Steve Ban­non got his world­view from my book

Yes, it pre­dicts a com­ing cri­sis, Neil Howe says. But it’s not as apoc­a­lyp­tic as many seem to fear.

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - Neil Howe is the author, along with Wil­liam Strauss, of “Gen­er­a­tions,” “The Fourth Turn­ing” and “Mil­len­ni­als Ris­ing.”

The head­lines this month have been alarm­ing. “Steve Ban­non’s ob­ses­sion with a dark the­ory of his­tory should be wor­ri­some” (Busi­ness In­sider). “Steve Ban­non Be­lieves The Apoc­a­lypse Is Com­ing And War Is In­evitable” (the Huff­in­g­ton Post). “Steve Ban­non Wants To Start World War III” (the Na­tion). A com­mon thread in these me­dia re­ports is that Pres­i­dent Trump’s chief strate­gist is an avid reader and that the book that most in­spires his world­view is “The Fourth Turn­ing: An Amer­i­can Prophecy.”

I wrote that book with Wil­liam Strauss back in 1997. It is true that Ban­non is en­thralled by it. In 2010, he re­leased a doc­u­men­tary, “Gen­er­a­tion Zero,” that is struc­tured around our the­ory that his­tory in Amer­ica (and by ex­ten­sion, most other mod­ern so­ci­eties) un­folds in a re­cur­ring cy­cle of four-gen­er­a­tion-long eras. While this cy­cle does in­clude a time of civic and po­lit­i­cal cri­sis — a Fourth Turn­ing, in our par­lance — the re­port­ing on the book has been ab­surdly apoc­a­lyp­tic.

I don’t know Ban­non well. I have worked with him on sev­eral film projects, in­clud­ing “Gen­er­a­tion Zero,” over the years. I’ve been im­pressed by his cul­tural savvy. His pol­i­tics, while un­usual, never struck me as of­fen­sive. I was sur­prised when he took over the lead­er­ship of Bre­it­bart and pro­moted the views es­poused on that site. Like many peo­ple, I

first learned about the alt-right (a far-right move­ment with links to Bre­it­bart and a loosely de­fined white-na­tion­al­ist agenda) from the main­stream me­dia. Strauss, who died in 2007, and I never told Ban­non what to say or think. But we did per­haps pro­vide him with an in­sight — that pop­ulism, na­tion­al­ism and state-run au­thor­i­tar­i­an­ism would soon be on the rise, not just in Amer­ica but around the world.

Be­cause we never at­tempted to write a po­lit­i­cal man­i­festo, we were sur­prised by the book’s pop­u­lar­ity among cer­tain cru­saders on both the left and the right. When “The Fourth Turn­ing” came out, our big­gest par­ti­san fans were Democrats, who saw in our de­scrip­tion of an emerg­ing “Mil­len­nial gen­er­a­tion” (a term we coined) the sort of com­mu­nity-minded op­ti­mists who would pull Amer­ica to­ward pro­gres­sive ideals. Yet we’ve also had con­ser­va­tive fans, who were drawn to an­other les­son: that the new era would prob­a­bly see the suc­cess­ful join­ing of left-wing eco­nom­ics with right-wing so­cial val­ues.

Be­yond ide­ol­ogy, I think there’s an­other rea­son for the ris­ing in­ter­est in our book. We re­ject the deep premise of mod­ern Western his­to­ri­ans that so­cial time is ei­ther lin­ear (con­tin­u­ous progress or de­cline) or chaotic (too com­plex to reveal any di­rec­tion). In­stead we adopt the in­sight of nearly all tra­di­tional so­ci­eties: that so­cial time is a re­cur­ring cy­cle in which events be­come mean­ing­ful only to the ex­tent that they are what philoso­pher Mircea Eli­ade calls “reen­act­ments.” In cycli­cal space, once you strip away the ex­tra­ne­ous ac­ci­dents and tech­nol­ogy, you are left with only a lim­ited num­ber of so­cial moods, which tend to re­cur in a fixed or­der.

