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.
In this good-hearted and sweeping book, the political scientist Robert D. Putnam (with Shaylyn Romney Garrett) offers some hope in bleak times ... superb, often counterintuitive insights ... However, for all of its prodigious research coupled with careful qualifications, the book sometimes overgeneralizes ... Putnam’s tendency to generalize sometimes suggests a misleading symmetry. Organized worship is declining across the board, Putnam reports, citing a blizzard of data. But as a political fact, liberal denominations are near collapse while fundamentalists are ascendant ... Political science is the study of preference and power. Putnam tends to play down the role of power in favor of values and norms. Yet power can reinforce or stymie value preferences ... In his summing up, Putnam deliberately sidesteps the question of why America became less cohesive ... well worth reading for its cornucopia of data and insightful social history. Some of the generalizations should be taken with a grain of salt. Putnam’s last chapter, addressing lessons from the past on how we might reclaim a more trusting, community-minded America, is abbreviated, elevated and a little wishful. The deep corruption of democracy does not get much attention, nor does the alliance of plutocracy with aspiring autocracy. Donald Trump barely makes an appearance. At this perilous moment, we need all the optimism we can get, tempered with unflinching realism about the role of power.