Entering midlife around World War I, this generation often found itself split into opposite camps, rural evangelicals versus urban "social gospelers" (or "modernists"). Yet growing pessimism about America's future in the hands of their nihilistic Lost juniors brought them together behind a common generation mission: the vindication of social good over social evil. Thus did fiftyish Missionaries transform into enthusiastic circa-1917 "Crusaders for Democracy," and later into the "Decency" enforcers of the Twenties. They pushed through Prohibition, Women's Suffrage, immigration restriction, Smoot-Hawley, Red-deportation, "vice squads," and punitive criminal laws--all in an effort to rekindle higher principles of national community.
As the 1920s wore on…. Congress virtually halted immigration….
Immigration tends to rise during an Awakening Era, peak during an Inner-Driven Era, and fall during a Crisis Era. Since most immigrants have always ranged in age from their mid-teens to late-thirties, Idealist and (especially) Reactive generations have had foreign-born flavors. The Liberty, Transcendentals, Gilded, Boom and 13ers comprise, in fact, the only American generations in which the share of immigrants has risen over their next-elders. Civic generations, on the other hand, have always shown a marked decline in their immigrant share. Civics enter rising adulthood during a Crisis Era, when immigration is more difficult or less attractive--and when elder Idealist leaders typically take a hard anti-immigrant stance in order to "protect" the national community better than their Adaptive predecessors.
From the 4th T
Cities grew mean and politics hateful. Immigration surged, financial speculation boomed…
Run the clock back the length of yet another long life, to the 1760s. The recent favorable conclusion to the French and Indian War had brought eighty years of conflict to a close and secured the colonial frontier. Yet when England tried to recoup the expense of the war through taxation, the colonies seethed with a directionless discontent. Immigration from the Old World, emigration across the Appalachians, and colonial trade arguments all rose sharply.
During each of these periods, Americans celebrated an ethos of frenetic and laissez-faire “individualism” (a word first popularized in the 1840s), yet also fretted over social fragmentation, epidemic violence, and economic and technological change that seemed to be accelerating beyond society’s ability to absorb it.
During each of these periods, Americans had recently achieved a stunning victory over a long-standing foreign threat—Imperial Germany, Imperial New Spain (alias Mexico), or Imperial New France. Yet that victory came to be associated with a worn-out definition of collective purpose—and, perversely, unleashed a torrent of pessimism.
During each of these periods, an aggressive moralism darkened the debate about the country’s future. Culture wars raged, the language of political discourse coarsened, nativist (and sectional) feelings hardened, immigration and substance abuse came under attack, and attitudes toward children grew more protective.
During each of these periods, Americans felt well-rooted in their personal values but newly hostile toward the corruption of civic life. Unifying institutions which had seemed secure for decades suddenly felt ephemeral. Those who had once trusted the nation with their lives were now growing old and passing on. To the new crop of young adults, the nation hardly mattered. The whole res-publica seemed on the verge of disintegrating.
The 1760s were followed by the American Revolution, the 1850s by Civil War, the 1920s by the Great Depression and World War II. All these Unraveling eras were followed by bone-jarring Crises so monumental that, by their end, American society emerged in a wholly new form.
Each time, the change came with scant warning. As late as December 1773, November 1859, and October 1929, the American people had no idea how close it was.
Then sudden sparks (the Boston Tea Party, John Brown’s raid and execution, Black Tuesday) transformed the public mood, swiftly and permanently. Over the next two decades or so, society convulsed. Emergencies required massive sacrifices from a citizenry that responded by putting community ahead of self. Leaders led, and people trusted them. As a new social contract was created, people overcame challenges once thought insurmountable—and used the Crisis to elevate themselves and their nation to a higher plane of civilization: In the 1790s, they triumphantly created the modern world’s first democratic republic. In the late 1860s, wounded but reunited, they forged a genuine nation extending new guarantees of liberty and equality. In the late 1940s, they constructed the most Promethean superpower ever seen.
The Fourth Turning is history’s great discontinuity. It ends one epoch and begins another.
The mood of the current Culture Wars era seems new to nearly every living American but is not new to history. Around World War I, America steeped in reform and fundamentalism amidst a floodtide of crime, alcohol, immigration, political corruption, and circus trials. The 1850s likewise simmered with moral righteousness, shortening tempers, and multiplying “mavericks.” It was a decade, says historian David Donald, in which “the authority of all government in America was at a low point.” Entering the 1760s, the colonies felt rejuvenated in spirit but reeled from violence, mobs, insurrections, and paranoia over the corruption of official authority.
Immigration to America has also followed a saecular rhythm: It tends to climb in an Awakening, peak in an Unraveling, and fall during a Crisis. The climb coincides with quickening social mobility, rising public tolerance, pluralist-minded leaders, and loosening social controls. The Unraveling-era reversal is triggered by a sudden nativist backlash (in the 1850s, 1920s, and 1990s). The subsequent fall coincides with aggressive new efforts to “protect” the nation—and by the time a Crisis hits, immigration is often seen as unsafe by the community and unattractive by those who might in better times wish to relocate.