American Winter

by Peter Saint-Andre

First Published:2009-08-21
Last Updated:2012-06-03

America is full of wild speculations about what might happen over the next five to twenty years. Yet we need something more than speculations: we need realistic scenarios that are rooted firmly in facts and history, and that can therefore provide relatively clear maps of the terrain ahead.

One model for thinking about the near future was provided a dozen years ago by William Strauss and Neil Howe in their book The Fourth Turning: An American Prophecy (Broadway Books, 1997), recently echoed in James Piereson's essay The Fourth Revolution. Strauss & Howe's fundamental thesis is that history is seasonal -- and that winter is on the way. The seasonality they trace is an 80-100 cycle of American history (and before that Anglo-American and purely English history) going back to the Wars of the Roses during the transition from the middle ages to modernity. They observe that each cycle consists of four seasons: a wintry crisis period that witnesses the death of the old social order and the birth of a new one, a springlike high of peace and growth and recovery, a hot summer of spiritual awakening, and an autumnal unraveling that leads to winter again. Like the accented beats of 4/4 time, Strauss & Howe note that two of these seasons are more pronounced: the crisis and the awakening (whereas the recovery and the unraveling are lesser seasons that typically go unnamed). Working back from the present, they identify six crises and consequent awakenings:

  1. The Great Depression and World War II (1929-1946), followed by the Consciousness Revolution (1964-1984)
  2. The Civil War (1860-1865), followed by the Third Great Awakening (1886-1908)
  3. The American Revolution (1773-1794), followed by the Transcendental Awakening (1822-1844)
  4. The Glorious Revolution (1675-1704), followed by the Great Awakening (1727-1746)
  5. The Armada Crisis (1569-1594), followed by the Puritan Awakening (1621-1649)
  6. The Wars of the Roses (1459-1487), followed by the Protestant Reformation (1517-1542)

Purely on cyclical grounds, they think that another winter is on the way in America (indeed, the book forecasted back in 1997 that one aspect of this winter would be a "great devaluation" of assets to occur sometime between 2002 and 2008). Now, many people are justly skeptical about cyclical theories of history, which often seem to cherry-pick their dates (why was World War I or the Panic of 1873 not a "crisis"?), their geographical areas (why focus only on Anglo-American history instead of a broader European, Western, or global perspective?), and their domains of study (why social, political, and intellectual history instead of economic, scientific, or technological history?) in order to manufacture well-timed cycles. Some seemingly desperate scholars add secondary and tertiary cycles to account for variations, ending up with theories that rival those of Ptolemy (earning from me the well-deserved epithet "Epicycles!").

Strauss & Howe would counter that purely linear (or, as with Raymond Kurzweil, even exponential) accounts cannot do justice to the observed reality of crisis, recovery, awakening, and unraveling over so many centuries. I would add that some aspects of life have indeed been exponential in the modern era (especially science and technology roughly since the invention of the printing press, or further back to the 1200s or even 900s in Europe), whereas other aspects of life (especially politics and religion) have exhibited strongly cyclical features. Strauss & Howe find the cause for these cycles in the psychology of human generations: as they put it, "History shapes generations, and generations shape history." Their explanation runs as follows (naturally, the book contains more subtleties than I outline here, and I freely grant that a full accounting would address factors that Strauss & Howe do not cover)...

In any given period of crisis, different people will respond and engage differently depending on their time of life, reflected in the familiar concept of a generation. Those in younger adulthood (roughly ages 20 to 40) will tend to be the warriors and foot soldiers in any fighting that needs to be done, whether in war or its moral equivalents; the experience will form their worldview as one of practical action and coordinated teamwork as opposed to contemplative thought and independent creativity, and they will take that worldview along with them throughout life (Strauss & Howe call this generation the "hero" archetype -- think "the Greatest Generation" of those who fought in World War II). Those in childhood will tend to be protected and fearful in the face of world-historical events, carving out as far as possible a supportive role in which they are attentive to the needs and feelings of those who are more actively involved, leading them later in life to often be technocrats and healers (Strauss & Howe call them the "artist" archetype -- think the "Silent Generation" of Depression babies). Those in elderhood (roughly ages 60 to 80) will tend to be the moral and political leaders during the crisis and those in midlife (roughly ages 40 to 60) will tend to be the generals, managers, and planners; however, for these generations the crisis is not formative because their ways of thinking and living have already been hardened by the time the crisis occurs.

After a crisis passes, people desire nothing more than a return to normalcy: a time for starting families and businesses, for anything but great stresses and events, for spiritual and intellectual conformity. Those who grow up during such a period of recovery (think the 1950s) eventually rebel against its stifling atmosphere, fomenting a revolution of the inner life that is every bit as momentous as their parents' revolution in public affairs. The generation that leads this awakening will tend to be formed by it as well; they will tend to be rebels, activists, moralists, preachers, and intellectual leaders (Strauss & Howe call them the "prophet" archetype -- think the Baby Boomers). The generation that is born during this time of spiritual crisis and raised during the unraveling that follows will tend to be mostly ignored, forced to fend for themselves and to fall back on their own resources with little guidance from adults, leading them to be cynical and worldwise earlier in life than other generations (Strauss & Howe call them the "nomad" archetype -- think Generation X).

