Generational Cycles in Mass Psychology:
Implications for the George W. Bush Administration
by Ted Goertzel, Rutgers University, Camden NJ 08102
609 953-1670

NOTE:  A more recent paper that applies this material to recent events is at:
The World Trade Center Bombing as a Fourth Generational Turning Point

A paper prepared for the 10th Annual Meeting of the Society for Chaos Theory in Psychology and the Life Sciences, July 2000.
Updated for the International Psychohistorical Association's 24th Annual Convention, June 8, 2001

A streaming video summary of this paper is available (requires Real Player).


    A number of writers have observed generational cycles in culture and in politics, both in the United States and in European societies.  There appear to be periodic shifts in the zeitgeist that some have characterized as a shift from "left" to "right," others as an alteration between "introversion" and "extroversion."   These shifts seem to occur every twenty or twenty-five years, and appear to be triggered by major historical events.  Twenty to twenty-five years is the approximate length of a biological generation within a family, and it is frequently observed that young people are more receptive to emerging cultural trends.  But births in a society are continuous, while generational shifts in consciousness are periodic.  The concept of a "tipping point" has been applied to epidemics and phenomena where crossing a threshold leads to a dramatic change in a trend.  This concept is useful in explaining how the continuous generational changes lead to periodic shifts in consciousness.
    Bill Clinton's defeat of George H.W. Bush in 1992 reversed a 12 year period of dominance by conservative Repubicans and was consisted with the Schlesinger's model of alternation of "liberal" and "conservative" epochs.  By this theory, however, Al Gore should have been a shoo-in, since eight years are not enough to complete a cycle.  Psychologically, however, George W. Bush is more suitable successor to Bill Clinton than is Al Gore.   To use Yiddish categories, Clinton and George W. are both schmoozers while Al gore is a macher.  Bush, and the Republicans in general, appeal more to the culture of the heartland while Gore drew his support from the coasts.  These cultural, generational and psychological differences seem to explain American electoral politics better than the more traditional ideological categories.

Shifts in the zeitgeist - the spirit of the times - from decade to decade are a cultural cliche.  We talk of the "conformist" fifties, the "radical" late sixties and seventies, the "me decade" in the eighties and so on.  In reality, the changes from decade to decade are not always as sharp as these cliches imply, but there is evidence that they are real.  In the sixties, for example, most college students said they valued developing a meaningful philosophy of life over making a lot of money.  By the eighties, the priorities had reversed.  There are significant changes in the climate of the times from one historical era to another, and they have important social and political consequences.

Understanding and explaining these shifts in the zeitgeist is difficult and controversial.  What is the nature of the changes?  How can they be conceptualized and measured?  What causes them?  Are they responses to unique historical events, or are they periodic and potentially predictable?   In this paper, I will review the best thinking and evidence I have been able to find on this question, then I will offer my own tentative conclusions.  This is a work in progress, so I welcome suggestions and criticisms.

One of the best known sources of evidence on cyclical patterns is the work of Arthur Schlesinger, Sr. (1949: 77-92) and Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. (1986: 23-50; 1992) who have a family tradition of analyzing historical cycles in American electoral politics.  In their view the American populace is split between "liberals" and "conservatives," terms that are very widely used despite considerable ambiguity about their meaning.  As the Schlesinger's define the terms, "liberals" seek to advance public purposes while "conservatives" seek freedom to pursue private interests.  [This, of course, is a "liberal" perception of the difference;  liberals are altruistic, conservatives are selfish.]  In their view, shifts in the preponderance of opinion from one side to the other cause periodic changes in the national mood. They believe that these shifts have occurred at regular intervals throughout American history, as shown in Table One (the italics give my projection of their model into the future).
Liberal Conservative
1765-1787 1787-1801
1801-1816 1816-1829
1829-1841 1841-1861
1861-1869 1869-1901
1901-1919 1919-1931
1931-1947 1947-1961
1961-1978 1978-1993
1993-2010 2010-2026

Arthur Schlesinger, Sr., observed that the average length of the eleven periods up to 1947 was 16.55 years. The three periods since his computation have been of roughly the same magnitude: 14, 17 and 15 years. Voting in national elections is the Schlesingers' main source of data, which means that changes in the national mood may go undetected until they are revealed in an election year.  They observe that a major national crisis, also, may disrupt the usual rhythm.

The ambition of most students of cycles is to predict the future, and Arthur Schlesinger, Sr., had some notable success in predicting shifts in the political zeitgeist.   In 1924, he predicted that Coolidge-style conservatism would last until 1932.  In 1939, he predicted that the liberal mood would end in about 1947.  In 1949, he predicted a shift to liberalism in 1962 and a conservative shift in 1978.  These predictions fit the electoral outcomes quite well.  Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., however, dropped the ball when he published a column titled "How McGovern Will Win" in 1972.  The election of the more "liberal" Bill Clinton in 1992 over George H. W. Bush fits the Schlesinger model, going against the conventional wisdom in the late 1980s which was that the period of conservative Republican dominance would be much longer.

