The Death of Fourth America
Since it began as a series of European colonies in the 1600s, America has died and been reborn three times.
Every 60–80 years since the War of Independence America has gone through a distinct cycle of death and rebirth, separated by major conflicts.
- First America, Colonial America, 1619–1776
- Second America, Founders’ America, 1788–1861 (73 years)
- Third America, Imperial America, 1865–1929 (64 years)
- Fourth America, Postwar America, 1945–2021 (76 years)
The modern American mythos is one of permanence, indivisibility, a nation that is like an extended family blessed by God and destined to lead the free world against the forces of autocracy.
Yet nothing lasts forever. All things live, all things die. Even countries. Even nations.
Death is simply change — a threshold offering no hint of what awaits beyond, something terrifying to a brain that more or less exists to predict the future the rest of the body expects to experience.
But for something lacking a brain, like a country, nation, or forest, death is simply the end of one arrangement of matter and the beginning of another.
A country like America that spans a continent and is full of tens of millions of people with as many flavors of approaching life is inherently, wickedly, complex.
And so it lives, and sometimes it dies, producing what historians record as a shift in epoch or era.
Understanding why and how a system like America evolves the way it does requires the application of systems science and theory.
Which ironically, though largely developed in this country, isn’t widely known.
During my years in academia and continuing after I’ve developed a unique approach to evaluating broad scale systemic patterns on a global level.
Since then the slide has continued mostly as I expected —not much during the Trump years came as a surprise to me, only the number of people willing to vote for him. The steady rise of racist nationalism, pushback against a perceived national elite, the erosion of common values and truths — all absolutely predictable if you look at the data in a neutral way.
Most can’t. They’re too well trained in the American mythos by this country’s broken education system, or they’re not from America and don’t truly get how the system works from birth to train Americans to be so blind.
So I do what I can to assemble the pieces of the puzzle and lay them out in essays like this.
Systems is a term that sounds much more complicated than it really is because most of the people who talk about systems aren’t interested in communicating with lay folk.
But in my time in academia I came to appreciate how the lessons that stick the best with students are the ones that can be expressed in plain terms.
To say we are all part of a system simply means that in the real world everything is connected in some way. Traditional scientific experiments try to isolate connections to understand the parts of the system. Systems science and theory instead focus on changes in the connections themselves over time.
Systems science focuses on methods like agent-based modeling and simulation while systems theory is about the deeper philosophical precepts governing the approach.
In talking about the evolution of a whole country of millions of people or a world of billions you have to focus on a few key variables, the ones most responsible for providing natural order in the world. You can’t look at every single outcome or event as a distinct thing, but as part of a series of linked processes and patterns.
To put this concept in practical terms, think of a garden. When planning one, you don’t look at every possible plant and calculate all the combinations of plants that could exist together, because the information load would be extreme.
People have successfully grown plants for thousands of years without a deep scientific education because the number of variables that really matter in a real world sense is actually fairly low.
In most parts of the world, the season determines what plants can grow and how quickly, and other factors like the quality of the soil and how much water is available are key too. But plants interact with each other. Some give off nutrients others use, others keep pests away. And as they all grow naturally grow towards the sun, trying to soak up more light to power photosynthesis, space becomes another potentially scarce resource.
Just using trial and error most people can, in time, work out how to grow food. Deep down there may be millions of variables, but only five or six typically drive the evolution of the whole.
On an annual basis, the natural cycle of the seasons plus the life cycle of plants combine to create an emergent effect we experience as the entire garden in its entirety — its annual life cycle.
Even if each garden is unique in some way, the evolution of all gardens is fairly predictable through a given year because each subsequent year’s growth is still structured by the same two two key factors:
At first, space and resources are plentiful. Dependencies are low because young seeds and shoots are separated, available resources are plentiful because none is using a substantial portion at first.
