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Despite everything, ‘Bowling Alone’ author Robert Putnam is bullish on America

The country has been this low before and restored itself. A new book argues that we can do so again.

The cover of Robert Putnam and Shaylyn Romney Garrett's October 2020 book, "The Upswing."
The cover of Robert Putnam and Shaylyn Romney Garrett's October 2020 book, "The Upswing."Courtesy of Simon & Schuster

We’re just days from the presidential election, and much of America is caught between a deep pessimism about the state of the country and a nervous optimism about what’s to come.

It’s a strange moment. An unsettling one. And there may be no one better to guide us than Robert Putnam.

Putnam, a social scientist at Harvard, is best known as the author of “Bowling Alone,” which warned 20 years ago that the country’s social and cultural ties were badly fraying. Americans knew their neighbors to a lesser degree than before and belonged to fewer organizations than they once had.

Some critics found his portrait overly bleak. But the last couple of decades have largely borne it out — too many of us have hunkered down in our own lanes, deeply suspicious of the other bowlers.

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Putnam’s new book, “The Upswing,” billed as the capstone on a long and distinguished career, takes a much more optimistic view. He and his co-author, Shaylyn Romney Garrett, look at more than a century of American life. And what they see is a country that had a moment very much like this one in the Gilded Age and managed to find a way out.

In measure after measure — of partisanship, economic equality, and community — the authors identify an inverted “U” curve, starting low in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, moving to a mid-century peak, and then falling to our present state.

On the first half of that inverted “U,” the authors argue, we moved from an “I” to a “we” society — less concerned about our own needs and more concerned about the whole. Putnam and Garrett credit a wave of young Progressive Era reformers who came together to demand a more generous society. And the activists of today, they argue, resemble their predecessors in important ways.

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Another upswing, they insist, is eminently possible.

I recently spoke with Putnam and Garrett via Zoom about their book, the election, and where we go from there. The conversation is condensed and edited for clarity.

It feels like we’ve never been so divided. But you argue that we were, in fact, this divided in the Gilded Age of the late 19th century. Was it really as awful then as it is now?

Shaylyn Romney Garrett: In the Gilded Age, income inequality and class segregation were extreme. Our social fabric was frayed. The country was experiencing deep loneliness and isolation. Millions of people had moved from small towns and farms to life in a crowded, busy, anonymous city, and they were experiencing a lot of disconnection. There was also a very narcissistic culture dominated by social Darwinism — the idea that survival of the fittest applies not just to the natural world but to society, and that everyone was out for themselves.

Robert Putnam: And should be.

Garrett: That was the way that society would succeed — everyone looked out for number one. The division was not just political.

So if I were living in Gilded Age America, I would have felt that dread that we all feel now?

Garrett: When you look back, there were commentators decrying the decay and foretelling disaster and using words like “tyranny” and “plutocracy” and all of this stuff that’s very familiar today. And what happened? Were those prophecies fulfilled? No. In fact, as we describe in our book, America entered an upswing — a long upturn where all of these trends began to reverse.

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You cite all sorts of data in your book. The share of wealth held by the bottom 99 percent surged. Voters were much more likely to ticket-split — casting a ballot for, say, a Republican presidential candidate and a Democratic House candidate. And Americans were far more likely to join membership organizations like the Boy Scouts and women’s clubs. We became more equal, less partisan, and more cohesive. What are the biggest lessons we can draw from that period?

Garrett: To the extent that we can identify a leading variable in this multifaceted upswing, it was actually a moral awakening. As I mentioned, the period of the Gilded Age was characterized by social Darwinism. It was characterized by a highly narcissistic, individualistic culture. Then along came the Social Gospel movement, and really it was a movement to reinterpret the gospel as a blueprint for a society that takes care of its most vulnerable, a society that is self-critical, a society that is genuinely a “we” society.

Historian Richard Hofstadter characterized this as a “moral indignation directed inward.” Reformers were not just pointing the finger at those they thought were responsible for all these negative phenomena. They were actually looking inward and asking to what degree they were complicit in having created this highly divided, highly unequal society.

Another lesson: This was a highly youth-driven movement. Young people at the time were living in a totally changed world, a world that was unrecognizable to their parents and their grandparents. And they recognized that they had to create new institutions, new programs, new forms of association that were appropriate to that changed world.

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Putnam: I was sure when we began this study that the causal diagram was: Economic inequality causes everything else — the breakdown of social connections and political polarization and so on. The only thing we can say for certain about causation is that is not true. Economics is, if anything, a lagging variable. If you analyze the data, economics is more likely to be the caboose than the engine of social change.

Didn’t the trauma of two world wars have a lot to do with the transition from an “I” to a “we” culture? Can we really pull together again, absent that kind of existential, external threat?

