When will America’s era of crisis end?
In the 1990s, social scientists William Strauss and Neil Howe set out their influential theory of the “saeculum,” a predictable cycle of four eras that plays out in Western societies every 80 to 100 years. The first era, the High, is an upbeat period following a crisis, such as the post-World War II era. The second is an Awakening when civic order comes under attack, such as the tumult of the ‘60s and ‘70s. The third era is an Unraveling, a downcast era of weakening institutions, such as the early 2000s. And then comes the fourth era: Crisis.
In 1991, Strauss and Howe predicted a crisis era would begin around 2008. It proved prophetic. The 2008 recession coincided with other disruptive forces, such as the election of President Barack Obama and the rise of social media. What followed has been 15 years of ferocious polarization and political upheaval — from the Tea Party, to Occupy Wall Street, to Donald Trump, to COVID-19, to the murder of George Floyd, to Jan. 6, 2001, and on to our current moment when wars are raging abroad, the U.S. House of Representatives has no leader, and both parties appear set to nominate deeply unpopular presidential candidates despite majorities imploring them not to.
It’s no wonder a growing share of voters report feeling exhausted and hopeless. A much-discussed poll last year found plummeting faith in the American dream, with less than half of respondents believing today’s youth will do better than their parents, an 18 point drop in three years.
It’s clear that our politics is both a symptom and a cause of this current crisis, particularly as more and more facets of American society are sorted along political lines. When Pew asked Americans to describe politics recently, among the most common words were “divisive,” “chaotic,” “broken,” “sad” and “disgusting.”