If Crisis Comes ...

Editor’s Note: The following is adapted from the author’s Neil B. Freeman Lecture for the Fund for American Studies (TFAS) delivered at George Mason University on June 11, 2024.

This is a time of much pessimism about the American experiment. I choose that term to avoid a common misuse of the word “democracy,” as when the current president and others tell us that they are out to “save our democracy.”

First, as any TFAS participant knows, the system this nation gave the world a quarter millennium ago is not a democracy but a republic. The limitations its ingenious constitution placed on central government were all about protecting God-given individual rights, inalienable rights as the authors put it, against the depredations of fickle, swayable majorities.

When Benjamin Franklin was accosted by an anxious lady outside Constitution Hall in Philadelphia and asked, “What kind of government have you given us?” he did not label it a democracy, but rather, “A republic, if you can keep it.”

I say “experiment” to recognize not just the novelty but also the fragility of the arrangement Franklin and his colleagues devised. No one was more aware, or more concerned, about the dangers ahead than the Founders. John Adams speculated that the new nation might not survive beyond a couple of generations, as the spirit of liberty and the memory of the sacrifices that birthed it atrophied.

Some of the first coinage of the infant United States bore the inscription, “Exito en dubio est”: “The outcome remains in doubt.” Foreign predators looked forward to our failure; the English made a point of signing the Treaty of Paris not with the new nation but with each of the thirteen states individually, anticipating an eventual collapse and a reopened imperial opportunity.

Some dozen years ago I wrote a book that was, in essence, an ode to the American people. I contended that we are still a people born to liberty, who can and should be fully free to make our own individual life decisions, and who collectively can combine to make sound judgments about our common future. 

I argued for trusting Americans once again with control over their health care spending, consumer choices, the education of their children, and the rest of life. I ventured the hope that, properly informed and addressed as mature citizens, they would support the restraint on federal spending and statist expansion that is essential to prevent your generation from facing unpayable debts and unkeepable promises.

In all candor, I could not write that same book today. The intervening decade has brought a worsening of the nation’s already unsustainable fiscal position, and a steady intrusion on the basic rights of property and free speech. Our national security, and the armed forces that provide it, have been allowed to weaken, even as sworn international enemies strengthen their own.

The presidents and Congresses of the last twelve years have made our national debt picture, alarming in 2011, not better but unimaginably worse. Those few officeholders who sought to advance the major reforms necessary for solvency were punished politically. The last two presidents, now the two candidates for the next presidency, promise not only to continue our descent into national bankruptcy but to make it worse.

Our wanton, mindless borrowing from your future has been my principal reason to fear a national catastrophe. But in the last few years, a diverse set of observers have seen danger coming from other directions. 

Conservative scholar and philanthropist Jim Piereson, in his book Shattered Consensus, foresees today’s political fault lines setting off a seismic political realignment, similar to the paroxysms that saw the demise of the Federalists in 1800 and the rise of a dominant Republican party in 1860. 

Piereson’s “third revolution,” the New Deal of the 1930s, brought the advent of what became a longstanding consensus around market economics and an engaged, outward-looking American foreign policy. It is that framework, within which the two parties competed but coexisted, that he believes has run its course. He writes, “Polarization is characteristic of regimes as they begin to tear themselves apart in conflicts that defy resolution within the existing structure of politics.” 

Looking through an economic lens, financial experts like John Mauldin predict that the accumulation of corporate as well as government debts worldwide will inevitably lead to a “Great Reset” when, in his reassuring words, “the economy comes crashing down around our ears.”

Other prognosticators see the upheaval coming as the product of detectable and recurring long cycles. Financier Ray Dalio identifies eight determinants of societal success, such as economic output, educational attainment, military might, and rates of innovation. By his reckoning, the US is now at a disadvantage and declining in enough of these to produce a crisis ending our world leadership and ushering in some kind of new order, domestic and international.

