A spark will ignite a new mood. Today, the same spark would flame briefly but then extinguish, its last flicker merely confirming and deepening the Unraveling-era mindset. This time, though, it will catalyze a Crisis. In retrospect, the spark might seem as ominous as a financial crash, as ordinary as a national election, or as trivial as a Tea Party.
– from William Strauss and Neil Howe’s The Fourth Turning
Apocalyptic talk is lucky talk. While describing the future 2000’s 1n 1997, generational historians William Strauss and Neil Howe were, of course, also looking back at what sparked what they describe as America’s last three Crisis eras: the Great Depression / World War II (financial crash), the Civil War (a national election), and the Revolutionary War (a Tea Party). We saw all three of these sparks flash again over a six-month period starting in the fall of 2008, and all three fires are growing.
More lucky talk, this time from Struass and Howe’s 1991 book Generations:
Terrorists and drug traders may or may not still be major problems by the 2010s, but Boomers will have grown accustomed to blaming this ilk for whatever goes wrong overseas. (405)
Like George W. Bush, Strauss and Howe are Boomers themselves, and they define the Boomer generation as an idealist generation, one of the four generational types. Idealist generations are the most comfortable talking apocalyptic talk. (“Historically, aging Idealists have been attracted to words like ‘exterminate’ and ‘eradicate,’ words of apocalyptic finality.”) (Generations 406)
Sometimes apocalyptic talk strikes others as crazy talk, and potentially self-fulfilling.
“A house divided against itself cannot stand.” I believe this government cannot endure, permanently, half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved — I do not expect the house to fall — but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing or all the other.
Stephen Douglas used the first two of these famous lines from Lincoln’s acceptance speech to argue that Lincoln would sacrifice the Union to advance the abolitionist cause. As a result, these lines probably helped Lincoln lose the 1858 senatorial election. But Lincoln, himself a member of an idealist generation, wasn’t setting forth policy with his famous opening; he was just giving vent to his idealism, to his urge to talk that apocalyptic talk.
Strauss and Howe, too, believe that we will cease to be divided:
Republicans, Democrats, or perhaps a new party will decisively win the long partisan tug-of-war, ending the era of split government that had lasted through four decades of Awakening [1960’s and 70’s] and Unraveling [1980’s through ?]. The winners [e.g., 1860’s Republicans, 1930’s Democrats] will now have the power to pursue the more potent, less incrementalist agenda about which they had long dreamed and against which their adversaries had darkly warned. (Fourth Turning 275)
But will we unite behind that leadership in response to a common threat (e.g., the Great Depression / World War II), or will we end up fighting another civil war to determine who leads?
Apocalyptic talk is vague talk, as open-ended as a daily horoscope. It’s the Magic 8 Ball’s “Reply hazy, try again.” But the specifics aren’t the important things.
An initial spark will trigger a chain reaction of unyielding responses and further emergencies. The core elements of those scenarios (debt, civic decay, global disorder) will matter more than the details, which the catalyst will juxtapose and connect in some unknowable way. (273)
Apocalyptic talk is also prophetic talk spoken from one crisis generation to another. Idealist generations read newspapers through Bibles, for instance, finding, as my old church did, the U.S.S.R. in Gog and Magog.
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Yeats, who wrote these lines toward the end of an earlier Unraveling era, must have foreseen our current, Democratic-controlled Congress.
Brookings Institute fellows William A. Galston and Thomas E. Mann explain why Congressional Democrats seem to dither among themselves while the Republicans are united in passionate opposition:
More than 70 percent of Republicans in the electorate identify themselves as conservatives or very conservative, while only 40 percent of rank-and-file Democrats call themselves liberal or very liberal. It is far easier for congressional Republicans to forge and maintain a united front than it is for Democrats. George W. Bush pushed through his signature tax cuts and Iraq war authorization with substantial Democratic support, while unwavering Republican opposition nearly torpedoed Barack Obama’s health-reform legislation. When Democrats are in the majority, their greater ideological diversity combined with the unified opposition of Republicans induces the party to negotiate within its ranks, producing policies that not long ago would have attracted the support of a dozen Senate Republicans.