The Schlesingers' were not wedded to any particular theoretical explanation of the trends that they observed.  At various times, they considered sun spot cycles, biorythms, and generational succession as possible causal factors.  Most convincingly, however, they turned to the dynamics of political organization itself.  It seems to take about fifteen years for a successful political party or movement to define its agenda, mobilize its resources, implement its policies as best it can, and obtain the inevitably less than hoped for results.  Political parties and other political organizations go through a fairly predictable cycle:  growth and vitality under a charismatic leader, a period of mature, more routinezed leadership, then a gradual decline as the leaders become soft and the supporters tire of the message.  Then, in a two-party system, the opposing party, invogorated by the challenge of regaining power, has its turn.  This dynamic of political organization clearly accounts for some major political shifts, e.g., the dominance of British politics by the Conservative Party under Margaret Thatcher and its subsequent decline under John Major, followed by the reinvention of the Labor Party under Tony Blair's leadership.  This has little to do with ideology, at this point in time, since the New Labor accepts most of the policies developed by the Conservatives.  Focusing on electoral politics tends to give more weight to these organizational dynamics than to shifts in the zeitgeist.

This focus on party dynamics was avoided by political scientist Frank Klingberg (1952) who wrote about the alternation of moods in American foreign policy.  Instead of liberalism and conservatism he studied the alternation between introversion and extroversion, terms that seem as much psychological as political.  During extroverted periods, the nation has been willing to exert economic, diplomatic and/or military power on other nations.  During introverted periods, it has been unwilling to do so, perhaps because of a preoccupation with domestic concerns.  Once a dominant mood is firmly established, Klingberg found it persists for two decades or more. Since 1976 there have been four introvert phases averaging about 21 years in length, and three introvert phases averaging approximately 27 years in length. The most recent extroverted phase began in 1940 or 1941.  Klingberg's article was published in the middle of this phase which seems to have ended approximately on time with the end of the Vietnam war in 1973. The period from 1973 to 1991 could be characterized as an introverted phase in American foreign policy, generally attributed to a fear of repeating the Vietnam debacle.  President George H. W. Bush proclaimed the end of this "Vietnam Syndrome" with the intervention which drove Iraqi troops from Kuwait in 1991.  Klingberg's periodization is as follows:
Introverted Extroverted
1776-1798 1798-1824
1824-1844 1844-1871
1871-1891 1891-1919
1919-1940 1940-1973
1973-1991 1991-

Klingberg noted a similarity between his observations and those of Arthur Schlesinger, Sr., but his cycles were of longer duration and the turning points did not often coincide. This difference may be because he focused on foreign policy, while the Schlesingers' focused on domestic social and economic policy.  His data base was also different.  While the Schlesingers relied on qualitative descriptions of electoral campaign themes, Klingberg collected a good deal of quantitative data.  He analyzed Presidential "state of the union" addresses statistically, coding the percentage of the address which mentioned foreign relations or expounded the importance of positive action in foreign affairs.  He also studied party platforms and trends in naval expenditures.  His extensive data was clearly reproduced in bar and line graphs which revealed the difficulty inherent in this kind of work. The patterns are irregular, with the long term trends obscured by short term fluctuations. This is inherent in the data, and Klingberg does not resort to any of the smoothing techniques which sometimes make these trends seem deceptively clear. A good deal of judgment is required to fit this data into the clear patterns presented in his article, and there is room for disagreement about where one periods ends and another begins.

Like the Schlesingers, Klingberg was not committed to any one theoretical explanation for the cycles that he observed.  He reviewed a comprehensive list of possible causes: periodic exhaustion with any dominant policy and desire for something new, generational change, political or economic factors within the United States, changes in the policies of other nations.  He expressed the view that the introversion-extroversion cycle may be more fundamental than the liberal-conservative cycle.  He speculated that Toynbee's "challenge and response" model may be applicable, and suggested that American history can be interpreted as a series of responses to fundamental challenges: e.g., the revolutionary cycle, the anti-slavery cycle and the populist cycle.  In 1952, he saw America as rising to the challenge of world leadership in defense of the free world.

A more recent, rigorous empirical study by William Mayer (1992a, 1992b) offers the most conclusive evidence for the reality of cycles in public opinion in the United States.  Mayer tabulated the results of hundreds of public opinion polls conducted over the period from 1960 to 1988.  Frequently these surveys have the same question at several points in time.  There are problems with the data such as variations in sample designs, the effects of question order, wording changes or changes in the meaning of words over time, etc.  But Mayer deals with all these problems expertly, providing a rigorous and objective measure of changes in attitudes. A major limitation, of course, is that he was only able to find sufficient data back to 1960, and even then the data were thin before 1975.
Although Mayer discusses a relatively short time period, it is one for which many more subjective interpretations are available. Some left-leaning writers, for example, denied that public opinion took a turn to the right in the 1970s (Parenti, 1986; Paletz and Entman, 1981). These writers claimed that the "Reagan revolution" was not in touch with public opinion, but distorted and manipulated it. Mayer's data provides a more nuanced view, showing that Reagan was in touch with public opinion on some issues, but not on others.

