The World Is Ending Again!

“Whether the response is lashing out, turning inward, tuning out, or giving up, Americans are becoming increasingly paralyzed by disagreement, disillusionment, and despair. Indeed, many Americans seem to agree these days on only one thing: This is the worst of times.”

R. Putnam & S.R. Garett, The Upswing (excerpt)

Along with a revised edition of the classic Bowling Alone, a new book has come out by Robert Putnam. With his new work, Shaylyn Romney Garrett joins him as co-author. The title is The Upswing with the accompanying subtitle of “How America Came Together a Century Ago and How We Can Do It Again.” The basic premise appears to be that the mood at present resonates with the complaints and fears of an earlier era when the mood soured in the decades following the Civil War. As Americans headed into the next century, many voices lamented the end of an age, as if a new age would not follow (John Higgs, Stranger Than We Can Imagine).

Based on their generations theory, William Strauss and Neil Howe would give a simple response. This pattern has repeated many times over. But living memory is so short. In fact, it’s the loss of living memory of the last cycle that drives it to swing back around again. The old is made new again, as if a foreign land never seen before. That is why it requires an historical awareness to realize we’ve been here before and what to expect as we move into the next phase. Even as we are in the Crisis that turns the wheel of the Fourth Turning, something else is emerging upon which different social institutions and collective identities will be built. 

This cyclical view of humanity and society is the most ancient of understandings. But in modernity we have falsely come to believe that there is endless linear progress into the unknown and unpredictable. That is the empty pride of modern Western civilization, that we are unique, that we have broken the chains of the past. Maybe not. Jeremiads of moral panic about decadence and decline usually presage moral revivals and rebirth (Jackson Lears, Rebirth of a Nation: The Making of Modern America, 1877-1920). That has been the pattern, so some argue, for centuries now. Is there a reason to think this time will be different?

In every generation that reaches this point in the cycle, there are those who confidently declare this time will be different, that this time it will be permanent, that further change is now impossible, that further innovation has ended, that the vitalizing force of society has been lost, that the younger generations aren’t up to the task, maybe even that we’ve entered the end times. Yet, so far, these predictions have been disproven over and over again. We act out what we suppress from awareness. So the more we deny the reality of cycles the more we become trapped in them. Our historical amnesia dooms us to falling back into patterns we don’t see.

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‘The Upswing’ Review: Bowling Alone No More?
by Yuval Levin

“Drawing ingeniously on a vast array of data—economic, political, cultural, social and more—Mr. Putnam and Ms. Garrett persuasively demonstrate that Gilded Age America suffered from civic and social strains remarkably similar to our own. Then they explore how, from the final years of the 19th century until the end of the 1950s, an extraordinary range of forces in our national life, in their words, “shaped an America that was more equal, less contentious, more connected, and more conscious of shared values.” Finally they consider why, all of a sudden and without clear warning, “the diverse streams simultaneously reversed direction, and since the 1960s America has become steadily less equal, more polarized, more fragmented, and more individualistic.” 

“They chart this path from “I” to “we” and back again to “I” across essentially every facet of the American experience. Drawing some lessons from the Progressive Era, broadly understood, they suggest that a return toward a culture of “we” would need to involve a restoration of civic ambition directed toward pragmatic, concrete, incremental changes. That means building new institutions to address new problems, and it means paving paths from shared frustrations toward accommodations and reforms that could endure. It means devoting time to local service organizations and religious and professional groups, and talking less about how things got so bad and more about how to make them better where we are. It means fighting corruption and combating despair. And it means helping a rising generation think about its future, rather than drowning in debates about past feuds and divisions. 

“But the key, for Mr. Putnam and Ms. Garrett, is to move from broad categories of action like these to specific instances of practical organization and engagement. This is why the example of America in the first half of the 20th century can be so powerful. It is a positive answer to the question that threatens to debilitate anyone looking to turn things around in contemporary America: Is revival even possible? The authors make a strong case that a recovery of solidarity is achievable.”