In Spring, as soon as the sunlight intensifies and the average temperature is right, growth goes zoom. Spring bursts from the natural sleep of winter and folks’ allergies start to go mad as the first-bloomers reproduce and expand. The season of exponential growth begins, each plant limited at first only by its own ability to metabolize sunlight, water, and nutrients.
But as the year moves into Summer each plant becomes more interdependent with its neighbors. Resource scarcities emerge and growth slows — still continuing, but at a more linear level. Some plants, the least efficient first, are crowded or starved out even as the more successful ones continue to grow.
In Autumn crowding meets the seasonal reduction in light and temperature with catastrophic effects, from the perspective of the plants, at least. Resource issues intensify suddenly and many plants begin to wither and die, those that can kicking into a new mode to make use of the remaining sunlight, producing spectacular changes in color.
Winter comes and the garden effectively collapses. Only the hardiest evergreens remain intact, the rest dying away, the garden essentially hibernating through the cold dark winter.
Human systems — economy, society, and politics are the three big ones that matter for things like countries — follow exactly the same four-step seasonal cycle. Systems exist, as theorist Niklas Luhmann insisted. They emerge from the interactions of their component parts, which in human systems boils down to our behavior.
The major difference between natural and human systems is that people, unlike plants, can be strategic. We all act according to bets about the future we make every minute of every day — usually without even thinking about them. Driving is a bet — will the other drivers obey the rules of the road? Did the car’s manufacturer make it as safe as they claim?
Truth is, we don’t know. We bet yes either because we have to or because we’ve decided to trust the lack of evidence that our bet was bad exhibited by the fact we’ve not been killed on the road yet.
The underlying reason we’re all so anxious these days is that we know we’re wrong an awful lot of the time about about a great many things. The world is a huge and complicated place, and scientists have only started collecting detailed global data over the last three or four decades, now that computers are available to handle big datasets.
Forecasting the future on any level is a difficult science, and a coin flip will give you the correct answer more often than a pundit.
Ironically, it’s this eternal uncertainty that is the primary driver of change in human systems.
People’s expectations of the future, however formed, matter. They form systems through making bets.
It’s why politicians are always putting on a brave face on TV no matter how badly they’ve screwed up. They’re trying (and usually failing) to allay fears that things are worse than the authorities are admitting, hoping the problem will go away and people will forget before they’re held to account.
It’s also why officials are always confident about the economy — right up until it crashes and burns. Recessions are caused by a sudden shift in confidence across the economy. People think their investments won’t grow as much in the near future as it did in the past for whatever reason, so they act as if it won’t.
That’s why you see exponential growth in demand for goods and services during a recovery when government money flows to people’s wallets. Expecting a wave of spending, they spend — which if you aren’t careful can trigger so much speculative spending that inflation runs wild.
Because the value of anything — money, gold, cryptocurrency— depends ultimately on people’s expectations about its future worth.
In an economic cycle the initial burst of growth and investment sees all kinds of innovations — rapid technological progress is possible. But eventually, the low hanging fruit in terms of profitable investments are tapped.
Companies start to consume each other, whole sectors of the market falling under the control of a few key players. Efficiency becomes prized and the source of profits — efficiency often bolstered by over-utilizing resources, natural and human, leading to exhaustion — and collapse.
The annual pattern of the seasons repeats.
There are three key human systems that drive the big patterns that shape our lives:
- Political, where laws and regulations are made
- Economic, where value is exchanged
- Social, where values are determined
They are not entirely distinct and changes in one feed back into the others, with the dynamics interactions determining the shape and trajectory of the broader global system.
But it is important to remember that these systems emerge from people’s behavior, they are not produced or controlled by any single entity. People naturally value things — those that help them survive are usually the most motivating. They exchange things of value with other people, creating flows of goods and services. And to keep all of this organized they establish formal laws and other rules everyone is supposed to abide by.
But deep down, they’re just people being people. Individuals naturally self-organize into groups that work to improve their mutual position. Humans are fundamentally tribal — we can’t meaningfully interact with millions of people on a regular basis, only dozens, and we organize ourselves around this fact of life.
