Past perfect — Stephen K. Bannon’s generational view of history
With a seat on the US National Security Council, Stephen K. Bannon’s generational view of history and the strategy it implies got surprisingly little attention, although his views — if put into action — have crucial implications for domestic policies within the United States and foreign policy as well.
The neglect is also surprising since his analyses have precedents: They can be traced both to Aristotle, Plato, and Polybius’ Histories and to the Founding Fathers. The Greeks’ views of “mixed constitution” shaped the Founding Fathers’ belief that proper checks and balances — and luck — would prevent future generations from lapsing into affluence-induced decline and prevent both domestic unrest and wars.
Bannon’s 2010 Generation Zero documentary and remarks made at the Vatican in 2014 make it clear that he views problems facing the United States originate from a generation of spoiled, affluent youth, growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, who weakened unique American institutions and values that their hard-working parents created. By the 1990s Baby Boomers infested the government, media and academia, shaping the present millennial generation. This gave rise to policies that encouraged dependency on the government, weakened the family and, using the American past as prelude, Bannon believed, would lead to wars — unless a Machiavellian prince (or princess as Bannon once thought Sarah Palin could be) appears to stop and reverse the decline — and prevent wars.
For his documentary Bannon consulted Neil Howe, a non-academic historian, and David Kaiser, an academic one who taught at Harvard and Carnegie Mellon. Kaiser concedes that he was perhaps the only one incorporating in his work Howe’s and the late William Strauss’ generational view of history (though not buying into conclusions of necessarily ending in wars).
But it was Polybius’ Histories that first articulated this generational view of history, suggesting that checks and balances could prevent the decline — his views much debated by the Founding Fathers. The balance among branches of government was not about preventing short-term abuses of power, but the devastating impact that a weakened balance would have on future generations, destroying the foundations of sustainable prosperity.
Polybius reached his conclusion by first distinguishing between three distinct forms of government. In a kingdom, the king rules either justly or becomes a tyrant. When a group of men rules, they can either be the best and wisest (“the aristocrats”) or be corrupt oligarchs. A popular majority can constitute a democracy — the third option — with civic order and rule of law, or can also be mob rule where lawlessness prevails. Unless features of the three forms of governing are mixed, they can end badly, even if they start well, because, Polybius explains, the handing down of privileges to future generations is done without the latter understanding the discipline that was necessary to create the well-being to start with.
Kingdoms become corrupt because succession goes by genetic accident — the kings’ offspring — who grow up in power and affluence, spend extravagantly and lose the people’s goodwill. When “aristocrats” come to power they manage, but the next generation succumbs to the same hubris as the kings’ genetic accidents. Democracy — which is a succession of political power by votes — is not immune to such declines. Future generations inherit the privileges of democracy without effort and cease to grasp what brought those privileges about to start with. The venally ambitious rise and promise comfort to the masses, who vote but misperceive the long-term impact of the bribes. Civic cohesion weakens and mob rule and violence start. All such generational declines end in violence.
“Mixed constitutions” incorporating elements of the three distinct forms of government may prevent such declines. The Roman experiment was Polybius’ example, where consuls were “commanders-in-chief,” (an aspect of monarchy); limited by the senate controlling the purse (an aspect of “aristocracy”); the two being controlled by people, voting for or against laws, and ratify (or not) alliances and treaties.
Such “mixed constitution,” he hoped, would prevent future generations’ lapse into corruption, wars and revolutions that each form of governing in separation cannot. Whether or not he gave an accurate description of ancient Rome, his views influenced the Founding Fathers, who argued endlessly about the ability of Polybius’ “mixed constitution” to diminish the chances of complacent future generations “unmixing” it: Yet in Bannon’s view this happened.
Historians noted that the Founding Fathers were indeed worried about future generations when searching for the right balance. John Adams, in his A Defence of the Constitutions, devoted a chapter to Polybius’ “mixed constitution,” attributing Rome’s lasting greatness to its separation of powers. And during the Federal Convention in 1787, Alexander Hamilton’s concern was that “if we incline too much to democracy, we shall soon shoot into a monarchy.”
Polybius invokes Tyche, the goddess of chance, for people’s ability to sustain checks and balances. Demography is not destiny, but it may be that “chance” event that brought about the “unmixing” of the constitution within the United States since the 1960s. And globally it is demography, too. A world population growing to seven billion from one billion in the last 100 years at different rates among ethnic and religious groups has unsettled civilizations around the globe. Whether or not President Donald Trump is the Machiavellian prince that Bannon has been waiting for — able to reverse domestic decline due to weakened discipline, and influence societies around the world to better adjust to the drastically increased numbers — is about to be seen
Reuven Brenner holds the Repap Chair at McGill University’s Desautels Faculty of Management. The article draws on his Force of Finance, “Unsettled Civilizations” and “Oiling the Wheels of Tribal Societies”(speeches reprinted on this site), and speech delivered at John Paul 2 Institute in Warsaw, June 2016, titled “Obstacles to the Pursuit of Happiness,” forthcoming, and complements his “Longshoreman Philosopher’ Saw Trump Coming in 1970”, WSJ, February 26, 2017.