America’s 20-Year Winter

Some economists say the country goes through two-decade-long seasons, each requiring its own kind of leader.
November 2016
(Franklin D. Roosevelt Library)
By Mark Funkhouser  |  Publisher
Former mayor of Kansas City, Mo.

It may feel like autumn, but it’s winter in America. In her 2014 book, ReGENERATION: A Manifesto for America’s Next Leaders, the economist and futurist Rebecca Ryan builds on the concept of American “seasons” introduced by Neil Howe and William Strauss. Ryan writes that, much like the seasons of the year, “American life and society cycle through seasons, too,” and that each lasts about 20 years.

By that calculation, this is America’s fourth winter. The first was the period of the Revolution. The second was the Civil War and Reconstruction. And the third was the Great Depression. Our current winter began with the terrorist attacks of 9/11. In winter the crises seem to come in waves. In this case, after 9/11 came the end of America’s longest running bull market, in 2002, which prompted Wall Street to invent new tools to make money. And that led, in September 2008, to the beginning of the Great Recession.

If the pattern holds, spring will come again around 2020. For now, however, we’ve still got to deal with winter. “Leaders play an important role during winter,” Ryan writes, “to help Americans understand the crisis, and our way forward.” Leading in winter requires us to be pragmatic and hardheaded, but never downbeat or cynical. Leaders, in my view, should be brutally honest about the current circumstances but also about the basic strength and resiliency of ordinary people. Ryan cites Franklin D. Roosevelt during the Great Depression, calming Americans with his fireside chats. “He spoke,” she writes, “in plain language to explain the crises and his approach to them.”

Ryan emphasizes two things winter’s leaders should provide: perspective and control. You want people not to give in to fear and fall into nonproductive pandemonium. You can do that by reminding them that we’ve been through these kinds of crises before and always made our way out. After last year’s horrific church massacre in Charleston, S.C., for instance, Mayor Joseph Riley worked to give the city’s shocked residents a sense of control by opening a bank account where they could contribute to help people impacted by the shootings.

To those two points, I would add a third, which is about giving people space in which to grow. In his book Believer: My Forty Years in Politics, David Axelrod describes a discussion with Harold Washington, Chicago’s first black mayor, about Washington’s racially polarized conflict with two white aldermen, Edward M. Burke and Edward Vrdolyak. Axelrod writes that “it was only Vrdolyak whom the mayor loathed. I asked him why. ‘Because I think Burke is the product of his upbringing and environment. He’s an honest racist.’” As Axelrod notes, Washington didn’t live long enough to see Burke adopt an African-American son. For winter to change to spring, people have to change, and you have to give them space to do that.