Rate of Moral Panic
Technological Fears and Media Panics
The Crisis of Identity
The Disease of Nostalgia
Moral Panic and Physical Degeneration
Old Debates Forgotten

Generational Cycle of Crisis and Power

It’s an interesting situation right now with the Democrats and Republicans. I’m not talking about the impeachment trial and the earlier Mueller investigation or anything else along those lines. That is all spectacle to distract and rile up the masses. The elite in both parties have been playing a long game that isn’t obvious to most people. It has to do with the presidency, but not in the way one might think. It’s not about any given election. Let us begin by talking about Steve Bannon, the mastermind behind Donald Trump’s campaign.

Bannon wanted to frame Trump as the next Franklin Delano Roosevelt, someone who would rebuild America, quite literally (Old School Progressivism). To Bannon, “Make America Great Again” was not merely an empty campaign slogan. He thought that Trump would be a figurehead, a puppet he could control. It turns out he was wrong, although no more wrong than other Republicans who thought they could manage Trump. Still, as a Machiavellian, Bannon’s general strategy was brilliant, even as his timing was off. It turns out that he was too clever by half. This requires some explaining.

“Darkness is good,” explained Bannon with almost refreshing honesty. “Dick Cheney. Darth Vader. Satan. That’s power” Then speaking of the Democrats, he stated that, “It only helps us when they get it wrong. When they’re blind to who we are and what we’re doing.” That is what he needed Trump for, as a demagogue who he described as “greatest orator since William Jennings Bryan” (Bryan was the most powerful leader during the Populist era). Follow that up with something else he said about what he hoped to achieve, a right-wing ultra-nationalism and pseudo-progressive economic populism:

“Like [Andrew] Jackson’s populism, we’re going to build an entirely new political movement. It’s everything related to jobs. The conservatives are going to go crazy. I’m the guy pushing a trillion-dollar infrastructure plan. With negative interest rates throughout the world, it’s the greatest opportunity to rebuild everything. Shipyards, ironworks, get them all jacked up. We’re just going to throw it up against the wall and see if it sticks. It will be as exciting as the 1930s, greater than the Reagan revolution — conservatives, plus populists, in an economic nationalist movement.”

If one doesn’t recall the 1930s, it is primarily remembered as the era of the Great Depression. It was a tumultuous era of stark poverty, mass unemployment, labor revolt, class war, racial violence, and top-down government response. That decade saw the threat of the Business Plot, a planned fascist coup by American corporate leaders with the intent to forcefully overthrow the US government with military. On the other end of the spectrum, the federal government so feared a populist uprising that they violently attacked the bonus army of veterans which was non-violently protesting because they hadn’t received the money they were promised.

Bannon wanted to bring America back to that era of crisis, desperation, and moral panic. He thought, if he could gin up fear and anxiety, he could use it for his own dreams of a different kind of government takeover. As a businessman who had worked on Wall Street and in Hollywood, his dream essentially was a fascism for the 21st century. And he hoped to be part of the new ruling elite that would ruthlessly rebuild America in their own image. It hasn’t exactly been a success and Bannon lost grip of power, but the destruction is still in progress. He still might be victorious in bringing us back to the excitement of the 1930s. If one believes darkness is good, we might be heading toward very ‘good’ times.

That is only one half of the equation. These events were also orchestrated by the Democrats, specifically the Clinton dynasty. Last election, as with this election, Bernie Sanders is the most popular candidate in either party and has received more small donations than any candidate ever before. That is contrasted with Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, the two least popular candidates since data has been kept. The Clinton Democrats rightfully feared Sanders more than Trump. They purposely rigged the nomination to steal it from Sanders, even though they knew this would mean giving the election to Trump.

