“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.”
– W. B. Yeats from The Second Coming
I recently read and re-read Roy H. Williams and Michael Drew’s book titled Pendulum: How Past Generations Shape our Present and Predict Our Future. The book deals with a similar principle to that examined in William Strauss and Neil Howe’s books Generations and The Fourth Turning, respectively. That is, that history unfolds in twenty-to-forty-year spans that culminate in periods of crisis. Williams and Drew posit that the cycles are more like the arc of a swinging pendulum — hence the title — swinging every forty years from what they refer to as a “Peak Me” phase to a “Peak We” phase. According to their theory, which they seek to prove through an analysis of 3,000 years of western history, the next Peak We will occur around the year 2023 — less than six years from now.
Before I go further, I want to provide definitions for the terms Williams and Drew use and to summarize their principal argument. The most important distinctions are those between the Me phase and the We phase. The authors explain the attributes of each as follows (and I am quoting them verbatim here):
“We” Mindset vs. “Me” Mindset
Drivers of a “We” Cycle
- Conforms for the common good.
- Assumes personal responsibility.
- Believes a million men are wiser than one man.
- Wants to create a better world: ” I came, I saw, I concurred.”
- Small actions.
- Desires to be part of a productive team.
- Values humility and thoughtful persons.
- Believes leadership is “This is the problem as I see it. Let’s solve it together.”
- Focuses on solving problems to strengthen society’s sense of purpose.
The motto of a We phase is “United we stand, divided we fall.
By contrast, here are the drivers of a “Me” cycle:
- Freedom of expression.
- Personal liberty
- One man is wiser than a million men.
- Wants to achieve a better life — “I came, I saw, I conquered.”
- Big dreams.
- Wants to be number one.
- Individual confidence and decisive persons.
- Leadership is “Look at me. Admire me. Emulate me if you can.”
- Elevates attractive heroes to strengthen society’s sense of identity.
The authors provide multiple reminders of the arc of the pendulum and the phases of its swing throughout the book. And they explain the implications in considerable detail.
Why I am writing this series of posts
I’m sure you’re wondering why I am so fascinated with a book that came out five years ago, and why I’m writing about it now. (Thank you, Straw Man!) It’s because as we in the west approach the peak at each end of the pendulum’s arc, we always overdo it. An excess of “Me” results in a more isolated citizenry and a diminished sense of community. At the other end, however, the peak of a “We” results in forced conformity for the common good — and the authors say that brings about witch hunts and bloodbaths. If they’re right, I want my friends and readers to be aware of what could be coming so we can all prepare.
What it’s not about
Williams and Drew are at pains to emphasize that the ideas in their book are not political or partisan. The pendulum and its arc appear to be quite separate from whichever party is in power. More on that in a moment. Clearly, the products and services we see on offer — and more vividly, the way we see them marketed and sold — does change with the era. Even so, this is not a discussion about economics.
It’s also important to note that these periods are not based on the year of one’s birth, or the average age of the population. Rather, they are based on the population’s experiences — individually and culturally. Notably, because “We” phase peaks are eighty years apart, for most of us, this will be a once-in-a-lifetime event, certainly once in one’s adult life.
Not about the political left or right
My friends on the left will no doubt say, “Of course things are polarized. Look at how horrible people on the right are.” And my friends on the right will certainly say, “Of course we’re heading for a clash. Look at how horrible those people on the left are.” Polarization is certainly a factor, but the likelihood of a serious conflict does not seem to be a function of which political party is in power.
The three most recent peak “We” cycles occurred in or around 1943, 1863, and 1783. Note that all three occurred during times of war — World War II, The American Civil War, and the American Revolution. Two of the three predate today’s Democratic and Republican parties. And there’s more: the greater bloodbaths of the most recent peak “We” occurred at the hands of Hitler and Stalin — to my knowledge neither was a proponent of our two-party system.
Polarization already on display
I wish I could say that the authors explain the cause of these cycles, but they are reporting and not diagnosing. The bulk of the book seeks to confirm the hypothesis that these cycles exist and that another peak “We” is coming — with all that entails. I certainly find their argument compelling and I’ll offer my reasons.
Let’s start with the rise of populism — on both the left and the right. Throughout the 2016 presidential campaign, both candidate Donald Trump and candidate Bernie Sanders appealed to everyday Americans, citing the many ways these citizens were receiving short shrift from the Elites. Even consummate Washington insider, Hillary Clinton affected the manner of a populist.
Along with populism, note the overheated rhetoric in the news and on social media. People are agitated and are feeling free to speak without self-restraint. In a prior post, I took the left to task for belaboring and cheapening through overuse Hitler and Fascist as euphemisms for people with whom they disagree. The right has its own set of offensive names for people on the left, too. None of them suggest we are on the cusp of a Kum-ba-yah outbreak.
Add to the overheated rhetoric the breathless articles, columns, and blog posts asserting that we are in a Cold Civil War that could go hot at any moment. In my view, some of this seems to be aimed at goading less stable people to take violent action. And as we’ve discussed, people in need of Identity, Stimulation, and Security connected to a higher purpose may find the notion of fighting such a war appealing. Friends, even a cursory reading about civil wars in the US, Spain, or Bosnia will convince you that this is nothing to wish for.
Worldviews matter (yes, I said it again). I have written extensively about the need for cultivating a biblical worldview, and I want to encourage you again to consider how the Bible speaks most accurately about the nature of man and his condition in a fallen world.
Look, I acknowledge that there are conflicting worldviews. But for the most part, we’ve been able to tolerate one another while noting our differences. At the same time, I wonder if we aren’t caught in the world’s largest game of “Let’s You and Him Fight” — where people in power pit constituencies against each other to deflect attention from their own self-dealing. (Wait. Did I just sound like a populist?)
Consider the emergence of campus speech codes, trigger warnings, and safe spaces. I’m not a fan. As I’ve written before, your ideological immune system ends up enfeebled if you never encounter an unfavorable idea. Plus, Safe spaces are a joke when one isn’t permitted freedom of thought — and forced conformity criminalizes wrong ideas.
Is it inevitable?
Williams and Drew suggest that the Pendulum is swinging and will reach its zenith in the next three-to-six years at the apex of “We.” The only possible out is to recognize what may be coming and to choose a different response. In an upcoming post, I want to discuss what I think may happen, the role of the church and her people, and some thoughts on how we should live in times like these.