We may be in a decades-long winter, but the thaw is in reach
It’s winter in Wisconsin. I say this not as someone working on the other side of the building from Gary Cannalte, but as an appreciative reader of friend and colleague Rebecca Ryan, whose new book, ReGeneration: A Manifesto for America’s Next Leaders, makes the well-researched and convincing argument that it is winter in America.
Ryan’s premise is American life and society cycle through seasons in ways analogous to nature. The difference, says Ryan, is our nation’s seasons last, on average, twenty years. Thus, we’ve had four winters, starting with the American Revolution. I interpreted Ryan’s cycle like this: Winter finds us in a kind of funk, brought low by conflict or crisis. Spring is the renewal period (a renewal that I believe really starts in winter ... more on that to come). Summer is, as Ryan says, a time of heightened consciousness. And fall is a time of change when we can find the seeds of conflict or crisis that turn into the next winter.
First of all, you have to read this book. I mean it. I know it sounds a little self-serving to promote a book by a columnist for this magazine, but I’m willing to risk that rather than miss the opportunity to urge you do something that will make you smarter and perhaps a little more appreciative of the crazy times in which we live.
Anyway, Ryan says our current winter began not in 2008, as many would suspect, but in 2001, when our own planes were used as weapons to attack us. If previous seasons are an indication, and I think they are, this winter will end around 2020. At first blush that sounds somewhat disconcerting. I actually find it hopeful. But let’s get back to the point of this column, which is if it is winter in America it is most certainly winter in Wisconsin. We have the same mix of components, mitigating factors and players here as Ryan finds in the country.
The genius of this book is the way Ryan views our current season through a multi-generational lens: Boomers to Gen-Xers to Millenials to the coming-to-a-future-near-you generation, the iGeneration. Each looks at the season a little differently, but each makes its own integral contribution as well. Winter’s issues are some of the most challenging and important we face: Who are we? Is everybody getting a fair shake? How can we do better? Let’s face it, Wisconsin politics have made it positively frigid around here. While we all found ourselves in the same boat after 9/11, the Great Recession tended to divide those with a bad weather preparedness kit in the trunk from those careening down an icy hill. The policies of the people we elected to office—and we did elect them—have only exacerbated the dark and cold. The result here in America’s Dairyland has been a vision for the future that is deeply rooted in 1980 with a tinge of 1950 thrown in for good measure. We’ve got some serious thawing out awaiting us.
But here’s why I’m hopeful. Spring is inevitable. And historically spring has brought with it some groundbreaking changes like democracy, the end of slavery, civil rights, women’s rights, the GI bill, Social Security ... you get the picture. Ryan references similar challenges today, like the need for a middle class, protecting our environment and natural resources, making do with less, building community by building relationships and embracing differences. As I finished the book, I imagined a Wisconsin that not just allows but honors gay marriage, that welcome immigrants and values their contributions, that nails good, clean and fair sustainable agriculture, alternative energy and a train, darn it. And that process can start right now, even knowing we’ve got a few years of winter left. Our young people are already working at replacing last winter’s politicians and repairing the damage they’ve done.
Spring is coming to America and Wisconsin. I can feel it.
Neil P. Heinen is editorial director of Madison Magazine.
Find more of his columns here.