The 'Fourth Turning' May Not Turn Out Well
And: Peter Hitchens falls out of love with America
Good afternoon. Running late in getting today’s newsletter out, for Reasons. I’ve gotten so much in the habit of publishing in the late morning, Budapest time, that it makes me anxious when I miss that deadline. Thanks for your patience.
I’ve been reading Neil Howe’s The Fourth Turning Is Here, on the advice of N.S. Lyons. I admit that I’ve had some trouble sticking with it, simply because I lose patience with the details in laying out his theory of generational changes. I’ve been impatient to get to the end, because I keep thinking that this sounds like a version of the Whig Theory of History — the myth of Progress that says things keep getting better and better. Early on, Howe says that we’re about to go through a hellacious crisis, but America will emerge from it stronger, more ordered, more confident, and so forth.
Really? How does he know this? I think we can all feel that Something’s Gotta Give, but I don’t have any confidence that my side is going to win this thing. I’ve been waiting to get to the end to find out why he thinks it will inevitably turn out better for us. But now that Lyons has just published a review of the book, I don’t have to wait. Here’s the gist of Howe’s theory, per Lyons:
Howe’s prediction rests on a model that at its core is timeless and simple. In fact, it can be summed up by a four-line Internet meme: “hard times create strong men, strong men create good times, good times create weak men, weak men create hard times.” Howe’s version manages to fill most of 500 pages with further nuance, however.
At least in the Anglo-American world that Howe has surveyed, history appears to move in predictable cycles of about 80 to 100 years that, resurrecting a Roman term for the concept, he calls a saeculum. These cycles each have four distinct phases—or “Turnings”—of around 20 to 25 years that always flow in the same order: a “High,” an “Awakening,” an “Unraveling,” and a “Crisis.” Turnings are driven by the changing of generations, or those portions of the population whose collective character was shaped by coming of age amid the societal conditions specific to a previous turning. Each generation’s character, embodied by one of four generational archetypes (“Artists,” “Prophets,” “Nomads,” and “Heroes”) is largely determined by its proximity to the last Crisis. Howe goes into great detail about each generation, but for our purposes all you really need to know is that Prophets, coming of age knowing only the softness of a spring High, begin to dream of utopia during a hotheaded summer Awakening and rebel against the world that their Hero fathers built, seeking to tear it all down during a quarter-century-long autumn Unraveling. This process culminates in a winter of true Crisis (a Fourth Turning), which a new generation of Heroes must struggle to resolve, after which they establish a new order, leading to another High. And yes: the baby boomers of the 1960s counterculture are our most recent Prophets, which means the millennials will have to be our Heroes.
You’ll probably recall the justly celebrated Will Arbery play from a couple of years back, “Heroes Of The Fourth Turning,” which is about Millennials and culture war. I wrote about it at TAC, but all their articles seem to be paywalled now.
Lyons confirms my suspicions about the outcome of the Crisis, in Howe’s view. Lyons writes:
By the 2040s, once we’ve passed through this crucible, all the trends we now lament will have reversed themselves, and we’ll enter a glorious new future as a nation transformed. The malaise will lift. Political gridlock and dysfunction will disappear. The economy will jolt back to life and achieve new heights of productivity and dynamism, delivering “dramatically higher living standards” and much lower levels of income inequality. Culture will flourish once more. A new moral consensus will be reached and enforced, commanding broad conformity. Millennials will have become the most communitarian generation in living memory, reenergizing civic society and committing themselves to family life. Religious participation will revive, though perhaps in unpredictable ways. Gender norms will swing back in favor of a new traditionalism. A sudden baby boom will end concerns about demographic decline. Crime will plunge to new lows, while social trust will reach new highs. As in the mythic 1950s of yore, by the 2050s, no one will lock their doors, and everyone will trust the government. This pattern has followed every one of our past centenary crises, and it will happen again, Howe insists.
