The Saeculum Decoded
A Blog by Neil Howe
Sep 242010

Glenn Beck has quickly become just about the most polarizing figure in America today.  If Obama has come to represent America’s left brain, Glenn Beck is auditioning to become its right brain.  (I mean that in both senses.)  In a Third Turning (Unraveling), this would be cause for entertainment.  In a Fourth Turning (Crisis), this development takes on a darker, more sinister hue.

The red zone widely reveres Beck—not for who he is (no one really knows that much about the guy), but simply for what he says.  The blue zone widely reviles him—not for who he is or what he says, but rather for what he reflects about what is happening in America today.  The Obama election already seems distant.  For the literati, Glenn Beck is William Butler Yeats’ “rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouching toward Bethlehem to be born.”  See this cute Youtube video from NYC (“Glenn Beck Scares Me”).

He sends the prophets of the secular left into such apoplectic rage that, like Kunstler, they simply shout themselves into incoherence.  The dominant theme of Kunstler’s piece is that prayer “is what people resort to when they don’t understand what is happening to them.”  I’d love to hear Kunstler’s take on Martin Luther King, Jr.’s original 1963 speech.

Kunstler is on firmer footing when he says that Obama’s caution often stems from the fear that any precipitous policy change may trigger a catastrophe.  In 4T-land, one is tempted to walk on tiptoes.  You are on the brink.  Don’t you dare throw the shadow-bank CEOs into prison.  Or raise tax rates on the rich.  Or shove cap-and-trade down the throats of big energy.  Or close down Gitmo.  Or offend Putin.  Or vaporize Ahmadinejad’s new reactors.  The economy may implode (again).  That dreaded WMD may finally be unleashed.   And *then* what will everyone think of your presidency?

True, by behaving (in Kunstler’s unplugged words) “like a weenie,” Obama may end up encouraging the very riptides of history he is trying to evade.  On the other hand, by behaving as Kunstler would urge, we would almost certainly end up in the midst of a crisis  Though perhaps, Kunstler would argue, it would be a crisis we could survive rather than one that we could not—logic that only makes sense to an Ayatollah like Kunstler.  Maybe what really burns Kunstler up about Beck is that they both share the same turning-yearning.

I offer  here two other more even-tempered reflections on the Beck “honor” rally from the Washington Post.

The first, by Kathleen Parker, makes the interesting point that everything about Beck’s message stems from the 12-step recovery program—with a  riveting emphasis on the utter worthlessness and depravity of the speaker.  Glenn Beck, a first-wave Xer (born in 1964), does this with grandiose self loathing:

“Hi. My name is Glenn, and I’m messed up.”

“You know, we all have our inner demons. I, for one — I can’t speak for you, but I’m on the verge of moral collapse at any time. It can happen by the end of the show.”

“You can get rich making fun of me. I know. I’ve made a lot of money making fun of me.”

And some of his lines are just funny, showing that he didn’t become a radio star for nothing.  Parker quotes one of them.  Not coincidentally, it extends the addiction metaphor in a new direction:

“It is still morning in America. It just happens to be kind of a head-pounding, hung-over, vomiting-for-four-hours kind of morning in America.”

The second, by Ruth Marcus, points out that Beck’s rhetoric has found a way to unite the two sides of GOP—the libertarian (business) side with the moral (evangelical) side.  The tea party has never enjoyed such solidarity, with its “black robe regiment” (an allusion to the [Prophets] archetype during the American Revolution) blasting away from the pulpits.

And to accomplish this, only a cross-over Boomer-Xer voice seems to work.  Beck is Boomer (born 1943-1960) in his bombastic moralism, yet also Generation X (born 1961-1981) in his pessimism about human nature, his fear that everything around us is vulnerable and at risk, his historical revanchism, and his in-your-face bluntness.  His opening lines, announcing that today we talk too much about America’s “scars” and not what makes America “good” is very Xer.  Only a kid who was born the year after MLK’s speech and who grew up in the 1970s would say that.

Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin remind us of the un-pretty side of the Gen-X role in history.  Let me offer a prediction we made in The Fourth Turning(1997):

“By the middle 2020s, the archetypal constellation will change, as each generation begins entering a new phase of life. If the Crisis ends badly, very old Boomers could be truly despised. Generation X might provide the demagogues, authoritarians, even the tribal warlords who try to pick up the pieces.”

If any of this comes to pass, I have no doubt that many of the Xers who fill the role described here will remind us of Beck and Palin.

The original MLK (Artist archetype) appealed to our super-ego.  In front of the Lincoln Memorial, his lofty, grandiloquent words appealed to principle on the eve of an era of economic and aspirational inflation.   In front of the Lincoln Memorial, he was the right man for his time.  Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin (Nomad archetype) appeal to our id.  In front of the Lincoln Memorial, their blunt, sardonic words appeal to honor on the eve of an era of economic and aspirational deflation.  Are they (gulp!) the ineluctable duo for our time?