Mayer used the terms "liberal" and "conservative" to organize his analysis of a great many public opinion items.  Many public opinion specialists have questioned how well the public's attitudes on a wide variety of issues can actually be clustered into these two very general categories (Converse, 1964; Goertzel, 1981).  Instead of treating "liberalism" and "conservatism" as global ideologies, Mayer analyzed each issue separately.  To assess global trends, he simply averaged the items, declaring a liberal shift when opinion moved in a liberal direction on more survey items than it moved in the conservative direction. This method gives equal weight to all issues measured by public opinion polls, while the public may actually care more about some of the issues than others. It assumes that pollsters are doing a good job of selecting the issues of most importance to the public. An alternative might be to examine questions which ask the public which issues concern them the most, or to focus on those issues which correlate most closely with voting behavior.
1960-1965 Stability. Liberal trends on racial equality and capital punishment. Most changes small and counterbalanced by conservative trends.
1966-1973 Liberal Shift. Liberal changes on premarital sex, abortion, racial equality, women's status, foreign policy, the defense budget, Soviet relations and many other issues. Conservative trends on crime, taxes, labor, gun ownership, foreign aid. 
1974-1980 Right Turn. Conservative changes on crime, the ERA, Soviet relations, military spending and intervention, taxes, government spending, regulations, inflation and the environment. Liberal trends on racial equality, women, premarital sex, legalizing marijuana.
1981-1988 Liberal Resurgence. Liberal changes on race, military, government spending, gay rights, Soviet relations, women, family, environment. Conservative trends on crime, abortion, economic rights & privileges, business profits.

Mayer's detailed issue-specific data makes it possible to ask whether there are different trends for different kinds of issues, e.g., foreign policy issues, economic issues, life style issues, etc. Some of these may be cyclical, others may not.  In fact, Mayer found that attitude change has been even more issue-specific than that.  For example, Americans have become more liberal on women's rights, but more conservative on the Equal Rights Ammendment. They have become more conservative on gun ownership, but not on gun registration. There has been a strong liberal trend on race relations and women's equality, and a consistent conservative trend on crime and punishment. The survey data allowed Mayer to look at age differences, providing an empirical test of generational hypotheses. His results were mixed.  Generational effects have been important for changes on social and cultural issues, but not for opinions about foreign policy and economic issues.

Perhaps because of his immersion in this mass of data, Mayer had a hard time reaching conclusions about master trends. He observed that public opinion had been liberalizing from 1981-1988, but he failed to predict that this trend would have an effect on the 1992 Presidential elections. Succumbing to the conventional wisdom of his time, he discounted his own data and predicted "the most likely scenario for the future is a replay of the last ten years; more Republican presidents, and more liberal anguish and breast-beating" (Mayer, 1992b: 340).

A more explicitly psychological approach was that of Harold Lasswell (1932) who was perhaps the first to try to relate underlying psychodynamic factors to cycles in mass political consciousness. Lasswell applied the classical Freudian schema of "id" (biological needs), "ego" (testing of reality) and "superego" (socially acquired inhibitions) to political life.  He argued that it was important to consider unconscious motivations, e.g., in understanding why leaders such as Woodrow Wilson and Abraham Lincoln behaved irrationally, or why voters tend to view political leaders as saints or martyrs. He suggested that his ideas could be applied to social dynamics, but did not develop the idea fully.  He summarized his essential principle as follows (1932: 538): "prolonged ego and superego indulgence produces redefinitions in directions gratifying to the id; prolonged ego and id indulgence produces redefinitions in directions gratifying to the superego."

A number of interesting questions are raised by this schema.  Presumably "ego" coincides with moderate or pragmatic politics, with "id" and "superego" corresponding to the extremes.  Can "id" and "superego" be equated with "left" and "right," respectively, or are both extremes characterized by excesses of id and superego?  Do they correspond to the Schlesinger's eras of dominance by "public purposes" (superego) and "private interests" (id)?  How does it come about that societies as a whole tend to cycle from one pole to the other, as in the "conformist" 1950's and early 1960's and the "liberated" late 1960's and 1970's?

A more complex and sophisticated psychodynamic approach is that of Lloyd DeMause (1982) whose theory of historical group-fantasies offers an ambitious and creative psychodynamic explanation of the cycles in mass political consciousness.  Group fantasies are created because people displace into the public realm feelings connected with their search for love. These collective fantasies help people to express feelings which are otherwise private and to "act out and defend against repressed desires, rages and prohibitions which have their origins in childhoods common to the group" (p. 172).  Group fantasies function as defense mechanisms and are unstable just as individual defense mechanisms are. They are therefore "subject to eventual breakdown due both to the return of the repressed and to the inability of reality to live up to the requirements of the fantasy content" (p. 174).

DeMause immerses himself in images from the mass media and modifies his theory to incorporate new insights as he goes along. One idea, developed in his study of Jimmy Carter's Presidency, is that the group's confidence in its leader goes through four regular stages, which can, but need not be, seen as metaphors for the birth process.  DeMause believes that people have memories of fetal events, such as shortages of oxygen from the placenta, and of the birth process, which persist into adulthood and shape political views. He makes an interesting historical case for this argument, but it is hard to see how it relates to historical shifts in the zeitgeist since the birth process does not change much from one decade to another.  His stages are shorter than those of the Schlesingers or Klingberg, to say nothing of Sorokin.  In fact, they fit well with the four years of an American Presidential term, which reflects DeMause's intense interest in day-to-day American politics. His four stages are as follows:
STRONG The first year of a leader's term. Media images stress the strength of the leader and the nation. The leader is a container for the group's fantasy of strength and safety. 
CRACKING The group's feeling of strength and safety weakens, there is an increase in scapegoating to avoid blaming the leader, and the group's boundaries seem to be cracking or crumbling. 
COLLAPSE Intense anxiety about the collapse of the group's fantasy of strength leads to rage against the leader. 
UPHEAVAL A "group-psychotic insight" identifies a "delusional poisoner" who is the target for the group's rage. The delusional poisoner may be the leader, who may be ritually killed, or it may be an external enemy who can be provoked and attacked. Failing these groups, the nation may become suicidal, sacrificing poisoned elements of itself to an outside enemy. 