Although the periods of awakening influence religious and intellectual history most strongly, the periods of crisis influence public affairs and the material circumstances of life most strongly; and it is the periods of crisis by which we tend to measure and name a given era of society (typically as "postwar" or "post-revolutionary"). Thus in America today we still talk about postwar society, about the current recession being the worst since the end of World War II, etc. The same was true of life in the early 1900s (where the term "postwar" would have referred to the Civil War), the 1850s (post-revolutionary), and back through time at least to the 1450s.

According to Strauss & Howe's analysis, a period of crisis is a kind of generational perfect storm, in which elder "prophets" seek to stamp their moral vision one last time on world events, midlife "nomads" apply their tough realism in prosecuting the affairs of a great struggle, and energetic young "heroes" take decisive action in ways that are self-sacrificing, deeply (even scarily) coordinated, and often brutal. The result is a trial by fire: a war, a revolution, a complete societal transformation whose broad issues could be foreseen years in advance but whose climax and resolution simply could not be imagined more than a few years ahead of time (talk of American independence from England over local rule in 1770 or of a civil war over slavery in 1853 would have sounded incendiary or plainly insane).

Strauss & Howe argue that since the end of World War II American society has moved through a spring of great material progress, a summer of spiritual awakening, and a fall of societal unraveling. We are due, they say, for the bleak midwinter of a crisis that will fundamentally change America.

What form will that crisis take? There are many possibilities. The authors do not combine their psychological, political, and societal insights with a suitably deep analysis of finance and economics on the one hand or, some would say, science and ecology on the other. However, such an effort would take into account a number of critical phenomena: the endless debts incurred over the past twenty to forty years by American businesses, families, and governments alike; the withering away of American productive capacity in favor of mindless consumption; dependence on oil that is produced by sworn enemies of Western civilization; massive fortunes stolen (we cannot say "made") by those who have been able to manipulate the levers of power, whether Wall Street bankers at the national level (resulting in a reckless debasement of the currency) or real estate developers at the local level (resulting in the subsidized blight of suburban sprawl) or various industries in certain states and especially unions in others (resulting in a complete capture of the political process by government employees in states like California); the never-ending expansion of welfare "entitlements" such as monthly stipends for those who do not work, guaranteed payment of medical care and pharmaceutical products for those who are not healthy, low-priced loans for those who wish to study, grants for those who wish to perform scientific research, and so on; a growing political class whose only means of livelihood is to take more and more from the productive class of those who still create real, independent value; inexorable centralization of national life in the District of Columbia; and a yawning societal and even personal chasm between collectivists and individualists, liberals and conservatives, progressives and traditionalists, secularists and religionists, technologists and environmentalists, rule makers and rule breakers, controllers and rebels -- a conflict of visions that goes far beyond Red States vs. Blue States to engulf politically-connected and personally-entitled "haves" against hardworking but unprivileged "have nots", city against country and suburb, one county or town or neighborhood against another, even neighbor against neighbor and friend against friend (as in the bumper sticker "friends don't let friends vote Republican" -- have you felt any bonds of friendship weaken because of cultural and political differences over the last ten years?).

To my mind, these signs point to a crisis that will manifest itself as an internal conflict within America and among Americans, not as an external conflict between united Americans and some foreign enemy such as China or the Islamic world (though never underestimate the willingness of the civilian leadership in D.C. to start a foreign war as a way of distracting Americans from problems at home). The trigger might be the complete bankruptcy of major states like California and New York, or even the bankruptcy of the U.S. government; a steep rise in taxes on the productive class with no offsetting discipline on government spending and corruption; a devaluation resulting in a loss of reserve currency status for the dollar and resulting hyperinflation as dollars held overseas return suddenly and massively to find any possible outlet in dollar-denominated assets; increasingly draconian measures to enforce discipline among the populace, perhaps even martial law and conscription; passive resistance and civil disobedience on a massive scale (of which the recent Tea Parties might be only a precursor); a great sorting of the American population as individuals and families seek to be located among those who are likeminded; even the secession or threatened secession of states or regions that feel left out by a new governing coalition (and don't think that such a move would be limited to Red States like Texas -- it could just as easily happen in the Pacific Northwest or New England).

No matter what form it takes, the coming American winter will be incredibly messy. Internecine struggles always are.

Why don't I think that Americans will pull together for a common purpose? Am I not letting the discord of societal unraveling over the last 20+ years color my outlook for the near future? Perhaps I am. Yet somehow I find it difficult to envision any common purpose emerging among Americans in the next twenty years, because I think that the "consciousness revolution" that Strauss & Howe identify between 1964 and 1984 was in fact two separate awakenings, which (simplifying greatly) we could label the New Age Awakening and the Evangelical Awakening. The problem is, these awakenings are diametrically opposed. The New Agers tend to be politically collectivist, anti-market, anti-technology, pro-ecology, untouched by the insights of economics, insistent upon government power, against traditional values because of what they perceive as the stifling consequences of such values, etc. The Evangelicals tend to be politically individualist (at least outside the family), pro-market and pro-technology in most areas of life, skeptical of ecology, open to the insights of economics, suspicious of government power, respectful of traditional values because they think no one else has offered a more viable alternative, etc. Both camps can often be uninterested in facts and scientific results that do not comport with their worldview (think climate science for the New Agers and evolutionary biology for the Evangelicals), and can often be in favor of the choices they make but opposed to the choices others make.

