"Sometime before the year 2025, America will pass through a great gate in history, commensurate with the American Revolution, Civil War, and the ... Great Depression and World War II …. The risk of catastrophe will be very high …. The nation could erupt into insurrection ... crack up geographically or succumb to authoritarian rule. If there is a war, it is likely to be one of maximum risk …."
— "The Fourth Turning," 1997
Five years ago, in the spring of 2017, numerous national media outlets suffered a brief panic attack over a then 20-year-old book they largely dismissed as crackpot pseudoscience but said was an ominous "obsession" of Steve Bannon, the spooky populist adviser to then-newly inaugurated President Donald Trump.
"Bannon's views," confided the New York Times, "can be traced to a book that warns 'winter is coming,' " and "forecasts the destruction of society as we know it" with "religious subtext and dark premonitions."
I wrote about this "Fourth Turning freakout" at the time, seeking to defend the reputation, not of Bannon or Trump, but of a book I had found to be an irreducibly odd but stubbornly interesting work of history-cum-prophecy.
It's only grown more interesting since.
Authored by demographers, generational theorists and investment gurus Neil Howe and the late William Strauss, "The Fourth Turning" appeared 25 years ago now, in a comparatively placid era — back when mild-mannered Bob Dole Republicans debated deficit-fighting, welfare-reforming, Bill Clinton "New Democrats" over how best to use the "peace dividend" that had flowed from the end of the Cold War.
What was then at hand, in fact, was "The End of History" (the nasty bits, anyway), according to a 1992 book more emblematic of that optimistic era, by political scientist Francis Fukuyama.
It was an improbable time for a shadowy tome insisting that America teetered on the brink of a decadeslong "crisis" that would shake society to its foundations.
But I noted in 2017 that "rather a lot has happened since  — 9/11; the terror war; the 2008-11 global financial meltdown; ever more bitter political strife — to make 'dark premonitions' look pretty darn prescient."
And how about now? After five more years of "cold civil war" in America's political life? After 24 months of a once-a-century pandemic? After George Floyd's killing, coast-to-coast riots and a coast-to-coast crime wave? And now with Russia's invasion of Ukraine rekindling hot war in Europe? With "the year 2025" looming ever closer?
I'll stand by "stubbornly interesting." In a webcast interview last week, Howe noted that war, as usual, is activating the "reptilian brain" of the current generation, with its tribal antipathies. He compared our current moment to the 1930s run-up to World War II. And he added, in case you're wondering, that he's at work on a new book to update the Fourth Turning theory.
That theory is essentially a modernized version of the ancient, cyclical view of human affairs — a belief that neither any dark age nor any golden age is enduring. Instead, Howe and Strauss say, history shows that societies pass through a sequence of "turnings" over and over again, repeating in every epoch the same cycle of social moods and cultural "seasons" they have experienced many times before.
This cyclical outlook contrasts sharply with the more modern and more pleasing linear view of the human story as one of inexorable progress toward a better day.
But there can be no "right side of history" if history is a circle.
Howe and Strauss see history's wheel turning in response to generations passing through four universal phases of individual life — childhood/adolescence; the searchings of young adulthood; the fulfillments and disappointments of maturity, and elderhood. Generations are cohorts of people who pass through each life phase more or less together, shaped by the same historical events and psychosocial environments.
All generations contain many types, but growing up in the highly ordered, conformist, mission-driven 1945-65 era — a season, or turning, Howe and Strauss call a "High" — produced a great many dutiful, unexcitingly virtuous pragmatists (Joe Biden, b. 1942; Mitt Romney, b. 1947). Youths in a more uncertain, conflicted era like the 1980s and '90s — a turning/season Howe and Strauss term an "Unraveling" — generate many higher voltage personalities (Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, b. 1989; Marjorie Taylor Greene, b. 1974).
The idea is that as generations, with their different mind-sets, move in an elaborate dance through life's stages — serving as one another's parents and grandparents, children and grandchildren — the sociological configurations, for all their complexity, are repeated again and again, rather as infinitely complex atmospheric changes produce the reliable seasons of the year.
As we shiver through January, it would be almost impossible to imagine the swelter that awaits us in July — except that we see such uncanny transformations every six months. No one lives long enough to experience the regular return of every social season — but they are equally predictable, or so says this theory.
Each turning, Howe and Strauss say, lasts 20-25 years, about as long as each phase of an individual's life, and the whole cycle is complete in 80 or 100 years, the length of a long human life.
What naturally concerns us, and sells books, is the season of crisis — the Fourth Turning — when war, pestilence and economic chaos undermine the existing social order. So far in Anglo-American history, say Howe and Strauss, such ordeals have regularly given way to "High" eras of renewal — eras of consensus and achieving big things, if not of much tolerance for dissent.
"The Fourth Turning" locates these seasons going back to the 1400s, with each crisis unfolding 80 to 100 years after the one before. The American Revolution began in 1776, 87 years (four score and seven) before Lincoln spoke at Gettysburg. Pearl Harbor was bombed exactly 80 years after Fort Sumter was besieged.
The current Fourth Turning season, Howe says, began with the financial meltdown in 2008 and is still unfolding, 81 years after America's entry into World War II.
Theories of everything ought never be taken entirely seriously. But the value here is in the prodding to take a longer view of events just now, maybe particularly of European war.
Great power empires colliding, flexing their horrible might, as they compete to absorb ethnic, religious and political minorities hungering for self-determination. Such struggles have dominated European history since the fall of Rome. It was in no small part to escape becoming victims or conscripts in such incessant wars that generations of European immigrants fled to America.
The human suffering in such tragedies has always been real. So too the heroism and the villainy. But leaders of powerful nations like ours, wielding incalculable destructive weaponry, must take the longer view, and the larger view.
To prevent global cataclysm, leaders of America and the West tolerated nearly a half century of Soviet tyranny across Eastern Europe after World War II, settling for a longer-view policy of "containment." The injustice and misery were heartbreaking, but they did right.
President Joe Biden is so far leading a well-calibrated response to Vladimir Putin's rape of Ukraine. He is imposing a painful price for Russia's cruelties, but not waging war.
What has been lacking in American foreign policy in recent decades is not forceful action, but clarity about what America and its allies will and will not do.
We have invaded nations, overthrown regimes, withdrawn, surged, declared "red lines" that we failed to enforce only to enforce them later on, assassinated enemies with drone strikes and otherwise, and expanded our military alliances to embrace nations reaching Russia's very borders.
At the same time, we have done little but scold as Putin crushed Chechnya and Georgia, brutalized Syrians, annexed Crimea, poisoned opponents at home and abroad, and more.
In short we may have simultaneously appeased and provoked a ruthless adversary.
This is not to blame any American leaders for Putin's brutality. It is to say that we could and should better manage our own predictability.
Putin clearly perceives that NATO membership makes an important difference. A guarantee that Ukraine would not join that alliance was the rejected demand that served as his pretext for invasion.
Let it now be reinforced that any move against a formal U.S. ally would cross a true red line — one Putin and any other foe can depend upon.
D.J. Tice is at firstname.lastname@example.org.