DeMause sees these cycles as part of a spiral pattern of history, i.e., there is a long term progressive trend caused by generational improvements in child rearing. There are two "psychoclasses" which alternate in dominance from cycle to cycle. The first, the "liberals" is the most progressive. The liberals identify with the id. They fear separation and seek security in revolt. The "conservatives" are the less advanced psychoclass. They identify with the superego, fear gratification, and seek security in order and discipline. Thus, DeMause sees the same groups as other observers - liberals and conservatives - but he argues that this difference is based in their psychological makeup rather than in their economic interests or cognitive beliefs.

DeMause's theory offers so many options that it can explain almost any outcome.  His spiral metaphor would suggest that liberals and conservatives should succeed each other regularly in four year intervals, but he does not address the reasons why this not the case.  DeMause offers novel hypotheses about regularities in history, e.g., that violent group-delusions are preceded by conspiracy theories and preoccupation with sexual goings-on. DeMause also frequently offers the readers of his Journal of Psychohistory dire warnings about likely future events.  For example, he predicted that "Jimmy Carter - for reasons rooted both in his own personality and in the powerful emotional demands of American fantasy - is very likely to lead us into a new war by 1979" (Demause, 1982: 147).  In fact, he had totally misjudged Carter's character and politics.  Carter chose not to take the opportunity for war provided by the Iranian hostage crisis, preferring to allow his popularity to wane to the point where he lost the 1980 election.

The weakest part of DeMause's argument is his use of evidence. He illustrates his observations profusely with selected historical references and media images, but without any rigorous attempt to determine whether the alleged patterns can be confirmed statistically. He argues that "the body images used by the cartoonists of the nation are by far the best index of the group-fantasy stages of the nation" (DeMause, 1982: 204). He illustrates his writings with cartoons that fit his themes, but has never conducted a systematic content analysis to determine whether there are, in fact, cyclical variations in the body images in published cartoons.  He was enthusiastic when I (Goertzel, 1993) undertook such a project, but when the results did not fit his theories he became quite defensive.  He objected to the way I selected cartoons for analysis, and insisted that only certain elite cartoonists could be relied upon to be truly in touch with the national mood.  In his own analyses, he apparently selects the cartoons that fit his theory and simply ignores those which do not.  This is a defense mechanism frequently used by true believers (Goertzel, 1982) when evidence does not fit their preconceptions.

Sociology's main contributor to cycle theory was Pitirim Sorokin whose four volume Social and Cultural Dynamics (1937-1942; abridged edition 1957) was perhaps the most ambitious study of cultural cycles ever undertaken. Sorokin had an elaborate theory and he attempted to test it with empirical data.  He argued that history moved slowly between two systems of ideas: sensate and intuitive. The sensate system is empiricist, nominalist, determinist and materialist.  It believes that the physical, material world is the fundamental reality. The ideational is idealist, mystical, and realist in the sense of believing that ideas have an existence independent of the material world.  Sorokin argued that cyclical changes in a system are due largely to an "unfolding of its inherent possibilities" (Sorokin, 1941: 5).

Sorokin applied his scheme to world history over very long periods of time, not to the short term cycles which are the focus of this paper.  For example, he regarded the triumph of Christianity over the Roman paganism as an ideational reaction against the excessively sensate nature of the Roman empire.  His data was primarily intellectual works by leading philosophers and writers of the various eras. Unfortunately, Sorokin was not a rigorous statistician.  A careful reanalysis of his data by Dean Keith Simonton (1976, 1984) did not confirm Sorokin's conclusions.  Simonton found that sensate and ideational philosophies do not alternate in time, but actually fluctuate together.  Historical eras with intense philosophical and intellectual activity (both sensate and intuitive) are followed by periods of low productivity of either type.  Of course, this analysis is based entirely on published writers and may not correspond to trends in mass consciousness.  So far as I know, no one has attempted to apply Sorokin's theory to short term cycles in American culture or politics, perhaps because Sorokin has gone out of style in academic sociology.  However, a similar theory has been tested by Daniel Cover (1993) who analyzed Time Magazine covers from 1923 to 1988 looking for cycles in the kinds of social roles portrayed.  He categorized these roles according to Talcott Parson's organizational cycle theory as adapted by Suzanne Keller.  Leaders were classified into "internal" and "external" categories.  External leaders were those in business, politics, science, government or the military whose functions were primarily adaptation or goal attainment. The internal leaders were movie stars, entertainers and media personalities, athletes, writers, artists, labor leaders, first family members, philosophers, educators, and clergy whose functions were integration or latency.  He found evidence for a cyclical trend which was related to politics; the percent of external roles portrayed on Time covers was moderately (r=+.41) correlated with the percent of the vote for Republican presidential candidates.

