published in 1997, “The reward of the historian is to locate patterns that recur over time and to discover the natural rhythms of social experience.”

Howe’s and Strauss’ book, The Fourth Turning, argued that, at the core of modern history, a remarkable pattern has emerged: over the past several centuries, American society has entered a new era—what they call a new turning—every generation or so. As they explain, “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 [spanning] the length of a long human life, roughly eighty to one hundred years…[and] comprise history’s seasonal rhythms of growth, maturation, entropy, and destruction: The first turning [in the cycle] is a High…an upbeat era of strengthening institutions…The second turning is an Awakening…a passionate era of spiritual upheaval, when the civic order comes under attack from new values. The third turning is an Unraveling…a downcast era of…weakening institutions, when the old civic order decays…The fourth turning is a crisis… a decisive era [of destruction].”

Howe and Strauss argue that our current historical cycle began at the end of World War II, commencing a generation of upbeat, newfound American confidence under Truman and Eisenhower when conservative social institutions flexed vigorous new muscle in the wake of world-wide military victory and culminated in opposition to Soviet Communism. The second turning of spiritual upheaval manifested in the university campus revolts and Civil Rights protests of the 1960s and culminated with the tax revolts of the early 1980s. The Third turning emerged with the ensuing culture wars of the mid 1980s and 90s, Howe and Strauss argue, when a new kind of gilded age, prowled by wolves of Wall street, masked widespread institutional decay and civic atrophy. This third turning, which they forecasted lasting from the mid 1980s to the early 2000s, was an era when lots of Americans got rich, but when even more Americans perceived crises of meaning and identity, when objective standards of truth and competence fell and were replaced by relativism and widespread moral corruption. By Howe’s and Strauss’ calculations from there vantage point within that third turning in the 1990s, America today, in the 2020s, should be in the midst of the fourth turning: a full-blown historical crisis. Are we? And if we are, what happens next?

When Howe and Strauss look back over America’s previous cycles, they see a clear pattern: America’s fourth turning consistently features cataclysm. In the historical cycle of the 1700s, that cataclysm was the Revolutionary War. In the 1800s, it was the Civil War. In the 1900s, in the cycle just before ours, it was the Great Depression and World War II. Every century or so, the length of a long human lifetime, America’s cycle of history seems to climax in disruptions so catastrophic that society emerges completely transformed. Karl Marx called these disruptions the freight trains of history, which I think is pretty brilliant. And, one of the things that makes their arrival so jarring is that almost no one anticipates them. As Howe and Strauss wrote, “As late as December 1773, November 1859, and October 1929, the American people had no idea how close [catastrophe] was. Then, sudden sparks (the Boston Tea Party, John Brown’s raid and execution, Black Tuesday) transformed the public mood, swiftly and permanently.” In the midst of crisis, American society enters emergency mode—a phase that can last an entire generation, which in the past has energized dormant instincts of patriotic self-sacrifice and cooperation that enabled Americans to overcome the greatest historical challenges of their lifetime. “In the 1790s, they triumphantly created the modern world’s first democratic republic. In the 1860s, wounded but reunited, they forged a genuine nation extending new guarantees of liberty and equality. In the late 1940s, they constructed the most Promethean superpower ever seen.” Again, writing in the 1990s, Howe and Strauss predicted that America’s next fourth turning would begin around the year 2005, and culminate in historical crisis by around 2020. By 2030, a new historical cycle would be underway featuring either the smoldering ruins of liberal democracy or the commencement of a new golden age of reconciliation, innovation, and civic energy. And so, according to Howe’s and Strauss’s predictions, we should currently be right in the eye of history’s latest howling storm, whose resolution will either bring out our very best or our very worst. As they wrote, “The [fourth turning of the early 21st century] could literally destroy us as a nation and a people, leaving us cursed in the histories of those who endure and remember. Alternatively, it could ennoble our lives, elevate us as a community, and inspire acts of consummate heroism—deeds that will grow into myth like legends recited by our heirs far into the future.”