Still, another avid cyclist is the social historian Neil Howe. Looking back not just over America’s short history but all the way back to antiquity, Howe believes he finds highly regular patterns based on generations and their different experiences while young. Every four generations, or roughly eighty years, societies pass through a period of dramatic social change. 

With the last such passage happening with World War II and its aftermath, the US is due for another, in Howe’s term, “Fourth Turning.” We will pass through a “great gate of history,” a “bone-jarring crisis so monumental that American society will be totally transformed,” in which “the American Republic will collapse” and the nation will emerge with a “new collective identity.” What an attractive prospect. 

There is, of course, a good chance that all these Gloomy Guses could be mistaken. Doomsayers of the Left have been comically wrong for decades. We were told that “the fight to feed humanity is over,” that hundreds of millions were going to starve. Instead, living standards have risen dramatically, and where hunger still exists it is due to manmade politics: warfare, corruption, or governmental incompetence.

The “population bomb” was a dud. The global demographic problem we now face is too few children and plunging fertility rates, the “birth dearth” that threatens economic growth, and the social safety net promises that nations have made to their older citizens.

America was built by optimists, people with the courage and drive to risk all coming here and utilizing the freedom they found to build the greatest society yet seen on this planet. Any honest reading of our history must make one optimistic that, as we always have, we can get our act together, to innovate our way past danger when it appears. To band together in the face of common enemies, foreign or domestic. 

I hope you are all optimists. Regardless of how grim one’s prospects, it is the only operating principle that ever makes sense. As an athletic coach I once had told us, “If you believe you can, or you can’t, you’re right.”

But a can-do outlook doesn’t imply naivete. Our own eyes and ears, to say nothing of the deep thinkers I just cited, tell us that our institutions are as shaky and maybe as unsustainable as our national fiscal condition. “It can’t happen here” was probably a prevailing attitude in every collapsed civilization, until its particular “it” happened.

So it’s worth some hard thought: if an abruptly different America is going to emerge in your lifetime, what should it look like? How will it be reshaped? And by whom?

The last question is the easiest to answer. It will be, to use a term that has become a pejorative, an “elite,” some stratum of society that, especially in times of crisis, exercises disproportionate and decisive influence over what comes next. It may not be fashionable to say these days when “equity” is supposed to trump all other considerations, but the actions of some “creative minority” always determine such an outcome. It is the way of the world. Martin Wolf, chief economics commentator at the Financial Times, puts it bluntly: “A complex society without elites is inconceivable.”

“Creative minority” is the coinage of Arnold Toynbee, one of the foremost cyclist historians. His six-volume A Study of History (1934) presented the past as the story of societies rising, flourishing, then ultimately falling. His goal was to discover common patterns in their stories.

Toynbee examined civilizations spanning millennia and every continent: the Egyptian, the Greeks, the Sinic in China; the Mayan, the Syriac, Babylonian, and Hittite in the Middle East; the Indic and Hindu, the Orthodox Christian, and finally Western civilization, some 21 in all. 

He concluded that their fate was determined by their response to the crises that sooner or later confront any society. And, he claimed, that response and therefore their survival or failure depended on the performance of their elites, their “creative minority,” at the time crisis arrived. The decisive factor, Toynbee wrote, is “the reaction of [those] actors to the ordeal when it comes.”

He spotted a consistent pattern linking the eclipsed civilizations, across the continents and across the ages. A once-energetic leadership minority loses its creative power to move society forward. That leads to a withdrawal of “mimesis” by which he means imitation and acceptance of their norms and leadership, by the majority. That is followed by a “loss of social unity in society as a whole.” Those words from eight decades ago make for a fair description of our current situation.

It is not improbable that your generation will be the one called upon to react to America’s next great ordeal. Despite the wide variation in the causes they expect to bring on the reckoning, all these authors project it arriving at virtually the same time, late this decade or in the first years of the next. If they are right, it will be you and those just ahead of you who will be occupying positions of influence, as a shaken or even shattered society attempts to reshape itself.