While history, psychology, political science and sociology offer valuable insights from their disciplinary perspectives, I believe generational theory offers the best synthesis.  William Strauss and Neil Howe's Generations (1991) is a tour de force of generational analysis, covering the full sweep of the American past and future from 1584 to 2069. Their book incorporates and supersedes the work of several other generational analysts of American political history (Elazar, 1976; Keller, 1979; Huntington, 1974) whose historical observations are similar but less systematically developed.  The biggest challenge for generational theory is to reconcile the psychological and familial aspect with the sociological.

The concept of generation works best within families where biology dictates that distinct generations succeed each other in 20 to 30 year intervals.  At any point in time, the older generations may differ from the younger simply because they are older (and wiser?).  These are life cycle differences. There are also cohort differences, caused by the fact that individuals born in a given historical epoch are exposed to different conditions and events than individuals who come of age under different historical conditions (Mannheim, 1952; Goertzel, 1972),   The tricky part is understanding how these life cycle and cohort effects interact to produce historical cycles.  Strauss and Howe attempt to reconcile the life cycle and cohort approaches by defining a generation as "a special cohort-group whose length approximately matches that of a basic phase of life, or about twenty-two years over the last three centuries" (p. 34). They claim that a distinctive "social moment" has occurred every twenty-two years or so, marking the transition from one generation's period of dominance to that of another.  They do not really have an explanation for why these "social moments" occur every twenty-two years, but they do have a mass of descriptive evidence to support their claim that this is the case.

Based on their historical research, Strauss and Howe argue that American history is marked by a regular succession of four generational types, each of which dominates for about 22.5 years.  This  long cycle theory, taking ninety years to go through all four types, is what emboldens them to make predictions as far into the future as 2069. They argue that the four generational types have recurred in a fixed order (with one exception) throughout American history.  They also note that references to this four generational pattern can be found in Exodus and The Illiad as well as in the works of Huntington (1981), Marias (1967, 1968), Littre (1860) and Ferrari (1872).  Briefly summarized, the four cycles are as shown in the table.
IDEALIST An inner-driven, moralistic generation which comes of age during a period of spiritual awakening and develops a new creedal passion.
REACTIVE An alienated, cynical generation which challenges the ideals of their parents and develops into pragmatic, risk-taking adults.
CIVIC An outer-driven, morally complacent generation which institutionalizes many of the ideals of the previous generations.
ADAPTIVE A hypocritical generation which coasts along on the accomplishments of the civics, laying the groundwork for a new idealist era.

This four-cycle model can easily be reconciled the observations of the Schlesingers, Klingberg and others if we collapse the four into two.  The Idealist and Civic are both extroverted in the sense of being eager to take action in the world.  They are also both "liberal" in the way the Schlesinger's define it, concerned with the common good, although the may not belong to the more "liberal" of two parties in an ideological sense.  The distinction between Idealist and Reactive is one between idealistic vs. pragmatic activism.  The Reactive and Civic are both introverted;  I really don't see much difference between them.

Strauss and Howe follow each of these generations through the four stages of the life cycle (youth [0-21], rising adulthood [22-43], midlife [44-65] and elder [66-87], and explore how the interpersonal dynamics within families tend to differ depending on which historical generation each cohort is part of.  However, this discussion is too complex for any but the most dedicated generational theorist to follow.

The concept of "social moment" plays a key role in Strauss and Howe's theory. They postulate that each of their long cycles has two such moments, the first of which is a "spiritual awakening," the second a "secular crisis."   The key social moments in American history are as follows:
Reformation Awakening (1517-1539) Defeat of Spanish Armada (1580-1588)
Puritan Awakening (1734-1743) Glorious Revolution (1675-1692)
Great Awakening (1734-1743) American Revolution (1773-1789)
Transcendental Awakening (1822-1837) Civil War (1857-1865)
Missionary Awakening (1886-1903) Depression & World War II (1932-1945)
Boom Awakening (1967-1980) [expected in the 2020's]

This is a grand historical scheme, very much in the tradition of Sorokin and other students of long term cultural trends. One can, of course, question whether these really were the defining events of American history, or whether they have been selected because they fit the scheme. Was the cultural revolution of the 1967-1980 period really the historical equivalent of the Great Awakening? Do the great depression and World War II really constitute one event? Why is World War I left out? One can also question whether the these events really determined generational succession in the zeitgeist.  Strauss and Howe do rather well in fitting cultural history into their scheme, except for the post-Civil War period when they argue that no civic generation appeared because the Civil War itself happened too soon. While this scheme covers the full sweep of American history, the cycles are so long that only four and a half of them have occurred since the nation was founded.  This does not provide enough cases for any kind of statistical certainty, an inherent problem in long cycle theories.  Their account is consistent with that of Robert Fogel (2000) who believes there have been four hundred year cycles in American history, each of which was triggered by a "Great Awakening."  Fogel seems to be unaware of Strauss and Howe's work which anticipated many of his ideas.