Although there are some problems with Howe’s and Strauss’ book, which we’ll get into later on, their scholarly audacity and the provocativeness of their argument is itself extremely valuable. Approaching their work, Howe and Strauss lamented the same historical nihilism that Francis Fukuyama criticized in our last episode. Namely, that many scholars in academia had grown convinced that there was no such thing as objective historical patterns whose elucidation could help us gain better control over our fate. Instead, prevailing scholarly fashion was to insist that every society had to be understood on its own terms with its own unique history, thereby rendering the story of our species little more than one big tower of mutually unintelligible babble. As Howe and Strauss wrote, “Indeed, some historians now say that there is no single history at all—just a multitude of histories, one for each region, language, family, industry, class, and race…This scholarly rejection of time’s inner logic has led to the devaluation of history throughout our society… Many would welcome some enlightenment about history’s patterns and rhythms, but today’s intellectual elites offer little that’s useful.” The abandonment of unifying, productive historical scholarship over the past couple of generations among so many professional academics represents a profound loss of wisdom in our civilization. But, Howe and Strauss, among many of the other authors we have discussed on this podcast, sought to preserve some degree of historical wisdom by, as they put it, “[rescuing] our hopeful intuition of progress [while maintaining] our skeptical awareness of randomness.” Their particular approach to that was to write this book, The Fourth Turning, to highlight how a centuries-old historical pattern does enable us to predict the future. So let’s get into the details of their scholarship, and see how convincing it turns out to be.

The key to understanding the rhythm of history, Howe and Strauss argued, is to see the link between the seasons of history and the seasons of a human life. To start out, they claim that childhood, which corresponds to the first 20 years or so of a person’s life, can be understood as an individual’s “growth” phase. This is when most people require nurturing to learn social values. Young adulthood is supposed to span age 21 to 41 and is defined by individual vitality; a phase of life when people begin serving social institutions and testing inherited values in the process. Next comes midlife, defined as age 42 to 62, when individuals tend to become responsible for managing institutions through the application of established values. Elderhood lasts from age 63 to 83, which is when individuals rise to positions of social and institutional leadership, and when they are expected to protect established values. Howe and Strauss also tack on the category of late elderhood, which proceeds from age 84 on, and which they largely define as a phase of dependence. The first four life phases, however, inform the core of their historical analysis.

To make sense of how the seasons of a human life inform the cycle of history, Howe and Strauss ask the reader to imagine that society is struck by a great historical upheaval, “some sort of emergency so fraught with social consequence that it transforms all of society’s members, yet transforms them differently according to their phase-of-life responses. For children, this response might mean showing an awestruck deference to elders (and staying out of their way); for young adults, taking up arms and risking death to meet the enemy; for mid lifers, organizing the troops, managing the home front, and mobilizing society for maximum effort; for elders, setting strategy and clarifying the larger purpose.” Depending on the outcome of the great historical upheaval, each generational persona will carry on through history thereafter with a distinctive collective memory and attitude shaped by their distinctive generational role in the conflict. World War II, for example, imprinted a sense of heroism on the young adults born between the late 1910s and 1920s who served overseas, and as they moved into midlife and elderhood, that collective heroic identity evolved into a kind of life-long hubris featuring world-conquering geopolitical attitudes abroad and greater demands for public support at home, profoundly shaping America’s foreign and domestic policy as they aged into positions of power. Meanwhile, Howe and Strauss argue that individuals who were children during World War II, born between the late 1920s and early 1940s, aged on through the postwar period with a greater sense of generational caution, sensitivity, and deference to authority, which manifested in a lifelong political and cultural preoccupation with fairness and order. We could think of plenty other examples: most middle aged people today heard it said about their grandparents that they were children of the Great Depression, which was supposed to help explain their grandparents’ tendencies toward penny-pinching, hoarding, overeating, or any other number of related compulsions to compensate for the childhood trauma of extreme poverty and deprivation during the early 1930s. Whatever example we may come up with, Howe’s and Strauss’ overall idea here is that each generation is imprinted with kind of historical psychology that is determined by the most significant historical event of their lives, and the season of life they’re in when that event happens disproportionately influences their generation’s lifetime contribution to the rhythm of history. As Howe and Strauss surmise, “Generational aging is what translates the rhythm of the past into the rhythm of the future. It explains why each generation is not only shaped by history but also shapes later history…In all these ways, the [human] generation lies at the root of the [historical cycle].” Because traumatically significant historical events tend to recur every 80 to 100 years, and new generations tend to recapitulate timeless human life cycle responses to such traumas, history itself is cyclical, according to Howe and Strauss, and therefore predictable to some extent. Or, as the historian Anthony Esler put it, “the generational approach may, in fact, provide one of the royal roads to total history.”

