America’s 4th Turning Has Arrived — Which Path Will We Take?

Things seem bleak, but it’s that very bleakness that history tells us produces movements to overthrow psychopathic oligarchs

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Democrats thought they’d come up with a solution, or at least a good start toward a solution, to the crisis of climate change — one that would also create millions of good paying jobs to revive the American middle class after the Covid shock. It was all in their $3.5 trillion infrastructure bill.

And then came the headline: Kyrsten Sinema Just Threw an Unexpected Wrench Into Biden's Infrastructure Plans, quoting the Democratic senator saying, “I do not support a bill that costs $3.5 trillion.”

She, like Joe Manchin, is apparently at least partly in the employ of the oligarchs or, like Paul Ryan, hoping to catch a great-paying gig with them when the voters kick her out.

We live in a time of crisis. Man-made climate change ravishes our nation and planet while a deadly virus shows us the limits of neoliberalism and the importance of a well-functioning government.

But the biggest crisis both America and the world face is the problem of psychopathic oligarchs, as these are the people who created and funded denial of our climate crisis in the face of science’s warnings over the past 50 years and are making it difficult to get the Covid and other health crises under control (among other things).

These rare individuals with little to no empathy or conscience but great intelligence and charm, when born into even moderately wealthy families, often use their opportunities and educations to rise to positions of great power in business or government. They then use the levers of power newly available to them to become fabulously rich and even more powerful. 

Not only have they seized control of much of America but they’re reaching out across the planet to take over nation after nation. Hungary, India, Russia, the Philippines, and Brazil have fallen from democracy into oligarchy and autocracy, and countries across the world are trembling in the face of the corruption of great wealth.

We once had guardrails in America to protect us from such people, like laws against monopoly, campaign finance restrictions, and top tax rates that discouraged hoarding by the morbidly rich. 

But the oligarchs among us got together to destroy the obstacles we’d put in their way, capturing government institutions like the Supreme Court and Congress, turning them against We The People and transforming them to their own profit.

Three times before in the history of America fabulously wealthy psychopaths have nearly succeeded in taking down our government, as I lay out in The Hidden History of American Oligarchy

The first time was when the oligarchs of Britain and the East India Company literally fought us in the streets trying to prevent the birthing of our country in the Revolutionary War. They lost.

The second time was when the oligarchs who rose to power in the South by exploiting the labor of enslaved people rose up together to try to destroy democracy in America and replace it with oligarchy. They lost that Civil War they started in 1861 and retreated back to their local little kingdoms for the next four generations.

The third time they rose up was in the 1930s when their overreach brought about the Republican Great Depression and they tried to bring a half-million armed men to kidnap or kill President Franklin D. Roosevelt in what history calls the attempted “Business Coup.” 

Their biggest mistake was to try to hire retired Marine General Smedley Butler to lead their mercenary army; Butler turned the tables on them and blew the whistle.

As President Roosevelt said in 1936 about the kind of men behind that attempted coup three years earlier:

“For out of this modern civilization economic royalists carved new dynasties. New kingdoms were built upon concentration of control over material things. … It was natural and perhaps human that the privileged princes of these new economic dynasties, thirsting for power, reached out for control over Government itself.”

FDR took on those “economic royalists” and defeated them. He explicitly called them out when the Democratic Party renominated him for president in 1936 in Philadelphia.

“These economic royalists complain that we seek to overthrow the institutions of America,” Roosevelt said.  “What they really complain of is that we seek to take away their power.”

He paused for a moment, then thundered, “Our allegiance to American institutions requires the overthrow of this kind of power!”

The crowd roared, delighted that he’d turned back the Republican Great Depression and put millions to work while undoing the climate-destroying Dust Bowl by creating the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) to plant millions of trees across the country.

“In vain,” Roosevelt said, “they seek to hide behind the Flag and the Constitution. In their blindness they forget what the Flag and the Constitution stand for. Now, as always, they stand for democracy, not tyranny; for freedom, not subjection; and against a dictatorship by mob rule and the over-privileged alike.”

It’s said that every four generations — roughly every 80 years — we forget the lessons of the last time the psychopathic oligarchs tried to destroy the nation and reconfigure it as their own private fiefdom.  The result of that forgetting is inevitably an economic crash followed by a crisis of massive proportions that brings the American people together to stop the oligarchs and reform the country.

In their brilliant book about this four-generation cycle, The Fourth Turning, William Strauss and Neil Howe describe how the quote attributed to Arnold Toynbee — “When the last man who remembered the horrors of the last Great War dies, the next great war becomes inevitable” — plays out.  It takes 80 years for us to forget the lessons from our previous terrible experiment with oligarchy.

And here we are, twelve generations after this nation’s Founders overthrew Britain’s economic tyranny over us, eight generations after the oligarchs of the South rose up and then were defeated, and four generations after Roosevelt turned back the attempted businessman’s coup.

As the Republican Great Depression bit deeply into America in the early 1930s during the last years of Republican President Herbert Hoover’s presidency things seemed bleak. 

A third of the nation was unemployed, the Supreme Court struck down every attempt to empower working people or restrain the oligarchic class, and Congress was wholly owned by the psychopathic billionaires (in today’s money) of that day.

The nation was ravaged by an environmental crisis so severe that a huge migration of people from the dust-bowl states was underway and even New York City was overcome with great, unbreathable clouds of dust blown from the Midwest as the consequence of unsustainable agricultural and forestry practices. (I wrote the foreword to Dennis Weaver’s autobiography, All The World’s A Stage, in which he describes in compelling detail how, as a child, his family escaped the dustbowl by driving a beat-up station wagon from Oklahoma to Oregon to pick strawberries and then, ultimately, to California.)

But the people of America rose up and fought back in the 1930s, putting into office people who built the modern middle class and put the psychopathic oligarchs in a box with well-enforced antitrust laws and a top tax rate of 91% by the 1940s when FDR died in office.

Greedy psychopathic oligarchs have again captured America 76 years after FDR’s death. They’ve seized control of much of our media, the entire Republican Party, and more than a few Democrats. 

Wall Street, Big Pharma and fossil-fuel funded groups give senators like Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema their marching orders, while white supremacist psychopaths control about a third of our states, most notably Georgia, Florida and Texas.

Things seem bleak.  But it’s that very bleakness that history tells us produces movements to overthrow psychopaths and oligarchs. 

This isn’t a battle that will be won in days or weeks, but as climate change and a renewed pandemic’s Delta variant ravage the nation people are waking up, taking notice and joining together in political action.

While this is a time of great crisis it’s also a time of great opportunity.

If we can build and maintain the courage and activism of the generations who empowered Washington, Lincoln and Roosevelt, we may well see a positive outcome to this Fourth Turning of the great wheel of American History.

If we fail, the nation and world will continue to descend into flames and future generations will remember our era with a curse.