Distinctions That Define and Divide   /   Summer 2021   /    Book Reviews

America’s Tailspin

Charting the downswing of civic strife.

Ronald Aronson

Sign painted on a shop window during the COVID-19 pandemic; OZSHOTZ/Alamy Stock Photo.

If ever a book seemed made for its moment, it was The Upswing, by Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam with Shaylyn Romney Garrett. Appearing in the midst of the 2020 presidential election campaign and a pandemic whose watchword was “We’re all in this together,” the book is a look back at the last 125 years of American economic, political, social, and cultural history. The authors demonstrate that we are far along the downward slope of an “I-We-I” arc. Inasmuch as the disastrous American response to COVID-19 and the civic strife accelerated (if not instigated) by Donald Trump can both be seen as extensions of the regressive trends Putnam and Garrett demonstrate, the book demands our urgent attention as we try to take our bearings today.

A remarkable assemblage of data and a compelling story about America history, The Upswing begins with the Gilded Age, the period of disintegration, conflict, and aggressive individualism after the Civil War. It was followed by seventy-five years of growth in equality and national community achieved first by the Progressive movement, then by the New Deal, and, under different conditions, by wartime solidarity. But then things went sour: “Between the mid-1960s and today—by scores of hard measures along multiple dimensions—we have been experiencing declining economic equality, the deterioration of compromise in the public square, a fraying social fabric, and a descent into cultural narcissism.” The last century’s upswing has been followed by the slide toward an unhappy collection of democratic ills: inequality, individualism, austerity, the domination of human needs by the “free market,” political polarization, and the blockage of economic and educational gains by African Americans.

This 125-year I-We-I arc of American history is illustrated by a series of graphs—the book contains no fewer than eighty—demonstrating growth and/or decline in specific areas of social life since 1900. Many of the graphs depict progress as indicated by obvious variables such as educational achievement, dwelling space per capita, automobile ownership, gross domestic product, high school and college graduation rates, and infant mortality. By using opinion surveys on dozens of topics, Putnam and Garrett demonstrate the rise and fall of intergenerational economic mobility, economic equality, church membership and attendance at services, union membership, and cross-party comity and conflict. They even look into trends in baby naming, finding a distinct rise in unconventional names over the past sixty years. To use Putnam and Garrett’s own terms, what is revealed is a “breathtaking” pattern allowing 125 years of economic, political, social, and cultural trends to be overlaid in master graphs that all show the same arc: an inverted U. Until around 1970, there was an increasing sense of community, equality, belongingness, and solidarity—a growing “we”—followed by a sharp collapse into an individualistic and even conflictual assertion of “I” in values and culture as well as politics and economics. Google Ngrams show that the pattern holds even for occurrences of the pronouns “we” and “I” in millions of scanned American books.

This is a story that unfolds in four overlapping parts. First, the trend toward greater economic equality reversed sharply over the past fifty years. Second, political polarization, some of it rooted in the Civil War, gave way under the influence of the Progressive movement to a remarkable degree of political consensus by the 1930s. But then things turned in the other direction as the Civil Rights Act of 1964, supported by substantial majorities of both Republicans and Democrats, led to bitter party polarization that was accompanied by a steep decline in trust in government and a rise in cynicism. Third, social life became anemic as membership in clubs and associations declined (a main theme of Putnam’s Bowling Alone) and the social and cultural force of labor unions dramatically weakened. Fourth, as an indicator of the changing frequency of occurrence of certain words, Google Ngrams tell a parallel story of a rise and fall in values of community and individualism: “association,” “cooperation,” “socialism,” and the “common man,” as well as “agreement,” “compromise,” and “unity,” all showing the same inverted U-shaped curve, rising and then declining steeply, to where we are today.

It seemed that a reversal was taking place in 2020 as a bracing sense of community briefly blossomed. “We’re all in this together” was its slogan, reminding us that we depend on each other for our survival. This “we” extended from the hospitals staffs who were helping COVID-19 patients fight for their lives to other essential workers, often underpaid and especially vulnerable, providing food and supplies and protection to the rest of us sheltering in place. The “we” included all of us because pandemic protocols were universal in their demands that everyone keep a distance from others and wear masks. There were no balcony serenades in the northern suburbs of Detroit where I live, but many of the lawns sprouted and still display “Thank you” signs. And early on, when Michigan became one of the first states to publish demographic information showing African Americans dying at a rate nearly three times that of whites, “in it together” meant a sharp awareness that our suffering was not shared equally. 