Indeed, Howe and Strauss are not the first to notice that human generational cycles seem to set the rhythm of history. Back in 1969, the historian Peter Harris published a two hundred page analysis in the Harvard journal Perspectives in American History where he argued that “long-term [linear] trends toward urbanization, industrialization, and education are not, after all, the primary forces of history.” Instead, Harris argued that the cycles of human life, turning on a generational tempo of about 22 years, determined most of society’s development. Likewise, Arthur Schlesinger Jr. described history’s ebb and flow as a function of generational turnover. The reason for this cyclical pattern in history seems pretty obvious: people forget. Lived experience matters. Young people today can only read about 9/11, they have no idea what that day felt like. It is to them much like what Pearl Harbor is to most of the rest of us. And that difference matters. That emotional difference determines personal perspective and reactions and decision making. Yale University undergraduates who protested against certain halloween costumes in 2015, and then nearly mobbed Yale Professor Nicholas Christakis for trying to talk them down from screaming about the mortal danger those costumes imposed, were utterly ignorant of what it felt like to face actual mortal danger in campus civil rights protests that had erupted nationwide 50 years earlier. Violence means something completely different to 20-something year olds today than it did to 20-something year olds fending off baton bludgeonings and police dogs in Civil Rights marches in Alabama in 1965, or to 20-something year dodging machine gun fire on the beaches of Normandy on D-Day in 1944, or to 20-something year olds ducking battle axes in the midst of a Viking raid on the north coast of England a thousand years ago. Just so, 20-something year olds a generation or two from now may experience violence most of us today can’t even imagine. Perhaps World War III will break out between the U.S. and China. Perhaps intelligent machines will rise up like terminators and motivate a new generation of John Connor-like human resistance warriors. Assuming the next historical crisis arrives on schedule, as that future generation of warriors reach middle age in the 2070s and 2080s, they would, according to Howe’s and Strauss’ theory, recapitulate the cultural and political values of the 1960s and 1970s, when veterans from World War II likewise reached midlife.

Forgetting is key to understanding Howe’s and Strauss’ view of history. Their historical cycle lasts the average span of a long human lifetime, some 80-100 years, for this reason. The lived experience of high stakes historical moments—outbreaks of mob violence, revolution, war, economic collapse—simply dies off after a century or so, and since most people lack historical wisdom, maturing generations that far removed from first-hand knowledge of humanity’s worst mistakes have displayed a propensity to commit those mistakes all over again for themselves. Admittedly, this can be a depressing view of history, despite all the lip service the authors pay toward attendant concepts of historical “renewal” and “rebirth.” Essentially, in Howe’s and Strauss’ view, humanity has to reinvent the wheel and re-learn historical lessons the hard way over and over again. They admit that certain facets of civilization may progress—science and technology and wealth may build—but the things that humanity does with its ever-increasing power remain trapped in Howe’s and Strauss’ primordial cycle of generational ignorance. Despite how depressing this all sounds, some of this analysis certainly seems spot on, and much of it is just common sense. We can easily identify dangerous historical ignorance in younger generations. Take college-age students in America today, for example. In recent years, they have become disproportionately sympathetic to communist and even marxist and identitarian theories, which proved genocidally disastrous when they were actually put into practice through the middle of the 20th century. Their historical ignorance of that nightmare is apparently right on schedule; 20-something year old Americans today are coming of age precisely one historical cycle removed from when 20-something year old Americans were gearing up to fight to the death against communists, marxists, and identitarians in World War II. As Howe and Strauss wrote, “In nature, the season that is about to come is always the season farthest removed from memory. So too in American history, past and present. Less than 10 percent of today’s American’s were of soldier age on D-Day.” Indeed, Howe’s and Strauss’ numbers are already a generation old. Today, the best estimate is that only a few hundred American veterans of D-Day are still alive. We are right on the precipice of losing the last living memories of the worst disaster in modern history, and it shows.

If Howe and Strauss were on to something, we should be impressed by their predictions. So, what did they imagine America would look like in the early 2020s? According to Howe’s and Strauss’ historical calculations, America’s next great crisis should be climaxing right about now. They weren’t talking about challenges like Covid-19 or an especially contentious Presidential election, they were talking about the potential for America’s total ruin through civil war, violent revolution, or a once-in-a-century economic catastrophe.

In many ways, of course, Howe’s and Strauss’s forecast was way off. They couldn’t foresee the scale of the information age explosion of digital goods and services. They couldn’t imagine the smartphone, the app store, or the massive potential of big data and artificial intelligence. And so, instead of the unprecedented innovation of the last 20 years that has powered an explosion in wealth creation, they imagined an early 21st century echo of the Great Depression, which they called The Great Devaluation. By 2020, they forecasted that the stock market’s value would be much lower even than it was at the nadir of the 2008 financial crisis, and they thought that the Boomer generation would be struggling to reconcile themselves to spending their last years in widespread poverty reminiscent of the 1930s. They predicted that Millennials would narrow their scope of communication, that the mass media would increasingly sensationalize social harmony as a kind of propagandistic veil over social anxiety, and that the most professionally ambitious would prioritize hierarchical organization over creative entrepreneurship. They predicted that Millennials would irritate feminists by doubling down on traditional sexual chemistry between men and women. All of these trends toward more austerity and toward a more traditionally hierarchical culture were supposed to reflect looming anxiety about historical crisis. But, in reality, practically the exact opposite of all of these predictions has come to pass. Does this mean that they were wrong about the eruption of another historical crisis sometime around now?