What can this kind of sweeping theory tell us about contemporary politics and culture? To answer this, we can look at the generations which are currently active politically, of which there are five. These generations are described in the following table.
G.I. (Civic) 1901-1924 (24 years) Johnson, Reagan, Nixon, Ford, Kennedy, Carter, George H.W. Bush, Dole
SILENT (Adaptive) 1925-1942 (18 years) Mondale, Dukakis, Kemp, Hart, Jackson
BOOM (Idealist) 1943-1960 (18 years) Bill Bradley, William Bennett, Newt Gingrich, Dan Quayle, Albert Gore, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush
THIRTEENTH ("Generation X") (Reactive) 1961-1981 (21 years)  
MILLENNIAL ("Generation Y") (Civic) 1981-2001?

These generations do help us to understand American cultural history.  The G.I. generation and the Baby Boomers in particular are well known as cultural phenomenon. The Silent Generation (into which I fit) does seem somewhat weaker politically, as shown by the failure to elect any Presidents. The election of Bill Clinton was widely interpreted as a coming to power of the Baby Boomers.  Interestingly enough, however, Strauss and Howe did not predict the boomers coming to power in the 1992 elections.  Indeed, they differed with Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. on this point, remarking that:

In the spring of 1988, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., published an article entitled "Wake Up Liberals, Your Time Has come," predicting a resurgence of sixties-style liberalism over the next few years. To date, Schlesinger's prediction seems wide of the mark.  One problem, in our view, is that a sixteen-year pendulum is too exact--and (unlike Klingberg's twenty-three-year pendulum) speeds the clock too fast. (Strauss and Howe, 1992: 103). In good scientific form, Strauss and Howe (1992: 105) state that "the acid test of any theory is its ability to forecast,"  and Arthur Schlesinger seems to have won this particular acid test, making up for his blooper in 1972.  More importantly, however, Strauss and Howe are addressing a different kind of phenomena than the Schlesingers.  The Schlesingers are interested in the alternation of power between liberals and conservatives. They would consider John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan to be opposites.  For Strauss and Howe, Reagan and Kennedy are both members of the G.I. generation, sharing a common generational culture as "Civics."  This difference in approach is made explicit by Morton Keller (1976: 134) who argues: For all the divisiveness of the New Deal, FDR and Wendell Willkie in 1940 had more in common than either did with their predecessors Smith and Hoover. In retrospect, Dwight Eisenhower and Adlai Stevenson seem to have been cut from the same consensual cloth of the 1950s. And Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter may yet be seen as exemplars of the current American political generation: men of the New West and the New South, attaining the presidency through their mastery of a politics of media imagery that has supplanted a politics of organization, interests, and issues. There is an extensive literature on long cycles in capitalist economies, although the matter remains controversial because of inconsistencies and inadequacies in data over very long historical periods.  It is worth noting, however, that there is a fairly close match between economic long-cycle theory and Strauss and Howe's generational theory.  Based on Goldstein (1988), Dassbach (1993) argued that long waves last approximately 50 years, which are split into an expansionary A-phase and a contractionary B-phase. These expansionary and contractionary periods are thus of the right length to match up with the Strauss and Howe's 22-year generations, and two of Dassbach's long waves could match up with Strauss and Howe's four generation cycle.  Dassbach provides some empirical support for matching long waves with generational phenomena by correlating the long waves with Braungart's (1984) data on the frequency of youth movements over the last two centuries.

The following table matches up Dassbach's dates for the economic long cycles with Strauss and Howe's dates for generational long cycles. To make the best match, I have selected the generation entering rising adulthood during each period. The cohort theory of generations argues that people's consciousness is most impacted by historical conditions during the period of "youth" from approximately 16 to 25 years of age. Unfortunately, this period is not highlighted by Strauss and Howe, who split the life cycle between "youth" and "rising adulthood" at age 22.
Economic period Economic condition Generational period  Generation entering rising adulthood Generational type
1814-1848 Contraction 1814-1843 Transcendental Idealist
1848-1872 Expansion 1844-1864 Gilded Reactive
    1865-1881 Progressive Adaptive 
1872-1893 Contraction 1882-1904 Missionary Idealist
1893-1918 Expansion 1905-1922 Lost Reactive
1918-1945 Contraction 1923-1946 G.I. Civic
1945-1968 Expansion 1947-1964 Silent Adaptive
1968-[1993] Contraction 1965-1982 Baby Boom Idealist
[1993-2018] [Expansion] 1983-2003 Thirteenth Reactive

The match between the theories is rough as one would expect given the nature of the data.  Interestingly, the biggest gap occurs in the Civil War period, which is precisely when Strauss and Howe's own theory doesn't work. The more active generations (Civic and Idealist) seem to be those who experience their formative years during a period of economic contraction. They claim that the Civil War happened too soon, and for this reason there was no Civic generation after the reactive Gilded generation.  Wars are important to both the economic long-cycle theory (Goldstein, 1988) and Strauss and Howe's generational long-cycle theory (most of their "secular crises" involve wars). Very likely the wars cause the economic trends detected by long-cycle theorists, although economic determinists would draw the causal path in the opposite direction.  Generational long-cycle theory would predict another major war (or equivalent "secular crisis") in the 2020's. Economic long-cycle theory would predict one about now (50 years after World War II). All in all, in my view, the generational cycle theory seems to fit the historical data better, and the economic long-cycles might be viewed as a consequence of generational cycles. So far as I know, this has not been considered in the long-cycle literature, which is dominated by neo-Marists.

