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Montage

Yearning for an Upswing

In search of optimism, a sweeping interpretation of American social history

November-December 2020

An illustration of social capital, the subject of the book being reviewed, in the form of an individual versus a group working together

Illustration by Kotryna Zukauskaite


Illustration by Kotryna Zukauskaite

Rereading, while in self-imposed quarantine, the jittery U.S.A. trilogy by John Dos Passos about the America of 100 years ago—a cynical, fractious, increasingly extremist place disillusioned with the rich, the powerful, and the media—produces a jarring sense of recognition. It is always disturbing to realize that problems of a different era have escaped their historical confines—as if one had just read a news headline about a resurgence of smallpox or bubonic plague. The alarming correspondences between the America of today and of 100 years ago are the subject of The Upswing, an ambitious book by Robert D. Putnam, research professor of government, and writer and entrepreneur Shaylyn Romney Garrett ’02 that seeks to describe the century-long oscillation of an entire society.

Given the prominence of Putnam’s Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (2000), the signature book on social capital and its erosion at the beginning of the millennium, his case for improvement now seems especially important. Rather than prescribing anxiety or despair, as so many accounts of the United States do, the new book optimistically suggests that the eventual reversal in fortunes then may augur one now.

To prove this somewhat quantitatively, Putnam and Garrett simplify the complex trajectory of American society since 1900 to four curves: economic inequality, political partisanship, social capital, and cultural narcissism. Using certain proxies for these complex phenomena and a few simplifications in curve-drawing, it is possible to get all the disparate trends to superimpose neatly on one another. Their observation of “an unexpected and remarkable synchronicity in trends in four very different spheres over the last 125 years” is the essence of the book. All of the indicators begin in the doldrums at the start of the twentieth century, before the titular upswing takes place. This happy trend extends until the 1960s, after which these indicators pivot and slowly trace a bell curve as they collapse back to their original nadirs: rancorous partisanship, deep inequality, and anomie.

For the authors, the synchronicity cannot be accidental. To the lay reader, this logic is compelling. To the social scientist forever spouting about the distinction between correlation and causation, however, it is merely suggestive. Putnam and Garrett caution repeatedly that they cannot discern causes from effects, and freely admit that their study is, for all its marshaling of statistical series, a narrative one firmly in the genre of macrohistory. The trap of such sweeping efforts is the temptation to discern out of all the noise a single master arc that is subtly bending all of history.

Capital and Ideology, Thomas Piketty’s recent entry into the genre, places inequality as the ultimate driving force of politics, society, and religion. The Upswing proposes another, similar arc and presents it with the sort of ultra-causal verve that the authors elsewhere claim is impossible: this one is “a long arc of increasing solidarity and then increasing individualism” which “had implications for equality, for politics, for social capital, and for culture. It led to an increasingly zero-sum, tribal view of society, and, eventually, to Trumpism.” These are strong claims. The evidence justifying the thesis, intriguing as it is, is not nearly so strong.

 

The authors assign ultimate importance to the route from individualism to communitarianism and back again, called the “I-we-I” curve in their shorthand. But, somewhat unsatisfyingly, they must concede that “the available evidence offers virtually no evidence of an uncaused first cause of the I-we-I syndrome.” Despite that, there is intermittent moralizing about the gyrations in this curve—a reversion from a period of “mutualism and solidarity” to a “descent into cultural narcissism.” Unionization, voter turnout, and membership in churches and community clubs are all described as reflections of this dynamic. And despite the cautioning on causality, Putnam and Garrett nonetheless present a clear story. They propose that the communitarian ethos of the Progressive Era—of muckrakers like Ida B. Wells and Jacob Riis and social reformers like the suffragette Jane Addams and education evangelist John Dewey—is the generating impulse of the upswing. And the various traumas of the 1960s—assassinations, campus violence, the civil-rights struggle, urban riots, the Vietnamese debacle—are proposed as the instigators for the downswing.