For Humans associations are what space is to plants. Tribes form because people need helpful divisions to distinguish one coherent group from another.
The world is full of different groups who all hold or simply prioritize different truths. It has always been this way, despite the failed efforts by several totalitarian ideologies over the millennia to erect a single over-arching society bound by the same rules enforced identically everywhere.
But just because people are tribal does not mean they are always bigoted or antagonistic towards outsiders. This behavior is a function of inequality within or between groups. Most people, most of the time, prefer to avoid conflict.
Tribes unite through shared language, which allows them to develop shared social values and a sense of mutual identity. Societies emerge from deeper tribal linkages, historically impacted most strongly by geography, with social values always shifting over time — a process that can break societies apart and forge new ones.
Political systems rise and fall, Economies boom and bust, Social values persist for a generation then are suddenly swept away.
Each sub-system of the grand national system goes through its own four-phase cycle, moving at different speeds. A healthy free-market economic system cycles every 6–12 years. The American political system turns over every 4–8 years thanks to how we do elections. Social values shift more slowly, on the order of 15–20 years.
In general, these sub-cycles’ collapse — Autumn — phases most closely align to produce a grant national crisis every 60–90 years. This coincidence creates the potential for a dramatic inflection point in history where the actions of all the players in the grand game have a magnified impact on the shape of what comes next.
In short, the death of one America — usually, but not necessarily — giving birth to the next out of the ashes.
Broad systemic collapses can lead to an entirely new equilibrium state that may look very different even if built from the remains of the past. In every collapse some groups do better than others, or at least suffer less, and the magnitude of the overall collapse determines how quickly the subsequent rebirth will take place.
In short, it is possible for America to fall so far Fourth America is the last. It is also possible for Americans to manage the collapse so Fifth America is fundamentally better.
But to understand why requires a brief reboot of how we look at American history.
The Evolution of America
And it is a simple fact that for most of its history, America has been dominated by a small group of wealthy, influential, and politically powerful families. Many trace their heritage all the way back to the beginning.
First America was born with the arrival of European settlers and their African slaves in the 1600s. Prior to this second arrival of Europeans — Norse Vikings stayed in modern-day Canada awhile around 1000, but worsening weather and lack of an ideological motivation to remain ended Vinland after a few generations — the indigenous peoples of the lands the Europeans called the Americas lacked a cohesive concept of America.
This doesn’t mean they were lacking in sophistication — far from it. They simply had their own self-contained world system with trade networks and powerful empires, like Africa did before Europeans colonized that continent too. Peoples sometimes moved long distances, but there is no record of indigenous Americans seeing themselves as part of a single nation stretching from coast to coast.
What they lacked was immunity to the diseases Europeans brought with them. Up to 90% died, and their world system was crushed. Europeans happily moved in to claim these “virgin lands” and sent word back to their families and governments that their coast-clinging colonies could easily expand.
First America lasted the longest because it started from scratch. The Thirteen Colonies became prosperous only after a century and slowly began to develop an identity separate from Britain. This powered a demand for political reforms — including the right to settle land across the Appalachians, then held by indigenous nations.
First America died in the War of Independence when the rising tensions couldn’t be reconciled through negotiation. Despite extreme differences between colonies with totally different cultural heritages — the northeast being Puritan, middle more Catholic, the south the heart of slave-worked plantation country — the Thirteen Colonies managed to unite.
The United States of America that emerged was forged through a long and difficult process of bargaining between the Founders that lasted from 1775 to 1788, when the Constitution was ratified. And almost immediately, it began to expand.
Territorial expansion stabilized Second America — at the cost of the indigenous populations displaced from Florida to Ohio and beyond. Almost literally a giant garden in these days, the new free nation’s internal contradictions were dealt with by expanding the planter box, giving the old money along the coast a constant flow of migrants — and slaves — coming in while second or third generation farmers and tradesmen moved west as pioneers.