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  • JPT

    I don’t know. I think there’s a bit of paranoia here. It seems that Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin are the kind of figures who are taken more seriously by their opponents than by their supporters. Things they say that are clearly intended to be sarcastic or ironic are interpreted literally by those who fear them. They’re not leading the Tea Party movement. They are both (currently) media figures. They serve the same role for the Tea Party movement that Oprah Winfrey serves for women.

    Which is not to say that Sarah Palin might not run for (and win) the Republican nomination in 2012. But she’s going to have to shift from Oprah to presidential candidate at some point if she wants to do it.

    When it comes to Boomers though, does anybody really think they’re going to provide some sort of solution to our problems? I would say that either Generation X will chart the way out, or it won’t happen at all. I would argue that the Lost took over shortly after WWII started in the last cycle and pulled things back together. Before that, it was grim. The great “Prophet” experiment of the New Deal did not work.

    • JPT

      I should add that I agree both Beck and Palin have a lot of Boomer qualities. I’ve always thought that the boundary belongs closer to 1965 than to 1960, and they are more evidence for that view. I would point to some of the late 60s/early 70s born “Tea Party candidates” for the Senate as more clear representations of X’s mentality.

      • JPT you wouldn’t question the Boomer/GenX lines articulated by Strauss and Howe were you actually born in those years. It’s more than academic and up for intellectual middling. It’s REAL and has to do with life conditions forming generations. Move on.

        • Sean Love

          After years of participating in back-and-forth on the 4T site’s discussion board, I think there is legitimate disagreement over the status of the 1961 cohort specifically. I personally think S&H were probably correct that 61ers are Xers, I am by no means sure.

          Another thing discussed on the board was the concept of “subgenerational” categories (i.e., completely secondary to the archetypes but nevertheless identifiable both within and across archetypal generational boundaries). I think that concept is useful here.

          The relevant example would be same-parent cohorts. According to T4T, an archetypal generation is primarily (though not exclusively) created via a “shadow” mechanism whereby the archetype in midlife sets the tone for how the generation in childhood gets raised. Good enough. But the older and younger halves of the younger generation will tend to have different generational parentage, e.g., the first half of GenX has a majority Silent parentage, the second half a majority Boomer parentage, even if both halves were archetypal shaped by the Silent. This means the second half and first half of adjacent archetypes share a parental generation. This must have some impact.

          How that applies here is late Boomers and early Xers share Silent parentage (on average). This subgeneration even has a popular name: Generation Jones. What’s more, for some reason this cross-generational group, at least at the cusp, seems to register more strongly than other cusps (e.g., the Silent/Boom “War Babies”, the Xer/Millenial “Gen Y”). This is why one can find similarities across the Boom-X demarcation (presumably at 1960/61) and why many can be confuse the early 60’s cohorts with Boomers.

          Gen Jones members seem to share a distrust of government and a broad cynicism, but as Neil Howe points out in in his post above, the primacy of the archetypes asserts itself with different take between the Boomer and Xer sides on human nature and overall outlook. The Xer view is decidely darker.

  • L Moore

    I think our current crisis has many parallels with the Glorious Revolution; many problem areas without an obvious common origin. The Reactives of that crisis did some bold things but were ultimately destroyed by that which they were trying to change. Will the Boomer dems turn on Obama? Will the GOP turn on Palin and Beck. I suspect they will; it’s much easier to hang a reactive than an idealist because it is less likely to create a martyr.

  • Kevdawg

    “If the Crisis ends badly, very old Boomers could be truly despised. Generation X might provide the demagogues, authoritarians, even the tribal warlords who try to pick up the pieces.”

    I keep on thinking that if the above scenario takes place, it will be because Xers let ideological Boomers turn the culture wars into Civil War II, and as the war rages on, the Constitution is trashed. I also imagine that someone really sadistic running America in a bad 1T could easily scapegoat the Boomers and commit genocide via forced euthanasia.

    The question is whether the 1961-64 cohorts like Beck and Palin on one side and Obama on the other can actually solve modern-day problems without the fiery 3T rhetoric or if their ideological passions break out into a grim future for the U.S.

  • Robert Nutter Jr

    Sean Love, brilliant. It does appear to be that Generation Jones’ reactions are causing all this riffraff. I do believe it is not a coincidence that these birth years also produced very low test scores…and we are finally seeing the effects of this.

  • Bill Johnson

    Hello Mr. Strauss & Mr. Howe:nnThis is a very interesting blog although I would differ somewhat on the boomer/Xer boundary line. nMy question is this: Is there another book planned for the Crisis Era we are in with regards to what direction our national politics will take in 2012 and beyond?nn

  • Zman

    Glenn Beck has been doing a series on the 4th turning. I actually learned of the book thru his show. You should reach out and do a show! It would be a great opportunity for Glenn’s listeners/watchers to get access to this information straight from one of the authors. The information you’ve put together has certainly changed my outlook on what’s going on in the world today. Makes the craziness make more sense!