The Upswing: How America Came Together a Century Ago and How We Can Do It Again, by Robert D. Putnam and Shaylyn Romney Garrett (Simon & Schuster, 483 pp., $32.50)

Social scientist Robert Putnam has a well-deserved reputation for arriving at original conclusions by asking original questions. In The Upswing, he and coauthor Shaylyn Romney Garrett have given us another compelling argument about American social life.

A statistical tour de force, The Upswing asks an important question: Do Americans today care and focus more on themselves as individuals—a collection of “I’s”—or do they see themselves and their fellow countrymen as a “We”? The answer, unequivocal and well-supported, is that we have become more individualistic, and that this trend overlaps with various social ills: rising inequality, low social trust, and declining marriage rates. Tracking these and other trends, Putnam and Garrett identify a statistical (and graphical) tendency: an upside-down, U-shaped “I-We-I” curve that identifies the Gilded Age of the 1890s as a low point in social solidarity that corresponds to another low point in the present. Between these nadirs, however, was a golden age, roughly 1930 to 1970, when the American “We” was at its zenith. This is the book’s key finding.

The heroes of this era in Putnam and Garrett’s telling are the Progressives of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Their concern for the poor and their political vision laid the groundwork for the New Deal’s social safety net. The authors believe that we should emulate them today. The Upswing is not overly prescriptive, but it generally points to contemporary progressive politics as the remedy for our ills. The book finds cause for optimism, for example, in student gun control activism arising from the 2018 Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Florida and in the Women’s March of 2017.

Putnam and Garrett’s statistical analyses are convincing. Their view that the progressivism of the past deserves credit for the twentieth-century golden age of “We” is less so, as are their endorsements of current forms of political mobilization.

The early twentieth-century Progressives merit acclaim for several reasons. I agree with the authors’ praise for the settlement-house movement, when largely selfless patricians helped integrate into American society members of what remains the largest wave of immigration in the nation’s history. The Progressives successfully advocated for a range of basic and desperately needed government efforts, such as the Pure Food and Drug Act. The Upswing, however, overlooks other important explanations, as well as many personal and policy prescriptions that might spark another golden age of “We.” Putnam and Garrett fail to note that the rate of immigration to America forms a curve, the shape of which contradicts their thesis about the apex of national fellow-feeling. Immigrant entry reached its height around 1910 and was legislatively restricted between 1924 and 1965, a period corresponding with Putnam and Garrett’s high point of social solidarity. One can make a good case that the long pause in immigration allowed a sense of “We” to emerge. Notably, that “We” was fostered by patrician Progressives who were proud of and confident in America, taught English, and promoted citizenship. The Upswing itself could be read to suggest revisiting this combination of slowed immigration and assertive, self-confident assimilation, but American elites today are too busy tearing down the country to adopt such an approach.

Nor can one overlook the fact that the widely shared prosperity of the postwar period overlapped not only with the zenith of American labor unionism but also with a time of limited global trade. World war and Communism had decimated America’s major potential competitors. “Made in America” made economic sense, and John Kenneth Galbraith said with some justification that unchallenged corporate giants could dictate prices and thus pass on gains to unionized workers. To return to that model now, however, would lead toward economically destructive protectionism.

Putnam and Garrett need not endorse such policies, any more than they should suggest that there might be more fraternal societies if there were no Social Security programs. (In the pre-New Deal era, it was common for such groups to pool resources.) But the logic of pausing immigration or urging English on current immigrants should at least be acknowledged, as should the fact that groups associated with the political Right, notably evangelicals, are working hard to create their own version of a big tent of “We.”

One wishes that Putnam and Garrett would also acknowledge that the current incarnation of progressivism has done little to foster a sense of shared American identity. Indeed, it has dismissed large swaths of Americans as “deplorable” and cultivated divisions according to racial and gender identities, helping to polarize the country.

The implications of the “I-We-I” analysis in The Upswing could just as easily lead to politically conservative conclusions. Putnam is no stranger to such ambivalence. In his 2006 lecture, “E Pluribus Unum: Diversity and Community in the 21st Century,” he reported that, as neighborhood diversity increased, social trust declined, because neighbors tended to “hunker down.” While he acknowledged the uncomfortable conclusion that one could remedy this problem by avoiding diversity—including racial diversity—he argued that we should instead seek new forms of “cross-cutting social solidarity,” pointing to the successful integration of American immigrants as proof of this prescription. One wishes that The Upswing would have at least acknowledged that its analysis implies a range of potential approaches to rebuilding social solidarity.

Illustration: z_wei/iStock


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