Along this cy­cle, we can iden­tify four “turn­ings” that each last about 20 years — the length of a gen­er­a­tion. The cy­cle begins with the First Turn­ing, a “High” which comes af­ter a cri­sis era. In a High, in­sti­tu­tions are strong and in­di­vid­u­al­ism is weak. So­ci­ety is con­fi­dent about where it wants to go col­lec­tively, even if many feel sti­fled by the pre­vail­ing con­form­ity. Many Amer­i­cans alive to­day can re­call the post-World War II Amer­i­can High, co­in­cid­ing with the Tru­man, Eisen­hower and Kennedy pres­i­den­cies.

The Sec­ond Turn­ing is an “Awak­en­ing,” when in­sti­tu­tions are at­tacked in the name of higher prin­ci­ples and deeper val­ues. Just when so­ci­ety is hit­ting its high tide of pub­lic progress, peo­ple sud­denly tire of all the so­cial dis­ci­pline and want to re­cap­ture a sense of per­sonal au­then­tic­ity. Sal­va­tion by faith, not works, is the youth ral­ly­ing cry. One such era was the Con­scious­ness Rev­o­lu­tion of the late 1960s and 1970s.

The Third Turn­ing is an “Un­rav­el­ing,” in many ways the op­po­site of the High. In­sti­tu­tions are weak and dis­trusted, while in­di­vid­u­al­ism is strong and flour­ish­ing. Third Turn­ing decades such as the 1990s, the 1920s and the 1850s are notorious for their cyn­i­cism, bad man­ners and weak civic author­ity.

Fi­nally, the Fourth Turn­ing is a “Cri­sis” pe­riod. This is when our in­sti­tu­tional life is re­con­structed from the ground up, al­ways in re­sponse to a per­ceived threat to the na­tion’s sur­vival. If his­tory does not pro­duce such an ur­gent threat, Fourth Turn­ing leaders will in­vari­ably find one — and may even fab­ri­cate one — to mo­bi­lize col­lec­tive ac­tion. Civic author­ity re­vives, and peo­ple and groups be­gin to pitch in as par­tic­i­pants in a larger com­mu­nity. As these Promethean bursts of civic ef­fort reach their res­o­lu­tion, Fourth Turn­ings re­fresh and re­de­fine our na­tional iden­tity.

Just as a Sec­ond Turn­ing re­shapes our in­ner world (of val­ues, cul­ture and re­li­gion), a Fourth Turn­ing re­shapes our outer world (of pol­i­tics, econ­omy and em­pire).

In our par­a­digm, one can look ahead and sug­gest that a com­ing time pe­riod — say, a cer­tain decade — will re­sem­ble, in its es­sen­tial human dy­namic, a time pe­riod in the past. In “The Fourth Turn­ing,” we pre­dicted that, start­ing around 2005, Amer­ica would prob­a­bly ex­pe­ri­ence a “Great De­val­u­a­tion” in fi­nan­cial mar­kets, a cat­a­lyst that would mark Amer­ica’s en­try into an era whose first decade would likely par­al­lel the 1930s.

Re­flect­ing on the decade we’ve just lived through, we can prob­a­bly agree that the 1930s par­al­lel works well. In the econ­omy, both decades played out in the shadow of a global fi­nan­cial crash, and were char­ac­ter­ized by slow and dis­ap­point­ing eco­nomic growth and chronic un­der­em­ploy­ment of la­bor and cap­i­tal. Both saw tepid in­vest­ment, de­fla­tion fears, grow­ing in­equal­ity and the in­abil­ity of cen­tral bankers to rekin­dle con­sump­tion.

In geopol­i­tics, we’ve wit­nessed the rise of iso­la­tion­ism, na­tion­al­ism and right-wing pop­ulism across the globe. Geostrate­gist Ian Brem­mer says we now live in a “G-Zero” world, where it’s ev­ery na­tion for it­self. This story echoes the 1930s, which wit­nessed the wan­ing author­ity of great-power al­liances and a new will­ing­ness by au­thor­i­tar­ian regimes to act with ter­ri­fy­ing im­punity.

In so­cial trends, the two decades also show par­al­lels: falling rates of fer­til­ity and home­own­er­ship, the rise of multi-gen­er­a­tional house­holds, the spread of lo­cal­ism and com­mu­nity iden­ti­fi­ca­tion, a dra­matic de­cline in youth vi­o­lence (a fact that ap­par­ently has eluded the pres­i­dent), and a bland­ing of pop youth cul­ture. Above all, we sense a de­sire among vot­ers around the world for leaders to as­sert author­ity and de­liver deeds rather than process, results rather than ab­strac­tions.

