Fourth-Turning on the Corpse of the Old Consensus
Updated: Mar 26
The postwar consensus is dead. The strong gods have broken free. The Fourth Turning is upon us. It is now not a question of whether a new consensus must be forged, but when and by whom—or what.
Populism, often characterized as a popular revolt (i.e. of the people) against corrupt and or detached elites and the establishment(s) they buttress, arises in part from a breakdown of consensus on social, cultural, legal, and political matters. The consensus here of concern is the same that Rusty Reno discusses in Return of the Strong Gods: an agreement—after the decisive defeat of the Nazis and fascists in the Second War World and amidst a burgeoning Cold War with the Soviets—to check against the forces perceived to be behind or responsible for the authoritarian trends that had left much of the world in ruins.
Conflated and confused with the “dark gods” that set “aflame most of the world and [brought] death to millions,” [affinities for and loyalties to] religion, nation, and family were set in the crosshairs among the “strong gods” of yesteryear’s pantheon, along with any and all associated traditions and moral norms; along with anything hard or solid that might support the rise of an “unauthorized authority” perceived by the ever-centralizing new world order to be undesirable, which is to say competitive or threatening.
Extra to the promotion of a perverted liberalism (call it neoliberalism) coupled with a corresponding form of hyper-individualism, there came a rejection of metaphysics, leaving us dominated by postmodern relativism and as denizens of a so-called “open society”, subject to a “politics without transcendence, peace without unity, and justice without virtue.” The resultant society was no more open after the consensus than was the 15th Century Solovki Monastery after being repurposed by the Soviets into a concentration camp. The trouble was: it took us nearly a century to understand that we’re prisoners by proxy. It was the irreplaceable Titans that first shaped the West (i.e. the so-called strong gods including nationalism, strong family bonds, and intense religiosity / religious communitarianism) that have been locked away, and it is only of late that people are waking up to the fact that the Olympians (e.g. the capricious, corrosive, and devouring gods of progressivism and neoliberalism) responsible are no less dangerous or damaging.
In a 2017 article entitled “Return of the Strong Gods” pre-empting his book of the same name, Reno tied the loosely-used term “neoliberalism” to the system built post-consensus, describing “an economic and cultural regime of deregulation and disenchantment.”
The ambition of neoliberalism is to weaken and eventually dissolve the strong elements of traditional society that impede the free flow of commerce (the focus of nineteenth-century liberalism), as well as identity and desire (the focus of postmodern liberalism). This may work well for the global elite, but ordinary people increasingly doubt it works for them. The disenchantment and weakening that define the postwar era liberate the talented and powerful to move fluidly through an increasingly global system. But ordinary people end up unmoored, adrift, and abandoned, so much so that they are fueling an anti-establishment rebellion that demands the return of something solid, trustworthy, and enduring.
What was—as Rusty Reno notes further in his Public Square column in the March 2022 issue of First Things—an initially effective consensus intended to weaken the forces thought to have been responsible for the calamities of the early 20th Century,
has degenerated into the petrified and dysfunctional ideology of diversity, equity and inclusion. As a consequence, our ruling class misgoverns, often making our problems worse, not better. The public is not unwise to withdraw its support.
The aforementioned degeneration, linked also to the politicization of our most critical civic institutions, has—with the emptiness of our open societies—excited populist energies in the West at the same time that new social technologies enable highly-effective direction / coordination of said energies. (Echoing Martin Gurri’s suggestion in The Revolt of the Public, Reno cites “the silicon chip” as that which has broken “the elite monopoly on information.”)
Brexit and the MAGA movement (both direct responses to the fallout of globalism and the diminution of citizenship), the Joe Rogan alt-media phenomenon, Occupy Wall Street (a response to the economic and social stratification resultant of decades of callous hyper-individualism, community breakdown, and growing wealth inequality), the Freedom Convoy (a rejection of medical tyranny and an unrepentant and overreaching technocracy)—in each case and in a host of others, the elites in academia, government, media, big tech, and big business tried ardently to crush the populist response to the breakdown of the old consensus, the populist “revolt against the imperative of disenchantment.” Each time they failed, having managed at best to win a few battles, but always losing the war encompassing. In failing so miserably, they demonstrated that the populist moment was no flash in the pan. Not in Britain. Not in Canada. Certainly not in the United States.