It worked for decades, despite wars and the difficulties in working out exactly what the Constitution’s provisions meant in practice. Flaws in the delicate bargain — particularly tension between large and small states that produced the Electoral College and Senate and, of course, the issue of legal slavery — eventually became cracks that widened to the point Second America could no longer sustain itself.
In the north, abolitionist views spread, a threat to the economic foundation of the plantation-dominated deep south. A Southern identity began to form, distinct from the Yankee north. The perpetual weak points of the American system, the small-state biased Electoral College and Senate, made every newly added state a point of intense national political controversy patched through a series of inadequate Grand Compromises.
The Civil War that broke out in 1861, 72 years after the Constitution was ratified, was about more than slavery — this is evidenced by the fact that Pro-slavery states like Delaware and Maryland joined the Union while many counties in the slavery-supporting Confederate states remained loyal to the Union.
This is because the questions of slavery and federal supremacy were catastrophically intertwined during a time of severe political turmoil, including deeply contested Presidential elections. Southern plantation elites latched onto the states-rights arguments made by the anti-Federalists who had opposed the Constitution’s ratification generations before to justify their brutal system.
The conclusion of the awful war in 1865 — after taking the lives of 40% of Southern males and 10% of Northern — was not total Union victory but a brokered settlement between Northern and Southern leaders to reunify the country.
Reconstruction was swiftly abandoned despite all the promises made to the freed slaves, who were left to compete with each other and poor whites for wage labor in the economically devastated south.
Elite groups always look out for their own interests first. And facing the possibility of a renewed conflict in the 1870s, like the Founders before them the architects of Third America chose to focus on economic growth and expansion as the solution to America’s underlying problems.
Third America, Imperial America, saw the United States expand across North America and eventually the world, seizing former Spanish colonies in the Pacific to become a globe-spanning empire in imitation of its British parent. This expansion papered over new fissures in America’s foundation — the rise of Jim Crow in the south; rampant inequality and exploitation of workers; the deliberate genocide of the Indigenous Americans.
In its turn this incarnation of America also ran out of steam, collapsing in the Great Depression that began in 1929 and the awful Second World War that followed, lasting until 1945.
The primary cause of this collapse? Rampant income inequality that distorted the American economy so much a bad day on Wall Street could break the international banking system. Powerful companies could buy off politicians and avoid government regulation. Some hired gangs of thugs to attack striking workers — the federal government even used military personnel led by George Patton and Douglas MacArthur to attack veterans protesting in D.C. over benefits they hadn’t been paid.
Third America’s collapse could easily have led to the fragmentation of the country for a second time. So it was lucky that an intelligent, energetic, and reasonably foresighted President like Franklin Delano Roosevelt was in place to manage the fallout. The descent of the rest of the world into the most horrific conflict in global history perhaps helped him in an odd way: the stakes were clear of what could happen if Fourth America was not built a little better.
At the end of the war, though victorious and largely undamaged, the United States faced a world on the brink of total economic collapse and widespread famine. FDR dies in 1945 and with him went the last vestige of Third America, but memories of two decades of economic hardship was fresh in all American’s minds.
Fourth America was predicated on a national promise: such hard times would not come again. The masses of returning soldiers would not be allowed to wind up homeless and destitute — they would be employed in factories to rebuild the world. The new techniques of propaganda would be adopted by the new broadcast companies putting out television and radio programming to promote a certain kind of American unity rooted in the never-defined American Dream.
No one sat down and decided all of this at once. It emerged as part of an ongoing debate between wealthy, influential, and powerful people in the late 1940s who were trying to pursue their interests and keep as much of the America they liked intact through a period of rapid chance.
Politicians served their donors then as now, and built the institutions needed to nudge the country in the desired direction. They kept the country together and even managed to avoid blowing up the world with nuclear weapons… barely.
But that moment is long past.
Now, it is Fourth America’s turn to enter its own terminal crisis.