An obstinate optimist can see the opportunity in even the worst circumstances, the “pony in the manure” of which our greatest modern president used to speak.

Here a patriot and a lover of liberty has cause for alarm. The cohort labeled Gen Z, your cohort of Americans 18 to 29, as a group looks at life and at our nation very differently than I do, and I hope you do. Asked whether an assortment of values is important to them, only 32 percent pick patriotism, 23 percent having children, and 26 percent religion and belief in God. All these figures are well under half of those expressed by people in my age group. Asked if America is the best place to live, only 33 percent said yes, exactly half the percentage that prevails among their elders. Only a minority say they would fight for our country if it were attacked.

I repeat the fervent hope that our American experiment will move peacefully beyond its current challenges, and continue its historic elevation of the human condition, here and anywhere our system is emulated. Maybe, as John Mauldin predicts, we will somehow “muddle through” the economic crash that he says is inevitable.

But, as is often said, hope is not a strategy. Let’s consider the possibility that a truly wrenching change, by whatever cause, is coming, and coming well within your prime adult years. Will you be spectators, victims, or architects of the America that emerges? 

We know the sort of people who will seek to exploit any such crisis. We have just watched their farm teams in spring training, at what we once thought of as “elite” universities. We read their grossly slanted version of events in what we once accepted as responsible, objective organs of journalism. We endure the costs and impositions of the mandates and regulations they issue from unelected posts in a central government that is supposed to be constrained by a constitution, adopted by a free people to “secure the blessings of liberty.”

These people, given an opening, will pounce on the chance to reorder American society according to their view of “justice” and “equity.” Enchanted with their own superiority, they will not waste effort trying to build popular support for the regime they envision. “Death to America” is not a slogan designed to persuade, or to win over the allegiance of a majority. As Lenin proved in 1918, their kind of revolution doesn’t happen by popular consent. It requires a vanguard, and a will to power that justifies any argument, however specious, and any action, however brutal. 

So we know one type of elite who will be on the field if a fourth political revolution, a Fourth Turning, or some kind of “Great Reset” comes to America. The hope that brings me here today is that they will find, meeting them at midfield, a very different elite. A cadre of freedom-loving idealists, prepared to contest and defeat the statists, who insist that, if history does demand a new collective identity for America, it is an identity rooted in personal autonomy, and the liberty to exercise it in shaping one’s own life.

The Fund for American Studies has been serving and preparing such idealists now for more than a half-century. If not for many of them, our traditional freedoms would have eroded even more than they have. But the storms recent generations weathered were squalls, compared to those that may be coming onshore for yours.

An obstinate optimist can see the opportunity in even the worst circumstances, the “pony in the manure” of which our greatest modern president used to speak. So here’s a shot at that.

The scholar Mancur Olson, in his eye-opening book, The Rise and Decline of Nations, demonstrated that many of the great leaps forward in history have come in societies recovering from crisis, or even disaster. Think post-war Germany, post-war Japan, or San Francisco after its near-total destruction by earthquake and fire in 1906. 

Olson described the way that such cataclysms can undermine or wipe out encrusted institutions, and vested interests of the kind that stifle competition, innovation, and the growth that enables upward mobility. Rules and norms that protect previously dominant factions are suddenly up for grabs. New movements and new leaders have a wide opening to define and build a new society. This opportunity may come to your generation.

Neil Howe’s 80-year cycles are driven by the big differences across four generations; those differences, he says, are created by the widely varying experiences of their youth. Those born into fast-rising civilizations coming out of crisis he calls Prophets. Over-indulged by their relieved crisis survivor parents, they tend to be “defiant crusaders” in their youth and, two generations later, preside as elders over the next crisis. 

When that moment arrives, their grandchildren will bear the brunt of dealing with it. This cohort, which he labels Heroes, includes the elites whose reaction Toynbee says either remakes or breaks the society they inherited.