The language of war above is prudent because it’s abundantly clear that diplomacy was never an option in the minds of the ruling elite when up cropped these troublesome mass movements. Across the West, the elites refused outright to engage with and channel the populist energies with which they were confronted. Look at Trudeau’s demonization of the peaceful working-class protesters of the Freedom Convoy or at the GOP’s rejection of the Breitbartite national conservatives in 2015. The former is fast sinking in the polls and the latter was blown up the following year.
Having abandoned any pretense to update the consensus and engage with these popular movements, the answer turned to by the elites was censure and coercion, both of which served to further undermine their authority and control. After all, says Reno, “disobedience that survives censure shows the censuring authority to be weak.” Moreover, and it is worth here noting, the rhetoric often deployed against the populists, while resonating with the thinking behind the postwar consensus, is as revealing as it is absurd when used in conjunction with the same crushing force thought to have been locked away with the strong gods. That the same government literally running roughshod over peaceful protesters and freezing policy-critics’ bank accounts would call their victims fascists should be a fair indication to all that the balance supposedly protecting the West from authoritarianism has lost its center. The banishment of religion, tradition, nationalism, and family from our open society clearly hasn’t ended authoritarianism, which begs two questions: what is the lasting benefit of the postwar consensus? Who still stands to benefit? Whatever the answers, there is no re-centering the old balance beam. A new beam is being firmed up and a new center will be struck.
Populism is transitory. Whether it is of the leftist or rightist variety, the object is ultimately a new balance of power, a new deal, a new consensus. Curiously, this transition to—borrowing a corporate buzzword used to death during the pandemic—a new normal, coincides with a “Fourth Turning,” which is to say, both a crisis and a generational shift now underway.
William Strauss and Neil Howe are best known for their American-centric generational theory detailed in The Fourth Turning. According to this well-regarded theory, while a society may progress (e.g. technologically) in a linear fashion, history is nevertheless cyclical. That is, owing primarily to the rocky interrelations between generations, it exhibits seasonal patterns.
The idiom “weak men create hard times, hard times create strong men, strong men create good times, and good times create weak men” serves here also to summarize some of the trends behind these seasons. The hard times gifted us by weak men often overlap with fourth turnings / the historical winter season. It just so happens we find ourselves presently at a Fourth Turning—in peak winter.
The Fourth Turning “is a Crisis, a decisive era of secular upheaval, when the values regime propels the replacement of the old civic order with a new one.” The winter period of Crisis (which some have suggested kicked off with the 9/11 terror attacks, the subprime mortgage crisis, or the global spread of the CCP Virus, and I figure may culminate in a Sino-American War) will “shock the nation out of its complacency and decay.”
Strauss and Howe construct the morphology of the crisis era (i.e. the Fourth Turning) as follows:
“A Crisis era begins with a catalyst…that produces a shift in mood.
Once catalyzed, a society achieves a regeneracy—a new counterentropy that reunifies and reenergizes civic life.
The regenerated society propels toward a climax—a crucial moment that confirms the death of the old order and birth of the new.
The climax culminates in a resolution—a triumphant or tragic conclusion that separates the winners from losers, resolves the big public questions, and establishes the new order.”
Strauss and Howe posit further, based on past fourth turnings (War of the Roses, 1459-1487; Armada Crisis, 1569-1594; Glorious Revolution, 1675-1704; American Revolution, 1773-1794; Civil War, 1860-1865; and the Great Depression and World War II, 1929-1946), that “people either coalesce as a nation and culture—or rip hopelessly and permanently apart.” This coalescence is required after a thorough societal unraveling (in our case, expedited by the Baby Boom generation), and is ensured by renewed, restored, and or reimagined civic institutions. What is needed is that “people on all sides of the Culture Wars should cultivate pragmatic alliances with niches possessing competing visions” with the intention to “help resacralize public institutions and reinfuse them with a much-needed sense of public purpose.”
