The Fourth Turning

In Featured- Literature & the Arts, Literature & the Arts by gravierhouseLeave a Comment

Until a few years ago, I was only really interested in reading fiction. (I liked to read the Chuck Klosterman books, but I really thought of those more as extended New York Times Magazine or Book Review pieces than “non-fiction”.) Recently, however, I have found that non-fiction books have tended to have a bigger impact on me than novels. I wouldn’t say that they have necessarily “changed” my world views. But they have articulated, and crystalized, in a conscious way, things that I think I always sensed or believed on some level, instinctively.

The first wave, in 2014, were all of the Behavioral Economics books. The bible in this area is Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow, but the first book I read, and am still probably a bit partial to, is Daniel Ariely’s Predictably Irrational. Following in the footsteps of David Wenner and others, I attempted to synthesize much of this science for trial lawyers in my “Legalnomics” paper, and have since kept up with additions to the canon, such as Thaler’s Misbehaving and Michael Lewis’ The Undoing Project. There are, of course, diminishing returns with each new offering at this point, but these books overall have really had a profound influence on the lens through which I attempt to understand the ways in which information and ideas are likely to be processed and decisions are likely to be made. (including by me)

Next came Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind. Similar to the way in which Kahneman and Tversky imported, (some might argue mis-applied, others might say “crashed”), significant insights from the field of Psychology into the assumptions that used to underlie presumed decision-making in traditional Economics, Haidt applies psychological insights (and lessons from associated fields such as evolutionary biology and history/anthropology) to the realm of Politics and Religion. One of the central themes is that moral decisions, like economic decisions, are largely made on an intuitive basis, and then self-justified by strategic reasoning after-the-fact. Always sensing subconsciously that there was something more to religion than the rationalist atheists like Hitchens or Dawkins would allow, and never fully comfortable with the liberal Democratic Party doctrinaires, The Righteous Mind articulates, in the formulation of a six-part set of innate and instinctual values, why a political system focused solely on rational notions of fairness and harm will seem insufficient to a large number of its constituents, (and why, incidentally, the Republican Party in America enjoys an inherent advantage). Haidt observes that the moral sense of Fairness, (one of these primary sets of values), can be experienced either in terms of “proportionality” (as the Republicans tend to, in relation to effort), or in terms of “equality” (as the Democrats tend to, in relation to the ultimate outcome or result). And, further, for example, that:

Liberals have a three-foundation morality, whereas conservatives use all six. Liberal moral matrices rest on the Care/Harm, Liberty/Oppression, and Fairness/Cheating foundations, although liberals are often willing to trade away Fairness (as proportionality) when it conflicts with compassion or with their desire to fight oppression. Conservative morality rests on all six foundations, although conservatives are more willing than liberals to sacrifice Care and let some people get hurt in order to achieve their many other moral objectives.


Republicans don’t just aim to cause fear, as some Democrats charge. They trigger the full range of intuitions described by Moral Foundations Theory. Like Democrats, they can talk about innocent victims (of harmful Democratic policies) and about fairness (particularly the unfairness of taking tax money from hardworking and prudent people to support cheaters, slackers, and irresponsible fools). But Republicans since Nixon have had a near-monopoly on appeals to Loyalty (particularly patriotism and military virtues) and Authority (including respect for parents, teachers, elders, and the police, as well as for traditions). And after they embraced Christian conservatives during Ronald Reagan’s 1980 campaign and became the party of “family values,” Republicans inherited a powerful network of Christian ideas about sanctity and sexuality that allowed them to portray Democrats as the party of Sodom and Gomorrah. Set against the rising crime and chaos of the 1960s and 1970s, this five-foundation morality had wide appeal, even to many Democrats (the so-called Reagan Democrats). The moral vision offered by the Democrats since the 1960s, in contrast seemed narrow, too focused on helping victims and fighting for the rights of the oppressed, The Democrats offered just sugar (Care) and sale (Fairness as equality), whereas Republican morality appealed to all five taste receptors.

Whether you fully accept or embrace the Moral Foundations Theory as articulated and applied by Haidt, the book offers a method for thinking consciously about the ways in which different social, political and/or religious ideas and efforts may or should be accepted between and among different groups or sub-groups of individuals.

