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.

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