The allegory of the fish in the tank seems appropriate here. You see, the fish swimming in the tank of water has little to no effect on the nature of the water, but the water’s effect on the fish can be profound, even existential. Will it allow the fish to survive and prosper, or not? We are the fish, and the key to our future is more dependent on the water in which we swim than we may be willing to admit.
If history repeats, or at least rhymes, the water Americans will be swimming in for the next fifteen to twenty years is different than any since 1945 to 1961 and, the fact is, only the eldest among us have any recollection of that era. The vast majority of us have no clue what that water was like unless, of course, you are a student of history. And, no, you can’t learn this on TikTok.
We are entering the fourth post-crisis era in the history of America, which I illustrated more fully in Saving America in the Age of Deceit, called the “objectivism” phase. The last three periods of objectivism were the periods following the American Revolutionary War for Independence, the American Civil War, and the Great Depression/World War II. Today, we are emerging from the crisis which began in 2002 (which I call the “Age of Deceit”) marked by the War on Terror, Great Recession, the Covid pandemic, and a whole lotta lies.
Periods of objectivism are times in American history when we value stability, predictability, reliability and, most of all, a return to what we perceive as normal. What is decidedly out-of-favor is anything that rocks the boat—anything that includes upheaval or radical change. Collectively, we’ve had enough of that. Fatigue has taken its toll.
If you are in the persuasion business, which one way or another includes all of us, the next several years will require a keen understanding of these values and resulting trends. From politicians, to fashion designers, to filmmakers, to investors, to homebuilders, to ministers, and even actuaries, the water we are swimming in will affect both strategic and tactical decisions.
As a group, the first thing to notice about these values are that they are quite conservative. Like 1945-61, during the presidencies of Truman and Eisenhower, boring displaced exciting (unless one considered television’s The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet an actual adventure). Notwithstanding the “Red Scare” manufactured by the Catholic firebrand Father Charles Coughlin, the young Reverend Billy Graham, and Senator Joe McCarthy, Americans spent most of their attention on getting back on their feet following America’s third crisis establishing new households, neighborhoods, churches and communities with little upheaval or excitement other than the birth of lots and lots of kids—the Boomer generation. Making babies and mowing lawns was excitement enough. In fact, other than the Midwest roots shared by Missouri’s Truman and Kansas’ Eisenhower, the characteristic both men shared most obviously was the fact they were, indeed, boring!
In consideration of the forthcoming presidential election, both major parties and all candidates should study Truman and Eisenhower. Perhaps instead of Make America Great Again (MAGA), it should be Make America Work Again (MAWA). “Shit don’ work!” has become an unfortunate mantra in America as our fourth period of crisis ends. Planes don’t fly when scheduled, trains fall off their tracks, housing, childcare, and healthcare are a nightmare for many, nutjobs are roaming our streets with assault rifles, and children are behaving like adults while adults are behaving like children. It’s enough to wear a person out.
Before my Republican readers get too confident about these new waters, it is important to understand that the conservative label here is in the traditional sense of the term, the root of which is to conserve. Not the bastardized whackadoodle version of conservatism the red-cappers promote. After all, Trump is definitely no Eisenhower. That said, I wonder how long traditional conservatives—like the boring Mitt Romney—will continue to sit back and watch their party implode at the hands of a narcissistic maniac? The water is now flowing in their favor. At some point, the shame is not on the orange one, it’s on them.
It is time to return to basic American values based in the fundamental tenet of self-determination and a renewed sense of personal responsibility for ourselves and each other. It is time to CONSERVE our right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Although a Democrat, Biden is probably best positioned to capture this hill of values, as long as he sets aside the impulse to engage in rhetoric that is perceived as too left-leaning in the direction of progressive idealism and can keep his feet beneath him on the campaign trail. He is, after all, Truman-like boring and actually has enough of a record on several of the relevant issues to argue for building on that record in a second term. Issues like climate change can (and must) be repositioned as a conserve-ative issue. Who knows, maybe even make our federal government relevant again. To my liberal friends, fear not: progressive idealism’s time will return someday. (Note that Kennedy followed Eisenhower.) However, that time is not today.
Despite Biden’s perceived advantage, don’t count Trump out. He could pivot from MAGA to MAWA (assuming he can stay out of a prison jumpsuit) and these periods do have room for the appeal of conservative authoritarianism. That’s what the Red Scare folks in the 1950s were all about. Lurking boogeymen will still be promoted by fearmongers. But, also as in the 1950s, scare tactics may get tiresome too. Trump may go the way of Joe McCarthy. Yet, conservatism does include a preference for tighter controls and clear unambiguous guardrails. Some—perhaps many—will prefer authoritarianism to reestablish a sense of stability and calm that could include oppressive and regressive regimes. Like the Germans in their post-crisis era after World War I who took a shine to a young political brawler in Munich named Adolph. America today is not the Germany of the late 1920s and early 1930s, but the natural attraction of authoritarianism among otherwise well-intentioned people should never be passively dismissed.
A related argument for a lean toward conservatism is well developed by the University of Notre Dame’s Patrick Deneen in his latest book, Regime Change: Toward a Postliberal Future. Deneen’s argument is that we in the West would be better off replacing the current liberal elite with a new conservative elite to reestablish traditions and institutions to affect a more genuine populism like that he fondly recalls from his own childhood growing up in Windsor, Connecticut. In his view, progress and dynamism have indeed proven disruptive but, on net, also too destructive of social, economic, and political order. The outrage of many progressive reviewers indicate Deneen has certainly touched a nerve, and while I can find holes in his analysis, and expect that his predicted destination of conservative authoritarianism will never occur, history suggests his compass is pointing in the proper direction.
For anyone who has studied the history of human progress for more than a minute, one thing inevitably becomes crystal clear. Progress is not linear, nor is it predictable. It proceeds in fits and starts; two steps forward, one back. Surge then purge. It is random and chaotic, reflecting the array of human dispositions that characterize our civilization. What the cycles of American history affirm is that during certain periods of time, progress for the sake of progress is not preferred. There are times when good-ol’ stability becomes fashionable. The foreseeable future is one of those times. For this moment in our history, folks will likely prefer stability to change, unless it’s a change back to normal.
To co-opt Bill Clinton campaign strategist, James Carville’s, admonition in 1992 that, “It’s the economy, stupid!” Today, our history suggests, it’s about stability, stupid! The next fifteen to twenty years won’t be exactly like 1945-61, but they may be more alike than different. Who knows, Netflix may even bring back Ozzie and Harriet. Or, not.