Lyons is not sure. He cites Howe’s predictions for what the wonderful post-crisis world will be like after one side wins the culture war, and it seems a lot like the triumph of progressive managerial technocracy. Lyons again:
It never seems to occur to Howe that the American regime (and the whole Western world) could be structurally failing precisely because it has been captured by run-away progressive managerial technocracy—and that eliminating all remaining opposition to this regime will only accelerate its self-induced insanity and dysfunction.
I’m a cheerful pessimist, as I think you know, but I see no reason to think that my side is going to win. I hope I’m wrong, but I just don’t see it. Why not? Two basic reasons: 1) the Left controls the technological framework, and 2) the young are mostly on the Left, which these days means in favor of progressive managerial technocracy (PMT), and against classical liberal values like freedom of speech, religion, and assembly.
So, in a crisis, the state and its corporate allies will have the power to debank and unperson dissidents and rebels. All the weaponry in the world in private hands is not going to do you much good if you cannot get into your bank accounts, or carry out economic transactions. If Central Bank Digital Currencies come online before Howe’s Crisis strikes, it’s over. Plus: the US military. Your little Red Dawn citizen militia, if you can even launch it, is going to be vaporized in a trice.
Second, the rising generations favor the PMT, and the opposition has largely been demoralized. In The Boniface Option, which advocates fierce resistance, Andrew Isker writes about
the baby boomer generation where someone will bring up the latest leftwing abomination and we agree that things are getting really bad. It is always at this point that the well-meaning Boomer will say, “Well, if things get bad enough, we still have the guns.” Leaving aside the fact that we have reached the point where borderline personality disorder moms castrating their little boys for attention is a thing that has entered the mainstream, I don’t know how much worse it would get to reach “if things get bad enough” territory. There is nowhere near the kind of social cohesion in America to do anything about it when things get bad enough.
He’s right, isn’t he? I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again: we live in a society in which mothers and fathers castrate their sons and chop the breasts off their daughters, and in which the state intervenes (in some jurisdictions) to seize some minor children who wish to transition over their parents’ objections. If you had said to most Americans twenty years ago that this was coming soon, they would have thought you a madman, and would have foreseen mobs in the streets protesting such abominations. But now we have it, and most people shrug.
We might yet turn the transgender children thing back. I hope so, and in any case, we have to keep fighting. But the fact that this is a fight at all, and one that we are not winning handily, tells us something about how deep the rot has gone.
I’ll stop there. You’ve heard it all from me before. My point is simply that the culture war has in most ways already been resolved in favor of the progressives. They already control all the high ground in the culture. I predict that at some point over the next six years — maybe even following a Trump 2024 loss — there will be some organized right-wing violence, and the government will use that as an excuse for a widespread crackdown on dissent, which it will label as “domestic terrorism.” The full surveillance powers of the federal government will be turned on the American people to protect us from the Enemy Within. The repression will instigate more resistance, which will eventually be crushed, while the media hail the patriotic resolve of the state to subdue and destroy these “neo-Confederates,” wherever they are.
I could be wrong. I hope I’m wrong. But I think that’s the most likely scenario. This is part of the reason why I’m so strong on the Benedict Option as a strategy for building long-term survival and resilience. It’s going to get a lot worse before it gets better. The Boniface Option guy admits openly in his book that we lack the moral and social resources to meaningfully resist … yet he counsels the faithful to mount berserker attacks on our culture war enemies anyway. I’m all in favor of boldly standing up to the progressive cretins who are trying to queer children and all the rest, but the unhappy fact is, America is mostly no longer on the side of cultural conservatives.
Please, I sincerely ask you to make a case for why conservatives are going to prevail in the coming Crisis foreseen by Howe (if it comes). I mean that. I want to be talked out of my pessimism. But the material power held by the PMT side, and the lopsided confidence the younger generations have in PMT as a political and social framework, cannot be overcome by anything I see currently on the Right.