In fact, some of Howe’s and Strauss’ predictions about the historical rhythm leading through 2020 turned out to be spot on. “The risk of revolution is high—as is the risk of civil war…Leaders become more inclined to define enemies in moral terms, to enforce virtue militarily, to refuse all compromise…Normally occurring late in the Fourth Turning, the climax gathers energy from an an accumulation of unmet needs, unpaid bills, and unresolved problems…The climax shakes society to its roots…[and] transforms its institutions…” In particular, Howe and Strauss correctly forecasted a rise in American populism. As Generation X’ers and older Millennials aged into their prime professional years, Howe and Strauss appear to have correctly predicted that a significant chunk of this cohort would become increasingly pessimistic about their economic and political prospects, and might therefore, “impulsively welcome the notion of watching [the system] break into pieces…In this environment…[Gen-Xers] could emerge as the leaders of a Crisis-era populism based on the notion of taking raw action now and justifying it later. A charismatic anti-intellectual demagogue could convert the ad slogans of the Third Turning into the political slogans of the Fourth…Start with a winner-take-all ethos that believes in action for action’s sake, exalts strength, elevates impulse, and holds weakness and compassion in contempt. Add class desperation, anti rationalism, and perceptions of national decline… [and] the product, at its most extreme, could be a new American fascism.”

Despite the moral panic of the far left, America did not come close to fascism under Donald Trump. We witnessed a surge of populism, not fascism, and claims to the contrary drip with ignorance about what the ultra-militarized, totalitarian insanity of real fascism looked like in 20th century. Yet, the social and political dynamics that ushered Trump to power, along with many of Trump’s reactions to those dynamics, were uncannily similar to Howe’s and Strauss’ prediction. And, many of his supporters have argued that Trump was America’s answer to a historic national crisis. A crisis of globalization, of elitist corruption, of working class disenfranchisement, or, perhaps more fundamentally, a crisis of American identity. If, as we were told by so many political pundits, the primary national crisis facing American voters in 2016 was either that America was a fundamentally oppressive society that the new President needed to help protect us from, or that America was a fundamentally empowering society that the new President needed to help protect for us, then the outcome of the 2016 Presidential election might make more historical sense. For millions of Americans on both sides of the political divide, the 2016 Presidential election may very well have been a harbinger of a historic cultural cataclysm in the making.

The fact is, there has been a shocking rise in illiberal values over the past decade. There has been a shocking suppression of free thought and skeptical reasoning everywhere from The New York Times and Fox News to university and corporate campuses. There has been a shocking regression to tribalism and identitarianism throughout our politics. The story, the very idea of America as a place where individuals from any background have the most potential in human history to determine their own destiny, seems like it just might be in mortal danger today. So, in the end, maybe Howe and Strauss were truly on to something. What tensions would this crisis resolve? As they predicted a generation ago, most likely our current crisis would resolve “[America’s] perennial struggle between the individual and collective…If the next Fourth Turning [of the early 21st century] concludes successfully, some great leader may be credited with saving individual empowerment by making it compatible with higher ideals of social responsibility—much as FDR was credited with saving capitalism while forging the New Deal and Lincoln with extending liberty while redefining America’s nationhood.” I would hope, however, that we the people wouldn’t need some great leader to get us through such a crisis. I would hope that we simply decide to ignore the cynics and tribalists and identitarians among us by preserving a little historical perspective, and carry on chipping away at great projects of modernity: judging individuals by their ideas and their character instead of their appearance, protecting equality of opportunity and free speech, and prioritizing skeptical reasoning and objective truth.

To whatever extent Howe and Strauss were bona fide prophets of history, one thing they were absolutely right about is the tendency for humanity to repeat its worst mistakes over and over again by forgetting history. When the personal, emotional lessons of historical catastrophe wear off with die off, the consequences of bad ideas become academic, abstract, like a black and white photograph whose figures are too foreign in time to understand. Their argument in The Fourth Turning is essentially that those who forget history really are doomed to repeat it. Americans really do seem to be in the process of systematically forgetting how much worse things almost always were for people who never knew the values of objective science and liberal democracy. If that process continues unchecked, then American society probably will have to re-learn old lessons the hard way all over again quite soon.

It doesn’t have to be that way. As I’ve always said, we owe it to our future to be better historians. What it means to live in the modern world is that we no longer need to be hostages to the cycle of history.

I’m Brad Harris. So Long.

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