Where is the common ground here, which could issue in a common purpose for the political and social reform of American life? There is none. If not faced with an external enemy (and perhaps even then!), the New Agers and Evangelicals will disagree and fight it out until the last man is standing. On the grand stage of a crisis that will reshape everything we take for granted, the deep chasm between these two awakening visions will have life-or-death consequences.

The resolution of these conflicting visions and the long-building tensions of the unraveling and crisis are impossible to predict. A velvet divorce? Multiple, mutual secessions? Constitutional conventions at the state and national level? A grand plebiscite in which each of the 3,000-odd American counties (perhaps even divided into wards, as Jefferson urged) will vote on the regime of values and political principles to which it shall adhere? A great re-sorting of the population, including chosen or even forced migrations, a breakdown of social order and economic cooperation, local tyrannies, ubiquitous checkpoints, and new internal borders? A "friendly fascism" backed up by a rigid authoritarianism? The unthinkable specter of military intervention in the internal affairs of the nation, leading to a coup or a civil war?

Right now it is simply too early to foretell what the end game might be. Previous periods of Anglo-American crisis have lasted an average of twenty years (even including the anomalous American Civil War, which lasted only five). If we take the current time of troubles to have started with the "great devaluation" of 2008, on average it might not end until 2028. Even if you're an "optimist" and you think the crisis began with the popping of the technology bubble in 2000 (I'd disagree), that means an average crisis would last until 2020.

What happens in those twenty years? Strauss & Howe see four stages:

  1. The catalyst is a sudden event or series of events that transform the social mood from one of unraveling to full-blown crisis. Arguably the social mood in America has not fully changed yet because most people think an economic recovery is here. I'd expect the social mood to turn bleak once the current bear market rally collapses in the stock market, large numbers of people come off their extended unemployment benefits with no prospect of landing a new job, corporate and personal bankruptcies inexorably increase, and massive further asset devaluations occur in residential and commercial real estate. All of these events (and more) are coming over the next six to twelve months, even without some other unexpected shock to the system.
  2. According to Strauss & Howe, one to five years after such a catalyst occurs, society will be regenerated around a community consensus regarding actions that need to be taken in order to overcome the crisis -- a relatively natural transition in which old divisions are laid aside, new ideals are energized, existing institutions are repurposed and reinvigorated, and people work together on a course of action to which they agree with something approaching unanimity. I've argued that such a regeneracy seems unlikely because of the conflict of visions in America today. One result of such a stalemate could be a forced regeneracy such as happened during the American Civil War, which had terrifying consequences for the nation. Another possible result would be a less violent triumph of one set of ideals from the last awakening (either the New Agers or the Evangelicals). Another would be geographic division, in which one set of ideals gains ascendancy in some parts of the nation and another set of ideals gains ascendancy in other parts, with an agreement to disagree and partition the country.
  3. A further one to five years typically passes before the climax of the crisis occurs, involving the creative destruction of the old social order dying and the new one being born; here the civic power of the coordinated community reaches its height, and a foreign war becomes likely, as does either revolution or civil war (because the ideals that eventually triumph nationally might not have uniform appeal throughout the country).
  4. The resolution of the crisis seals the door on the old order, assigns winners and losers, completes treaties, redraws borders, forms new nations and alliances, establishes new institutions, and lays the foundation for the recovery to follow.

If Strauss & Howe are right (and I emphasize that other scenarios are possible), we have all this and more to look forward in the near future. Interesting times, indeed!

How can you prepare for the next American winter? Strauss & Howe counsel caution, risk-aversion, ensuring your own health, cultivating general skills at home and at work so that you are not overly specialized, becoming more of a team player, heeding community norms, weaning yourself from large-scale social structures and government support programs, building your network of trusted colleagues and friends and family and neighbors, and returning to time-tested virtues such as honesty, integrity, reliability, prudence, patience, frugality, hard work, perseverence, cooperation, self-restraint, decency, good manners, and personal responsibility. These measures won't guarantee your survival and you might find some of them a difficult yoke to bear (especially if you're a free spirit or an independent thinker), but in the bleak midwinter you often do what's necessary in order to ride out the cold and snows of a raging blizzard.

I freely admit that these wintry prognostications are dark and gloomy. Yet the beauty of a cyclical perspective on history is that this winter, too, shall pass. No matter how challenging the period ahead will be, and no matter how the coming crisis will be resolved, the snows of winter will eventually melt away and, ten or fifteen or twenty years from now, a glorious green springtime of peace, growth, and recovery will again burst forth in the blessed land we call America.

Peter Saint-Andre > Writings > Essays