Despite obvious differences and contradictions, “we” extended across class and race— beyond economic self-interest—and stressed our common vulnerability, our interconnectedness, and even a sense of community. The infinite variety of normal social interdependencies that keep us alive came into sharp focus. Millions of health-care workers provided lifesaving and life-preserving medical treatment directly. And millions of workers in the food supply chain had to do the labor of growing, harvesting, shipping, and delivering necessities to us. So the list of “heroes” necessarily included all those workers whose contributions suddenly seemed more urgent than they had before. As people opened their eyes to see such essential social links, it became clearer how long the full list really was, including the enormous number of essential workers who were people of color—delivery workers, post office employees, garbage collectors, and bus drivers.

The gratitude that we all felt was expressed sometimes in the tone of yogic platitudes, sometimes in concrete civic appreciation. Notably, Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer proposed to provide higher education benefits to essential workers. But other signs were evident in apartment-window serenades all over the world, online fundraising, “Thank you” ads, lawn signs, and billboards, as well as gifts and food.

Did a rising sense of “we” eclipse hyperindividualism? Hardly. Already during March and April 2020, while there was a high degree of consensus about the shutdown, a survey found that a great percentage of Republicans (36 percent nationally, as opposed to only 4 percent of Democrats) thought that the shutdown was too restrictive. Some flirted with the view that COVID-19 was a hoax and that the death toll was being exaggerated. Others stopped worrying about the coronavirus very early on, concerned more about lost jobs or struggling businesses, weary of sheltering at home and social distancing. As the headline of a Kaiser Family Foundation survey on coronavirus announced in late May, “Deep Partisan Differences Emerge on Almost Every Dimension of Coronavirus.” Many of those who briefly went along with social distancing changed their minds by mid-April, especially after the armed Michigan demonstration and invasion of the state capitol—fueled by President Trump’s infamous “Liberate Michigan” tweet. These Americans decided that they were no longer in it together in the battle against COVID-19.

Since then, the two opposing trajectories have only strengthened. If you look at one side of the American divide, Putnam and Garrett’s conclusion that another upswing may be dawning seems possible—plausible, even. But a nightmarish individualism, signified by the rejection and defiance of public safety measures, has taken over the other half.

The past year has been an exercise in sorting two Americas. One side bets on resuming progress toward a caring national community. The other exalts an irresponsible and irrational “freedom.” This social, political, and cultural trend has gone further than Putnam and Garrett could chart because their book was in press before the pandemic began. After the book came out, Trumpism had blossomed into a personality cult that was increasingly at odds with reality itself. Indeed, President Trump’s response to the pandemic and the election became a kind of madness, declaring unreal to be real and real to be false.

The year 2020 revealed the human cost of this denial. With 5 percent of the world’s population, the United States has accounted for 20 percent of COVID-19 deaths. Much of this is due to the negative trends mapped by Putnam and Garrett. American statistics reveal something even more striking: Of the fifteen hardest-hit states, twelve are governed by Republicans.

The Upswing, published in the midst of Trumpism’s götterdämmerung, lays the groundwork for understanding it. The descent into extreme individualism and the rejection of medical science by a huge swath of America has become a form of denial so systematic that no facts, logic, or experience could shake Trump’s people out of it. Their aggressive individualism paradoxically morphed into authoritarianism in politics, rallying to the cult of a single individual. This meant embracing his lies, rejecting facts, evidence, and rationality, right down to the fantasy of the stolen election. The occupation of the US Capitol on January 6 was a way of giving truth to their leader’s Big Lie, and widespread support for the insurrection, and its aftermath shows that Trump has somehow occupied the space of what was once his supporters’ sense of reality. As I describe in We: Reviving Social Hope, American individualism has hypertrophied to the point where social hope is widely privatized, cynicism infects collective undertakings, and the institutions that make up our social fabric, such as public schools and even public utilities, are jeopardized.

The issue of systemic racism is woven tightly into this story. This ugly reality exploded into the American consciousness with the killing of George Floyd. It is no surprise that in the middle of the worst public health crisis in more than one hundred years, we witnessed the greatest series of mass demonstrations in American history, all under the banner of Black Lives Matter. Tens of millions of blacks and whites marched together, in every part of the country, including conservative areas, and shared the awareness that this time something must be done about racist police brutality and all other forms of discrimination. One of hundreds around the country, our mostly white suburb north of Detroit saw a Black Lives Matter demonstration every Monday during rush hour for six months, drawing appreciative honks and waves from passing motorists.

