Sharing the great American dream

Putnam provides an optimistic, progressive reading of the cycles of twentieth-century American politics


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Robert Putnam is an American intellectual institution. His books, from Bowling Alone (2000) on the decline of community to Our Kids (2015) on the diminishing promise of equal opportunity, are committed social science at its best, and they stimulated big academic debates and national political soul-searching.

His latest, with Shaylyn Romney Garrett, will have a similarly big impact but it is more a work of macro-history than social science. And in providing an optimistic, progressive reading of the cycles of twentieth-century American politics to coincide with this month’s election, it also abandons any pretence of political neutrality.

The Upswing: How we came together a century ago and how we can do it again By Robert Putnam with Shaylyn Romney Garrett Swift Press, £25

The basic thesis is simple enough: the Gilded Age at the end of the nineteenth century was a period of polarisation, in-equality and often violent upheaval which gave way at the start of the twentieth century to the progressive era and, after a Great Depression blip, the New Deal in which Americans came together, reduced inequality and created a more cooperative society, before reverting, from the 1970s to the present day to a new version of those earlier divisions.

Putnam calls it the I-We-I cycle and sees it as a pendulum swinging from individualism to social cohesion and back again. This is also the world seen through the lens of orthodox, liberal, secular America. There is little about religion (despite Putnam himself being raised an observant Methodist and converting to his wife’s Judaism) and he regards periods of retreat from liberal progress as politics taking “its foot off the gas”.

He opens with a relentless account of the fractured state of the US which the reader is slyly led to believe is today but it turns out to be a description of the Gilded Age. That period left in its wake a society described by Walter Lippmann in these terms: “We are unsettled to the very roots of our being . . . We have changed our environment more quickly than we know how to change ourselves.”

The reaction against this took both a populist and more moderate progressive form with all three presidential candidates in the 1912 election — Teddy Roosevelt, William Howard Taft and Woodrow Wilson — claiming the mantle of the rather hazy progressive movement, meaning in this case all three supported anti-monopoly measures and a progressive federal income tax.

The list of progressive reforms in the first couple of decades of the twentieth century is remarkable: from women’s suffrage to public utilities and the minimum wage. Some of this, along with much of the New Deal legislation, was fiercely contested. But there were also plenty of New Deal Republicans, like my great-uncle John Winant, who was the first head of Franklin Roosevelt’s social security department.

In the 1950s and 1960s the cross-party consensus grew deeper with even radical measures like Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society legislation winning the support of Richard Nixon and much of the Republican Party. Split-ticket voting (voting for different parties at different levels of politics) also remained commonplace into the 1980s.

A few things don’t quite fit Putnam’s I-We-I curve. There are those things such as GDP, health and rights, that have improved more or less continuously. Also the Gilded Age produced lots of community institutions — half of all the largest membership organisations in American history were established between 1870 and 1920. And, of course, the We period did not fully include African Americans or women.

But broadly the macro story seems to work. Consider income inequality: in 1913 the top one per cent in the US received 19 per cent of all income, falling to 10 per cent in 1976 and rising again to 20 per cent in 2014. A similar pattern of I to We and back to I is seen across an imaginative range of indicators: unionisation, split-ticket voting, baby-naming, club membership, philanthropy and marriage rates.

Putnam is honest enough to admit that he doesn’t really understand the multiple causes of the pendulum swings

And he neatly embodies the We to I transition from the late 1960s to today in the shape of Mitt Romney, the Republican presidential candidate in 2012, and his progressive Republican father George, who ran American Motors in the 1960s. Romney senior was well paid, around $5 million a year in today’s money, but turned down bonuses and paid around one third of his income in tax.

Fifty years later Mitt earned $21 million in 2010 and paid tax at 13 per cent. And during the 2012 election campaign Mitt talked dismissively, in a way his father never would have done, about the 47 per cent who pay no tax and believe they are victims.

Putnam is honest enough to admit that he doesn’t really understand the multiple causes of the pendulum swings. Do they come from above or below, elite-led or democratic groundswell? Are they driven by particular social trends, like income inequality, getting too far out of kilter or just a more general reaction against fragmentation which then flips, in the 1950s and 1960s, into a reaction against conformity?

