Foundations of crisis: An amending viewpoint

I hope you’ve seen the great DougCasey’sreflections over at Whiskey and Gunpowder on how the interplay of generations has taken us over the edge into a new crisis era. I find the insights in the 1997 book The Fourth Turning every bit as prescient and relevant as he does.

But as good as Doug’s original essay is (it’s an ideal introduction to ideas of authors William Strauss and Neil Howe), I think his 2009 update — well, I don’t want to say it falls short. But it bears an amending viewpoint. (If you haven’t read Doug’s three-part essay, go there first or else none of this will make sense.)

In the first place, Doug is much too confident about declaring the starting point for this Crisis era.

(In the historical context, 9/11 will be viewed as the opening kick-off for the coming Crisis… and the messianic overreaction of Bush and his cronies as the catalyst for turning things from bad to worse. It may be that Hurricane Katrina, for instance, a completely accidental event, may be blamed for providing a pin to burst the financial bubble — which would be a pity, since the neocons could then blame it, not themselves.)

The reality is not so cut-and-dried. There is in fact a vigorous debate at Fourth Turning message boards about when the current crisis period began. Was it really 9/11? Was it Katrina? Is it the Panic of ’08? The authors, on their own website, remain agnostic on the question.

It sounds like hair-splitting, but it matters at this moment in time because, as Doug points out, a crisis era brings on a change in the collective mindset. I suggested in 2007 that 9/11 did not bring about such a change; rather, “the past few years have been more or less a continuation of the 80s culture wars, 90s impeachment, 2000 disputed election, etc. Much bitterness, much divisiveness… but life has more or less continued to bump along.” I stand by that assessment, even as I acknowledge that 9/11, like other crises, spurred massive growth in the size and scope and centralization of government.

But now really does feel different. Some of that divisiveness seems to be receding as people become more concerned about avoiding foreclosure than about gay marriage. When exactly did it change? Folks like us who think about finance might peg it at September 15 — the fall of Lehman, the first rescue of AIG, Bank of America swallowing Merrill. But I don’t know how much of that really resonated with the broad public. I’d venture to say the turning point in public consciousness came two weeks later, the day when Congress balked on the first bailout bill and the Dow dropped 778 points; with crashing 401(k)s, it didn’t take long for public sentiment opposing the bailout to reverse. September 29 seems like a good placeholder until more history unfolds, anyway.

Of course if the collective mindset really is shifting, the presence of a new president — the first in 20 years not elected by a razor-thin margin and not the beneficiary of a race split three ways — surely has something to do with it.

Which brings me to a rather screaming anomaly that Doug sidesteps: As much as it is supposed to be insufferaby moralistic Boomers leading us through this Crisis period, the new president is a Gen-Xer. As I explained early last year, Strauss and Howe have a different classification of Boomers than the statistical swell of births that occurred from 1946-1964. The Boomer phenomenon to them is more of a cultural thing, and as such they put the dividing line a little earlier, 1943-1960. Boomers can remember where they were when JFK was shot. That’s a stretch for Obama, born in 1961, one of the oldest Gen X-ers.

Imagine a Boomer delivering an inaugural speech yesterday at this juncture of history — Hillary Clinton, Mitt Romney, whoever. The tone would been a lot more shrill and hectoring, exhorting people to do great deeds. That’s not what we got yesterday from Obama (and the speechwriter 20 years his junior but likewise an X-er); the word “must” would have been a lot bigger in the word cloud of the address.

Indeed Obama owes his election in part to the perception that he’s not a Boomer, that he represents a break from Bush and the Clintons. The Millennial generation, born after 1981 and fed up with failed Boomer certainties, was a huge source of his support. (Ditto for Ron Paul, a member of the pre-Boomer “Silent” generation.)

What all of this signals for the next 15-25 years, well, who knows? The default position of people who read The Fourth Turning carelessly is that a Crisis should be a period of (relative) national unity, like the Depression/WWII years. In this construct, the Civil War was an anomaly. But careful reading of Strauss and Howe reveals that Crises are marked more often by division; in their model, the end of the Revolutionary Crisis era doesn’t come until 1794 and the Whiskey Rebellion, the decisive Hamiltonian triumph over the last vestige of anti-Federalism.

Which gets us back to all those 80s culture-war sentiments that have festered for 20-odd years, and the question of whether they’ll blow up into something bigger during this new Crisis era. For the moment, those divisions have taken a backseat to a general sense of kumbayah during the buildup to the inauguration. Some of it can be attributed to Obama’s magnetism; a lot of it just relief that Bush is gone. I don’t know whether it can last.

I suspect the tone-deaf folks profiled in this story, who against all the evidence of their senses believe the Bush 43 years were a halcyon era of small government, will become more vocal and numerous. I wouldn’t be surprised if the new president’s team devises some clever yet ham-fisted stratagem to marginalize all dissent as racism, much as his predecessor tried to marginalize all dissent as anti-Americanism.

Or maybe the election of a GenX president at this moment in time presages a split among the generations, younger people fed up with me-first Boomer entitlement mentality. That could get real interesting, especially with the national debt, Social Security, and Medicare adding up to a $53 trillion time bomb.