Many concurrent transformations, of course, could also have driven these trends. The United States became the preeminent military force in the world, but also became a modern welfare state backed by a newly muscular federal government. Free trade wreaked havoc on some industries while a new economy, based on knowledge, services, and the Internet, delivered growing returns to the educated. The sexual revolution happened. God became a supporting character in American life. Racial animosities did not dissipate, but substantially declined. What evidence is there that, in the midst of all of these bewildering changes, it was really “most fundamentally the self-centeredness” that accounted for present-day malaise?

At this critical point, the quantitative evidence is unfortunately the weakest. Google’s ambition to digitize millions of books has yielded a database that the curious can use to check trends in English usage over decades with only a few keystrokes. Putnam and Garrett rely on this tool to track the rate of usage of “we” compared to “I”—and find that the resulting curve traces the familiar U-turn that recurs everywhere else in the book. These personal pronouns are presented as a window into the collective, steadily more self-obsessed national psyche (elsewhere derided as “selfie culture”).

Similar accounts of increasing selfishness fossilized in Google Books data have been offered before, most notably by the psychologist Jean Twenge, but they do not seem to be taken that seriously by many linguists. For one, it seems easy to generate conclusions that would run in exactly the opposite direction: “we” might be losing out to “I,” but “community” has substantially gained in popularity relative to “individual.” My brief experimentation also showed that writers also discuss “you” more than “I” these days. From these analogies, one could conclude the exact opposite: a resurrected communitarianism after all. But of course that would be unfounded.

Other attempts at constructing a meta-narrative for American history, like the recent These Truths by Kemper professor of American history Jill Lepore, place at their center the crisis of race and the centuries-long inability of whites to accept blacks as equal. Was it possible for America to become a society of solidarity, a “we” society (as Putnam and Garrett term it), only because it was a Mad Men one, undergirded by the exclusion of blacks and women? These questions, thankfully, are addressed in the concluding chapters. But too often, Putnam and Garrett hammer these complex evolutions into a clean historic arc to better align with the argument of the rest of the book.

To keep the 1960s as the hinge point, their analysis shifts not to the trends in racial and gender equalitythemselves, but instead to the trend within the trends: the argument is that “America took its foot off the gas”—so the drive toward equality decelerated and stalled. “As that ‘we’ came apart, racial progress in many important realms came to a halt,” they claim. This is certainly true in some respects. But it does feel like a disservice to give the overriding impression that to be black in 2020 is only marginally better than it was in 1970. In fact, there has been substantial convergence in life expectancy, high-school graduation rates, and voter turnout between black and white Americans, for example. And the notion that the communitarian ethos of the “we” society reinforces the drive toward equality for the disadvantaged is difficult to square with the continuous progress of women, who now vote more and earn more college degrees than men, or that of gay Americans, who have secured legal protections and wider social acceptance astonishingly quickly in recent decades.

An overarching narrative for 100 years of change can easily become overreaching.

The difficulty in constructing an overarching narrative for 100 years of change is that it can easily become overreaching. But in Putnam’s case, the impulse is understandable. He has spent an illustrious academic career illuminating the ways in which American life has been steadily unraveling. In Bowling Alone, he documented the decline of social capital (for which he used membership in bowling leagues, Rotary Clubs, and churches as a proxy), bringing the concept into both academic and general popularity. (New data published here show that those downward trends have continued.) In Our Kids (2015), he revisited his hometown of Port Clinton, Ohio, to write vividly about growing inequality and the dimming of the American dream as it passed from one generation to the next. For much of his career—and indeed the careers of many of the country’s most respected social scientists—the focus has been on exploring what went wrong, and why.

By reaching further back in time than most academics ever venture (because data are scant and require more care to interpret), he and Garrett are able to focus on a more positive period in which the United States was broadly improving, when children could expect almost surely to earn more than their parents, and Congress was not wrecked by partisanship. It cannot be wrong to yearn for a time when progress was palpable, when projects like the Great Society were being proposed and enacted. Even if we do not precisely know the reasons for the upswing all those years ago, one happened all the same. And it would not a bad time for another.  

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