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Review of Robert Putnam’s "The Upswing: How America Came Together a Century Ago and How We Can Do It Again"

"The Awakening," Hy Mayer, Puck, Feb. 20, 1915

It is still a time of great political polarization. A few weeks after our 2020 elections, a majority of polled Republicans, riled up by President Trump, remained convinced that he “rightfully won.” At such a time, a book with the title The Upswing: How America Came Together a Century Ago and How We Can Do It Again is certainly welcome. Especially one coming from the distinguished political scientist and author of Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam (aided by Shaylyn Romney Garrett). Putnam refers to Upswing as a “an exercise in macrohistory,” which “inevitably involves the simplification of complex stories.” And a “simplification” it may be, but then so too are almost all history books, for they attempt to describe or analyze in mere fallible words an immensely complex reality.

Putnam begins Chapter 1 by examining what Alexis de Tocqueville observed in the 1830s about the American ability to balance individual liberty with the common good. He then looks ahead to the decades of the post-Civil War Gilded Age, when the USA “was startlingly similar to today. Inequality, political polarization, social dislocation, and cultural narcissism prevailed—all accompanied, as they are now, by unprecedented technological advances, prosperity, and material well-being.”

Figure 1.1, the first of many charts, is labeled “Economic, Political, Social, And Cultural Trends, 1895–2015.” Each of the trend lines indicates if the country was moving toward 1) “greater or lesser economic equality?” 2) “greater or lesser comity and compromise in politics?” 3) “greater or lesser cohesion in social life?” 4) “greater or lesser altruism in cultural values?” Answers to all four: 1890s to 1960s = “greater”; 1970s to present = “lesser.”

To clarify: Putnam concludes that during the Progressive Era (1890-c. 1910) “the institutional, social, and cultural seeds” of what he labels the “Great Convergence” were sown. Out of those seeds emerged more than six decades (up until the late 1960s) of “imperfect but steady upward progress toward greater economic equality, more cooperation in the public square, a stronger social fabric, and a growing culture of solidarity,” in which we “became more focused on our responsibilities to one another and less focused on our narrower self-interest.” But “then suddenly and unexpectedly . . . the Great Convergence was reversed in a dramatic U-turn, to be followed by a half century of Great Divergence.”

In another passage he writes, the USA “entered the Sixties in an increasingly ‘we’ mode—with communes, shared values, and accelerating efforts toward racial and economic equality—and we left the Sixties in an increasingly ‘I’ mode—focused on ‘rights,’ culture wars, and what would be almost instantly dubbed the ‘Me Decade’ of the 1970s.”

In late 2020, the emphasis on the “I” continued as many Trump supporters, oblivious of their responsibilities to the common good, insisted that their individual "rights" were being violated by governors’ coronavirus restrictions.

Each Upswing chapter from 2 through 5 is devoted to a separate field--economics, politics, society, or culture. And each deals with the trends from the 1890s, when the Progressive Age began, up to the present era. Chapter 6 deals with “Race,” and 7 with “Gender,” and both chapters indicate that the “we” of the Great Convergence was often meant for white males more than for all Americans.

Chapter 8, “The Arc of the Twentieth Century,” summarizes earlier findings and pays special attention to the historical causation for the switch from the Great Convergence to the Great Divergence in the late 1960s. Although Putnam discusses many historical explanations for the transformation beginning in the late 1960s, like the backlash against the gains of African Americans and women, he is wise enough to realize that major historical occurrences, like the transformation considered here, almost always have innumerable causes.

Chapter 9 concentrates on the lessons that can be learned from the Progressive Era--  another reliable work describes the Progressivism of the that time as a diverse movement “to limit the socially destructive effects of morally unhindered capitalism, to extract from those [capitalist] markets the tasks they had demonstrably bungled, to counterbalance the markets’ atomizing social effects with a countercalculus of the public weal [well-being].”

It was then, in reaction to a “Gilded Age” similar to our own, that the turn toward a more cooperative, less self-centered society began. And, as Upswing’s subtitle indicates, Putnam wants to demonstrate what we can learn from the Progressives.

“Communitarian sentiment,” he declares, “was at the heart of the Progressive mood. Teddy Roosevelt, Jane Addams, and other progressives were explicit in rejecting ‘individualism,’ and endorsing (in Addams’s words) ‘a cooperative ideal of mutual assistance.’” The Progressive Era also “witnessed a sea change away from the increasing inequality and polarization and social fragmentation of the Gilded Age toward equality, comity, and community.”

