In 2000 Harvard University Professor Robert Putnam published the best-seller “Bowling Alone.” In it he described the decline of community in the United States since the mid-twentieth century, for example in bowling leagues and church attendance.
In “The Upswing” he teams up with his former student Shaylyn Romney Garrett to paint a much larger picture of our country’s evolution over the past century and a quarter. Garrett is a writer and social entrepreneur with expertise on the Progressive Era of the early1900s.
The book grew out of what Putnam describes as his “tinkering with several obscure data sets” (p. 343). What he found was a remarkably similar pattern across economic, political, social, and cultural dimensions of American life.
He and Garrett describe the pattern, demonstrated in numerous figures throughout the book, as an “inverted-U curve.” Readers familiar with statistics would recognize it as similar to a normal-distribution, hill-shaped curve, high in the middle and sloping to either side.
Chapter one (“What’s Past is Prologue”) describes the United States in what the reader might assume to be the present: “pervasive disillusionment with the nation’s political parties ... rapid forward march of technology, new forms of communication and transportation, ... loneliness, isolation, and atomization as traditional social structures give way” (p. 6).
It turns out, though, that the description is not of the twenty-first century, but of the late nineteenth, of the period Mark Twain labeled the “Gilded Age”.
In the next four chapters, the authors document the patterns of transformation.
Some measures of well-being show a fairly linear improvement throughout the century, such as GDP per capita growth, life expectancy, and decline in infant mortality.
Others, like income inequality and inter-generational economic mobility, demonstrate the inverted-U pattern. Union membership, progressivity of income taxes, corporate tax rates, and real minimum wage figures look strikingly similar.
So do political measures, such as cross-party collaboration in Congress and ticket-splitting, and social ones, such as organizational memberships and church attendance.
For the cultural chapter the authors utilize Ngram analysis, “a remarkable tool of the Internet Age” (p. 169). This technique enables content analysis of millions of books and over a trillion words published since the sixteenth century.
They find that terms like “association,” “common man” and “responsibility” showed the same, now-familiar, inverted-U pattern.
Most notably, they find that the relative use of the pronouns “I” and “We” follow the same pattern — increasing use of We until the 1960s, then its continuous decline during the “Me decade” from the 1970s until now.
Putnam and Garrett recognize that midcentury was not an ideal time for everyone, so devote a couple of chapters to race and gender issues, Finally, they focus the last two chapters on two turning points. The first is the decade of the sixties, when upward trends in equality, community, and civic responsibility seemed to lose momentum and begin their downward slide.
The final chapter focuses on the point seven decades earlier, when the Progressive Era began to supplant the Gilded Age. The key question, reflected in the book’s subtitle, is whether it might be possible for us, in the 2020s, to emulate that earlier broad-based group of leaders and founders and mount a successful struggle toward more We-ness.
“The Upswing” has some of the look and feel of a university textbook, with its numerous figures and more than ninety pages of endnotes, but I found it readable and provocative. It provides a great overview of the past century and places current challenges in that broad context. Could 2020 be the beginning of a new upswing?
William L. Richter is a professor emeritus of political science and former associate provost for International Programs at Kansas State University.