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Robert Putnam Searches for the Common Good

The Bowling Alone author is committed to American renewal. But is his liberal communitarianism up to the task?

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

Imagine, if you can, an America wracked by social upheaval, cultural fracture, and economic uncertainty. Ordinary Americans are lonely, polarized, and pessimistic about the future, while a few financial fat cats manipulate the political system to engorge themselves at the country’s expense. That’s right: the 1880s were indeed a dark time for America. But though the sky seemed to be falling, Americans managed to work together to revive the country and set it on the path to prosperity. And if we overcame one Gilded Age, perhaps we can overcome another today.

So, at least, argue Robert Putnam and Shaylyn Romney Garrett in The Upswing: How America Came Together a Century Ago and How We Can Do It Again. Putnam has spent a lifetime studying America’s civic life and the strength of our “social capital,” the network of relationships that form one’s sense of identity and belonging. Following in the footsteps of Alexis de Tocqueville, Putnam has long marveled at the American tradition of civil society, while warning of its demise through internal decay.

But Putnam has something that even the great Frenchman lacked: graphs. As in his other works, he enlists the tools of the social sciences to document the feats and challenges of American community. Whereas Putnam’s classic Bowling Alone focused on the decline of our associational life, here he takes a longer view of history to consider the rise preceding that decline. After all, if mid-century America was our civic high point—full of vibrant neighborhoods and active bowling leagues—all of that pietas had to come from somewhere.

Putnam sees America’s communal life as exhibiting an inverted U-curve—dismal at the turn of the century, gradually rising to a peak in the 1960s, and then beginning a slow decline to the present day. This parabola, which Putnam dubs the “‘I-we-I’ curve,” reveals America’s transitions from individualism to solidarity and back. Putnam brings to this sweeping historical vision the sensibilities of a progressive communitarian, making The Upswing something like the liberal counterpart to Yuval Levin’s The Fractured Republic, which similarly described America’s “drawing together and then pulling apart.”

Much of the book documents how, across economics, politics, society, and culture, the first half of the century saw an “upswing” in Americans’ dedication to the common good. Americans saw rising living standards across the board—in fact, growth was strongest among the lower and middle classes—declining income inequality, and rising intergenerational economic mobility. Polarization declined, as politicians united across parties and earned their constituents’ trust. Americans founded and joined clubs, unions, and churches to bond over common causes and beliefs. The sense of collective purpose was apparent even in our language, as words like “compromise,” “unity,” and “agreement,” rose in prevalence. Together, these trends attest to a profound shift in Americans’ self-conception, from “I” to “we.”

Then, with striking synchronicity, our progress across all these measures began to reverse in the 1960s. Here, Putnam covers well-trodden ground—indeed, trodden by Putnam himself in his previous work. Americans turned inward, rejecting the community (and conformity) of past generations in favor of liberation and self-actualization. The regression from “we” to “I” undid much hard work, producing “vast disparities between rich and poor, gridlock in the public square, a fraying social fabric, and widespread atomization and narcissism.”

Putnam’s data-driven history raises three major questions: what caused the rise in American solidarity, what caused the decline, and what can be done today? He avoids blaming any single factor for our post-Sixties malaise, quickly dismissing some of the most common theories: big government crowding out civil society, material abundance reducing our dependence on neighbors, globalization and immigration weakening our collective identity. The only explanation left standing is that the many crises and revolts of the 1960s created the perfect storm, causing a “national nervous breakdown” that even America at its peak could not overcome. This is surely correct so far as it goes, but one cannot help wondering whether America’s solidarity was then at least partly illusory—a veneer of community hiding widespread anomie and discontent.

As for solutions, Putnam gives credit for the upswing to the leaders and activists of the Progressive Era, who showed “a compelling desire to repudiate the downward drift of our nation, and a galvanizing belief in the power of ordinary citizens to do so.” Emphasizing the movement’s bottom-up aspects, Putnam celebrates the common men and women who refused to despair of their country’s ideals, despite its failures, and worked tirelessly for reform in the public interest. If anything will inspire another upswing today, Putnam concludes, it will be a similar rejection of despondence and selfishness in favor of a grassroots commitment to the American project.

The Upswing does an admirable job of explaining century-long trends and developing a coherent narrative arc out of a thousand data points. Putnam is not just a scholar, but a prophet, calling on Americans to change their ways before it is too late. One cannot help but be moved by his spirited, lifelong dedication to American renewal. Indeed, Putnam is an exemplar of the patriotic devotion to the common good that he exhorts readers to adopt as their own.

And yet Putnam’s strand of liberal communitarianism may blind him to important factors in the upswing. He rejects the possibility that severe immigration restrictions from 1924 to 1965 could have contributed to stronger social solidarity, despite the fact that they ended right when our cohesion reached its inflection point. Regarding the world wars, Putnam notes that our unity had already been rising for decades, but it’s hard to believe they did not have a massive multiplier effect on our sense of collective identity.

The downswing’s history is similarly selective. When considering our post-Sixties fracture, Putnam glosses over “unprecedented questioning of traditional religious and family values,” but a radical rejection of established beliefs in favor of personal liberation would seem to be central to the story—though perhaps Putnam would counter that the Sexual Revolution and the New Left were themselves effects, rather than causes, of our nascent individualism. He castigates the rise of Randian, “makers vs. takers” individualism on the right, but gives a pass to the solipsistic pursuit of increasingly outré forms of authenticity that took over liberalism in the 1960s and never left.

More broadly, The Upswing exhibits the greater tensions of liberal communitarians—navigating between, on the one hand, the desire to be as inclusive and open-minded as possible, and on the other, the commitment to all of their own strong principles and expecting everyone else to do so as well. British journalist David Goodhart has described the “progressive dilemma” between high immigration rates and redistributive policies, but it could more generally describe the conflict between a putatively neutral communitarianism that downplays differences in the name of acceptance, and the assertive support for discrete liberal goals and principles.

Putnam seems unaware of this tension, at times giving the impression of being, as G.K. Chesterton said, dogmatic without knowing it. He prays for “a truly nonpartisan movement” marked by “citizen-driven call for large-scale reform,” then celebrates the “resistance” movement against President Trump. He praises past “nonpartisan” Republicans for their willingness to work across the aisle, but every example is of them supporting Democratic policies. Putnam’s call for unity can sound like the social scientist’s equivalent of Hilary Clinton’s 2018 warning that civility can return only when Democrats take back Congress. Putnam can resist his heart out, and there is nothing wrong with having strong views per se. But one should be forthright about them, rather than pretending that one just wants everyone to get along, and that it is everyone else who is spoiling the party with their meddlesome opinions.

Nevertheless, one need not accept all of Putnam’s philosophical commitments to appreciate his many insights into the contours of American civic life. He has managed to weave a huge amount of material into a parsimonious account of the 20th century, one that serves as a fitting prequel to his other works. Most of all, Putnam offers a valuable reminder of what American renewal will take: ordinary citizens’ rejection of today’s chic, bleak navel-gazing in favor of an increased devotion to the common good. And fewer selfies, please.

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