He implies some of the time that the swings are inevitable, driven, ultimately, by human nature, and then at other times that politics or even particular charismatic individuals, like Bobby Kennedy, could have “delayed or even averted the pendulum’s reversal” in the late 1960s.

To further complicate matters, inequality itself seems to be a lagging indicator following in the wake of political polarisation and not causing it. And one area where Putnam seems to be just plain wrong is in the claim that one driver of decline has been lower levels of participation in higher education.

This may be a reflex for a Harvard professor but surely the knowledge economy has simply been demanding fewer people trained to a higher cognitive level. How otherwise to explain that so many graduates are in non-graduate jobs and the sharp decline of the graduate income premium?

Where Putnam is most challenging to his progressive fans is in his sceptical view of the 1960s, the “pivot decade”. In admitting that America, and perhaps the whole of the West, has paid a high price for the ’60s pivot — that advances in freedom and diversity have damaged earlier communitarian values — Putnam is at his most conservative. “The movements of the 1960s to ‘liberate’ individuals in many cases had the unintended side effect of elevating selfishness. The reformers and revolutionaries sought inclusion, but in its pursuit they ushered in alienation.”

This echoes Putnam’s controversial paper of 2007 arguing that ethnic diversity reduces social trust. He was very uncomfortable with his own findings and did not in fact publish until he had found an antidote, the antidote being that the effect was quite short-lived.

The squeamishly progressive Putnam is also evident in this book in one huge omission — America’s immigration pause. The fact that almost 20 per cent of Americans were foreign-born in 1920 and just three per cent in 1970, as a result of the 1924 legislation severely restricting immigration, surely contributed enormously to the social democratic upswing that the book celebrates.

The squeamishly progressive Putnam is also evident in this book in one huge omission — America’s immigration pause

The melting pot had time to dissolve the many into the one and, reinforced by the Second World War, never was America more patriotic. The stopping of most European immigration also had a hugely beneficial impact on black America long before the Civil Rights legislation of the mid-1960s. It was one of the driving forces behind the Great Migration north (in 1915, 10 per cent of black Americans lived outside the South; by 1970 it was 47 per cent) and the rapid convergence of average black wages on white levels despite the persistence of Jim Crow restrictions on black life.

All of this barely merits a footnote. A related omission is the decline of high levels of national identity, which once helped to transcend narrower ethnic or political identities but is now increasingly eclipsed by them as immigration took off again in the 1970s, returning almost to late-nineteenth-century levels.

There is also surprisingly little on the problem of meritocracy that many other American progressives, like Michael Sandel, have been taking aim at recently. My own recent book Head, Hand, Heart, focuses on how the cognitive meritocracy has sucked reward and status away from other kinds of human aptitude and left too many people feeling unrecognised.

This book is hard going at times but full of illuminating statistics: 75 per cent of Americans report no political differences with friends; 51 per cent of 18-34-year-olds are without a partner. And the sheer speed of change in some attitudes is remarkable: in the early 1960s nearly two-thirds of Americans trusted other people; by the 2010s only one third did. Even more rapidly, in 1969 only 24 per cent of people said premarital sex was “not wrong”; just four years later it was 47 per cent.

Contrary to the book’s subtitle there is almost nothing on how the next upswing will emerge. Conservative progressive that he is, Putnam seems to want to turn the clock back and yet is unwilling to accept that so many of the forces unleashed by modern liberalism makes his socially cohesive, communitarian America impossible to achieve.

As I was reading Putnam I also dipped into a long article in the Atlantic by David Brooks, the liberal conservative columnist, who sees the future in a better version of today’s Houston with its 145 languages and scattered economic and cultural hubs — “in that rambling, scattershot city I see a vision of how a hyper-diverse, and more trusting, American future might work”.

If he is right, then this book should be read as a kind of tragedy. The next upswing is not coming, at least not in anything like the form that Putnam would like.

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