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Can America Come Together

ILLUSTRATION BY JONATHAN BARTLETT

The Upswing: How America Came Together a Century Ago and How We Can Do It Againby Robert D. Putnam with Shaylyn Romney Garrett

Robert Putnam claims he promised his wife this would be has last book; if so, it is a fitting culmination of his life work. His major previous works (Bowling Alone, Our Kids, American Grace, and Better Together) all focus on aspects of crisis in American communities. This book continues and builds on that concern with a systematic analysis of the last century and more of American history, from the first Gilded Age of the late 19th century, to the critical decade of the 1960s, up to our present Second Gilded Age.

Taking in turn the economy, the polity, the society and the culture Putnam and Garrett use data to show that the country has gone from excessive individualism, to a remarkable level of community in the 1960s, and back to excessive individualism in the early 21st century. This is a case relatively easy to make on the economic level, where many other studies have already shown extreme economic inequality prevailed in the First and Second Gilded Ages, while the 1950s and 1960s showed significantly less inequality.

The case is a bit harder for the political realm, where the focus was on political polarization. This is easy to measure over the last 60 years, the age of systematic public opinion polling, but harder for the earlier decades of the period. For those earlier years they rely on congressional voting patterns to show a move from high partisan polarization in the early years to more comity and cooperation between parties in the 1950s and 1960s.

Putnam and Garrett use data to show that the country has gone from excessive individualism, to a remarkable level of community in the 1960s, and back to excessive individualism in the early 21st century. 

Turning to American society beyond economics and politics, the challenge is even greater. This is the terrain of Putnam’s Bowling Alone: the shift from the relative social solidarity and belongingness of the 50s and 60s, to the greater individualism and isolation of the early 21st century. This book pushes the boundary back another 50 years, looking at such variables as club membership and religious attendance, the rise and fall of organized labor, the changing patterns of family life and motherhood, and shifting patterns of social trust between people. This is all about what has come to be called “social capital.” Here again, they show the familiar move from the relative individualism of the First Gilded Age, to the greater solidarity of the mid-20th century, and back to the isolation of the present Gilded Age.

Quantifying culture has been a challenge for the social sciences for decades, and it certainly was for Putnam and Garrett. They use a mainstream definition: “beliefs, values, and norms about fundamental aspects of American society.” While public opinion research can shed light on culture for the last half century, there is nothing comparable for the early decades of the last century. They found an ingenious, if not entirely satisfactory solution. Google has digitized millions of books in English dating back to the 16th century. You can plot the changing frequency of words or phrases for any country and any period of time.

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They focused on the United States since 1870, finding, for example that the phrase “survival of the fittest” had its peak around 1900; “social gospel” peaked around 1960. “Agreement,” “unity” and “compromise” all peaked around 1960. While obviously this method entirely sacrifices the context in which words and phrases are used, it is striking that they find a pattern parallel to the chapters on economy, polity and society: in this case, a clear move from individualism around 1900, to community around 1960, to individualism again in the early 21st century. Indeed, paradoxically, the great movements of the 60s, from civil rights to antiwar, actually evolved toward more individualistic orientations by the early 1970s.

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The community that took shape from the Progressive era to the 1960s was largely White and male; the authors note that even as the 60s were a time when the sense of community peaked, those years also saw the beginning of a White backlash that helped drive the retreat from community in the late 20th century. And much the same can be said about women: the rise of feminism also touched off a reaction in some sectors that contributed to the retreat from community. They think women have made some durable gains , but doubt that the society has yet adequately confronted the problem of racism.

Summing up, they note the broad “I-We-I” pattern, but avoid posing any causal theory. Instead, they see multiple forces interacting. They see the 60s as “the hinge of the twentieth century.” Certainly in politics, both the Left and the Right see that decade as a seminal time. For the Left, it was a moment when it really seemed possible for America to be transformed into the society “with liberty and justice for all” that we dreamed of. For the Right, the decade was a time when the tides of revolution were beating at the foundations of society. The ensuing decades were, for the Right, a continuing struggle to roll back the achievements of the Left. For the Left, it was a time of continually playing defense.

Taking their cue from a 1914 essay by Progressive journalist Walter Lippmann, they conclude by urging us to follow his advice from a century ago, to reject drift and assert mastery of our history. In particular, the We that we should be aiming at must be far more inclusive than what we saw in the 50s and 60s. The Progressives are, they think, a cautionary tale. Many of their ideas formed the foundation of the New Deal and the Great society, the great era of liberal reforms.

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But the Progressives were also racist and sexist, and those blind spots set up the fatal flaws that became evident in the 60s and 70s. They urge us to develop a vision of America for ALL Americans.

John Peeler