My parents’ generation struggled through the Great Depression and won World War II. “Heroes” is in every way an apt description of them. Along with the bulk of my Baby Boomer colleagues, I am one of Howe’s Prophets so, two generations further back, that makes you the next set of Heroes. At least in his nomenclature. 

That label doesn’t predict your success. It just means that your age group will be in the batter’s box when history fires its next fastball at us. Will America hit the pitch, we could ask, to Left field or the Right? Or will it, like the fallen nations of the past, simply strike out and leave the field to some opposing team?

My money’s on us, or I should say, on you. If our current economy and institutions do “come crashing down around our ears,” TFAS graduates, and those with whom I trust you are sharing the insights you are gaining here, will be there to redefine and rebuild them. To show their fellow Americans that the way back to a successful society is to adapt to this century the principles that made our nation the most successful humanity has ever seen. To offer them an exciting, uplifting vision of the greater freedom to which they are entitled, and a confidence that they can be trusted to exercise that freedom wisely. 

Given the head start and the ruthlessness of the statist opposition, that will take some gumption. The greatest leader of the last century named courage as the primary virtue because, Winston Churchill said, it is the one that makes possible all the others. As his life demonstrated, it is also a highly infectious quality: it is written that, through his own unshakeable confidence in them, he turned ordinary Englishmen into lions. One could almost say he was, for a time, a creative minority of one.

At your age, you have known only a fractured, toxic, and dysfunctional America. You have every right to conclude, as apparently so many of your contemporaries have, that the American experiment has failed, that this is not a country worth loving, let alone fighting for.

But instead, you are here. You have made the effort to absorb the truths, and the lessons of our history. You have learned how this nation conceived in liberty has surmounted huge dangers before. I hope you will view our present predicaments, and even the large-scale crisis to which they could lead, not with dread but with determination, even anticipation. 

If the moment calling for the next set of Heroes does arrive, you will be prepared, thanks in large part to this invaluable program. You will possess the knowledge, the idealism, and the ability to rally your fellow Americans to the reassertion of their God-given rights.

All you’ll need is the courage. Despite its motto, TFAS can’t give you that. That you’ll have to summon from within. 

I can promise you that the struggle—if it comes—will be fierce. It is axiomatic that the bigger the change you seek to make, the louder and rougher the resistance. Olson’s vested interests never yield their privileged positions without a fight, and those who lust for power over others by their very nature and ideology will stop at nothing. Some of us have the scars to prove it.

But I promise you equally that the fulfillment of the many achievements that await you will also be proportionate to the difficulty you overcome. Yours can be the fulfillment that the Founders felt. That the “Greatest Generation” felt. 

I don’t know where Neil Howe came up with his generational labels. I know I’ve never felt like a Prophet; most of my predictions miss the mark badly. But I think I know Heroes when I see them. And I believe that, if a moment of crisis, of turning, of a new collective identity for Americans does arrive, you will be there, with the heroic courage it will take to see that this priceless American experiment does not “perish from the earth.”


The Debt Trap, Part (1)

President Obama didn’t discuss the nation’s massive, swelling debt in his State of the Union address. Mitch Daniels did, and good for him: the flood of red ink really is the Niagara. Our accelerating drift toard the cliff, moreover, entails not only fiscal and economic but also institutional and constitutional consequences of grave import. State and local debts are a comparatively small tributary to the great stream, but they illustrate the point. State and local debts are composed of about upwards of $4 trillion in unfunded pension obligations; upwards of a half-trillion in other pension benefit obligations (mostly for health benefits), also unfunded; and about $2.9 trillion in municipal (state and local bonds). These debts will not be paid (at least not in real dollars), because they cannot be paid. The question is how and to whom our federal system is going to administer the haircut—and what changes it is likely to undergo in the process. Today’s post deals with the background causes and conditions of state debt; tomorrow’s, with federal bailouts; Monday’s, with fiscal federalism’s future. (It’s not the EU. It’s Argentina.) Read more