Are We Entering a New Progressive Era? (Reviewing Robert Putnam/Shaylyn Romney Garrett’s The Upswing: How America Came Together a Century Ago and How We Can Do It Again)

I came across Robert D. Putnam and Shaylyn Romney Garrett’s The Upswing: How America Came Together a Century Ago and How We Can Do It Again in David Brooks’ October 15 New York Times opinion column “How To Actually Make America Great Again.” It’s worth quoting at length. Here’s what David wrote:

The Upswing,” a remarkable new book by Robert D. Putnam and Shaylyn Romney Garrett, puts this situation in stark relief. A careful work of social science, the book looks at American life from about 1870 to today across a range of sectors that are usually analyzed in separate academic silos.

The first important finding is that between the 1870s and the late 1960s a broad range of American social trends improved: Community activism surged, cross party collaboration increased, income inequality fell, social mobility rose, church attendance rose, union membership rose, federal income taxes became more progressive and social spending on the poor rose.

Many of us think that the gains for African-Americans only happened after the Civil Rights Act of 1964, but Putnam and Garrett show that the fastest improvements actually happened in the decades before. Black school attendance, income gains, homeownership rates, voter registration rates started rapidly improving in the 1940s and then started slowing in the 1970s and 1980s.

The American century was built during these decades of social progress. And then, around the late 1960s, it all turned south.

The frequency of the word “I” in American books, according to Putnam and Garrett, doubled between 1965 and 2008. The authors are careful not to put it into moralistic terms, but I’d say that, starting in the late 1960s, there was left wing self-centeredness in the social and lifestyle sphere and right wing self-centeredness in the economic sphere, with a lack of support for common-good public policies. But it was socially celebrated self-centeredness all the way across. It was based on a fallacy: If we all do our own thing, everything will work out well for everybody.

As I was reading the book, I was thinking of all the people who work at foundations, nonprofits and all the organizations that try to help people in need and do social repair. I’m sure all these good people at these good places have done good things over the past 50 years, but they have failed to bend these curves. Social conditions got inexorably worse.

That’s because many were operating at the wrong level. They were trying to build programs that would “scale,” but they were swimming against the tide of culture, the pervasive individualistic mentality, and all its social and political effects.

Over the past 50 years, the positive trends have reversed: membership in civic organizations has collapsed, political polarization has worsened, income inequality has widened, social trust has cratered, religious attendance is down, social mobility has decreased, deaths of despair have skyrocketed and on and on.

Putnam and Garrett take the data from diverse spheres and produce different versions of the same chart, which is an inverted U. Until the late 1960s, American life was improving across a range of measures. Since then, it’s a story of decay.

Why did all these different things happen in unison and then suddenly turn around all at once? Maybe economic change drove everything? But no, the timing is off. Economic inequality widened a bit later than most of the other trends. Maybe it was political dysfunction? Nope. That, too, happened a bit later.

The crucial change was in mind-set and culture. As Putnam and Garrett write: “The story of the American experiment in the twentieth century is one of a long upswing toward increasing solidarity, followed by a steep downturn into increasing individualism. From ‘I’ to ‘we’ and back again to ‘I’.”

The Good and the Nitpicking. There’s a lot in this book. In particular, if you love charts you’ll be in heaven. It’s not quite a chart per page but it’s close. Since the authors cover A LOT of ground in relatively few pages, however, those of you who are actual social scientists will probably pull your hair out as they move swiftly and concisely through an enormous amount of material. For everyone else, this gives a fantastic, easy to read college course like overview of 130 years of U.S. trends: economics, politics, society, culture, race, and gender.

Go Read the Upswing. The Upswing focuses on both analytics and also provides a built-in curriculum of reading in its meticulous endnotes and associated bibliography. Go wild if this is your thing. I can see myself coming back to several of the sources quoted. The book looks back more than it looks forward, which is good. It’s not that book. Those are out there. But it is impossible not see the modern context in the rise of the early 20th century Progressive Era, nor disagree with the arc that Putnam and Garrett postulate. Probably best to use their words — with a little help from a Progressive friend:

“Progressivism emerged on the heels of populism and in direct competition with socialism, both of which movements advocated many of the same causes, but fell short of their aims because, among other reasons, they failed to appeal to the full range of American values. By contrast, Progressives managed to fashion slow and steady reforms as an alternative to calls for revolution. Progressive reformers quickly learned that in order to succeed they would have to compromise — to find a way to put private property, personal liberty, and economic growth on more equal footing with communitarian ideals and the protection of the weak and vulnerable, and to work within existing systems to bring about change.” Page 336

“No one party, no one policy or platform, and no one charismatic leader was responsible for bringing about America’s upswing as we entered the twentieth century. It was, instead, the result of countless citizens engaging in their own spheres of influence and coming together to create a vast ferment of criticism and change — a genuine shift from ‘I’ to ‘We.’ For Americans living through the turbulent closing decades of the nineteenth century, such a turnaround was by no means inevitable or even expected. and yet it happened, clearly and steadily.” Page 338

