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Bowling Together Again?

While debatable at times, Robert Putnam's latest book is a treasury of statistical trends in American life.

The Upswing: How America Came Together a Century Ago and How We Can Do It Again, by Robert Putnam and Shaylyn Romney Garrett (Simon & Schuster, 2020), 480 pages.

Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone (2000) established in hard data what was already obvious to the public: Americans at the end of the 20th century were losing their historic talent for civic engagement and social connectedness. Yet Putnam’s academic colleagues were more skeptical. They argued that he was nostalgic for the old forms of associational life—Elk lodges, mainline Protestantism, the PTA—and that someone less fogeyish would recognize that the U.S. was in the midst of civic transformation, not decline. Critics suggested a kind of law of conservation of social capital: bowling leagues may be declining, but youth soccer leagues were booming. Thinning pews in Methodist churches meant fuller ones at evangelical services. And wasn’t the internet about to neutralize the atomizing effect of television?

Twenty years later, Putnam is vindicated. So is the public’s sense that something baleful was stalking the country amid the prosperity of the Clinton years. The social trends in Bowling Alone have continued and even accelerated. America’s vaunted immunity to secularization, for example, was an illusion. Fewer than half of Millennials are Christian, and 64 percent of them attend religious services infrequently or never. Conservative dismay over malformed families looks increasingly quaint, as young adults aren’t forming families of any kind. The share of Americans between 18 and 34 living without a steady romantic partner rose from 33 percent in 2004 to 51 percent in 2018.

Vindication has bred imitators, and by now there’s a vast literature analyzing our nation’s decline from its midcentury peak of civic health and social cohesion. Putnam made a recent addition to the genre with Our Kids (2015), a study of hardening class divides and flagging social mobility, which was supposed to be his last book. At least that was what the 79-year-old Putnam, an emeritus political scientist at Harvard, promised his wife. Yet he kept on tinkering with obscure datasets and came across “an unexpected confluence of historical patterns,” which prompted him to break his word. Putnam now thinks his earlier books had a truncated historical frame. They were missing the bigger picture.

His new book, The Upswing: How America Came Together a Century Ago and How We Can Do It Again, co-written with Shaylyn Romney Garrett, argues that America’s social fabric must be examined in light of the past 125 years. Putnam observes that Gilded Age trends were remarkably similar to the present. “Inequality, political polarization, social dislocation, and cultural narcissism prevailed,” he writes, “all accompanied, as they are now, by unprecedented technological advances.” Mining a prodigious amount of data from familiar and neglected sources, Putnam shows that things began to improve in the Progressive Era, as the country became more egalitarian and civically engaged. 

After a “pause” in the 1920s, trendlines in economics, politics, society, and culture shot upwards in mysterious synchronicity. Disparate phenomena such as income equality, split-ticket voting, union membership, and marriage rates soared together like a flock of birds. Starting in the 1960s, these benign trends went into freefall, recreating a world of division, dysfunction, and “metastasizing self-centeredness.” The result is a century-long statistical arc that looks like an inverted U. Putnam gives it an accessible if insipid name: the “I-we-I curve,” reflecting our national journey from individualism to community and back again.

The Upswing is a macrohistory that analyzes social change over an unusually long time and across multiple dimensions. Its mass of inverted U graphs is a relief from books like Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now (2018) and Matt Ridley’s The Rational Optimist (2010), which seek to defend the honor of neoliberalism with a multitude of statistical hockey sticks. Putnam immodestly compares his effort to multispectral astronomy, claiming it can detect and analyze social patterns that have escaped more circumscribed scholars. Much of the time, however, The Upswing reinforces popular clichés in novel and amusing ways. The Roaring Twenties saw an increase in eccentricity and selfishness, as suggested by divergent trends in baby-naming. What Tom Wolfe called the “Me Decade” was more literal than he realized. Pronoun usage in the 1970s changed abruptly, becoming less collective and more personal.