Cycles as Attractors.   Are there "cycles" in mass psychology and voting behavior?  The answer depends on how strictly you define the word "cycle".  If you define cycles strictly as they are in physics or astronomy, as recurrent periods of definite duration, then cycles have not been demonstrated.  We cannot predict elections reliably with any existing theory of cycles, any better than economists can predict cyclical turning points in financial markets.  Given the complex and chaotic nature of social and political life, this kind of precise prediction is probably impossible just as it seems to be in meteorology.

If we define cycles more loosely, as usually recurrent periods of varying duration, then there is evidence of cyclicity in mass psychology and political behavior.  Using the language of chaos theory, we might think of these cycles as attractors - powerful tendencies that wax and wane from one decade to the next, but that are not inevitable or irresistible.  We cannot make precise predictions, but we may be able to anticipate future issues and problems before they become apparent.  For example, on the WEB site promoting their second book, Strauss and Howe (1997b) warn that: "just after the millennium, America will enter a new era that will culminate with a crisis comparable to the American Revolution, the Civil War, the Great Depression, and World War II.  The survival of the nation will almost certainly be at stake."  As I write in July, 2000, this is hard to see, but so was the Great Depression hard to forsee in early 1929.  Presumably Strauss and Howe issued this prediction not just to hype their book, but also as a warning of something we might prepare for.  If we understand the ebbs and flows of the system, we may be able to choose actions that flow with the tide, steering the best course available under the circumstances in which we find ourselves.
Addendum:   the World Trade Center/Pentagon attack on September 11, 2001, seems to be the event that will have a defining impact on people coming of age in the first two decades of the 21st century.   Of course, this event was generated outside the country, but one could say that it was the isolationist, reactive tendencies of the preceeding generation that left the national vulnerable.  For an version of this paper that ends with an analysis of these events, click here

With this practical goal in mind, what lessons can we draw from the research that has been done?  One important point is to distinguish between three kinds of cycles:

A good deal of confusion has been caused by confounding shifts in generational culture with the political alternation between liberals and conservatives.  The Schlesinger's model of approximately 15 year liberal-conservative cycles is about as well supported as anything in this field, and seems to be related to organizational dynamics as much as to public opinion.  Generational cycles in the zeitgeist are longer, and seem to be related to the length of a biological generation.

I think Strauss and Howe's concept of a "social moment" helps to explain how the biological generations and the historical cohorts are related.  A "social moment" is a historical movement or event that makes a major impact on people who are coming of age.  When it is over, the people who lived through it continue to be influenced by it, but those coming of age later are not.  Each year, there is a larger number of people who did not experience the "social moment" and who need something else to define their view of the world.  When an entire generation of people who did not live through the "social moment" has come of age, the system has reached a "tipping point" (Gladwell, 2000) where it is susceptible to an event that will shape a new generational consciousness.  Thus, a new "social moment" occurs when a generation of people are ready for it, because they have come of age too late to remember the previous "social moment.  One could model this process mathematically, and there are mathematical models that capture much of it (Granovetter, 1978, 1983;  Schelling, 1971; Roemer, 1995).  But the available real-world data is much too limited to test these models, so they are useful only for illustrative purposes or for computer simulations.

When a society is at a tipping point between generational epochs, the opportunities for social innovation are increased.  It is as if people are waiting for a message, for something to define themselves and their cohort.  If one is at a tipping point, there are opportunities for cultural innovation that may influence the course of events.  According to Gladwell (2000), there are three kind of people who play a crucial role at these times:

People with these skills may be tremendously successful at a point of transition - think of the Yippee leaders Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin who were fantastic salesmen for the Boom Awakening in the latw 1960s - yet completely ineffective a few years later when the tipping point has passed.  The direction a new generation goes ideologically may depend on how many connectors, mavens and salesmen each political tendency has in its ranks.

Generational Analysis, the 2000 Presidential Election and the  George W. Bush Administration.

The 2000 Presidential election is particularly suited for generational analysis.  Bill Clinton's defeat of incumbent president George H. W. Bush in 1992 reversed a 12 year period of dominance by conservative Republicans, and was consistent with the Schlesinger's model.  The economy is booming, crime and unemployment are down, welfare is reformed, and the United States enjoys unquestioned hegemony as the only global super-power.   By most conventional political science electoral models, Al Gore should have been a shoo-in (Judis, 2000).  But, although Gore did win a majority of the popular vote, the electoral college vote reversed the cycle, electing Bush's son, George W. Bush, over Clinton's more liberal vice president.  Particularly striking was Gore's inability to carry his own state of Tennessee or Clinton's state of Arkansas.

With his penchant for stating the obvious in obvious terms, George H. W. Bush attributed both his loss to Clinton and his son's (then) expected victory over Al Gore to the fact that "people kind of like change, like the idea of change from time to time" (Bruni, 2000c).  But when do people prefer change and when do they prefer continuity? Why did they elect George H. W. Bush after eight years of Ronald Reagan, only to turn him out after a single term?  Why did they re-elect Bill Clinton, only to reject his vice president just when things were going well.  The only fly in the ointment, cited by George H. W. Bush and others, is Bill Clinton's embarrassing behavior in the Monika Lewinski episode.  But although the public was disappointed with Clinton's behavior, they were more disgusted with the conservative Republicans who tried to drive him from office.  And Al Gore is an upright family man, so if Clinton's sexual peccadilloes and ethical sleaziness were the problem, the election of Gore would have solved the problem without upsetting the policy apple cart.  George W. Bush was acknowledged to be a weak candidate in terms of knowledge of the issues and foreign policy experience, while Al Gore was a strong one, yet the tide of history seems to have moved in Bush's direction.

