Is a values consensus emerging in a Fourth Turning?

I have long been a student and proponent of the generational theory of William Strausss and Neil Howe. According to their theory, the United States of America is subject to a cycle whose duration is approximately that of one long human life. For most of my adulthood we have been in the third phase of the cycle, characterized by decaying institutions, little regulation, and contentious moral argument. This was the period of the Culture Wars and of the Long Boom that ended with the 2008 financial crisis. In the next phase, which may well be upon us, a values consensus will emerge out of the previous phase's struggles and propel the creation of a new civic order, with institutions and rules strengthened once more to reflect the new social purpose.

Way back in 2002 I made a modest prediction of what sort of new values norms might emerge during a future Fourth Turning. I think that now - in early 2016 - is a good time to revisit the question. Based on my personal experience and on a completely non-scientific scrutiny of public opinion, here is what I think we can say about this unfolding social era.

For one, the old division of the country between the Red Zone and the Blue Zone is making less sense. The 2016 presidential election is already indicative of a political realignment, as both the Republican and Democratic primaries are subject to the insurgent, grass-roots campaigns of political outsiders, with intimations of violence reflecting an apocalyptic mood. Neither government nor business have the support of the people; the country is ready to completely remake both the public and private sectors.

The foreign policy mood is trending towards a fierce "America First" nationalism, as the globalist, neoliberal outlook of the Third Turning - however fairly or unfairly - is rejected. Respect for the military remains high, even as the will to use it is low, since the debacle of the Bush-Cheney wars. The nation is wary, but remains a superpower with a tremendous potential for military violence. With the old alliance system in question, and no easy solution to the security problems of the globalized era, new wars could develop, fought under new rules.

In economic policy, there will be a growing acceptance of the value of government intervention. At the time of this writing, no laissez-faire candidate has survived the bloodbath of the presidential primaries. Will we be abandoning the free market in favor of socialism? Well, not exactly, though many detractors will complain that we are. We will simply be attempting to correct the excesses created by the deregulations and arbitrages of the Long Boom era, and replace that era's lottery-like economy with a more stable one that provides a decent living for all. We will say we are creating a new economy for the new century.

Let us assume that the likeliest consensus to emerge out of the Culture Wars, which are in their end game, is a set of choices among the dichotomies which split the left and the right, reflecting the view of a majority of Americans, and skewing towards what is accepted by the young adult Millennial generation. Here is where I think we will end:

· Abortion will remain legal, but with more restrictions than in the past. Pro-choice activists will find it very difficult to move public opinion in favor of expanding rather than curtailing abortion rights.
· The interpretation of the 2nd amendment as guaranteeing an inalienable individual right to gun ownership will endure, and gun control will remain as politically elusive as ever.
· The decriminalization of marijuana will continue to spread across the states, perhaps becoming federal law. But other drugs will remain illegal.
· In conjunction with the above, the criminal system will be reformed, and the prison population will decrease. But the death penalty will remain and perhaps be applied more swiftly for the worst offenders.
· Religious tolerance and diversity will continue to be fundamental American values, despite the anti-Muslim rhetoric which accompanies the war on terror. The theocratic dreams of the fundamentalist Christian right will fade into oblivion.
· LGBT rights will be accepted as basic human rights, and the "bathroom bills" controversies of the time of this writing will be seen as the desperate last stand of an archaic form of intolerance.
· Violence and sexuality in entertainment, as well as pornography and gambling, will continue to be accepted in the culture. In conjunction with an aggressive foreign policy, this could craft a new kind of "Dark Knight" global image for the USA - or one that is more "Deadpool" if its intentions seem unprincipled.
· Environmentalism will survive as a political force, as the fossil fuel extractors back off from their depredations in the wake of the energy price collapse, and capital will continue to flow into eco-friendly technological development.

These predictions are based entirely on my own observations about the direction American politics and culture appears to be heading. They are probably not too surprising. An open question is how much any one faction's resistance to these outcomes holds water. If an issue is pressed to the bitter end, the conflict will be resolved one way or the other by the time this phase of the cycle is over.

The future America I have portrayed is one that is much more permissive and inclusive than that of its Pleasantville past, yet still settled in the sense that it will be finished with inner world drama and focusing on outer world accomplishment. Perhaps the infrastructure will be rebuilt, or the economy reformatted, or new entitlements established, all with the goal in mind of improving the lot of the long-neglected 99 percent. And perhaps the War on Terror will be fought with more determinaion and with less scruples.

Could this be what awaits us? An America whose concealed-carrying transgendered citizens survive on basic income, and ride in autopiloted electric cars on shiny new roads, smoking weed while they enjoy the latest AI-generated adult video streams, content in the knowledge that their President's willingness to use nuclear weapons keeps them safe from terrorism? I don't have a crystal ball; I am only speculating here. Time will tell.

- Steve Barrera
May 2016

Obligatory post-election re-speculation found here.