As I said, they were playing a long game, even if a different long game than Bannon, as all they had to was bide their time by keeping the progressives and left-wingers out of power, just to keep punching left as they keep pushing right. They had the luxury of being patient, a luxury Republicans did not have. The GOP was in a do or die situation — long term control required, so it seemed to the elite, that they take the presidency and use it for all its worth. Yet they also knew they needed to reposition themselves toward the young and minorities. Bannon tried to do that by saying that, if his plans worked, it would benefit all Americans. He didn’t factor in the explosive nature of Trump who, as a narcissistic attention whore, discovered that racist rhetoric got him lots of media reporting, social media buzz, and loud praise from a small but loyal following.

This is leading the GOP down a dead-end street. Old white people are not the future of the country. Sanders won not only young white males (what Clinton dismissed as “Bernie Bros”) but also young females and young  minorities, while likewise winning the working class. Trump didn’t win the working class, which is seen in how his strongest base in his campaign came from the middle class (Alienated Middle Class Whites). And Clinton couldn’t even win middle class white women, the exact demographic she was when she first reached voting age, instead doing best among the well-educated upper classes. Even so, the Clinton Democrats turned out to be better Machiavellian social dominators, in that they were essentially right that the only way for them to win (i.e., maintain power) was by losing, that is to say by giving away the election.

The same scenario is still playing out as we speak. This is another election that the Clinton Democrats would be wise to lose, from the perspective of manipulating over the long term. Once again, that requires keeping Sanders out of the nomination, as he still is the only candidate with strong chances against Trump. That is what few don’t understand. There is nothing for the Clinton Democrats to gain by winning this election. They have the Republicans exactly where they want them. This is where they out-smarted Bannon. Some background is necessary.

Bannon wasn’t simply being ambitious. He was basing his strategy on a long study of the generation theory of William Strauss and Neil Howe. Those two thinkers, in first having written back in the 1991, have been proven right in many of their predictions (e.g., increasing security in schools). But there was one specific prediction that Bannon honed in on. The basic idea is that, as a country, we have been heading into a crisis, what is called the Fourth Turning. This was something they were saying before Trump’s election, before the 2008 Great Recession, and before the 2001 terrorist attack. They based this conclusion on how the generational cycle had happened in the past, following an approximate 80 year period of four generations.

It wasn’t only that they predicted the crisis we’re now in for it was a particular detail that caught Bannon’s attention. Whichever political party was in power when the crisis hit would be out of power for a generation. And in a two-party system like in the United States, that means the only other viable party would rule with total dominance. That is how FDR was able to implement the New Deal and overhaul society. It is all about timing. Bannon assumed that 2008 was the point of crisis and that, since Obama was president following its beginning, the Democrats would get scapegoated. But with some fancy footwork, the Democrats moderated the crisis they inherited from the Bush administration and so delayed its effects. The problem is that they merely propped the economy up for a bit longer. The longer the crisis is delayed the worse it will be when it finally comes crashing down.

That is what Bannon didn’t plan on. Trump has further propped up the economy with tariffs and whatnot, but we are now coming to the point where no further jerry-rigging is going to matter. There is a high probability that an economic crash will happen in the near future, possibly the next four years. That will be the real crisis that fits the generational model. If the Clinton Democrats can keep Sanders out of the nomination and guarantee Trump wins again, they can create a melodrama that will send the Republicans into a burning conflagration. All they have to do, then, would be to cause continuous problems and bungle up the works, forcing the crisis to go out of control. After that, they could swoop in as self-styled saviors and thus fulfill Strauss and Howe’s prediction, stealing the glory from Bannon’s vision.

Of course, the Clinton Democrats have no meaningful solutions. As long as they keep out the progressives and left-wingers, they will continue to fuck it up and their great opportunity will go to waste. But that is to be worried about later. The point is that the Clinton Democrats would have found a way to stay in power, to maintain control, and remain relevant. Maybe Chelsea Clinton would be promoted into power. Or else various Clinton Cronies would carry on the legacy. One way or another, they would keep the status quo going for another generation. As for the Republicans, it appears they are doomed. In Trump winning last election, the old GOP elite was ousted from power. So, now this election is almost irrelevant, win or lose. Trump has so severely destroyed any respectability and coherency that the only thing loyal Republicans can hope for at this point is a right-wing fascist or theocratic takeover of the government, which I wouldn’t discount. It’s still a dangerous situation. Clinton Democrats, for all their success, will underestimate what they are facing and they won’t be up for the task of the coming crisis.