The last of these, finally, is The Fourth Turning, which someone (can’t remember who) told me to read after Trump was elected. (Although, in hindsight, I am not completely sure whether he or she told me I needed to read – as I has initially assumed – in order to understand what is really going on in the world; or that I needed to read in order to understand how crazy the people behind the Trump movement really are (?) ) In any event, I read the book at face value, and found it extremely interesting and insightful.

Perhaps I am naïve and susceptible to shallow and superficial grand theories which don’t hold up to exacting scrutiny. Certainly that’s what David Greenberg (if he weren’t trying to be diplomatic) would say. As he writes:

The problems with the predictive schematic history of the sort laid out in The Fourth Turning start with their determinism. One giveaway are the charts, tables, diagrams and bulleted lists that litter the book, which find a way to fit every consequential figure and event into neat patterns. If history unfolds as inevitably as this, then the study of human decision-making in the past — or even in the present — becomes all but irrelevant. This determinism, moreover, introduces all kinds of contradictions for the theory: The Fourth Turning holds out many American presidents as paradigmatic and consequential figures of their eras, for example, but according to its own logic it shouldn’t really matter whether the nation elected Herbert Hoover or Franklin Roosevelt in 1932, Ronald Reagan or Walter Mondale in 1984, or Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump last year, because history was headed in a certain direction regardless. The Fourth Turning also, like an astrologer or fortune teller, plays fast and loose in shuttling between its big claims and specific evidence. Its contentions are vague enough that it’s easy to justify them with a handful of illustrative examples, with contrary cases simply omitted. It also mistakes symptoms for causes. Consider this paragraph:

Viewed through the prism of generational aging, the mood change between the late 1950s and the late 1970s becomes not just comprehensible, but (in hindsight) predictable: America was moving from a First Turning constellation [i.e. a “High”] and into a Second [i.e. an “Awakening”]. Replace the aging Truman and Ike with LBJ and Nixon. Replace the middle-aged Ed Sullivan and Ann Landers with Norman Lear and Gloria Steinem. Replace the young Organization Man with the Woodstock hippie. Replace Jerry Mathers with Tatum O’Neal. This top-to-bottom alteration of the American life cycle tells much about why and how America shifted from a mood of consensus, complacency, and optimism to one of turbulence, argument, and passion.

But does this idiosyncratic smorgasbord of pop culture references actually explain anything about why American culture changed between the late 1950s and the late 1970s? In circular logic, it posits the “mood change” as the result of a move from one stage to another. And would their story be different if their portrait of the 1950s had included Martin Luther King Jr., Elvis Presley, Jackson Pollock and Jack Kerouac?

These are, of course, all fair criticisms.   To them I would add: The obvious fact that, within each generational cohort, exist people who tend to fit each and all four different generational archetypes; the use of the term “Artists” to describe generations that don’t really seem to have anything to do with being artists; the insistence on calling “Generation X” the “13ers” generation; and the claim (or excuse/explanation) that the Civil War was so unprecedentially devastating that an entire generation otherwise essential to their theory was skipped, and no “Hero” archetype generation was formed.

Plus, like almost all of these non-fiction books, (especially Gladwell’s), The Forth Turning is a lot longer than it needs to be, and extremely repetitive.

Nevertheless, and in any event, I generally find that people tend to go off track for one of two reasons: They are so enthralled with broad or unwavering pronouncements and platitudes that they cannot focus on the specific facts and circumstances to which such generalities supposedly apply. Or they are so fixed upon the individual facts and particularities that they cannot divine the overarching bands of commonality (or distinction) and (breach or) connectivity. (Or, as some would sometimes say: “Cannot see the forest through the trees.”) Greenberg is identifying in The Fourth Turning the first problem. But I would, at the same time, identify in his criticism the second.

Obviously, in a country of over $300 million people, there are going to be millions of exceptions and counter-examples to any generalized description of a generation – or a “turning” of the generations. Years will be off. Full-blown crises (or “awakenings” or whatever the other turnings identified are) may not occur. But the notion that history, or a generation, or the relationships between and among the generations is simply too complex, and too variant, and too inconsistent to explain, except within the confines of each individual and isolated series or confluence of events, misses the potential for a larger set of truths, as impressionistic as they may be.

