Keating: Putnam’s ‘Upswing’

December 8, 2020

by Maryann O. Keating, Ph.D.

The significant contributions of the American political scientist Robert Putnam, author of “Bowling Alone” and  ”Our Kids” are widely recognized. His new book, “The Upswing,” co-authored with Shaylyn Romney Garrett, similarly consists of careful analysis of societal trends but is somewhat troubling given the authors’ conclusions and prescriptions. Many share the authors’ concerns with the decline in American income equality and overall social well-being along with increased political polarization. The difficulty lies in how the findings presented are emphasized and interpreted by the authors.    

The central theme of “The Upswing” is that American solidarity experienced a steady ascent from the late 19th to the mid-20th century. Since then, however, America has become more unequal, more contentious, less connected, and less committed to shared values.  Figure 1 represents fourinverted U-shaped graphs, referred to throughout the book, to indicate first an increase and then a decrease in positive measures of solidarity from 1890 through the mid-20th century and into the first decades of the 21st century.  

Figure 1. Economic, Political, Social, and Cultural Trends, 1895-2015

Source:  Figure 8.1 on page 284 in “The Upswing.”  

Each of the four inverted u-curves in Figure 1 are composites of indicators used by the authors to demonstrate what they have chosen to represent increases and declines in solidarity over the period studied. The solid curve, representing economics, measures gains and losses in income and wealth equality, income tax progressivity, union membership, etc. The dashed curve represents political bipartisanism/ polarization by measures including cross-ticket voting and trust in government. The dotted society curve reflects a combination of club and church membership, attendance at meetings, family formation and generational differences in social trust.  

The authors define culture as fundamental beliefs, values and norms characterizing society. The light dashed curve representing cultural change is based on Ngrams, the relative frequency of words or groups of words located in all books published in America from roughly 1880 to 2008. It is based on the frequency of words such as “agreement,” “unity” and “compromise” (169).  

The book’s central thesis is that economic, political, societal and cultural changes in America, as represented in Figure 1, may be combined into a single inverted u-shaped pattern that they referred to as an “I-we-I curve” (286).

The authors are careful to note that this book is primarily about trends and narratives, not causality. However, they do entertain the question, “Which of these are “leading” or “lagging” indicators?” They conclude that there are virtually no leading indicators, but they detect a modest tendency for economic inequality to lag. Cultural change might have led the way, contrary to the common belief that culture is mere “froth on the waves of socioeconomic change” (286-287). 

 Private Initiatives as Primary Mover of the Upswing

A review of “TheUpswing” cannot capture its comprehensive wide-angled socio-cultural-literary-political history of 20th century America. The book’s major contribution is to document gains in education, income, racial and gender equality that happened well before 1970; therefore, the rights revolutions of the late1960s and early1970s was not a bolt from the blue, but rather as the culmination of more than four decades of progress. The authors stress that these gains were primarily a result of private initiatives.  

Reformers included immigrants and elites, women and men, blacks and whites, housewives and career politicians, unionists and capitalists, college graduates and factory workers, top-down bureaucrats and bottom-up activists, Republicans and Democrats, and nearly everyone in between (317). The book should inspire numerous studies describing effective institutions created and managed by women and minorities in the first half of the 20th century . . . and why they cease to flourish or even exist in the second half of the century.

As in Putnam’s previous work, “TheUpswing” identifies important trends or, if you prefer, hypotheses concerning American life in general. The first is the observation that recent policy impetus is driven more by elites and tends to be top-down. Top-down causality is consistent with the fact that mass polarization of opinion has tended to lag elite polarization by a decade or two (100). Another contribution is to indicate that income inequality is if anything, the lagging variable (meaning that rising inequality has shown up later than rising polarization); therefore income inequality is unlikely to be the primary driver of the downswing (99).

The secret ballot; the direct primary system; the popular election of senators; the initiative, referendum and recall; women’s suffrage; new forms of municipal administration; the federal income tax; the Federal Reserve System; protective labor laws; the minimum wage; antitrust statutes; protected public lands and resources; food and drug regulation; sanitation infrastructure; public utilities; a vast proliferation of civic and voluntary societies; new advocacy organizations such as labor unions, the ACLU, and the NAACP; the widespread provision of free public high schools; and even the spread of public parks, libraries and playgrounds all owe their origins to the efforts of a diverse array of Progressive reformers and were present or came into existence in the first half of the 20th century (318).