Putnam: World War I was actually not a big deal in America. Of course, a lot of people died, but in terms of its effect on American society — the pandemic of 1918 was much more deadly.

World War II was a big deal. And you can see, in the data, it had an effect. So I’m not denying that. I am saying, however, that effect was much smaller than it might appear. Two points about that. One is, you can see these trends going up 20 or 30 years before anybody thought about World War II. That whole line is pretty strong evidence that World War II had very little to do with it. And the solidarity that you might attribute to World War II went on for 30 years after World War II. Not just five or 10 years, but 30 years.

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And if you ask me, What’s a good example of a burst of national solidarity that occurred without a war?, the Progressive Era is exactly that. There was no world war. Even World War I was 10 or 15 years into the future.

Black people have never been fully part of the “we” in this country. But you suggest the story we tell ourselves about race isn’t quite right — pointing to substantial gains for Black America before the civil rights era, for instance. Can you describe those gains and what hope, if any, they offer for future progress?

Garrett: I think often white Americans have the sense that all was stagnation and oppression for Black Americans before the civil rights movement.

Putnam: And the other part of the story that whites tell ourselves is Martin Luther King arrived and things were solved.

Garrett: Yeah, that we had this sort of dramatic upturn in equality and that things have gotten better and better since then. When you actually step back and look at the full century of data, a different pattern starts to emerge.

When you look at the material well-being of Blacks, and the ratio of material well-being of Blacks vs. whites, what you actually see is that the rate of positive change for Black Americans was actually faster in the decades preceding the civil rights movement than in the decades that follow.

Now, when we’re talking about material well-being, we’re talking about things like life expectancy, infant mortality, high school completion, income equality, wealth distribution, political participation, voter registration, voter participation. So these are not insignificant measures. What you see is these data show a too slow, but nonetheless unmistakable, decades-long trend toward racial equality.

Putnam: It’s not just that Blacks were making some progress — they were making more rapid progress than whites were in that whole period, 1920 to 1970. They were closing the gap.

Garrett: How did that happen, if the backdrop was Jim Crow and a persistent reality of exclusion? Well, the answer to that is, more or less: through their own efforts. The Great Migration, in a nutshell. Blacks by the millions were leaving the violent and highly segregated South for the slightly more hospitable North and were experiencing huge gains in health and income and education as a result.

So you would think, then, when we get to that 1960s, 1970s era, when the laws start to change, that we would continue to see that progress. Well, turns out that we see the opposite. Since 1970, on all of these measures of material equality, there has been stagnation and in many cases a reversal of progress toward parity between whites and Blacks.

This is not a surprise to Black Americans. That provides the entire backdrop for the frustration and the fed-up sort of sentiment behind the Black Lives Matter movement.

Some on the right would like to characterize the Black Lives Matter movement as violent and as anti-American. I think the absolute opposite is true. I am amazed that the Black community is still as committed to the American project as they are.

A lot of the institutions that held us together at mid-century are just gone now. Can you imagine us ever getting back to, say, a less fractured media or an economy that doesn’t have so many gig workers?

Garrett: I don’t think this is about returning to something from the past. We are not advocating going back to some supposed golden age. What we’re saying is, look at what they did in the Progressive Era. They were in a completely changed world, in industries that hadn’t existed 10 years before. They had to invent completely new ways to solve the problems, and that’s what they did.

So it’s not about looking back to the point where the upswing culminated and saying, “What lessons can we take from that?” It’s about looking at the point where the upswing began and saying, “What lessons can we take from there?”

Joe Biden has pitched himself as a healer-in-chief. What do you think? Do individual leaders matter much? What does history tell us?

Garrett: I don’t think Joe Biden is going to be our salvation. The data from the Progressive Era show that the charismatic national leaders translated what was an already existing, very strong issues-based coalition into national programs that got bipartisan support.

Do you think we have a fully formed issue-based movement now — a platform that Biden could enact?

Garrett: I think we have the beginnings of it. Sometimes what I see on the left is fighting over which issue is more important. We need to see the overlap between the issues — that climate change intersects with the Black Lives Matter movement, that we need less extractive policies at every level and more regenerative policies. Those are the types of threads that we need to find. And it’ll be even more powerful if we can put moral language around those common threads. That’s not going to be easy, but I think the more we can do that, the more likely we are to see another upswing.

Putnam: If we have one message, it’s agency. People are not condemned by history. We can change history, or in Martin Luther King’s words, we can bend history. That’s not happy talk. I believe that’s true. The data show it’s true. The evidence shows it’s true.


David Scharfenberg can be reached at david.scharfenberg@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @dscharfGlobe.