Sure, the authors are shoe-horning, and/or ignoring, and/or re-framing, particular examples in order to fit their archetypes and their saecula, but there is a certain insight to be gained from their observations of the ways in which cultures have generally understood, and at least subconsciously either embraced and/or rejected, Chaotic versus Linear versus Cyclical time. Yes, it’s largely derivative of Joseph Campbell and others, but there is a certain insight to be gained from taking the Hero’s Journey archetypes out of the realm of myth and drama, and transposing them into the history of the transfer of power and other relationships between and among the generations. And, while perhaps obvious to others, and/or not as mechanically reliable as Strauss and Howe would have you believe, I think the authors have seized upon a general truth and pattern regarding the typical cycles of war and peace, divisiveness and unity, idealism and pragmatism, as the generations pass from one to the next.

One wonders, while reading the book, which was written in 1997, what the authors might believe the catalyst for the Crisis / Winter / Forth Turning – which was supposed to begin sometime around 2005 – might have been?   According to Google, they first posited that 9/11 might be the catalyst. But then Howe (and apparently also Steve Bannon) chose the financial collapse in 2008. When I was reading the book, 9/11 of course occurred to me, (the financial crisis frankly never did), but I was focused on Hurricane Katrina as the possible point of demarcation. Which may seem somewhat geographical-centric, since I am from New Orleans, and naturally (perhaps overly) sensitive to the event. But, to the extent there was or is or might soon be a Crisis / Winter / Fourth Turning, I would point to Hurricane Katrina as a potentially defining event, even for those not directly affected, because it provided, through the media: (i) a visceral portrait of the presumably untenable widening of inequity between the rich and the poor; (ii) a visual manifestation of the effects of global warming and climate change; and (iii) a palpable confirmation of the dysfunction of Government, (not just the two-party political system, but the institutional bureaucracy of non-partisan officers, agents, and engineers, who were unable to provide the most basic and fundamental levels of protection and security).

In any event, and on a more intimate level, I was struck by the following passage, not in the context of a global Crisis / Winter / Fourth Turning, but simply within the context of my own law firm, as the Generation X (or “13er”) members attempt to succeed the older generation of partners:

The 13ers’ gravest Fourth Turning duty will be their society’s most important personal task: to ensure that there can indeed be a new High. For the Crisis to end well, 13ers must keep Boomers from wreaking needless destruction and Millennials from marching too mindlessly under their elders’ banner. They will not find it easy to restrain an older generation that will consider itself far wiser than they, and a younger one that will consider itself more deserving. For this, the 13ers will require a keen eye, a deft touch, and a rejection of the wild risk taking associated with their youth.

To Greenberg’s point that the contentions in the book might be so vague that it’s easy to justify them with any set of illustrative examples, it’s impossible for any one person trapped within his or her own experience to tell whether what he or she seems to be sensing – and the archetype descriptors that the authors of the book have ascribed – are indeed endemic to and characteristic of that particular generation; or whether it just seems that way to the members of each and every generation as they pass from childhood, to adolescence, to young adulthood, to middle age, to old age, and beyond?

When I was in high school, I went with two or three friends to this psychic or fortune-teller or something who operated out of the second floor of the French Market building on the river, where Bella Luna used to be. You gave him twenty bucks, and he would pretend to study your face very carefully, and then give you a ten-minute portrait of your internal personality traits, ticks, desires, hopes, and fears. The magic of it was that, when he was done, you really had the sense that he had somehow really hit the nail on the head, peered beneath your skin, and pegged you cold. But I also noticed that, when he was giving each of my other friends their own individual run-downs, he seemed to be describing a lot of things about me as well. So did he have some special insight? Or was he being so vague and general – or are all teenagers so similar – or is each human being so multifaceted and complex – that any description of anyone would seem to be spot on?

[FN: Probably also some Availability Bias at play.]


That was the question I kept asking myself when I read The Fourth Turning.

(And weren’t there, within each generational cohort, people who tended to fit within each and all four different archetypes? And why the authors chose to use the term “Artists” for the Silent Generation? And why they insisted on calling “Generation X” the “13ers”? And how they thought they could get away with just declaring that a generation was simply skipped over after the Civil War?)

Yet they seem to have articulated, in a conscious way, things that I think I always sensed or believed on some level, instinctively.



The quoted Greenberg article is: “The Crackpot Theories of Stephen Bannon’s Favorite Authors” by David Greenberg, Politico (April 20, 2017) (available at: (as of Sept. 13, 2017).




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