All in all, even as Bannon got the timing wrong about the predicted crisis, he was right that the crisis was coming and it would decide who was in power. But what few in power, other than military officials, are seeing clearly is that this crisis might boil over into world war and environmental catastrophe. It might be of an immensity never before seen. At the end of the destruction, it could be that neither party will still be in power or maybe even exist. The United States itself might lose its grip as a global superpower and the threat of civil war could threaten or else a balkanization as happened with the fall of the Soviet Union. This Game of Thrones is high stakes and we the public will bear the brunt of the elites’ corrupt machinations. No matter which party wins this election or which global superpower might win the future, average people in America and around the world are almost guaranteed to lose.

[I should give credit to the inspiration of this post. I had been following Bannon for many years now, going back to his career as a documentary producer long before the Trump campaign. But I was reminded again of Bannon with a post by a blogger I follow, Scott Preston at The Chrysalis blog. The post in question is Faustian Man and the Mephistophelean Spirit.]

GOP Power Grab and the Coming Backlash

The only thing more impressive than the cluelessness of the Democratic establishment is the cluelessness of the Republicans in their power grab.

I doubt the GOP actually believes they have a mandate from the American public. They simply want to force their political will onto the entire country, no matter the costs. But it is total insanity. They have already overreached and the backlash will be like nothing seen in living memory. This backlash will bring down the Republican Party, delegitimize the entire political right, popularize left-wing ideologies. and radicalize the public.

Steve Bannon is the demented mastermind behind Donald Trump. He is a student of generations theory, which he did a documentary about. So, he should know better. In generations theory, Strauss and Howe stated that whichever political party is in power when the crisis hits will be out of power for a generation. Bannon was hoping to take advantage of the crisis to seize power and force through his agenda. But it turns out that Bannon, along with Trump and the GOP, is the crisis.

Even many who supported Trump will quickly turn against the GOP. The white working class in particular is going to be even angrier and more outraged… and it will all be directed at the GOP, since the Democrats are out of power. We might be seeing a national protest movement that won’t be controlled by either party. And once it gets rolling, nothing will be able to stop it until changes happen.

Bannon, Trump, and the GOP won’t likely be happy with the results. Neither will the Dems. It’s not clear even the American public will be happy. But that is irrelevant now. The status quo can no longer be maintained and the immediate consequences won’t be likely be happy for anyone. The difference for those on the bottom is that they don’t care about happiness, as they don’t feel like they have much left to lose.

It’s a dangerous situation. The political elite are playing with dynamite.

A Generation to End All Generations

Steve Bannon is someone to be taken seriously. A while back, I quoted something he said that is quite telling when put in context. He declared that, “It will be as exciting as the 1930s.” Isn’t that a strange statement by a right-wing extremist. That statement has gone along with progressive rhetoric that Trump rode to power.

Bannon directed the documentary, “Generation Zero”, in 2009. It is a propaganda piece that was pushed by right-wing media. And unsurprisingly it blames the political left, along with some good ol’ fashion hippie punching and minority scapegoating. The documentary attempts to resurrect the culture wars for the purpose of somehow explaining the economic crash. Even so, it is based on an insightful, non-partisan generations theory that should be taken on its own terms. If you want to know the playbook Bannon is going by, you’d need to read The Fourth Turning by William Strauss and Neil Howe.

What the theory explains is that the last time we were at this same point in the cycle Franklin Delano Roosevelt came into power and entirely restructured the American economic and political system. And I’d note that this was accomplished with the use of a soft form of corporatism, most apparent in Californian big ag. This earlier corporatism kept its distance from the worst aspects of fascism. But with the living memory of World War II fascism fading, Bannon and Trump are a lot less wary about playing with fire.

