Book Review: The Upswing (Robert D. Putnam and Shaylyn R.Garrett)

An examination of the synchronicity of four major trends in American society over the last 125 years: economic, political, social, and cultural.

An examination of the synchronicity of four major trends in American society over the last 125 years: economic, political, social, and cultural.

THE UPSWING: How America Came Together a Century Ago and How We Can Do It Again
(Robert D. Putnam and Shaylyn R. Garrett)
Simon and Schuster 2021
Hardcover $18 / 480 pages
ISBN-13: 978-1982129156

Using a semiquantitative approach as the most accessible approximation, the authors evaluate the history of American society from the early 1900s to our time through four major trends: economic, political, social, and cultural. They document “an unexpected and remarkable synchronicity in trends in four very different spheres over the last 125 years.” A series of graphs reflecting these four trends all broadly fluctuate together. The trend toward social cohesion, mutual trust, and low income inequality covers some four to five decades, reaching its towering peak around the 1960s-1970s, but has been on the descent over the last half a century. The same unforeseen lockstep holds true for all the trends examined.

The authors discovered a fascinating alignment of the curves for the economic, political, social, and cultural evolution of America with the pendular ascent/descent/ascent of individualism versus communitarianism. They attribute it to the pendulum-like swings of an “I versus We attitude” and call the fluctuation from prevailing communitarianism to individualism and back the “We-I-We” curve. This idea seems more universal than the narrower current understanding in which growing economic or racial inequality, or both, are seen as the root of all social evils.

On average, by many important measures, life in America has gotten better and better for more than a century. …While aggregate measures of economic inequality, political polarization, social fragmentation, and cultural narcissism all follow a strikingly similar inverted U-curve over the course of our 125-year period, the story is far more complex when it comes to measures of racial and gender equality… By the late 1960s …America had come closer to an inclusive “we” than ever before in its history.” And then it was grotesquely reversed.

Since the 1960s America has become steadily less equal, more polarized, more fragmented, and more individualistic – a second Gilded Age.” [This term was introduced by Mark Twain and Charles Warner in their novel of 1873].

“In round numbers, in the early 1960s, nearly two-thirds of Americans trusted other people, but two decades into the 21st century two-thirds of Americans did not. ...The rapidly increasing salience of identity in American culture in the second half of the 20th century began in young adult psyches far from race and gender and class and politics. Although identity was eventually reflected in those spheres, too, at its core it represented an emphasis on “I” …In 1950, 12% of the students agreed with the statement, “I am a very important person”. By 1990 that figure had risen to 80%. …The frequency of the word “I” in all American books actually doubled between 1965 and 2008.”

In sum, “The accelerating individualism of the Gilded Age 1875-1900 was supplanting the Lincolnian era of communitarianism. Then comes the reinvigorated communitarian reversal of the Progressive Era in the “we” spurt from 1900 to 1916… [paused during the 1920s] and the renewed “we”-ness during the Depression and then WWII.”

The Great Divergence that began decades before the arrival of the Internet affected the entire spectrum not only of economic, but of social and cultural changes in the form of “I-We-I” fluctuations. The attitudes toward both women and Blacks were showing consistent improvement before the struggles of the 1960s for human rights and the ratio of black-to-white income was consistently rising by 7.7% every decade between 1940 and 1970. But a rising social split was the cost the society paid for growing income inequality. It was accompanied by a political split with mutual partisan intolerance that reached levels that dwarfed old traditional breaking points of race or religion. The authors see something tribal-like in the intensity of partisan animosity.

“In most conventional accounts of the history of twentieth-century America, the New Deal and WWII together are considered the central pivot point dividing the 20th century into ‘before’ and ‘after.’…However, from the perspective offered in this book, twentieth-century American history pivoted in the 1960s, not in the 1940s. …Human agency and leadership are essential. Change, whether for the better or for the worse, is not historically inevitable.”

It seems, by now, we have descended to rock bottom. But the current fall is not without precedent: America was in a similar predicament at the end of the nineteenth century (the Gilded Age of the 1870s-90s) and showed remarkable resilience and resourcefulness, concluding with a full recovery. The Progressive movement of the early twentieth century reversed the trend and restored the country. “We can do it again,” the authors claim.

The book is optimistic, but the recipes for reversal are its weakest part. It is always easier to make any analyses, judgements, and recommendations in retrospect than in situ. The authors offer nine possible “causations” for the I – We- I reversals and the very multiplicity of them is evidence of their limited value.