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An Interview With the Author Who Inspired Steve Bannon's Political Outlook

Neil Howe co-wrote a book in the 1990s. Little did he know how influential it would be.

Neil Howe
(David Kidd)
In 1997, Neil Howe co-authored The Fourth Turning, a book about cyclical patterns in human history that fall into four repeating epochs. The fourth of these periods, or turnings, often involves a financial crisis, armed conflict, an authoritarian leader and the tearing down and rebuilding of traditional institutions. Past "fourth turnings" have included the American Revolution, the Civil War and World War II.

The book resonated so much with Steve Bannon, a longtime adviser to Donald Trump, that he made a 2010 documentary inspired by it called “Generation Zero.” Bannon, now President Trump's chief strategist, argues that the Great Recession represented the beginning of a new fourth turning. That might explain how an unorthodox candidate like Trump was able to upend the political establishment and win the Electoral College. 

Howe spoke with Governing to discuss his book, the new attention being paid to it and how it could guide the future of American politics. The following interview has been edited for clarity and length.

You wrote in The Washington Post that “Rising regionalism and nationalism around the world could lead to the fragmentation of major political entities … and the outbreak of hostilities.” Do you think that might apply to a bifurcation of states, with greater political polarization and regional division within the U.S.? 

The Civil War was the deadliest ever fought in the Western hemisphere, and that was a fourth turning that involved conflict between geographical areas. We reinvented our government afterwards and became much less of a federal democracy and much more of a unitary democracy. It’s often said that after 1865, we began to refer to the United States as a singular noun rather than a plural noun. It was a pretty fundamental shift. 

But one of the things we’ve noticed recently in elections is growing polarization by region with Republicans successively getting larger and larger shares of the rural red zone and Democrats doing better and better in the core urban areas. 

I actually think, however, that regional divisions would have been a lot worse had Hillary Clinton won the election. I only say this because the stock prices of the survival and gun industries hugely fell after the election when everything else was rising. I find that as sufficient indication that we could have had serious separatist movements in places like Idaho and Texas. Of course, it’s going the other way with the idea of a "CalExit," where California would simply stop paying taxes.

This campaign of Trump against sanctuary cities may spread into a campaign against sanctuary states, and then it becomes a bigger constitutional issue. I don’t know if we can assess what the probability is of that happening because even after the election in 1860, no one took seriously the idea that we’d actually be at war with each other. Most thought, “well, this is terrible for our country, but I guess they’ll just secede.” 

What happens in a fourth turning, when national authority becomes much more omnipresent, is that if you do have regional divisions, it becomes more noticeable who’s in and who’s out, and you have to deal with that disaffection. 

In other interviews, you’ve talked at length about the new generation of leaders who were born after the last fourth turning (WWII) and whose views aren’t shaped by that crisis. Can you elaborate on that?

What you have is the near complete disappearance of the Silent Generation. I think the absence does make a difference. Boomers or Xers have no memory of the "American high." They don’t remember anything before Kennedy’s assassination, tend to be a bit more skeptical and a bit more risk-taking. They have much less invested in the institutions, and they tend to be less attached to either party and more unpredictable in their decisionmaking. 

You’ve also mentioned before that Steve Bannon’s populism cuts across traditional dividing lines between parties. He takes “the community ethos” from the Democratic Party and “the tried-and-true conservative values” from the Republican Party. I wonder if we might see more of that -- borrowing from both parties and creating some sort of hybrid?

Totally. I think that’s where it’s going. Think about this: Who did FDR most worry about in 1936? It was Huey Long. He worried not because he thought Huey Long was going to take the Democratic Convention. He worried that after losing, Huey Long would run as an independent and take enough votes to cause him to lose to the Republican. 

Sinclair Lewis wrote a fictional book about Huey Long called It Can’t Happen Here, which is all about the rise of fascism in America. I’ve heard a number of people talk about Donald Trump as almost the perfect character out of Sinclair Lewis’ novel: someone who is kind of a megalomaniac and very much into the drama, media and celebrity side of politics.

And this idea of this amalgam of ideological pieces is something that either party could do. To some extent, Bernie Sanders came close to doing it. 

Do you think that would result in a remaking of the existing two parties? 

I think the two parties are already being remade. Trump lost a lot of upper income voters, and he gained a lot of lower income voters. As Trump begins to redefine the Republicans, Democrats themselves will begin to redefine as a response. They’re already moving toward their own kind of populism. I don’t think a candidate like Hillary will be nominated again. 

Do you think it’s too late for Democrats to restructure in time to take a leadership role during this fourth turning? 

No, not necessarily. But the Democrats have to come back with something that responds to the same fourth turning shift in the electorate. 

Each turning is a different phase in the supply and demand for order. In first turnings, institutions provide order and people want it. In second turnings, institutions provide order but people don’t want it. In third turnings, supply and demand for order is weak. In a fourth turning, demand for order rises but institutions aren’t supplying it. That gives a huge advantage to the leader who says “I’m going to fix things. I’m going to build things. We’re going to make institutions more effective. We’re going to make this country great again.” 

You can’t be a libertarian in a fourth turning. It’s not going to work. 

Your book is getting a resurgence of interest with Steve Bannon in the White House. How do you feel about your work being associated with him and the Trump administration? And to what extent do you think he grasps the thesis of The Fourth Turning?

I know him. We’ve worked on projects together. He’s pretty knowledgeable about the book. But then again, he has his other agendas. The other thing to remember is, it’s very difficult to know what he thinks versus what Trump or Breitbart [the far-right news network that Bannon used to head] is doing.

You’re really asking two questions. What does Steve Bannon really think? Read some great feature stories about his life in The Boston Globe, The New York Times and The Washington Post. Most of those debunk the hysteria surrounding a lot of his views -- whether he’s racist or a Klu Klux Klanner. Some of this stuff is ridiculous. He certainly is very unusual in his politics, and I’ll leave it at that. I think he’s a creative guy. I think he’s very smart. Most of what I know is stuff that he was trying to do in film. 

Your other question is, how do I feel about him using the book? Our book has been used by people all over the political spectrum. When you read it, it’s almost impossible to discern what our politics are. 

And it sounds like that was an intentional choice. 

Yeah. We wanted to give people a whole different way of looking at how history moves. Our goal was to talk about our society and its rhythms completely objectively, almost like a biologist. We don’t have any particular ideological agenda with our work. 

You’ve said that Bannon thinks like a film director along cultural lines rather than policy lines. Given Trump’s success in the election, do you think that’s a lesson for politicians and their advisers? 

When we think of a prophet or a seer, you can’t just go by the rules. The rules are descriptions of what now exists. It’s not going to give you any sense of where we’re going. This is why visionaries are never big data people. Visionaries are people who have to do things outside what the data will statistically tell you to do.  

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
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