The Long View 2002-01-30: The State of the Union 2002

Twelve years on, it really does seem that John, and also William Strauss and Neil Howe, were on to something when they predicted an American crisis occurring sometime around 2007. At the time, John was writing about 9-11, but then we had the Housing Bubble appearing as if on cue.

John in 2002 felt that George W. Bush did the right thing in response to 9-11. So did almost everyone else. Now, many have soured on the Global War on Terror, and W gets the blame for it. There is some truth in that, but one might also notice that Bill Clinton and Barack Obama exhibit a foreign policy oddly similar to George W. Bush. In all likelihood, President Gore would have invaded Iraq too, because that war was overdetermined. We would have just needed to find another motive to blame later.

There have been advances. President Clinton ineffectually bombed training camps with cruise missiles. Bush invaded Iraq. Obama went back to remote bombing, but our technology is a lot better now. The technology changed, but the goal is the same.

John was a judicious critic of FDR.; he preferred his cousin Teddy. John was always on the side of civilization, and so the New Deal gets praise because it restored public confidence despite its technical flaws. John always felt that civilization is fragile, and deserves our support. Wonkish details can be fixed later, but sometimes you just need an effective cheerleader rather than a capable bureaucrat.

One of John's criticisms of W was that he was fixated on a doomed domestic agenda rather than the looming civilizational crisis. In retrospect, it seems John was right here. John predicted that this crisis may have a strong beginning, and a weak middle, and that seems true. The War on Terror started off really popular, and now after a decade of war and a recession, everything is uncertain. John's final prediction, still to be verified, was that the end of the crisis period would see greater clarity about our national confusion. Here is what John had to say:

...the president's program of winning the clash of civilizations by spreading democracy to Islamic countries requires a rollback of American multiculturalism. American cultural leaders are ready for that emotionally, but a new consensus still has to be worked out in detail. Also, let us not forget that the war is putting many domestic inevitabilities on hold, from a national health insurance system to a reform of the electoral college. All these things will become issues again later in the Crisis, when the initial terrorist phase is concluded.

A national heath insurance system is indeed something we are now investigating, although I haven't heard much about the electoral college recently. I wouldn't agree that American cultural leaders are ready for a rollback of multiculturalism, then or now, but there is a certain humor in the recent support for "democracy" in places like Egypt and Syria, where a popular vote would be certain to enact everything that American cultural leaders find horrifying in American politics.

The State of the Union 2002
The great prophets, William Strauss & Neil Howe, may rightly claim to have predicted the phase of American history that began last year. There is real merit to their notion that there are periodic generations of crisis in American history, such as the Civil War-Reconstruction Crisis of the second half of the 19th century and the Depression-World War II Crisis of the first half of the 20th. The notable feature of the current Crisis, aside from the fact it arrived about five years earlier than Strauss & Howe's model predicts, is the vastly superior quality of the political response.
Contrast the coherence and broad popularity of George W. Bush's State of the Union address of January 29, 2002, with the confusion that attended the beginning of the last Crisis in 1929. The Hoover Administration had no idea what to do about the collapse of the national economy. Neither did anybody else, of course, but the administration took the blame. Chaos grew for almost four years. Only when Franklin Delano Roosevelt became president in1933 did a broad policy-consensus appear. Elements of that consensus would exacerbate the Crisis later on. The United States came very close to mothballing its military during Roosevelt's first term, and the administration's economic nationalism ensured that the United States and its trading partners would recover far more slowly than they would otherwise have done. Nonetheless, the New Deal did what governments are supposed to do during such a time; it restored confidence in public institutions.