Sunday, January 3, 2021

The Upswing: How America Came Together a Century Ago and How We Can Do It Again (Robert D. Putnam)

Twenty years ago, Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone drew critical acclaim for its research into the decline in civic participation among Americans. His newest book, The Upswing, takes his research on civic engagement and broadens it into a historical narrative of our nation’s progress and view of itself in the past century.

The Upswing focuses on a broad curve and trendline that he refers to as “I-We-I”. This trendline and curve is reflected in several indicators, from taxation to economic equality to progress in civil rights through the country to political partisanship. Putnam parallels historical events in each of these trends to show a broad narrative that the nation swung from a Gilded Age full of individualism and relatively deep partisanship to an era where the nation was conformist, community-oriented, and more egalitarian, before pivoting back into an era that is more individualist and more unequal economically. Putnam points out a number of events that drove these changes but does not suggest any one event as a trigger point for the changes, offering that the numbers of events happening in short succession would promote a turn in trajectory (the rights’ movements, Vietnam, and lowering of tax rates in the 1960’s and the Progressive Era in the early 20th Century).

Putnam, with Shaylyn Romney Garrett, offers some suggestions on how to pivot the current perceived nadir of American life into one that is more optimistic and better (more support of pragmatic reform, bipartisanship in political life, and the use of technology to foster group efforts to combat issues that face the country to name three). While the suggestions are shorter and broader than the research and evidence on “I-We-I”, Putnam does show a roadmap to how American can become a more united, community-oriented country in the decades to come. It may take more than the pundits and politicians among us to take that roadmap and make use of it.