“But as we look to an uncertain future we must keep in mind that what is perhaps the greatest lesson of America’s I-we-I century: as Theodore Roosevelt put it, ‘the fundamental rule of our national life — the rule which underlies all others — is that, on the whole, and in the long run, we shall go up or down together.'” Page 341


The Long and Short Of It (Reviewing Samantha Shannon’s The Priory of the Orange Tree)

Note: This is a review of Samantha Shannon’s The Priory of the Orange Tree. I avoid spoilers but touch on general themes, world build, and plot dynamics. You have been warned.

The Good. The Priory of the Orange Tree came to my attention via the best possible path: received as a meaningful gift picked out by an acclaimed author. I had read very little epic fantasy written by a non-white male (with the gargantuan exception of Robin Hobb, one of my all-time favorites and a must read for anyone who reads fantasy). Though I would go on to read one of N. K. Jemisin’s trilogies first, it gave me great joy to have a true female written dragons and sorcery-style fantasy waiting in the To Be Read wings. In her own genre-defying twist, my wife Cheryl who does NOT routinely prefer fantasy picked it up before I did. She noted upon finishing that she did not know what to think as someone new to the notable epic fantasy element of a meticulous, existence-threatening, multi-kingdom and era world build. (She liked it, mind you, but reserved detailed judgment for when I finished.) The Priory of the Orange Tree is unique in that it is a large tome that is also a complete single volume with no sequel necessitated. This is most pronounced in colossal hardback form. This means the story was designed to begin from scratch and end in one 800-page go. One of the most laudable aspects of Shannon’s writing is how it deftly pulls from real world history and religion, established fantasy and medieval fairy tale tropes, and recent genre-pacing norms. Fans of Le Morte d’Arthur and A Song of Ice and Fire alike will find much to appreciate.

The Priory does several things so well that it has me wondering why in the name of Galadriel they haven’t been done before. Of the four incredibly developed POV third person narrators, two are overtly homosexual with romances (past and present) central to the story and two are subtly asexual – or possibly also homosexual – with meaningful friendships at the core of their respective characters. Either way, there is little here by way of heteronormative relationships except on the margins of the story and complete with little twists themselves. Just as importantly, the three most consequential characters are all female. They are believable and every bit as genuinely realized and heroic as any male protagonist in the genre — though those are in there too. Racial diversity is also built into the world, both in terms of individual characters and also as it impacts the various kingdoms encountered. This is the fantasy novel that should have been written a generation ago but wasn’t. This means it reads as both overdue and quintessentially 2019. The other thing of note is a complex religious element that is intended to be turned on its head as a very important aspect to the world build (with some shade thrown toward Christendom). This is done in the same way that other great works of fantasy weave characters and plot elements from previous generations into momentous legacy impact to the present story line. It is welcome, a touch different from what I’ve read of late, and done by an author who commands her material but has her own things to say about.

The Nitpicking. Despite how long the single volume seems, The Priory of the Orange Tree is in my humble opinion way too short. This is easily a story that would have soared with three weighty trilogy volumes. The Priory starts with a solid introduction to characters, religion, kingdoms, historical context, magic, and dragons. Then, well, it kind of races through developing the plot. If you are a reader who welcomes this, it’s possible that the very thing that had me raising my eyebrow will have you clapping your hands. The story moves incredibly fast starting at the one-third mark. I felt this most acutely near the climactic end when moments that would have been more dramatic with slower builds came and went in a brisk manner. I can definitely see The Priory as a successful television series with minimal changes. Visual storytelling would assuredly do well with this pace. Heck, the characters leap across oceans and kingdoms with the jarring speed of a late-series Game of Thrones episode. (Cheryl felt it was too slow in the beginning, actually, so this is both a Your Mileage May Vary thing and maybe a specific genre norm that I hold in particular esteem.)

Go Read The Priory of the Orange Tree. My nitpicking aside, the gender and sexuality focus is extremely welcome and impeccably well done. We’ve read enough male focused works and will again. Go enjoy this for what it is. Let’s trust that this can become an integrated aspect of the genre. Though I prefer to bond with a multi-volume epic fantasy series, I get that a single, fast-paced volume will appeal to many people. It delivers dragons and sorcery in a world threatened by an existential evil. In short, it’s epic epic fantasy.

A Non-Partisan Take on Election Day In-Person Voting

I’m not here to say I’m non-partisan. That doesn’t seem technically possible when actually voting in a two-party political system, unless someone is committed to writing in unaffiliated candidates. I’m here to say how excited in a completely non-partisan manner I am to vote in-person on Election Day.

