Strauss-Howe generational theory is in the news lately, if not in the headlines. Steve Bannon, Trump’s campaign strategist and primary advisor, gave an address at the CPAC (that is the Conservative Political Action Committee convention) in which he laid out his vision. And the vision that he laid out included a reference to Strauss-Howe generational theory without specifically naming it. An analysis I read by an opinion editor in the Los Angeles Times pointed out the reference and—the article being in the Los Angeles Times— they referenced it as a dangerous and unproven theory. While that may not be entirely fair, recognizing that Bannon is influenced by Strauss-Howe generational theory is helpful to understanding where he is coming from.
Strauss-Howe generational theory is named for William Strauss and Neil Howe. Strauss had a background in law and public policy, Howe in English literature, economics, and history. Before their collaboration they had separately written books about the boomer generation and the millennials. When they looked at further back at history they decided that they could discern a pattern, and further that this pattern was because of social dynamics. The dynamic in a nutshell looks like this: that the political and cultural environment that a child grows up into determines how they react and respond to the world as they go through later phases of life as adults who make political and cultural and social decisions and then eventually into the elder years— where they are still in positions of influence but not the decision-makers.
Fundamentally the idea that is that there is a cyclical sequence of cultural environments—each one unique in its particular era, but each sharing some basic characteristics—each flowing into the next. So when teenagers grow up into a world in which there is a high degree of chaos and disorder, they rebel against that inwardly and over time create highly ordered in societies that tends towards homogeneity. In turn the success of creating such societies cause is the next generation to grow up and feel unduly confined and restricted and yearn to break out of these societies. This breakout phase produces much cultural and political innovation and creativity, but carries within it the seeds of its next of the next phase and its own demise, because the generation that grows up with the breakout in high levels of expression of individuality take this than to extremes producing social and political chaos. Then the generation that grows up in the social political chaos yearns for order and re-creates homogeneity. Each of these generations according to Strauss and Howe are approximately 20 years long—plus or minus.
Strauss and Howe believe that they had identified this pattern, and they mapped it backwards onto US history. Is pretty easy to see the Great Depression era followed by the 50s and early 60s era of conformity, followed by the late 60s and 70s breakout of individual expression in 1980s and then beginning early in the 1990s but then especially more pronounced after 2010 political and social polarization and high levels of conflict. The pattern of this cycle between generational attitudes Strauss and Howe mapped backwards to the to the American Revolution and even to the pre-revolutionary period. And other researchers have taken over to European history and mapped it back as far as the end of the Middle Ages to about the 1500s. There is an interesting question about why it can be mapped back any further. The two possibilities are that the model breaks down once you get into the medieval world view with its tendency towards stasis and it’s uniquely and fundamentally different mindset and worldview. Or it may simply be that there is not enough data to characterize individual generations in twenty-year phases any further back, since the cultural productions were considerably fewer, and the public sphere the common shared cultural space was occupied by far fewer participants, so maybe the evidence is simply not there even if the phenomenon still is.
Historians have taken a somewhat skeptical view of the whole theory, especially since we live in a postmodern period that by temperament resists grand unifying theories in general. That and the fact that historians by training are prone to focus intensely on the particulars of a given time period, and tend to resist oversimplified generalizations. So Strauss-Howe generational theory is not well known among historians, and certainly not broadly accepted. However, that does not necessarily invalidate the theory, so while the LA Times editorial may have been unfair in calling it both dangerous and unproven, it is nonetheless worth noting that the theory is certainly not universally accepted.
What does this Strauss-Howe generational theory tell us about Steve Bannon and his worldview? Bannon accepts that US history is entering a period of upheaval and conflict. If he comes from such a worldview, he is unlikely to want to avoid it, or to see it as automatically a bad thing. This is a fairly strong contrast to the liberal consensus and the outlook of President Obama, who primarily saw progress as a linear advancement forward. In the linear perspective, perhaps the rate of change varies from era to era, but the direction is always towards improvement. Strauss-Howe is cyclical, and thus fundamentally at odds with any linear approach to understanding history. Based on this difference of opinion about the nature of progress, Bannon is likely to embrace chaos, rather than want to avoid it. This already would be an insight into his approach. If conflict is inevitable, you are not going to spend much effort trying to avoid it. Now what Strauss-Howe generational theory does not predict is what the new stasis of order will look like as we come out the period of chaos. And this is where Bannon is likely trying to make his mark. The new order could look like Denmark – high taxes, large social safety net, and the world’s highest average happiness rate. Or the world could look a lot more like the 1880s in the United States: minimal taxes, huge wealth disparity, lots of “freedom” but only to those who have the financial means to enjoy it, and a lot of latitude for the wealthy and powerful. You can guess which one Bannon is likely aiming for. Which one history will provide is up to a lot of other people besides Steve Bannon.