Wednesday, November 10, 2021

Putnam - The Upswing: How America Came Together a Century Ago and How We Can Do it Again

Robert Putnam’s The Upswing: How America Came Together a Century Ago and How We Can Do it Again (2020) exceeds the importance of his previous “show stopper,” Bowling Alone. It is better documented and covers a breadth of information and data. Even though Bowling Alone was widely read and cited, it doesn’t begin to match the salience of the analyses, warnings, and recommendations of Upswing. Putnam makes a prediction but one that depends on us – many of us, seeing the signs and turning the seeds of change into a new reality of a more equitable and productive society.

The first chapters of the book provide the background for the four broad areas in which change has occurred – economics, politics, society, and culture. Trends were analyzed beginning at the height of the Gilded Age of the late 19th century, a period of incredible advancement for America but also extreme inequality, polarization, social disarray, and hyper individualism. The extremes of the Gilded Age ushered in the Progressive movement of the early 20th century, a movement that was primarily held together by a commitment to community and common welfare. While it took a couple of decades for the Progressive movement to address the extremes of the Gilded Age, it eventually secured policies that broke down elitist systems and created the middle class for which the U.S.A. was so renowned by the 1960s. However, once brought together, the common bonds began to disintegrate, returning to another Gilded Age in the early 21st century. The ebb and flow of these 120 or so years began with the individualistic and competitive “I” of the first Gilded Age, climaxed with the community focus of “we” in mid-20th century, and fell precipitously toward another “I” of our current era – an inverted “U” curve.


Putnam acknowledged that it is very difficult to determine cause and effect in the changes of the 20th century but some might suggest that it looks like a pendulum swinging back and forth in response to the excesses of each era – mid-century progress in most citizen’s welfare followed by a shift to individualism, tribalism, and the me-first thinking of many today. One thing that is clear is that the 60s were the hinge, or pivot point, of the 20th century. The period from 1968 to 1974 is recognized as a time of revolution and renaissance but also of fracture and discontent. The 1960s came in as “years of hope” and left as “days of rage” (p. 300), demonstrated so clearly in the literature and art of those years. “Something’s happening here/What it is ain’t exactly clear” (Buffalo Springfield) or Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” or “The Times they are A’Changin’” were a backdrop for the growing cynicism and individuality of the time. Putnam wrote, “movement toward an expanding ‘we’ suddenly reversed… growing polarization produced growing inequality, which produced growing social isolation, which produced in turn more polarization, in what seemed to be an endless downward spiral” (p 312).


Putnam turned to the all-important question of how America’s last upswing toward “we” occurred and how it might be restored. The Progressive movement included criticism of the Gilded Age and a repudiation of what the America of immigrant dreams had become and it included an understanding that ordinary citizens have the power to change their government. The early years of the Progressive era created infinite social capital that fostered a shared prosperity for all. Journalists were partially responsible for telegraphing the realization of inequity, which spawned a generation of politicians committed to the common good. The rise of community and “we” was a moral question and included citizens asking of themselves “what personal privileges and rights we might be willing to lay aside” (p. 329) for the benefit of all. This movement began in the lower or common ranks of citizens and then invigorated a new set of shared values. This is the lesson for the present day - inequity and environmental degradation are compelling moral mandates and require the active engagement of citizens to turn back toward a “we” mandate. The cautions Putnam offers at such a propitious time include: be careful not to overcorrect, never compromise on equality and inclusion, and remain faithful to individual liberty coupled with unwavering commitment to equality in all sectors.


The one question that remains when comparing the 19th and 21st century Gilded Ages is the influence of media and the wedge politics that divides so many groups and individuals. The 19th century Gilded Age offered the 1% hiding places behind gated landscapes that only the muckrakers eventually exposed. The 21st century Gilded Age displays all of the abuses, spun in deceitful ways by the perpetrators themselves. Yet, there are many victims of this age who remain enamored with what they see.

No comments: