A synthesis of social and political trends over the past century that shows how we have gone from an individualistic society to a more communitarian society and then back again--and how we can use that experience to overcome once again the individualism that currently weakens our country.
Putnam and Garrett are rewriting the political history of the twentieth century here ... they skirt a crucial issue: As Francis Fukuyama makes clear in his discussion of the twentieth-century Progressive movement in his book Political Order and Political Decay, its moral inspiration was very much rooted in the egalitarian Protestantism dominant in the Northeast and Midwest at the time. It was the Social Gospel campaign of Protestant ministers that countered the ideology of Social Darwinism, and its perverse claim that the theory of evolution justified the inequities of the Gilded Age. With an American left as disconnected from religion as the one we see today, where will the moral fervor for a new movement come from exactly? A single charismatic preacher operating out of North Carolina will hardly suffice ... serves as a call to the generations who have succeeded the baby-boomers to imagine a better future for the American project, and to pursue it. Rather than focusing on the tension between generations the authors encourage young people to look for an earlier precedent for themselves. They remind us that the problems of today with which the new generations must grapple—the skyrocketing costs of health care, the weakness of environmental regulations, the power of corporate monopolies, and the urgent need for campaign finance reform—are almost exactly the same as those that confronted the original Progressives in their day, even if the solutions to these problems must be new and different ones ... magnificent and visionary.
At the core of The Upswing is a simple and powerful insight: The heights of solidarity from which America has fallen since the middle of the 20th century were themselves reached by a steady ascent over the prior half-century ... Drawing ingeniously on a vast array of data—economic, political, cultural, social and more—Mr. Putnam and Ms. Garrett persuasively demonstrate that Gilded Age America suffered from civic and social strains remarkably similar to our own ... Mr. Putnam and Ms. Garrett’s description of the history involved is not without its own distortions. They take on enormously complicated economic, social, cultural and political trends with only limited space to describe them, and the result inevitably tends to magnify their preconceptions ... The complicated links between solidarity and exclusion (and between fragmentation and inclusion) fall into a recurring blind spot in the book ... Mr. Putnam and Ms. Garrett tend to underplay the upside of declining solidarity ... Mr. Putnam and Ms. Garrett also tend to play down the role of the intense national mobilizations of the first half of the 20th century—around the two world wars and the Great Depression—in enabling the remarkable increase in social cohesion they describe. This is always a touchy subject for communitarians ... Even so, the fact that The Upswing enables us to ask such a question, and so to think about the practical preconditions for revitalization, is a mark of its achievement. In a sweeping yet remarkably accessible book, Mr. Putnam and Ms. Garrett provide a crucial missing ingredient in contemporary social commentary: They lay out a sociology of success that, drawing on our history, can help us think concretely about how to enable a revival of American life.
... what can Joe Biden do to patch together a frayed nation? The political scientists Robert Putnam...and Shaylyn Romney Garrett provide a wealth of sociologically grounded answers in The Upswing. Although the title is reassuringly buoyant, this is a tale of two long-term trends, one benign, the other a dark descent. An unabashed centrism prevails: political stability, the authors recognise, is a dance that requires a measure of cooperation and disciplined deportment from both parties ... A Biden presidency brings into focus the difficult job of healing and reconciliation. But here Putnam and Garrett run into trouble, for it is impossible to identify a single decisive factor that caused the downswing. Rather the authors identify a range of “entwined” trends “braided together by reciprocal causality”. Just as diagnosis of ultimate causes is treacherous, so too is finding a compelling plan for throwing the Great Downswing into reverse. The authors look for the green shoots of a new Progressive movement in various forms of grassroots activism, but are worried that they have yet to see this take a 'truly nonpartisan' form. They try to be upbeat, but the dominant note is wistful.