Why Are We So Divided? It Could Be Because Of The “Fourth Turning”

No matter where you turn, everyone is fighting each other. People will base their entire personality on hating someone or something, and nuance is unwelcome in any and all discourse. Would it be any comfort to know that this general vitriol and political extremism is actually just history repeating itself?

By Luna Salinas5 min read
Pexels/Anastasiia Shevchenko

Conflict has existed since the beginning of time. In cases large and small, people deal with conflict every day of their lives, from the petty everyday disagreements or slights to experiencing war directly or potentially through a loved one. Yet, the environment surrounding political and cultural discourse is more intense and heightened today, and it feels like people got along much better even just 20 years ago. The sense that no one can get along anymore and that everyone is out to get each other definitely isn’t just in your head. 

Everything is political and inflammatory in some way, from movies to TV shows to video games to live performances. Even hand gestures, clothing, and hairstyles.

But tensions have been this high before in history. For instance, before the Revolutionary War or the Civil War – fellow countrymen were at each other’s throats, with tensions so high that they led to such pivotal and historic wars. If history doesn’t repeat, it certainly rhymes, and the repetition of high tensions and divisions falls into the idea of “turnings,” as written about by historians William Strauss and Neil Howe in their book The Fourth Turning: What the Cycles of History Tell Us About America's Next Rendezvous with Destiny.

A Lifetime, Divided

Strauss and Howe believe that lifetimes (a period of roughly 80 years) can be further divided into four phases, each spanning 20 years. Each phase is referred to as a “turning.” While they’re easily described with their numerical position (first, second, etc.), they can also be described as the season they represent.

The first is a “high,” described as “an upbeat era of strengthening institutions and weakening individualism” and characterized by the establishment of a new civic order and the removal of the previous status quo. For instance, the period after World War II fits within a First Turning: The U.S. established itself as a global superpower, the economy was booming, and people were having families. Trust in government institutions and a general sense of optimism surrounding the direction of the nation are highlights of this time period.

The second is an “awakening,” “a passionate era of spiritual upheaval.” The civic order established in the First Turning is challenged by new ideals and a new regime driven by different values. In the ‘60s and ‘70s, we saw the acceptance of progressive ideals brought on by the civil rights movement and feminism. Such changes were driven by the need for equality – women were not inferior to men in society, and blacks were not inferior to whites. While there were important changes that needed to happen, the established civic order wasn’t necessarily under attack.

The third is an “unraveling,” “a downcast era of strengthening individualism and weakening institutions,” wherein the established civic order is attacked, with new values taking place. The Reagan era ushered in a period of increased individualism, with promises of cutting back the government’s power, tax cuts being introduced, and no-fault divorce being accepted in the majority of states. Wide advancements in technology also drove further changes in culture and entertainment. Cable TV opened doors for more access to different entertainment, along with CDs and video. Consumerism was further facilitated, and scandalism arose in the form of following celebrity downfalls on TV. Howe further elaborated that this season of unraveling can be defined as when people don’t want order.

The fourth turning is an era of secular upheaval, when the values regime propels the replacement of the old civic order with a new one.

The fourth 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.”

At the time that Howe and Strauss’ book was written in 1997, they denoted that period of time as still within the Third Turning, and we could anticipate the Fourth beginning sometime after the mid-00s. It seems to align fairly well, as we saw greater political and cultural division in the late 00s and early 2010s to today.

We Are Living in a Fourth Turning World (and I Am a Fourth Turning Girl)

In 2001, the U.S. would go through the 9/11 tragedy and the fall of the Twin Towers in New York. The government used the near-unanimous support for fighting terrorism in order to pass the Patriot Act, which gave them further control with the intention of fighting and preventing terrorism, even if it meant Americans would be giving up their freedom of privacy. In a 2003 inquiry, 69% of people said it either went far enough or didn’t go far enough.

Between 2007 and 2008, the U.S. was hit with a major financial crisis that put thousands of Americans out of a job and sparked a new recession. This led to more government regulation in order to favor consumer protection, and for many who were growing up during this time, it very well could have formed attitudes around fairness and the government needing to do more to protect people.