(Note: My political leanings have changed over the years and rarely felt partisan in nature. Maybe this is thanks in part to growing up in a household with parents who openly supported different parties in a matter-of-fact, unemotional, proud-to-be-unique manner. We’re talking late-80s through the mid-90s, the time when such an opinion had its biggest impression on me as a young person developing my own political identity.)

1988. Michael Dukakis and the brutal messaging campaign run against him and my home state of Massachusetts, ahem, “Taxachusetts” stands out in memory from the first presidential election I vaguely remember as an eight year old.

1992. I admit to an unhealthy obsession with Ross Perot because he was different. I’ve always liked different. Plus, he had charts.

“Chicken Feathers, Deep Voodoo, and the American Dream” 

This year was also my first Election Day voting experience. I was twelve. Hear me out. My dad took me with him into the voting booth and let me choose. It was very satisfying to pull the little lever and feel the vibe of the line, room, the whole experience. Not sure if this was legal but I hope the statute of limitations is up on this. You wouldn’t be surprised to know “I” voted for Ross Perot. This will be the last name I drop in relation to a vote I actually cast. Coincidently, it would also be my last in-person vote for two decades.

In 1996 I remember Norm MacDonald’s Bob Dole SNL skits. I don’t recall that election being too fraught but I do remember reading Bill Clinton’s campaign book, Between Hope and History, and appreciating his soaring rhetoric and seemingly bipartisan focus.

By 2000 I was actually eligible to vote. The primary campaign between Al Gore and Bill Bradley and George W. Bush and John McCain caught my eye and I followed for the first time with a glee I had previously associated with devouring the NFL playoffs. By the time the actual campaign got underway in earnest, however, I was off in St. Petersburg, Russia for the year. It being 2000, I didn’t really have much access to U.S. media other than a once-a-week 30 minute stop by an internet cafe. I experienced that Election Day through a very remote lens. Even the Florida vote counting fiasco was something that felt like it happened to another country in a different era. But I remember feeling disgruntled by not being able to vote in person and I remember missing out on that moment.

By the beginning of 2004 I was in Rhode Island, where my parents moved in 2003 and still counts as home for any holidays. I had concluded my undergraduate studies — including that year in Russia — then added another year overseas in Estonia on a Fulbright student research fellowship. I was more than ready to get into the U.S. politics of the moment again. I followed news in a roughly non-partisan manner and genuinely did not know whom I was going to vote for until very late in the process. By the time Election Day actually rolled around, I had joined the Foreign Service and was down in Washington, D.C. for training and had to rely on an absentee ballot back to Rhode Island. It was the first time I was able to vote in the United States for president but in-person was still denied for me.

2008. Guess what? Overseas again. This time in the desert of south-central Iraq living on an Iraqi army base. Absentee for me. I will say that my personal voting preferences swung hard from one party to the other over the course of the primary season. I’d prefer not to get into specifics but I actively gave money and even helped campaign a bit for not one but two candidates in one party before switching hard and completely for the other party’s candidate. I love that that was a thing. It wasn’t unthinkable for that sort of switch to go down and even be discussed openly amongst friends and strangers alike.

2012. Yup. Absentee. From Latvia. And a Washington, D.C.-registered voter to boot. This was all well and good for electoral college representation. But not for much else.

2016. Finally, I was home in the United States of America. Not only that, but I was living and registered in Virginia. It thrilled me to line up and vote in person that Election Day morning in my neighborhood. I will admit to not loving my choices. For a split second while staring at my ballot — and even being asked if I needed any help when I sat for longer than I should have — I thought that we Evan Mc‘s should stick together when it came to voting, but in the end I’m glad I made a choice to vote for a major party candidate. It was through that day-of experience that I realized by 9:00 a.m. that something might be in the cards for a strange night of returns. If someone like me was conflicted, how was this going to play out nationwide?

I’m excited to vote in person on November 3, 2020. I am back in Virginia. (Odd that Virginia isn’t even a battleground state anymore, but that’s for a different discussion.) If you’ve read down this far you know why I didn’t even consider voting early or absentee despite an overwhelming societal push to do so. My wife did. Virginia made it abundantly easy. She even gave me a little grief for not joining her in avoiding any election day variables, from a busy day at work to COVID-19 issues. I have no idea when I’ll next be in the United States on Election Day with president on the ballot. The first Tuesday of November every four years. I want to see and feel and experience and remember. It doesn’t matter how long I stand in line. It doesn’t even technically matter which party I vote for. I’m not conflicted at all this year, however.

Epilogue: It definitely seems identity trumps ideology for most voters, with the possible exception of those who consider politics their avocation or hobby. Identity can come from family, region, church, wherever. Thanks to the New England-style upbringing I mention above, my personal identity has really focused on being non-partisan in overall approach — even when I find that this no longer honestly represents the political ideology I actively support.