The thing is, I don’t believe that a PMT, even if it were to be victorious in the culture war, and form the basis for a new springtime (to use Howe’s cyclical model), can be sustainable. But that’s only to say that we will slip into either tyranny, or further conflict.
I’m also reading now the manuscript of Aaron Renn’s forthcoming book about living in what he calls “negative world” — a world in which being Christian is a social burden. Early in the book Renn, who is Evangelical, speculates as to why my Benedict Option book, which offered the only counsel (so far) about how to live faithfully in Negative World, did not do well among Evangelicals:
We also see this rejection of Dreher’s proposal in that we have not yet developed a more evangelical- friendly version of or alternative to it. No major evangelical strategic approaches for the negative world have emerged. American evangelicals are largely operating as though they’re still living in the lost positive and neutral worlds. The rejection of Dreher’s Benedict Option, I argue, wasn’t about too much Catholic terminology or disagreements on its strategic elements. It was rooted in a lack of recognition that cultural conditions have fundamentally changed for Christianity. Evangelicals had not— and to a great extent still have not— recognized that we now live in the negative world.
I am confident that this is true for American conservatives in general. They can’t conceive that we really might lose this thing, and so aren’t taking the measures necessary to win, or the measures necessary to continue living by our faith and values in the event we are defeated and compelled to live under a form of tyranny. We conservatives (and old-fashioned liberals) are like the noble Romans of the fourth century, as presented by historian Edward Watts in The Final Pagan Generation: imaginatively incapable of envisioning that the world we love could be taken from us.
Don’t believe for a second that most people you know would resist. Remember that Kamila Bendova told me that nearly all of the fellow Christians that she and her late husband Vaclav Benda knew under Communism kept their heads down and tried to avoid trouble. And remember the true story of Franz Jägerstätter, dramatized in Terrence Malick’s film A Hidden Life. The entire village of simple Catholic farmers went over to the Nazi side, except for Franz and his wife. You never know until you are put to the test how you and your neighbors will behave.
I don’t mean to be excessively apocalyptic here. But I do want to say that if Neil Howe is correct about a crisis being at the very door — and he and his late writing partner William Strauss did get the prediction of what we’ve been going through this century right — then this is almost certainly not good news for traditionalists, conservatives, and localists. Lyons observes in his review that Howe cannot help being optimistic; maybe that’s the result of his being American. But Americans are not a tragic people — that is, we deeply resist the awful truth that things can go very badly, despite our best intentions. And we hate to lose. Preparing to withstand defeat without losing what matters most to us is of utmost importance. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t fight to keep the worst from happening. But we have to do two things at once.
Peter Hitchens Has Soured On America
The conservative British columnist Peter Hitchens writes about how he once dearly loved America, but has now soured on it. Excerpts:
Well, I went again as soon as I could, and again, and again. I liked it so much that after a posting in Moscow I came to live in D.C. in 1993, in that era an especially exhilarating place to be—or so I then thought, with the Cold War won and the world on the brink of a new birth of liberty. I arrived direct from Siberia via the Bering Strait, a thrilling leap from one planet to another, as it were. We loved almost everything, the heartbreakingly wistful autumn skies in the North-East in the weeks after Labor Day, the neighbors on our shady street who welcomed us and our children without hesitation or reservation, the local volunteer rescue squad, the radio station we helped raise funds for, the local hardware store with its huge axes and storm lanterns, all ready for a hurricane to strike, the glorious ease of travel to anywhere.
The Washington Metro, clean and new, running through its majestic, vaulted stations, seemed to destroy the idea, until then fixed in my mind, that Americans had chosen private affluence at the price of public squalor. We liked the giant bookstores, the food, the different cadence of the language, the children’s books born from a different civilization (especially one called Blueberries for Sal), the local swim team, the thrilling closeness, in time and space, of the Civil War battlefields and the Founding Fathers. I think Monticello is still my ideal of what a house should be like. We were in love and when, for reasons beyond our control, we had to leave, we felt bereft and perplexed as we watched Manhattan sink below the horizon from the stern of the Cunard liner that took us home.
