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THE UPSWING by Robert D. Putnam Kirkus Star


How America Came Together a Century Ago and How We Can Do It Again

by Robert D. Putnam with Shaylyn Romney Garrett

Pub Date: Oct. 13th, 2020
ISBN: 978-1-9821-2914-9
Publisher: Simon & Schuster

A top-notch addition to the why-America-is-in-such-a-mess genre.

Writing with Garrett, Putnam, a professor of public policy at Harvard and winner of the National Humanities Medal, portrays a prosperous nation driven by technological innovation but burdened by massive, concentrated wealth and widespread poverty: Corruption and sex scandals fill the media; politics is gridlocked; xenophobia and white supremacist violence are rising; substance abuse runs rampant. The author then delivers a jolt by revealing that this describes Gilded Age America (1870-1890), a time when “doomsday prophecies and despairing anxieties” filled the media. Putnam’s inverted-U graph illustrates what happened since. Four nearly parallel lines rise, tracking economic equality, goodwill in politics, community social bonds, and cultural altruism. All peak during the 1960s when, although far from perfect, “America had been transformed into a more egalitarian, cooperative, cohesive, and altruistic nation.” Then all four steadily decline into the present. There follows an insightful history of what Putnam labels an “I-we-I century.” Economic equality rose mostly through the explosion of education, high schools after 1900 and college after World War II and the Progressive movement, which produced government reform, encouraged unions, passed industrial regulation, and created the first social programs (“a veritable boom in association-building”). The first half of the 20th century gave birth to iconic social institutions such as the Rotary Club, NAACP, and the League of Woman Voters. Startlingly, both political parties contributed. About half of Republicans in Congress voted in favor of Progressive and New Deal programs, nearly two-thirds for Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society. The number voting for Obamacare in 2010? Zero. The 1970s saw the steady decline of this so-called affability: “The collective norm that ‘we’re all in this together’ was replaced by a libertarian…norm that we’re not.” The narrative is brilliantly argued throughout, although the traditional how-to-fix-it conclusion could use a more specific action plan.

A tour de force exploration of why America got better and then went into reverse.