This movement obviously could not have been anticipated by Putnam and Garrett, but The Upswing does not avoid the underlying issues. It draws on decades of historical scholarship on the “long Civil Rights movement,” which has uncovered social and political activism of African Americans in the decades before the 1950s. Self-help and organizing paved the way for improvements in key areas such as life expectancy, educational attainment, income equality, and home ownership. Then these gains leveled off and were rolled back during the next half century, as “Americans took our collective ‘foot off the gas,’ slowing and even reversing racial progress.” What is the reason for the plateauing, and what, if anything, does it have to do with the fifty years of downturn?

In their chapter on race, the authors speculate on this question, and draw on the speculations of others. Most tellingly, the authors refer to a summary of the work of sociologist Mary Jackman to the effect that “whites come to champion the idea of individualism…because it provides them with a principled and apparently neutral justification for opposing policies that favor Black Americans.” Here, then, is an argument that racism is a central aspect of the downswing. Putnam and Garrett agree that it is “certainly possible” that America’s “larger turn toward ‘I’” was a way of rejecting the “supreme challenge” of creating a genuinely multiracial society. Later, they more strongly assert that “backlash is certainly a part of the explanation for the post-1960s reversal.” Certainly? Viewing the issue in light of 2020 and Black Lives Matter, we cannot help wanting more. But even if this central issue was very much on Putnam and Garrett’s minds, it was not part of the research program of The Upswing.

Perhaps the problem with The Upswing is that it reflects the limits of academic social science itself. After all, Putnam and Garrett do not see history from the point of view of activists. Rather, they view events and data from a distance, focusing on objectively measurable trends. Missing are not only the grassroots organizing that was so important during the upswing—the Flint sit-down strikes and the Montgomery bus boycott, the anti–Vietnam War movement and the 1960s civil rights movement. Agency is missing on other levels, too: The reader will nowhere find the personal economic pains and dislocations that empowered Trumpism, nor the deep racial hatreds that drive it (not “backlash” against black advances since the 1960s, but older and deeper antipathies, central to American society from the very beginning). Moreover, while Putnam and Garrett do mention the response of conservative evangelical Christians to the turmoil of the 1960s, they give no attention to how evangelicals’ religious and political intentions grew increasingly extreme, from the formation of the Moral Majority onward.

Missing unaccountably from this eagle’s-eye view of American history are other specific trends and forces that have contributed to the downswing. For one, there is no reckoning with the role American capitalism has played in the upswing and downswing, virtually no reference to its trends and data: outsourcing, deregulation, financialization, speculative bubbles, austerity, and neoliberalism. While Putnam and Garrett do mention globalization, they make nearly no comment on the role played in the downswing by the Vietnam War, inflation, and American imperialism, including the Cold War and the post–Cold War military-industrial complex.

But we must come back in the end to the crucial link between America’s coming apart and its deeply imbedded racism. Heather McGehee, distinguished senior fellow at the think tank Demos, has recently published an illuminating book, The Sum of Us, on that exact point: how white rejection of full citizenship for blacks has produced a drastic redefinition of what all Americans (white Americans included) are entitled to. She tells the story of how the white leadership of Montgomery, Alabama, chose to shutter the town’s swimming pool rather than integrate it; to this day that pool has never been rebuilt. Similar stories can be told in hundreds of towns from Ohio to Louisiana. For two generations now, whites have been cutting off their noses to spite their black neighbors. It is a profound statement about American history to say that backlash against the civil rights movement undermined “white people’s commitment to the very idea of public good.” Indeed, the idea that government has a responsibility to guarantee a job and a minimum standard of living to all citizens was supported in 1960 by 70 percent of white Americans! Four years later, in the wake of the March on Washington, that number dropped by half. As McGehee says, as if commenting on Putnam and Garrett, “It’s now clear that racial resentment is the key uncredited actor in our backslide.”

McGehee takes Putnam and Garrett’s aerial view to the ground level, providing the perspective needed in bringing about what the authors of The Upswing call the “project of fashioning an American ‘we.’” Activism that demands equality, inclusion, and the social goods needed for decent human survival will be advanced today by sharpening the differences between those demanding to be treated as humans and those who deny them this basic right. This entails building the concrete kinds of “we” against those who ignore, dismiss, deny, and oppress. As I argue in We: Reviving Social Hope, there is another “we” to consider, recreated dozens and hundreds of times in the midst of concrete and ever-renewed generational struggles. In response to Putnam and Garrett’s high-minded, generous, and liberal “we,” I would stress that over the years it has depended on the actions and achievements of those “we’s” being recreated at the grassroots. Today these will entail struggles against America’s ugly racist past and present and, at the same time, against the destruction of a meaningful community carried out by those who deny that we’re “all in it together.” Blacks and whites marching together, by the millions, demanding a society fit for all to live in: This is the other lesson of 2020.