I’m a big fan of historical cycles; they help give a contour to the human experience. In a manner, they’re like seasons: never definitive, yet very real, experiences that we can use to both literally and metaphorically sow and harvest our crops.
And if history is like seasons, we’re in winter, possibly coming to its darkest point.
Credit is where credit’s due: this metaphor is heavily borrowed from the Strauss-Howe Generational Theory, which posits that history goes in generational cycles from a High to a Crisis, driven by generational dynamics best explained at this here link. It’s a theory being tested in the instability of our era.
That instability is caused in large part by vast generational partisan differences. Boomers are scrambling for their last ideological gasps before they begin dying at scale in the late 2020s, while the more unified Millennials and emerging Gen Zers are just beginning to flex their demographic muscles at the ballot box.
But enough about that. What I posit is that we’re coming up to our darkest “night” of our historical cycle — the winter solstice of our common experience. It is a historical experience that will set us on the path towards a new High.
It’s also likely to hurt like hell. That’s the point. It has to hurt, in the way rock bottom always hurts, because otherwise people, whether as alcoholics or as constitutional republics, don’t sober up or carry out the deep structural reforms necessary for civilizational stability.
We’ve been here before: we had the traumatic winters of the Civil War, Great Depression, and World War II. And while those tumultuous events suggest war is coming, that may not exactly be what plays out. But let’s not jump too far ahead. Let’s talk about why we’re about to hit rock bottom.
The election solved nothing, and there’s no consensus to fix anything
Even as it appears Joe Biden is poised to take the White House, it’s clear that he will do so short of the Texas-flipping landslide liberals hoped he could accomplish. The reality is that America remains divided and election margins are narrow, and even post-presidency, Trump and his populist-nationalist ideals aren’t going anywhere.
And there’s reason to believe that even if the Democrats do somehow take the Senate, they won’t address the core causes of American instability, those inequalities in the social and economic spheres.
It’s not that they don’t want to, but they don’t have much of a mandate. They’ll likely get until 2022, tops, before a conservative backlash either flips Congress or deeply undermines it. Then there’s 2024, which I know nobody wants to think about, but which will likely have an enraged conservative movement energized to retake the White House and which will suck out the reform energy Congress might still have left.
That all assumes we go back to semi-business as usual. We probably won’t. Instead, we’ll be fighting intense culture wars through media and protest movements to try to inch for advantage against entrenched opponents. Nobody will want to give an inch, and both sides won’t take much.
What we need is unity, but what’s there to unite us?
In past winters, the Crisis ended with grand structural reforms: the Reconstruction after the Civil War, the New Deal and the wartime command economy of World War II, which radically altered both economics and social standings across the country. But those occurred during or after wartime emergency conditions that unified the country.
We’re in no such strict emergency. The COVID-19 pandemic, as norm-shattering as that’s been, has not morphed into a unifying, national emergency. It’s as partisan as everything else, with half the country masking up and worrying about infections and the other half pretending it barely exists.
So what emergency could do it? Of course, in the past war did the trick. But what war could there possibly be that would be on the scale of World War II? To fight Russia or China is to bring about Armaggedon. Regional conflicts with Iran or North Korea would be one-sided. And moreover, the U.S. can’t just pick a war and start it: the public would only rally to a direct attack, something no U.S. enemy will do out of full knowledge it would be a fight they’d lose.
With a foreign emergency unlikely, that leaves a domestic one. So what could that be? Obviously, COVID-19 has not mustered it: the perception of the virus is split. As difficult as it is to imagine, it’s likely widespread, sustained civil unrest.
I do not believe the United States is on the road to civil war nor will it be. But I increasingly do believe we are prepared for a phase of partisan violence on a scale not seen since at least the 1970s. If you aren’t familiar, the 1970s were an assassination-rife, bombing-friendly, unstable era of American history that exhausted public sentiment towards change and eventually gave way to the Reagan era that strongly favored consensus.
This new phase of violence seems poised to be, at least in public perception, worse. That’s important: it has to be worse, or at least feel like it, or the public exhaustion with partisanship won’t happen. Modern media, including live streaming, suggests that scattered acts of violence could be amplified to create the emotional pain necessary to trend us towards stability. After all, George Floyd’s racist murder was something very routine in many places before the 1960s: it was seeing it live, at length, in 2020 that inspired a June of unrest, riots, protests, and the National Guard. We could readily see a series of acts of political violence amplified the same way until society shifts away from partisanship.
At the same time, there is such a thing as media saturation. We’ve done that with tragedy before, too. Newtown and the 228 other school shootings since Columbine have inured us to mass shootings; in our partisan era, we’ve decided they’re the cost of doing business. Could we get used to partisan violence just the same? It certainly is possible.
And what would partisan violence look like? Already, we’ve seen bits: the Congressional baseball shooting in 2017, the Kenosha shooting by Kyle Rittenhouse, the scuffles between Antifa and the Proud Boys in Portland. The fact that we’re already seeing it, and that it’s not particularly shocking, does suggest we’re ready for this new normal: that partisans can battle in our civic centers as our police watch, that lone wolves can murder their opponents at will and we will forget by the next 24/7 news cycle.
Worse, the outlines of organized violence have emerged. The radical fringes that thrive under loosely-defined umbrella movements Antifa, the Boogaloo movement, and Black Lives Matter, as well as better defined, more organized radicals like the Proud Boys are poised to recruit and deploy new followers. Our social media platforms, strive as they might, will help them do so: by the time Facebook realizes it’s dealing with a radical far-left or far-right group, the groups have already developed the connections needed to be viable.
Meanwhile, our security services, in particular local police, have themselves often been politicized: many police unions backed Trump, and many major cities are testing their loyalty as they flirt with the Defund the Police movement. That local police might not be as effective as in the past to combat such a surge in violence is not, I believe, too much to consider.
It does not take many people to produce sustained, organized violence. Most insurgencies or periods of civil unrest are made up of only a few thousand people. They recruit from unstable, unequal societies. They exploit gaps in security forces. And they are led by people who have no interest in institutions, laws, and processes. If that sounds familiar, it should. Strap in. The past four years were just one part of this unfolding history.