Here is the documentary that puts a right-wing spin on Strauss and Howe’s theory:

I forgot that it was Bannon who made that documentary. I saw that when it came out. It didn’t get much attention at the time outside of right-wing media. My only interest in it was that it used Strauss and Howe’s generations theory which I’d been reading about since the late 1990s or early 2000s.

Largely unknown to the general public, Strauss and Howe’s work has been known by politicians for years. As I recall, Bill Clinton had positive things to say about the theory. You’d think he could have explained to Hillary why she should take it seriously because obviously she didn’t take it any more seriously than Obama.

For years, people speculated and warned about the possibility of those like Trump and Bannon using the theory as a playbook for gaining power. I guess it worked. I think Bannon is misreading the situation quite a bit, though. Or rather he is reading into it what he wants to believe.

He probably does have a good basic grasp of Strauss and Howe’s theory. And so I’m sure he understands where the country is right now. But his understanding of the reasons is most likely shallow, as is typical of the right-wing mind. He has a narrative in his head. The problem is reality doesn’t tend to conform nicely when humans try to project narratives onto it.

Ideological narratives can be dangerous, especially when we start believing our own bullshit. Some see Trump as non-ideological, as a new form of authoritarianism that doesn’t require those old forms of ideological justification, from fascism to communism. This theory proposes that we’ve entered a post-ideological era. That is naive. Trump may have a simplistic ideology of plutocracy, but no doubt it is an ideology. And Bannon for certain is playing an ideological game. In generations theory, he found the perfect frame for a political narrative.

Like Bannon, I years ago sensed the moment we were entering into. It was as if I could hear the clicking of gears. I barely could contain myself because I knew something entirely different was afoot. And it had nothing, absolutely nothing to do with Barack Obama. There were larger forces in society, like vast ocean currents. But I’ve never been one to so easily try to force my own narrative onto events. Unlike Bannon, I’m not seeking power. I have no desire to try to force reality to conform to my beliefs and ambitions. When it comes to theories such as this, I take them with a grain of salt. But I realized that, true or not, someone could take it as a plan of action and make it real.

Bannon is a man with a vision and with a mission. He will change America, if at all possible, or else maybe destroy it in the process. He is playing for keeps. With generations theory, he has a sledgehammer and he is going to whack everything in sight. This won’t be remembered as an era of ideological subtlety. The lies and propaganda, the spin and bullshit is going to come at us with the fury. Alternative facts is just the beginning of it. It will feel like we’ve entered an alternative reality.

“It is an area which we call the Twilight Zone.”

* * *

Trump, Bannon and the Coming Crisis
from Generational Theory Forum

Is Steve Bannon the Second Most Powerful Man in the World?
David Von Drehle

Donald Trump, Stephen Bannon and the Coming Crisis in American National Life
by David Kaiser

What’s Next for Steve Bannon and the Crisis in American Life
by David Kaiser

What Steve Bannon really wants
by Gwynn Guilford and Nikhil Sonnad

Bannon’s film blamed racial-bias law for financial collapse
by Ben Schreckinger

Steve Bannon film outline warned U.S. could turn into ‘Islamic States of America’
by Matea Gold

President Trump’s chief strategist believes America will face a ‘massive new war’
from The Week

Revealed: Steve Bannon ‘is obsessed with a book arguing institutions are destroyed and rebuilt every 80 years’
by Clemence Michallon

For haters only: watching Steve Bannon’s documentary films
by John Patterson

What I Learned Binge-Watching Steve Bannon’s Documentaries
by Adam Wren

You can learn a lot about Steve Bannon by watching the films he made
by Ann Hornaday

These Films That Steve Bannon Produced Are Terrifying
by Cate Carrejo

The Rightwing Documentary Producers Who Are Shaping Trump’s America
by Peter Hamilton