Increases in economic equality, political comity, civic engagement, family formation, philanthropy and cultural solidarity began decades before World War II and continued for decades afterward. Therefore, mobilization for war cannot be the primary cause of the inverted U-curve (294). Similarly, the authors suggest that postwar affluence did not advance generosity but undermined collective institutions, eroded moral norms and ushered in an age that worshiped the self over and against society (295).

Putnam and Garrett state that victories by the Left (the Great Society and the Civil Rights revolution) triggered a conservative backlash, that has dominated American politics ever since. They indicate that it is impossible to talk about the primary reason for the decline of the Progressive era, but like “anything else in American history,” race and gender must be considered (296). A consistent theme in “TheUpswing” is that post 1970 declines in overall well-being, as defined by the authors, resulted from America “taking the foot off the accelerator” on measures that would have further advanced the Progressive agenda.     

Rise and Decline of the Progressive Movement

The Progressive legacy is central to Putnam and Garrett; they see it as raising and addressing critical issues even to the point of bending reality to conform to its aspirations. In hard measures of economic equality, political comity, social cohesion and cultural altruism, they suggest that progressive reformers set in motion genuine upward measures compounded during the first 65 years of the 20th century (338). The nonpartisan mantle of “Progressives” ultimately put in place a stunningly diverse and sweeping set of reforms and innovations — many of which form the basis of American society still experienced today (317).

The Gilded Age(i.e., ending around the 1890s), in contrast to the Progressive Era, was a period of intense political polarization. The opening of the new century and the rise of the Progressive movement mark a turning point. Collaboration across party lines became steadily more common, slowing only briefly in the Roaring Twenties before reaching a new higher plateau of cooperativeness in the New Deal and World War II. Progressive Era reformers were responsible for innovations such as public high schools, labor unions, the federal tax structure, antitrust legislation, financial regulation and more. 

Two negatives instituted or tolerated during the Progressive Era are pointed out for criticism, Prohibition and Jim Crow respectively (337).  

Major reforms in the Progressive Era, enacted during both Republican and Democratic administrations, were supported (and opposed) from both sides of the aisle. These initiatives included the Interstate Commerce Commission, the Pure Food and Drug Act, the federal income tax, the direct election of senators, the tariff cuts of 1913, the Federal Reserve, the Clayton Antitrust Act, child labor regulation, Prohibition and women’s suffrage. During this era, the administration in power received, on average, the support of 78 percent of the House and Senate members of its own party, as well as 40 percent of the votes of the opposing party (74).

The proximate cause of the Great Divergence was, according to the authors, a reversal of such social and policy innovations. Economists Paul Krugman, Thomas Piketty and others agree with them that it is impossible to explain the dramatic swing in economic equality without taking norms about fairness and decency into account (65). As such, the growth of education “paused” around 1965; unions had begun their long decline by 1958; in the mid-1960s, tax cuts began to make the tax structure more regressive; after 1970, deregulation, especially of financial institutions, overturned the reforms begun in the Progressive Era.

President Lyndon Johnson’s move to the left on issues of race and inequality opened an ideological divide that would widen steadily for the next half-century. The authors note that all major bills of Johnson’s Great Society initiatives (the War on Poverty, Civil Rights, Voting Rights, Medicare/ Medicaid, federal aid to education and immigration reform) are at the core of intense party polarization in our times, a half-century later. Yet, these major bills were supported by majorities or substantial minorities within both parties (82). However, by the 1970s, partisanship became more intense, and bipartisan collaboration rare. Steadily accelerating partisanship has produced the deeply polarized world in which we live today.

The authors indicate that renewed party polarization of the last half-century began with race but polarization soon came to be about much more than race (86). After Reagan, Republican leaders became steadily more skeptical about environmentalism and capped this with an uncompromising denial of climate science in the early 21 century (85). Political party affiliation, they suggest, drives American religious convictions, including those on abortion (85).  

Most interpretations of the 1960s are framed in terms of political struggle but the more durable and pervasive change, according to the authors, was from communitarianism to individualism, empirically distinct from the left-right spectrum. The Old Right that the authors’ suggest gave way to the New Right and the Old Left gave way to the New Left. Both the New Right and the New Left were perceived as fresh and attractive, whereas communitarian ideals seemed to be repressive and stale (190). ”The Upswing” reviews 1950s literature in describing the cultural rebellion against insistence on convention, consumerism and conformity (181).

Owning the Downswing  

The Sixties is one of the most debated epochs in American history, but virtually all scholars agree that America changed dramatically in a short time (298). 