But since 9/11, Hitchens has seen America going down in many ways. More:
The last few times I have been, I have been glad to depart, despite the kindness and hospitality I have received. And when people ask me to visit, as they still sometimes do, I think for a minute and then decline. I have fallen out of love with America.
Reading the Hitchens piece, I was struck by his mention of the Washington DC metro as “clean and new, running through its majestic, vaulted stations,” I was reminded of how great it felt to get on the metro back then. I lived in DC in the same era. It was a violent city, but the metro told you that you lived in the capital city of a modern, powerful country. I moved from DC in 1995, and it was many years before I went back. The city grew very rich in the 1990s and early 2000s, and was far nicer and safer. But the metro system had become really shabby. How could they let this happen? I wondered. Now I understand that the city is once again violent, and now it reeks of pot everywhere. The last time I was there was during or right after Covid. Union Station, which had been so beautiful in my day, was vacant, nearly all the shops having closed. Decline, aye.
Douglas Wilson Responds
I want to flag this blog post by Douglas Wilson, responding sharply to my review of The Boniface Option, which was written by a self-styled Wilson protege. In it, I took a couple of pokes at Moscow, Idaho, where the pugnacious Wilson lives and oversees a large and thriving community of very conservative Reformed Christians. Wilson responds in that post. He writes:
Then in 2015, Rod Dreher joined up with the wrong side in one of our periodic gunk wars. Since that time, Natalie Greenfield has withdrawn her charges and made her peace with us, but Rod is apparently still sticking to her guns on her behalf.
For the record, I was unaware until reading this that she had withdrawn her charges and made her peace with them. I need to look into this.
Second, I don’t believe that Moscow, Idaho, is a Reformed dystopia. How would I know? I’ve never been. What I meant was that Isker seems to believe broadly in the kind of social order endorsed by Douglas Wilson. I don’t say that Douglas Wilson wants to impose by force his own social and religious vision on the world. I’ve never seen any evidence of that. But it seems to me from reading the extreme rhetoric in Isker’s book that he — Isker — would have no problem with that. That’s what I meant.
I thought it was clear from my review that I think Isker’s proposal is a militant, aggressive version of what Douglas Wilson broadly thinks about how the world should be ordered. But if it wasn’t clear, let me say here that I was talking about Isker, not Wilson. If some right-wing hippie hothead wanted to impose the Benedict Option by force, and someone said, “Imagine Rod Dreher’s Birkenstock sandal stamping on your face, forever,” it wouldn’t occur to me that they were talking about me. But maybe I’m wrong about that. Anyway, here, I have clarified.
In his post, Wilson invites me to visit Moscow on his own dime. That’s very nice of him, but I’ll politely decline for the same reason I did before: I don’t want to drag out to the middle of nowhere — especially from Budapest — to argue with a guy who engages in it for sport and pleasure. Some people like that kind of thing. I don’t. Maybe one day, if I’m in the general part of the country, I’ll do it. I honestly don’t have anything against the folks in Moscow, other than the objection I have articulated here before, about Wilson’s trademark habit of breaking every butterfly on a wheel of confrontational rhetoric. It’s not hard to see a clear line between the kind of heated rhetoric Wilson loves to use (and he’s very good at it) and the fact that a much younger, less mature pastor like Andrew Isker takes it up a notch. If there is anything in Douglas Wilson that would dissuade Isker’s kind of radicalism, in only for the sake of prudence and charity, I haven’t seen it. My experience in dealing with and observing those who model themselves after Wilson has not been upbuilding and inspirational on that front.
But then again, I am not a regular reader of Wilson, so I certainly might have missed it. You are invited in the comments to post links that would enlighten me.