What is the Fourth Turning and Why is it Important?
April 14, 2017
Shabbat shalom and chag sameach! It is so nice to see you here on this lovely Erev Shabbat, a prelude to a beautiful spring weekend. I am speaking tonight on a “hot button” topic that is at the heart of Stephen Bannon’s ideology. You recall Stephen Bannon? If not, let me briefly remind you that he is President Trump’s chief strategist who recently lost his seat on the National Security Council. He is the former editor of the far Right Brietbart News and a multi-millionaire who made his fortune working at Goldman Sachs in New York and producing movies in Hollywood. He is vociferously anti-Muslim and is the primary force pushing for a border wall with Mexico. Breitbart News is the news source of choice for white nationalists, Klu Klux Klaners, neo-Nazis and others of that disgusting ilk. It revels in conspiracy theories and hatred of minorities, including Jews. Stephen Bannon has vowed to “deconstruct” the administrative state. No one is exactly sure what that means but it sounds like the fox is running the henhouse of government. Fortunately, he has lost some stature in recent weeks and may even be in danger of losing his job as more moderate elements in the current Administration are gaining sway over the President. Let us, for a few minutes, give Stephen Bannon the benefit of the doubt. Let’s say that he is a patriot who has good intentions and wants to prepare the United States for what he thinks is the cataclysm to come. How does he know what is coming and when? It’s all written down in this book by William Strauss and Neil Howe, “The Fourth Turning: An American Prophecy.” This is the pair’s third book. Strauss is the cofounder and director of the well-known comedy troop “Capitol Steps” and Howe is a historian and economist who works for the Concord Coalition, a think tank dedicated to balancing the budget.
You can see that my copy of the book is well read and that much of it is underlined. That is because I have read the text several times, first when it was published in 1997 and then a couple of times since. It was a primary text that year in one of my doctoral classes. It is a dense and difficult text but is worth a read as it claims to explain all of history through its theory of cycles. Allow me to explain.
Strauss and Howe claim that the key to understanding history is “a unit of time the ancients called the saeculum. Practically every major historical crisis comes in transition between saecula or at distinct periods within a saeculum. A saeculum ranges from about eighty to one hundred years. Like the Seder, the theory is based on fours. There are four Archetype generations within each saeculum, the Hero, Artist, Prophet, and Nomad as well as Four Turnings. We Baby Boomers, for example, are of the Prophet generation, born in the High after WW II, rebelling against our parents in the sixties and seventies, which the authors call the Second Turning or the Awakening, entering middle age in the Third Turning, the Unraveling, the early eighties through 2005, and entering elderhood during the Fourth Turning, the Crisis. The last Fourth Turning in American history was the Great Depression and World War II. The authors predicted the Great Recession and tell us that things will only get worse during the next fifteen to twenty years. They write “A Crisis arises in response to sudden threats that…are perceived as dire…there is one simple imperative: The society must prevail. This requires a solid public consensus, aggressive institutions, and personal sacrifice. People support new efforts to wield public authority …government governs, community obstacles are removed, and laws and customs that resisted change for decades are swiftly shunted aside…public order tightens…families strengthen, gender distinctions widen…wars are fought with fury and for maximum result.”[i] They write that “…every Fourth Turning since the fifteenth century has culminated in total war.”[ii] “The Fourth Turning is when the Spirit of America reappears, rousting courage and fortitude from the people. Another Crisis era is coming- and soon.”[iii] During the Fourth Turning “new leadership will assert public authority and demand private sacrifice…America will become more isolationist than today in its unwillingness to coordinate its affairs with other countries but less isolationist in its insistence that vital national interests not be compromised.”[iv] “Through the Fourth Turning, the old order will die, but only after having produced the seed containing the new civic order within it…a new social contract will take root…with or without war, American society will be transformed into something different…the Fourth Turning will be a time of glory or ruin.”[v]
Bannon is using Donald Trump as his instrument to bring about the Fourth Turning. He has referred to Trump as “a blunt instrument for us.” “In the White House, he has shown that he is willing to advise Trump to enact policies that will disrupt our current order to bring about what he perceives as a necessary new one. He encourages breaking down political and economic alliances and turning away from traditional American principles to cause chaos.”[vi] Bannon believes in authoritarian politics as preparation for a massive conflict between East and West, whether East means the Middle East or China.”[vii] It seems that Bannon is determined to ensure that the Fourth Turning takes place, even if he has to do it himself.
There is a determinism in this theory that is very troubling. Does free will count for nothing? Is every crisis like the last? Certainly, the Great Recession was nothing like the Great Depression. In the former, the government acted to prevent a complete economic meltdown. In the latter, the Hoover administration allowed the economy to deteriorate for another two years before recovery began in the Roosevelt administration. Our country is not at all united. In fact, we are more divided than at any time in recent memory. Many Baby Boomers are working against the authoritarian impulses of this administration that Bannon champions, such as the ban on Muslim immigration and the wall with Mexico. Many of us don’t see threats to our existence as does Bannon. I think, instead of history being already written, the future is unknown, much of it to be determined by the current actors. As Rabbi Akiva said in Pirke Avot 3:15: “All is foreseen and freedom of choice is granted.” In our religious Tradition, only God knows what will happen. Our Tradition teaches us that history, in contrast to the seasons, is not cyclical but rather is linear. There was a beginning to time and someday there will be an end to time. It might have come when, during the Seder, we opened the door for Elijah. Perhaps it will happen next year. All I can tell you is that we are hopeful, optimistic and determined to make this world a better place. We await not a Fourth Turning, but a return to values that stress our common humanity and dignity. Towards that we will work until the long-awaited Messiah arrives.
Amen and Shabbat shalom
[i] The Fourth Turning, page 104.
[ii] Ibid, page 119.
[iii] Ibid, page 271.
[iv] Ibid, page 276.
[v] Ibid, page 278.
[vi] Linette Lopez, Business Insider, February 2, 2017.
[vii] Ibid, page 3.