If you’ve read Putnam before, you will be familiar with the tone. A wealth of dismal stats is glazed with an ostentatiously uplifting message. As a social scientist investigating national decline, Putnam resembles a Charles Murray with liberal politics and a more soothing bedside manner. He hopes that by crafting a grand narrative that “encompasses the ups and downs of an entire century,” The Upswing will set a clearer agenda for policymakers and concerned citizens. The result is something closer to paralysis. Putnam finds that national trends are so tightly interwoven that it’s impossible to isolate a master cause of the whole pattern. He initially suspected that economic inequality was driving everything else, but he learned to his surprise that inequality was a lagging indicator, “slightly more likely to be the caboose of social change than the engine.” Deprived of economic footing, Putnam is left trying to renovate the Marxian “superstructure” of society and culture as it drifts haphazardly in midair. 

Putnam’s recommendation is to emulate the Progressives of the early 20th century, particularly their self-assurance and energy. He hails their “vast, pluralistic upsurge of cultural critique, impassioned agitation, and citizen-led reform,” and he finds comfort in the fact that they had “little philosophic coherence except for a commitment to community.” Putnam is right that Progressivism is a more useful historical analogue for reformers than harkening back, yet again, to the New Deal. Unfortunately, he obscures the reason for this. The era between the 1930s and 1970s was what historian Jefferson Cowie has called the Great Exception—a sustained deviation from “the main contours” of American history, made possible by depression, world war, and immigration restriction.

The Upswing struggles against this interpretation with data showing various forms of social progress (civic association membership, high school graduation rates) that began improving decades earlier. Putnam builds “composite summary curves” out of these trends, hoping to revive our optimism. “This sense of shared responsibility and collective progress [at midcentury] was not simply some victory lap after overcoming the Great Depression and defeating the Axis powers,” Putnam writes. “It was, in fact, the culmination of trends plainly discernible across the previous half century.”

He makes a vigorous argument, but I wonder if composite analysis hides the most significant measures. Union density, church membership, equitable wealth distribution, and independent living by young adults—to take some important examples—were flat or declining before the 1930s or 1940s. Moreover, Putnam’s repeated description of a communitarian “pause” in the 1920s takes for granted the subsequent events he wants to downplay.

One of those events was immigration restriction, an awkward subject for Putnam. In a contorted passage, Putnam simultaneously denigrates the significance of immigration and suggests, indirectly, that the 1924 Johnson-Reed Act was an important driver of the I-we-I curve. The Upswing’s confusing discussion of the issue will be familiar to readers of Putnam’s landmark 2007 study on the inverse correlation between diversity and social capital. As in that earlier study, Putnam is torn between the data he has painstakingly excavated and his all-American instinct for yes-we-can liberal optimism.

Putnam is bolder on issues of race and gender. He devotes a chapter to each, anticipating the rebuttal that the “we” taking shape in the first half of the 20th century “was a fundamentally white, male ‘we.’” He meets this objection by pointing to narrowing inequality gaps before the 1960s and 1970s. For blacks, progress slowed and in some cases reversed after the civil rights era, indicating that social breakdown has been especially hard on African Americans. In a disturbing coincidence, the rise and fall of the Jim Crow regime, which had been created by Progressives in the late 19th century, overlaps perfectly with the I-we-I curve. Putnam observes this with chagrin but suggests that we look on the bright side: our communitarian upswing before the 1960s was most likely a precondition for dismantling the color line.

Women’s progress toward economic equality and political inclusion, by contrast, increased throughout the century—a major exception to the I-we-I curve. It was an exception, however, that contributed to the steepness of the downslope and hastened the decline of community. Putnam largely ignores the trade-offs of a feminized workforce (as do, in fairness, most conservatives). But as Charles Murray once observed: “Who has been the primary engine for creating America’s social capital throughout its history, making our civil society one of the sociological wonders of the world? People without full-time jobs. The overwhelming majority of those people have been wives.”

Putnam’s interpretations may be debatable and his unrelenting positivity can be tedious, but The Upswing is a veritable treasury of statistical trends in American life. Everyone will learn a great deal from it. Putnam’s industriousness and command of data are inspiring, even if the same can’t be said of his sociological pep talks.

Timothy Crimmins is a Ph.D. student in history at the University of Chicago.

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