We live in an in­creas­ingly vo­latile and pri­mal era, in which his­tory is speed­ing up and lib­eral democ­racy is weak­en­ing. As Vladimir Lenin wrote, “In some decades, noth­ing hap­pens; in some weeks, decades hap­pen.” Get ready for the creative destruction of pub­lic in­sti­tu­tions, some­thing ev­ery so­ci­ety pe­ri­od­i­cally re­quires to clear out what is ob­so­lete, os­si­fied and dys­func­tional — and to tilt the play­ing field of wealth and power away from the old and back to the young. At the Con­ser­va­tive Po­lit­i­cal Ac­tion Con­fer­ence on Thurs­day, Ban­non called for the “de­con­struc­tion of the ad­min­is­tra­tive state.”

If we look at the broader rhythms of his­tory, we have rea­son to be heart­ened, not dis­cour­aged, by these trends. An­glo-Amer­i­can his­tory over the past sev­eral cen­turies has ex­pe­ri­enced civic crises in a fairly reg­u­lar cy­cle, about ev­ery 80 or 90 years, or roughly the length of a long human life. This pat­tern re­veals it­self in the in­ter­vals sep­a­rat­ing the colo­nial Glo­ri­ous Rev­o­lu­tion, the Amer­i­can Rev­o­lu­tion, the Civil War, and the Great De­pres­sion and World War II. Fast-for­ward the length of a long human life from the 1930s, and we end up where we are to­day.

Amer­ica en­tered a new Fourth Turn­ing in 2008. It is likely to last un­til around 2030. Our par­a­digm sug­gests that cur­rent trends will deepen as we move to­ward the half­way point.

Fur­ther ad­verse events, pos­si­bly an­other fi­nan­cial cri­sis or a ma­jor armed conflict, will gal­va­nize pub­lic opin­ion and mo­bi­lize leaders to take more de­ci­sive ac­tion. Ris­ing re­gion­al­ism and na­tion­al­ism around the world could lead to the frag­men­ta­tion of ma­jor po­lit­i­cal en­ti­ties (per­haps the Euro­pean Union) and the out­break of hos­til­i­ties (per­haps in the South China Sea, the Korean Penin­sula, the Baltic states or the Per­sian Gulf ).

De­spite a new tilt to­ward iso­la­tion­ism, the United States could find it­self at war. I cer­tainly do not hope for war. I sim­ply make a sober­ing ob­ser­va­tion: Ev­ery to­tal war in U.S. his­tory has oc­curred dur­ing a Fourth Turn­ing, and no Fourth Turn­ing has yet un­folded without one. Amer­ica’s ob­jec­tives in such a war are likely to be de­fined very broadly.

At the end of the 2020s, the Fourth Turn­ing cri­sis era will cli­max and draw to a close. Set­tle­ments will be ne­go­ti­ated, treaties will be signed, new bor­ders will be drawn, and per­haps (as in the late 1940s) a new durable world or­der will be cre­ated. Per­haps as well, by the early 2030s, we will en­ter a new First Turn­ing: Young fam­i­lies will re­joice, fer­til­ity will re­bound, eco­nomic equal­ity will rise, a new mid­dle class will emerge, pub­lic in­vest­ment will grow into a new 21st-cen­tury in­fra­struc­ture, and or­dered pros­per­ity will recom­mence.

Dur­ing the next First Turn­ing, po­ten­tially the next “Amer­i­can High,” mil­len­ni­als will move into na­tional lead­er­ship and show­case their op­ti­mism, smarts, cre­den­tials and con­fi­dence. Some­time in the late 2030s, the first mil­len­nial will be voted into the White House. Let a few more years pass, and those or­ga­ni­za­tion-minded mil­len­ni­als may face a pas­sion­ate and ut­terly un­ex­pected on­slaught from a new crop of youth.

Wel­come to the next Awak­en­ing. The cy­cle of his­tory keeps turn­ing, in­ex­orably.

White House chief strate­gist Steve Ban­non is a fan of “The Fourth Turn­ing,” a book that says his­tory is cycli­cal.

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