Saturday, March 21, 2020

Book Review: 'The Upswing: How America Came Together a Century Ago and How We Can Do It Again' by Robert D. Putnam (with Shaylyn Romney Garrett)

Millions of Americans have grown up thinking there is no alternative to the cult of the individual, living alone, striving for him or her self alone, and taking no one else into consideration. But America was not always like this. For most of the 20th century, it was all about belonging, joining, and sharing. That way of life peaked in the 1960s, and has been sliding ever since. That is the topline summary of Robert Putnam's extremely important The Upswing.

The opening salvo of Putnam and Shaylyn Romney Garrett's The Upswing is a no-holds-barred description of the ills facing America today. Once you've accepted that they have really hit all the lowlights dead on, they lower the boom. They are not describing 2020, but 1895. Things were at least as bad then, and America shook it off. By 1960, the country hit a peak of solidarity, co-operation, and community.

I really appreciate Putnam's in-your-face intro. It is far better than the standard laying out of the groundwork that often consumes 40 or even 80 pages of this kind of book. This introduction is not merely the best I have read, possibly ever, but it sets the stage for dissecting the factors and how and how they deteriorated so quickly from that point.

For convenience's sake, he labels the eras I, we and I again (I-we-I). Remarkably, it is now even possible to validate that nomenclature, using Google's Ngram service. Looking up the usage of those two words from the 1880s to 2008, I predominates today as well as 125 years ago, while we takes over in the period from the early 1900s to the early 1970s. You are what you write, it seems.

Astoundingly, the I-we-I eras lay themselves out in an inverted U curve. Everything about the eras, from race to sex to economics, politics, culture, sociability and solidarity, show up as almost identical inverted Us. The confirmation of this theory is as strong as the theory of gravity. Even baby names follow the curve, with a majority of nearly unique names today, and a majority of plain names during the we era. Students in the we era almost totally disagreed with the statement: "I am an important person." Today, 80% agree. American students trail in all categories of OECD tests but one: self esteem. The reach of the me generation is bigger than we think.

The we era was a time of sharing, giving and joining. People joined service clubs, common interest clubs, churches, unions and charities, and lived them, connecting with other members continuously - in person. Today, people join nothing but online forums, only pretending they are connected, without any physical involvement or commitment whatsoever. This hollowness shows up in the percentage of people living alone (51%), the lack of church attendance (even if the person claims a faith) and singles-everything services that sustain them. Putnam folds it all into a curve, again and again for every aspect of life in the USA. And incredibly, they match. From low points in the 1890s, they rise until the 1960s, then slide right back where they began.

The I eras are times of rights as opposed to responsibilities. Identity instead of community. And things were actually better in many ways in the we era. In the runup to 1960, income for the top 1% increased 21.5%, but for the bottom 99%, it tripled. Women, blacks, immigrants, consumer safety, the environment - all made their biggest gains in the we era.

The stark contrast can be seen in American presidents. JFK said: "Justice requires us to remember: if a citizen denies his fellow, saying 'His color is not mine,' or 'His beliefs are strange and different,' in that moment he betrays America." Putnam finds it difficult to imagine Trump saying anything like that.

In politics, party affiliation was not a strong indicator of voting results until 1970, when the figures suddenly began firming up. Split ticket-voting instead of straight party line was common. People would actually vote for the candidate who would best represent them, not the party's choice. Today, party is a bigger issue than even race, America's usual biggest issue. It even affects marriage. In 1960, five percent of Republicans said they would object if an offspring married a Democrat. Today that figure is 45%, nine times higher.

It was in the early 1900s we era that high schools came into being. Not because of some government mandate, but because local grassroots progressive movements pushed for them, and local politicians implemented them. The result was more educated and skilled workers, higher pay, and better living standards. Similarly, endless service clubs - Lions, Rotary, Elks, Knights of Columbus and such, gave back to communities through entirely local volunteer efforts. Setting the bar high, almost a third of Americans were unionized in 1960. Belonging was an important part of life in America. And service clubs were totally non-partisan. People joined by the millions, until the 1960s pivot.

Bravely, Putnam tries to nail down when in the 1960s the pivot took place, and of course, why. He is able to dismiss all the usual suspects: Vietnam, the Cold War, too much conformity, solidarity fatigue, television, the decline of religion, and numerous others posed in a library of books on the subject. But the numbers don't support any of them, he says.

One he does not consider is the tipping point of rights for the Other. The rise of civil rights, including the Civil Rights Act, mostly for blacks, Title IX, mostly for women, the rise of feminism, women running for office, and women and blacks managing others at work, were and are a direct threat to those in charge - white men. At that time, they were still the majority, but they could already see that ending for them. The threat to the patriarchy was unacceptable, and a backlash began that continues today and has only intensified.

White men see American society as a zero sum game: your gain is my loss. The libertarian bent of "me first and only" is not benign. It calls for removing what are considered as privileges for others, but as rights for white men. So government programs for the poor are unfair, aid for any segment other than white men are an affront to God's will, and anyone who supports such positions is a socialist or a communist. Though I can't produce the charts, I would guess these two trends would make a large X, crossing in the late 60s or early 70s, marking the elusive pivot point where we flipped to I again.

Putnam is extremely fussy about his charts. He qualifies them, explains potential weaknesses, and directs attention only to the defensible. His methodology is always front and center. Each chart not only prominently shows its sources, but even the smoothing factors employed to make them readable. Clearly, he wants them to stand up in the court of academic inquisition where he will duly be charged with heresy.

Putnam's previous work, Our Kids, shined a shocking light on how American society had evolved - or devolved - just in his lifetime. So did his previous book, Bowling Alone. Now he seems to have made a great discovery, by stepping back a little. Context and perspective suddenly revealed themselves to him by looking at a century. The perspective of a 125 year period, where the same symptoms show up at least as badly, and the same patterns repeat in every aspect of life, make The Upswing a shocker at a new level. In my review of Our Kids, I said if you read it it will change you. The Upswing will do more. It will be the basis of endless papers, dissertations and argument for years to come. It is as important a book as I have read on American society. And I am very glad Putnam took that step back to find it.

Editor's note: This review has been published with the permission of David Wineberg. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right.