The varieties of populism we are seeing today, which correspond to the shift in mood brought on by the catalyst, are neither the causes of the unraveling that has precipitated the Crisis nor the causes of the Crisis itself, at least not in this present turning. Rather, they are symptomatic of both the need for realignment—for the aforementioned renewal, restoration, and or reimagining of our civic institutions—and a withdrawal from the strong (not ‘dark’) gods.
In the populist movements lie partial answers for what is needed in and from a regenerated society in the Western context (some answers preferable to the right were taken up at the National Conservatism conference last October), not the least of which would be a reversal of the trends Victor Davis Hanson discusses in The Dying Citizen (i.e. a forced return of the masses to precitizenship and a turn to postcitizenship by the elites). Ultimately, we will have to free the strong gods. But how? And what force surviving this Crisis can moderate them once freed, and distinguish the strong from the dark?
One of the troubles with populism is that, owing to its constituents’ earned skepticism of all things established, it lacks the means for a meaningful consensus: orthodoxy. (It has been argued elsewhere that this is precisely why the heterodox Occupy movement failed in everything but by the rhetoric that survived it.) What’s more: populism tends to have a short memory, as it has the proclivity to raze what has come before. This should prove problematic when the old consensus is formally torn up and the strong gods are released. Fortunately, there is one institution that knows the strong gods better than any other; one that has studied them for thousands of years; one that is an enemy of the “dark gods” among them; one well acquainted with the One True God; one that has a coherent basis for a new consensus regarding their rehabilitation: the Holy Roman Catholic Church.
As Thomas Babington Macaulay—neither a Catholic nor a close ally of the Church—observed:
She saw the commencement of all the governments and of all the ecclesiastical establishments that now exist in the world; and we feel no assurance that she is not destined to see the end of them all.
Like the gates of hell, no turning will ultimately prevail against her. The permanence and universality of Mother Kirk and her focus on what belongs to God contra Caesar make her a perfect candidate for lead architect of the new consensus or at the very least the principle broker. Furthermore, she has no meaningful conflict of interest, granted the Church’s concern is [the] people, not in preserving the power of today’s elites; in souls, not regimes. She may have been weakened somewhat by the postwar consensus and the forces of leftism that precipitated it, but—as G.K. Chesterton observed—she has a knack for rising again largely because she has a God who knows the way out of the grave. (We may need more of Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò's kind contra the likes of the pretenders poisoned early in their vocations by Liberation Theology or the heretics severing the Church in Germany.) If there was any time or turning to rise and exude strength, this would be it.
The Church of all seasons can lend its ancient eye, long memory, and ever-green insights to the populists. In fact, the Church can guide the aggrieved masses in articulating the new consensus we’ll leave winter with for spring—one informed by our timeless orthodoxy, which upholds the value of life, the dignity of the worker, the importance of community, the inexorable link between freedom and responsibility (recall Solzhenitsyn's recommendation to the West: that it "defend not so much human rights as human obligations"), and the comprehensibility of Truth. It can temper the strong gods, condemn the dark gods, serve the One True God, and extol, as Reno has, a much-needed “politics of loyalty and solidarity.”
A Crisis is a time where everything is up in the air. We can wait to see where the pieces fall or alternatively we can strategically help them land without breaking further. Of course, to do so effectively requires surety on our part—in ourselves and in our beliefs—and that we set about improving trust in our eternal institution. Failing to involve herself in the new consensus, the Church risks not only having the strong gods being turned into idols once freed and the dark gods retake the world stage, but having the new consensus seek to lock away the True God.
Rusty Reno notes that:
The most reliable protection against a false and dangerous sacralization of ideology, nation, Volk, or any other populist perversion is not multiculturalism or post-national globalism. It is instead love and loyalty ordered toward the highest good, which is God. The religious covenant relativizes our other loyalties. It smashes idols not by relying on the postwar pattern of disenchantment, but instead by romancing our souls with a higher, more powerful enchantment.
The postwar consensus is dead. The strong gods have broken free. The Fourth Turning is upon us. It is not a question of whether a new consensus must be forged, but when and by whom. The Church has the unique ability to romance our souls and to temper populist energies, and its involvement is desperately needed at this critical time—in a time where even Reno imagines Christendom to be dead. The populists don’t need another critic. They need an expert guide to lead them to a consensus that will prove the coming spring fruitful.