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


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