“The Fourth Turning” is a captivating book — even if Steve Bannon thinks so, too.
The widely reported “obsession” of President Trump’s much-dreaded populist guru with a 20-year-old volume of history-cum-prophecy has had a curious effect. It has given “The Fourth Turning” an extraordinary burst of renewed attention in the major media. But mostly the coverage has dismissed the book as a crackpot collection of dark and dangerous ravings.
All this expresses well the agitated groupthink that has seized the mainstream press concerning almost anything about Trump, and especially anything about the president’s militant and embattled strategist with his crusading nationalist agenda. But it misrepresents the book in question — which is dangerous mainly in the sense that once you read it, you may not be able to stop thinking about it or seeing reflections of its theory everywhere you look.
On April 9, the New York Times became the latest national publication (following the Huffington Post, the Nation, Business Insider and more) to write at considerable length and in ominous tones about how “Bannon’s views can be traced to a book that warns ‘winter is coming,’ ” a tome that envisions a “grim future” with “religious subtext and dark premonitions” and “forecasts the destruction of society as we know it … .”
In late February, Neil Howe, who wrote “The Fourth Turning” back in 1997 with co-author William Strauss, responded to his work’s new, Bannon-inspired infamy in a guest column for the Washington Post, complaining that “reporting on the book has been absurdly apocalyptic.”
Yes. And yet it’s true that “The Fourth Turning” predicted, exactly 20 years ago — during comparatively calm and prosperous days — that America in fact teetered on the brink of a decades-long “Crisis” that would shake society to its foundations.
Rather a lot has happened since then — 9/11, the terror war and Mideast chaos; the 2008-11 global economic meltdown; ever more bitter political strife ending in, among other things, the alarming rise of Trumpism itself — to make the book’s “dark premonitions” look pretty darn prescient.
And frankly, since Trump’s election, the Times, the Post and other mainstream American news outlets have done more to encourage a panicked sense of crisis than “The Fourth Turning” ever will.
Their spooky coverage of Bannon’s intoxication with the book is more of the same.
As it happens, the central argument of “The Fourth Turning” is that even the most startling social events are usually “more of the same” — that neither any crisis nor any heyday is permanent. Instead, Howe and Strauss say, history shows that society passes through a sequence of “turnings” over and over again, repeating in every epoch the same cycle of social moods and cultural “seasons” it has experienced many times before.
The roughly 20- to 25-year seasons Howe and Strauss identify are 1) a “High,” as a civilization emerges from a crisis and forges a new, self-confident consensus (think of the post-Depression, post-World War II 1950s and early ’60s); 2) an “Awakening,” when the conformity and narrowness of High culture inspires rebellion (think of the counterculture ’60s and ’70s); 3) an “Unraveling,” when weary disillusionment slowly grows toward the ideals of both the High and the Awakening (think of the stable but uninspiring ’80s and ’90s), and 4) a “Crisis” that forces the creation of a new social order (the kind of period Howe, and apparently Bannon, think we’re in the middle of now).
“The Fourth Turning” locates these seasons in Anglo-American history going back to the 1400s, with each fourth turning, or crisis, arriving 80 to 100 years after the one before — from the War of the Roses ending in 1487 to the Spanish Armada in 1588; from the American Civil War in 1861-65 to World War II in 1939-45.
What could produce such a cyclical pattern? Howe and Strauss say it is the social reflection of the segmented structure of human lives, which unfold through four distinct passages: 1) coming of age through childhood and adolescence; 2) finding one’s place, one’s spouse, one’s career or calling, in early adulthood; 3) the fulfillments and disappointments of middle age and 4) elderhood, with its leadership roles and gradual fading away.
Each of these life phases, not coincidentally, lasts some 20 to 25 years — and a full life lasts 80 to 100 years, creating the circular track around which generations run, according to the “Fourth Turning.” Generations arise because whole cohorts of people pass through stages of life more or less together, during the same historical period, shaped by the same psychosocial environment.
To have been children and teenagers in the stern years of the Depression and World War II shaped one type of generation, what Howe and Strauss call an “artist” generation — obedient, prudent, unexcitingly virtuous. Walter Mondale, Mary Tyler Moore. To grow up in the go-go “Great Society” postwar decades produced a “prophet” generation — impatient, self-absorbed, idealistic. Al Franken, Whoopi Goldberg. “Awakening” childhoods produce can-do realists Howe and Strauss call “nomads.” “Unravelings” create storm-the-beaches “hero” generations.
The Howe-Strauss theory is that as these generations with very different mind-sets move in an elaborate dance through very different phases of life, serving by turns as one another’s parents and grandparents, children and grandchildren, the sociological configurations, for all their complexity, are repeated again and again, much as infinitely complex atmospheric changes produce the reliable seasons of the year.
The difference is that we see meteorological winter give way to spring every 12 months, so the spectacle doesn’t surprise us. No one can remember the repeated pattern of social seasons in the same way.
This crude sketch of “The Fourth Turning” theory — which like any grand “theory of everything” ought not be taken too literally — may at least point to what is truly unsettling about the book. It suggests limits on freedom, beginning with the repressive, conformist spirit the book forecasts arising in the “High” aftermath of every cyclical “Crisis.”
Nowadays one could just as easily fear a strengthening of the cultural left’s political correctness as a rise of Bannonesque nationalist authoritarianism. But both sound stifling.
In a broader sense “The Fourth Turning” challenges the modernist faith that humankind is the total master of its own fate. It evokes an older view — what the Times writer meant by “religious subtext,” maybe — that a hidden order affects our course.
Maybe our only complete freedom is the freedom to take an interest in interesting ideas — no matter who admires them.
D.J. Tice is at Doug.Tice@startribune.com.