‘The Upswing’: From personal gain to common good and back again

Robert D. Putnam assesses the schisms and swings in 20th-century American politics – and why there’s hope for the future. 

Simon & Schuster
“The Upswing: How America Came Together a Century Ago and How We Can Do It Again” by Robert D. Putnam with Shaylyn Romney Garrett, Simon & Schuster, 480 pp.

A fundamental tension lies at the heart of the American experiment: Can a nation created to maximize individual freedom successfully pursue a common good? 

Robert D. Putnam and Shaylyn Romney Garrett tackle this question in “The Upswing: How America Came Together a Century Ago and How We Can Do It Again,” a thoughtful and highly readable account of the way that these competing values have played out.  

At the end of the 19th century the United States was “startlingly similar” to the America of today. “Inequality, political polarization, social dislocation, and cultural narcissism prevailed – all accompanied as they are now, by unprecedented technological advances, prosperity, and material well-being.” Yet just when it seemed that society was in danger of becoming atomized, Progressive Era and New Deal social reforms, along with World War II, shifted the direction of the nation toward the common good. Then, after decades of progress, the pendulum swung in the other direction and individual rights once again moved to the forefront.  

Putnam marshals an extraordinary amount of data to examine four areas: economic inequality, comity and compromise in politics, social connectedness and trust, and the tension between self-interest and social obligation. He describes the grim years of the Gilded Age, during which children labored in factories while the titans of industry held fast to their positions through corruption and backroom political deal-making. Yet after the stock market crash of 1929, government slowly stepped in to provide a social safety net. By the 1960s, Putnam writes, “America had been transformed into a more egalitarian, cooperative, cohesive, and altruistic nation.” 

But this would not last. Economic inequality increased, compromise in the public square faded, cultural narcissism reappeared, and the social fabric began to fray. Millions were inspired by President John F. Kennedy’s clarion call “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.” But Putnam asserts that rather than a call to arms, Kennedy was sounding taps for what had been a “dramatic, multifaceted, and unmistakable upswing.” 

Putnam labels this steady evolution from the self-interest of the Gilded Age to the more broadly shared sense of community at midcentury before retreating to the present era as the “I-We-I” curve. 

The analysis is complicated – as are most things in American history – because people who were not white males were almost always overlooked or excluded. Putnam devotes separate chapters to both race and gender, with often surprising conclusions. He points out that “by many measures, blacks were moving toward parity with whites well before the victories of the Civil Rights revolution, despite the limitations imposed by Jim Crow.” But, he continues, the “long-standing trend toward racial equality slowed, stopped, and even reversed” in the years following the civil rights movement.    

In the 1960s and ’70s, American society was pushed in a more individualistic direction, Putnam writes. The civil rights movement, Vietnam War, social and political unrest, environmental crises, sexual revolution, counterculture, and a range of other crises “undermined [our] national self-confidence ... and subtly lowered our collective and egalitarian aspirations.” He goes on to write that the ’70s “were a decade in which people stopped aspiring to fix society and started to think only of fixing themselves.” In 2000, Putnam would famously label the widespread individuality and isolation of the time as “Bowling Alone.”

Social scientists are better at explaining the past than they are at predicting the future. This is the case here. Putnam suggests that individual advocates like those who emerged in the Progressive Era are needed again to translate “outrage and moral awakening into active citizenship ... that will reclaim individuals’ agency and reinvigorate democratic citizenship.” 

Putnam invites the reader to think about whether Americans can reestablish a sense of concern for the whole community – what Martin Luther King Jr. called “an inescapable network of mutuality” – or whether as a nation we will continue to drift apart.

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