Visiting my local library, I found an endcap displaying Robert Putnam’s new book, “The Upswing: How America Came Together a Century Ago and How We Can Do It Again.” The title made me recall scenes from the past year: people acting as if wearing a mask was the greatest of impositions to personal liberty; random, violent attacks on older Asian Americans; parents screaming at school boards decrying the COVID-19 “hoax”; white nationalists storming and looting the Capitol; Derek Chauvin’s trial where we watched and rewatched 9 minutes and 29 seconds of his knee on George Floyd’s neck. Eager to learn about this “upswing,” I checked out Putnam’s book.
Putnam, a political scientist teaching at Harvard, tracks economic, political, social and cultural trends to show how, during the first five decades of the 20th century, America slowly but steadily grew more egalitarian, cooperative and generous. We gained a sense of shared responsibility and focused our efforts on collective progress. By the 1950s, Putnam states, we were still a racially segregated and chauvinistic society, but one increasingly attentive to our national sins and motivated to work toward reform for the common good. We were becoming, according to Putnam, a more “we” society.
As a book lover, I was drawn to Putnam’s focus on what was written, what was read and what ideas proved most influential in triggering this moral awakening for America. Putnam highlights Ida B. Well’s early 20th-century journalism investigating and uncovering the brutal truth of lynching, Jane Addams’ advocacy for the working poor in her 1910 book, “Twenty Years at Hull-House,” and James Baldwin’s 1963 release of “The Fire Next Time” as some of the influencers moving Americans away from an “I”-centered society. The social gospel movement and Walter Rauschenbusch’s ministry denounced the self-centered, hyper-individualistic greed of the Gilded Age. Ministers and theologians, including Presbyterian Outlook founders E.T. Thompson and Aubrey Brown, encouraged American Christians toward difficult soul-searching. Putnam quotes early social gospel movement leader Washington Gladden, saying that our troubles lie deeper than government structures and the organization of industry: “What we have got to have is a different kind of men and women — men and women to whom duties are more than rights, and service dearer than privilege.”
Unfortunately, this upswing abruptly changed course in the mid-1960s. Putnam describes the decades between then and today as a period of “declining economic equality, the deterioration of compromise in the public square, a fraying social fabric, and a descent into cultural narcissism.” He suggests that national crises during the 1960s – the assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., the Vietnam War, backlash against gender and racial liberation, domestic terrorism, the drug epidemic, urban riots, Watergate, oil shortages and economic malaise – collectively led to a national nervous breakdown. A perfect storm, which sharply pivoted us culturally and politically. The “Me Decade” of the 1970s saw Americans retreat from fixing society and focus on fixing themselves. According to Putnam, we “took our foot off the gas” of positive reform.
But upswing is possible again. Modern moral movements can be created through powerful partnerships and coalition building. Putnam names an emerging drive to “lay bare the dark underbelly of the ‘I’ society in which we now live” through urgent calls framed in moralistic terms. He cites the 2018 March for Our Lives to protest gun violence and school shootings, and William Barber and Liz Theoharis’ revival of The Poor People’s Campaign. I find Barber and Theoharis’ work particularly inspiring because they gather people from all sides of the political spectrum to work together for the common good.
Putnam hopes we’ll learn valuable lessons from the reformers of the early 20th century — lessons we can apply today to pivot toward another upswing. Putnam’s reformers understood that change required more than identifying and rejecting society’s bad apples. True moral and cultural reform must be a “we” effort, a soul-searching affair of collective conscience, where we come to terms with destructive practices and patterns and our complicity in exploitative systems. This soul-searching fueled the reformers’ passions to right society’s wrongs. It can fuel our passion today.