The Death of Fourth America
Fourth America’s present grim march to death comes down to the simple fact that America’s national-level economic and political systems have been stagnant for too long — and now they’re being ripped apart by a period of social turmoil unlike any in recent memory.
The degradation of these systems is merging with the inevitable collapse and reorganization of society that was always bound to occur as the Baby Boomer and Silent Generations give way to the Digitals — Xers, Millennials, and Gen Z — during the late 2020s.
In short, the Internet has changed the game. Awash in cheap information, a generation raised on a peculiar mythos is clinging to a fantastical view of the past that was always skewed.
Generations don’t matter as much as marketers would like us to think, but in America the Boomer generation’s sheer size — a result of people not having many babies during the last great collapse of 1929–1945 — has meant that virtually all media institutions from before about 1995 were designed for Boomers.
Shifts in social values are inevitable when suddenly the younger generations have had access to an entirely different world than their forebears. People learn to speak the language of the time, accept as normal the values in the world the grow up in.
Boomers have long been used to living in a world where all the media spoke their language — or more accurately put, spoke the language of a marketer’s imagined upper-middle class white suburbanite man.
The emergence of what feels like a totally new set of values is deeply frightening. It’s a shock. And it’s happening at a moment when rising political and economic inequality is effectively shrinking the size of the pie available to the rest.
The social feedback loop manifests as social discord. People start to feel like the world is ending — so they act as if it is.
And so it sometimes does.
40% of Americans are willing to consider secession, a belief that is not partisan, but regional.
Fourth America is dying because the people who built it eight decades ago were working in a radically different world, and the assumptions they were using no longer hold.
The internet has amplified the local. Look anywhere in the world and you can see the 90s-era predictions of globalism leading to one giant hegemonic American-dominated culture utterly disproved.
People are able to see just how different — and alike — they really are. Everyone is waking up to a world of multitudes where there are few simple answers, no obvious truths, aside from the basic truth of complexity. They are finding that regional and kin ties are important — the Internet is a wonder, but in a big, scary world, whoever your family and tribe are, however you define those terms, wherever they live — that’s who you want to be with.
We are, all of us, living through the death of an America we thought existed, but are now shown never truly did.
People believe the evidence they can see in front of their own eyes. And look at what America is today. Half the country on the edge of poverty while the military budget remains exorbitant. A pandemic running rampant with governors of many states actively banning basic public health measures like wearing masks because it scores political points.
Americans can’t even agree on what basic voting rights should look like. A quarter reject life-saving vaccines.
The situation is not sustainable. It is as if the collapse of Third and Second America have combined, the regionalism of the latter combined with the economic disaster of the former.
Fourth America is dying. How long it can linger in the strange twilight it finds itself in remains an open question.
Could it be revived? Possibly. But only if enough Americans can agree on a solution — and the country is split 50–50 on almost every issue.
Fundamental reform to get money out of politics, guarantee voting rights to everyone, and roll back poverty could do the job, but it might as easily trigger a revolt if not done just right.
The final death of America more likely than a revival of its Fourth version at this point. The U.S.S.R, Yugoslavia, Austria-Hungary— history is filled with examples of countries that died and were never reborn.
America could well be one. If the various factions forming now choose to fight for control, that will be the end.
Because in modern conflict, what gets destroyed are the very structures that hold a country together. Civil Wars now only rarely end in one side’s total victory.
They end in disintegration, separation, and mutual collapse.
Some clearly want America to be a racist nationalist nation where the federal government protects states that choose to enact bigoted laws.
Others want it to be a technocracy run by the right people who know what is best for us all.
My bet? The harder both fight, the faster both lose.
Because under the surface, America has always been divided into regions. That’s why there has, since the Civil War, been such an emphasis on the country’s indivisibility. The elites that have always worked to run America need us to believe this is so.
Fifth America, I suspect, will be a far more regional America whatever the elites want. The Internet is making it so — soon economics and politics will begin to follow where society has already begun to go.
And the sooner this is widely accepted and Americans start to work out how to make it happen swiftly and peacefully, the better for the world.