Why?  Eight years of Clinton's "liberalism" were too few to complete one of the Schlesinger's cycles, and the Republican Party as an organization was not especially vital after the failure of the Gingrich revolution and the impeachment fiasco.  Looking at this election in terms of ideological or partisan cycles does not work very well.  If we think in terms of personality instead of ideology, however, we can make sense of what is happening.  In terms of personality, Bill Clinton and George W. have much in common.  Their personality type is best described by the Yiddish word schmoozer.  Schmoozers  are people who enjoy socializing for its own sake, who convey a feeling that they really like people.  They make great salesmen.  Al Gore, on the other hand, is a macher, a serious, almost somber, person who wants us to do things.  (For a discussion of the macher/schmoozer distinction in leadership styles see Putnam (2000:  93-95)).

In terms of their birth cohort, Clinton, Gore and Bush are all Baby Boomers.  Gore fits the stereotypical pattern for this generation best, he is what Strauss and Howe would call an Idealist.  Bill Clinton and, especially, George W. Bush are Adaptives.  When contrasted to Gore, George W. is much more "laid back," less insistent on pushing us to do thing we may not be ready for.  Gore insists on prodding us to do things that we know we ought to do, but aren't really enthusiastic about.

There are clues in Bush's speeches that suggest that he or his advisors consciously used a generational analysis in forming their strategies.  In part, this may simply reflect the fact that George W. is following in his father's footsteps.  In his standard speech Bush (2000a) says "thanks on behalf of the sons and daughters of my generation to the moms and dads of my parents' generation for the incredible freedom we understand in America."  But in his acceptance speech (Bush, 2000b) he noted that his father was "the last president of a great generation, a generation of Americans who stormed beaches, liberated concentration camps and delivered us from  evil."  He also recognized his generational affinity with Clinton, arguing that "our current president embodied the potential of a generation -- so many talents, so much charm, such great skill. But in the end, to what end? So much promise to no great purpose."  His promise was not to change directions, but to realize the generational potential that Clinton promised but failed to deliver.  He referred to his generation as "13 generations later," showing an awareness of generational chronology.  Of course, even if he or his advisors were operating with a generational theory, they knew that a candidate must appeal to voters of different ages who are infused with different generational temperaments.  His choice of a running mate, Richard Cheney, was clearly intended to reassure the older generations that he would accept their wise counsel.  He included a sprinkling of idealism to appeal to the Baby Boomers, while his personal style reassured the gen x'ers that he wouldn't demand too much of them.  His success was, at least in part, a triumph of generational politics over the more traditional, issue-oriented approach used by the Gore campaign.

It was also a triumph for a geographical strategy, one emphasizing the American heartland over the east and west coasts.   Viewed this way, his losing the popular vote seems less important - the electoral system is, after all, structured to reflect regional interests and he clearly planned his strategies with this in mind.  He reflects the culture, and perhaps the mass psychology, of the heartland over the coasts.

Since the election, the left has tried to sustain an ideological criticism of Bush, accusing him of turning to the "right" in his appointments and policy decisions, rather than seeking accommodation with the Democrats who, after all, did win the popular vote.  So far, this criticism has not really taken hold.  He has, in fact, done what was necessary to win Congressional support.  He was able to get John Ashcroft approved as Attorney General, despite bitter criticism from some liberals, and he compromised with Congress on a tax cut that delivered the substance of his main campaign promise.  He seems to have abandoned drilling for oil in the Arctic, and the high price of gasoline, coupled with electricity shortages in California, have made his emphasis on energy production over environmentalism more palatable to the general public.   His handling of the Israeli/Palestinian deadlock, and the spy plane incident with China, have not exacerbated foreign policy problems.  His advocacy of spending more on missile defense has drawn predictable criticism, but is not likely to have major consequences during his term due to the difficulty of actually developing new technologies.

In my view, the ideological left and right exaggerate the policy implications of Presidential elections.  To be effective, any President must work with the opposition in Congress, and in many cases Presidents can only make an impact on history by adopting the policy proposals of the other side.  This is the well known "Nixon in China" phenomenon, which applies beautifully to Clinton's success with welfare reform.  Clinton failed with his premier policy initiative, national health care, because he was unable to win support from conservatives in  Congress.  If we had re-elected George H.W. Bush instead, perhaps we would have gotten some kind of national health care instead of welfare reform.

In a commentory on the 2001 election, John Fraim (2001) suggests that "the subtextual conflict of America's two major parties might really be between two key psychological functions rather than between two ideologies inside one psychological function.  In effect, the real conflict might be more psychological than political in nature - between a thinking Republican perspective, for instance, and a feeling Democratic perspective.  This divergence of psychological types seems to go much further than divergence of ideology in explaining the historic split in Americna politics at the beginning of the new millennium."


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