This aligns with Howe’s description of the shift that leads the Third Turning into the Fourth: “No order is being offered anymore, but suddenly, people want order again. People feel lost. Their lives feel rootless. No one feels protected. No one feels secure. This leads into the fourth turning social mood, which is when we tear down institutions, which are now regarded as completely dysfunctional. We put new institutions to replace them, and these are, as I suggested before, this is when public history moves really fast.”

We saw the rise of protests like Occupy Wall Street (OWS) in 2011 that sought to tear down the institutions, to make them more fair. While the OWS protests had their share of socialist idealists (which does align with the desired teardown of everything established in the First Turning), they also constituted people wanting to take away the influence corporations had in politics so supposed leaders couldn’t just be bought and the country couldn’t be sold out.

Seems like this laid the groundwork for the collapse, right? But if OWS protests had pretty wide support among the young, who are now older adults, why are we so divided?

It could be that a shift within younger people occurred in the early to mid-2010s that still exists today. Some stayed angry at economic injustices and the filth in politics, and generally, these people grew up to become more libertarian toward the government. Others wanted socialism to take over. As if that shift weren’t bad enough for causing infighting among those who were supposedly united in taking down government corruption, the proliferation of the internet and social media brought on new challenges. Ideas could be spread instantaneously, no matter how bad they were, and outrage became a new currency.

Gamergate brought on the sorry state of entertainment media as it exists today. What began as a criticism of personal bias affecting journalism in 2013 split the industry completely. It devolved into feminism needing to be implemented more in video games, and eventually other entertainment, even if the writing of a story were to suffer. Men were ostracized and demonized within a medium that they were the primary consumers of, and from there, tensions between men and women started to rise.

With the legalization of same-sex marriage in all 50 states in 2015, a new cultural shift began. The celebration of such a ruling entailed a celebration of the LGB community, which eventually gave rise to the LGBTQ+ community as we know it today.

A forced insertion of feminist ideals in entertainment makes enjoying things without thinking about politics near impossible.

Much of this has laid the groundwork for why so many are obsessed with politics and why we’re all generally so divided. A forced insertion of feminist ideals in entertainment makes enjoying things without thinking about politics near impossible, and beyond feminism, there’s the trend of inserting the current social conflict du jour as well. You can’t forget about the injustices and mistreatment of people in the modern world while wanting to engage in escapist media, and if you even want to, many will call you an evil person who has more privilege than you know what to do with.

Dating is also incredibly difficult since, as a woman, you have seemingly infinite options, thanks to the expanse that is online dating, but once you filter out the porn-addled, the male feminists, and those who unironically think the 19th Amendment can be repealed, all of a sudden, dating is a more difficult task. The aforementioned criteria are majorly political by nature; it seems like it just can’t be escaped.

It feels like we’re all in a giant pressure cooker. What’s going to happen when the pressure gets to be too much?

At a Crossroads for the Future

Howe has said that the Fourth Turning began in 2008, with the financial crisis. With that, we can expect the end of it within the next few years.

The overly optimistic view here is that while there have been major wars following seasons of crisis, there’s no guarantee that we will see a major war. In fact, crises are followed by highs. If you’re coming of age or are a young adult right now, it’s very well possible that you will live through a period of renewal and betterment, much like what the Greatest Generation lived through post-WWII.

The more pessimistic view is that all of the conflicts will build into something that will displace or kill millions of people. We’ve lived through the summer of “peaceful protests” in 2020 and the mounting racial tensions that still persist today. As if the destruction of property and a disregard for the “peaceful” part of protests weren’t enough, we’ve seen people killed and nearly stripped of their freedoms and liberty for the crime of defending themselves and aiming to preserve their own lives. Who is to say that things won’t get worse?

The truth here surely lies in the middle. Something has to happen that will either unite the nation against one common enemy, be it within our own country or outside it, and truly allow us to put aside our differences; or, out of all the internal conflict, we will eventually fall into a state of civil war, and the winner will establish a new reign. Either way, the at-times intolerable political and cultural discord can’t possibly last forever. God willing, we’re in for new, monumental change.

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