Galston and Mann in their May 16 Washington Post column call this phenomenon “asymmetrical polarization” and a recipe for gridlock. (I think it also contributes to a general impression that a Democratic president can’t govern, much as Southern opposition made it unthinkable to have a president who didn’t sympathize with Southern interests in the years leading up to Lincoln’s election.) In the near future, Congress may become as hopeless and uncivil as it was just before the Civil War.
Galston and Mann say that not only are self-identified moderates a vanishing breed among the electorate (the centre cannot hold), but purple counties and states are becoming a thing of the past:
In addition, because people increasingly prefer to live near others who share their cultural and political preferences, they are voting with their feet and sorting themselves geographically. Many more states and counties are dominated by one-party supermajorities than in the past. Contrary to widespread belief, reducing the gerrymandering of congressional districts would make only a small dent in the problem. And unfortunately, homogeneous groups tend to reinforce and purify the views that bring them together: Sorting not only reflects polarization but also intensifies it.
We’re starting to move to our own red or blue political ghettos, and not just online or in our choices of news media. We’re doing it in moving vans. Consequently, our local political discourse will sound increasingly like it’s hosted in an echo chamber, and the representatives we’ll be sending to Congress will be less civil to their colleagues, at least if they want to stay in office. Because the national polarization is asymmetrical, most of the vituperation may continue to come from the Republicans.
As the Crisis catalyzes, [fears about the flimsiness of the social contract] will rush to the surface, jagged and exposed. Distrustful of some things, individuals will feel that their survival requires them to distrust more things. This behavior could cascade into a sudden downward spiral, an implosion of societal trust. (Fourth Turning 274)
My sampling of rural Tennessee’s political views, which I have taken annually over the past twenty years, has turned up increasingly distressing beliefs. “That old boy [Obama] never went to Harvard. Never spent a day of his life there,” an in-law confided to me this past Christmas, shaking his wizened head. Some birthers are just getting started.
That trend toward relocating to geographic areas that share our political points of view concerns me more than any recent news I’ve heard. We’ve already been reliving the antebellum period in other ways: a divided press, lots of overheated rhetoric, threats of secession, an extremely conservative and activist Supreme Court, and impassioned and sometimes laughable arguments regarding the Founders’ intent. Looking toward the 2000’s in their 1991 book Generations, Strauss and Howe foresaw “growing signs of tribalism, nativism, social intolerance, and just plain meanness.” If we continue to align ourselves physically as we have politically, to listen only to those who agree with us, and to demonize people and leaders with opposing viewpoints – and if no international crisis serves to unite us – then we may be headed for secession movements or civil war.
Consider this “circa-2005” scenario that Strauss and Howe wrote “might seem plausible”:
Beset by a fiscal crisis, a state lays claim to its residents’ federal tax monies. Declaring this an act of secession, the president obtains a federal injunction. The governor refuses to back down. Federal marshals enforce the court order. Similar tax rebellions spring up in other states. Treasury bill auctions are suspended. Militia violence breaks out. Cyberterrorists destroy IRS databases. U.S. special forces are put on alert. Demands issue for a new Constitutional Convention. (Fourth Turning 272)
Things that made the news for a day or two during an Unraveling era may become an event that, in retrospect, would be seen to have precipitated a crisis during a Crisis era because of the extreme level of distrust in American society.
Apocalyptic talk is a weatherman’s patter. Why waste airtime explaining how I got a forecast wrong and why it rained on a day I said would be sunny? Before Obama’s election, I thought our next nation-threatening crisis, which Strauss and White figured might start around now and be in full swing around 2020, might unite us without dividing us further. Now, circling back a year and a half later, I think it may divide us more before it unites us.
Apocalyptic talk is also a magpie’s call – the harsh, showy crowing of a collector who has scored. I’ve got my eye out along my circuit for scraps of news with which I can later decorate my apocalyptic construct. I’m a Boomer myself. The falcon cannot hear the falconer.