There is no reason to question the data used to construct the inverted U-curves presented in “The Upswing.” However, it is necessary to own up to the consequences of policies pursued during the downswing. What went wrong? The authors do not express any particular anthropological view of the human person or define the common good. Therefore, their analysis should be evaluated in terms of their fierce commitment to democratic practices and egalitarian socioeconomic outcomes (167).

Putnam and Garrett agree that a primary cause of the early 20th century upswing was the interplay between technological advances and educational innovations (especially public high schools). However, they express no regret in “The Upswing” for how American K-12 education failed to maintain this effort in terms of the social well-being of the less affluent and global academic standards. Surprisingly, this failure is poignantly demonstrated in Putnam’s previous book, “Our Kids.” Could it be that scale and prohibitive costs preclude quality in providing universal education from pre-school through graduate school?   

Putnam’s “Bowling Alone” was one of the first booksto call attention to declining participation in clubs, local civic organizations, religion and political activities in the second half of the 20th century. Through careful analysis, Putnam determined that cohorts after those born earlier were less likely to participate in a voluntary organization. 

This particular book deviates somewhat from Putnam’s previous work on the importance of social capital, understood as the capacity individuals develop through participation in churches, civic groups, fraternal associations and other organizations. Clubs, as compared to advocacy organizations, create social capital, and are the schools of democratic practices. In “TheUpswing,” the authors do not so much lament declining participation but rather the fact that rates of participation are relatively higher for those on “the extremes” of the ideological spectrum (95). 

In writing “Bowling Alone” 20 years ago, Putnam hypothesized about the effect of television on club participation. Surprisingly, “The Upstart” notes that the impact of TV on the decline of social capital now seems less significant than changing attitudes (292). Nevertheless, developments such as social media, contraceptives and assisted fertility technology undoubtedly are significant events impacting the Great Disruption.      

Admittedly, this book is about trends and narratives, not certifiable causes. However, the authors do offer certain explanations.They emphasize that the long arc of increasing solidarity in early 20th century America was followed by increased individualism (291). They note that family formation, over the 125 years studied in “TheUpswing,” followed exactly the same rhythms as civic and religious engagement. This lends support to their basic hypothesis concerning a change from individualism (I) to community (We) and back again to individualism (I) (149). However, the authors make a point of saying that they do not dismiss newer types of family as illegitimate and justify devoting less attention to same-sex, cohabiting and “fragile” families due to scarcity of reliable evidence (147).  

The book notes that throughout American history there have been periodic waves of intense religiosity, called “Great Awakenings,” and involvement in a faith community is a strong predictor of social connection (127). The authors suggest that the rise of the so-called Nones after 1990 is related to young Americans viewing religion as judgmental, homophobic, hypocritical and partisan (139). It is not made clear if the authors share this position or whether or not a future upswing in religious participation is simply not required to restore generalized reciprocity.  

“TheUpswing” focuses on social trust, rather than social capital and religion, as the mechanism of action needed for renewal (158). As older, more trusting cohorts have gradually been replaced by newer, less trusting cohorts, the average level of trust in the country has declined (160). It cites studies that employ a global standard for measuring trust and reports that in the early 1960s nearly two-thirds of Americans trusted other people, but two decades into the 21st century two-thirds of Americans did not (159).

This critique of hyper-individualism follows Francis Fukuyama who in The Great Disruption (1999) emphasized that both Left and Right have taken the position of freeing people from constraints as their central goal. For the Left, constraints are on lifestyles; for the Right, constraints, financial (188). The intention of the authors in writing the book appears to be to expand the range of acceptable political policies and make government intervention more plausible; they do this without clarifying their position of social liberalism.  

Trust in the effectiveness of government by the average citizen is reported in the book to have plummeted from about 70 percent to about 30 percent (103). This lack of trust may be legitimate. However, there is a virtual absence in “The Upswing” of a realistic assessment of government programs that have failed in alleviating intergenerational poverty. For those willing to consider the authors’ criticism of global trade agreement gone awry as well as the duplicitousness of the affluent between rhetoric and personal decisions, this omission is surprising.    

The full title of the book is “The Upswing: How America Came Together a Century Ago and How We Can Do It Again.” It offers much-needed hope for a vision, held across the partisan divide, one that recognizes and values networks of sustainable social interaction. 

Maryann O. Keating, Ph.D., a resident of South Bend and an adjunct scholar of the Indiana Policy Review Foundation, is co-author of “Microeconomics for Public Managers,” Wiley/Blackwell.


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