The 1920s, with its three consecutive Republican presidents, slowed down the growth of communitarianism. But with Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal and World War II, it renewed itself until it began in the late 1960s to reverse itself toward individualism and begin the transformation from the Great Convergence to the Great Divergence.

Putnam ticks off some of the accomplishments of the Progressive Era: “the secret ballot; the direct primary system; the popular election of senators; . . . women’s suffrage; new forms of municipal administration; the federal income tax; the Federal Reserve System; protective labor laws; the minimum wage; antitrust statutes; protected public lands and resources; food and drug regulation; sanitation infrastructure; public utilities; a vast proliferation of civic and voluntary societies; new advocacy organizations such as labor unions, the ACLU, and the NAACP; the widespread provision of free public high schools; and even the spread of public parks, libraries, and playgrounds all owe their origins to the efforts of a diverse array of Progressive reformers.”

These reformers, as Putnam states, included a wide array of citizens. Among them were Democrats, Republicans, and muckraking journalists who exposed social ills, some of which were connected with unregulated business. In 1912, former Republican president Theodore Roosevelt ran on the Progressive Party ticket, which advocated social legislation such as the prohibition of child labor, improvements of women’s working conditions, and comprehensive social insurance for such occurrences as sickness, unemployment, and old-age poverty.

Putnam cites historian Richard Hofstadter’s The Age of Reform, “Progressivism . . . was not confined to the Progressive Party but affected in a striking way all the major and minor parties and the whole tone of political life. . . . It was a rather widespread and remarkably good-natured effort of the greater part of society to achieve some not very clearly specified self-reformation.”

To make his point that Progressivism was primarily a “bottom up” movement involving countless citizen reformers, he provides brief biographical sketches on some of them such as Frances Perkins (b. 1880), Paul Harris (b. 1868), Ida B. Wells (b. 1862), and Tom Johnson (b. 1854).

After graduating from Mount Holyoke College, Perkins taught at a Chicago-area girls’ school and volunteered at Jane Addams’s famous Hull House, which provided multi-faceted aid to poor people. Later on she obtained a master’s degree in political science from Columbia. While in New York she worked for the women’s suffrage movement and for workers’ rights. She witnessed the infamous 1911 fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company factory, which because of unsafe conditions killed 145 workers. It “was a turning point” in her “moral formation, which awakened her to the urgency of fighting for reform.” After a few more decades of doing so, she became the first woman appointed to the U.S. Cabinet when Franklin Roosevelt made her Secretary of Labor from 1933 to 1945.

Lawyer Paul Harris also began his progressive work in Chicago, but in the form of being the chief founder (in 1905) and expander of the Rotary clubs. As third president of the club in 1907, he included service as part of the club’s mission and worked to construct public toilets in the city. By the time Harris died in 1947, the organization he started had more than 200,000 members spread out over 75 countries. Putnam tells us that the Rotary “was one of hundreds of similar organizations and associations started during the Progressive Era,” many of which aided communities in various ways.

Born to enslaved parents in Mississippi, Ida Wells became a school teacher and later journalist. In 1884, she preceded Rosa Parks by almost three-quarters of a century by refusing to give up a seat on public transport--only in her case it was a train, not a bus. After being dragged from the train, she sued the offending Memphis railway company and wrote about her experience, “which launched her career as a journalist relentlessly documenting racial inequality, segregation, and the rise of Jim Crow.” After a few friends were lynched, she “wrote articles, pamphlets, and statistical reports that decried . . . lynching.” In 1894, she moved to Chicago and later was one of the founders of the NAACP and the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs. She also was a suffragist, opened a black settlement house, and lectured abroad. In 1913-14 she protested President Woodrow Wilson’s racial resegregation of federal bureaucracies.

Putnam points to Wells as just one example of the crusading “muckraking” Progressive journalists of her era, which also included Lincoln Steffens, photo journalist Jacob Riis, Ida Tarbell, and Upton Sinclair--such journalists would also inspire later progressives like Carl Sandburg (Chicago Daily News writer, author of Chicago Poems, The Chicago Race Riots, July 1919, and numerous works on Abraham Lincoln) and Dorothy Day, who like many other progressives lived for years in Chicago. (In 1914, she went to the University of Illinois, and in 1933 co-founded the Catholic Worker movement and in New York the first of many later Hospitality Houses to aid the poor.)

Despite having only one year of formal schooling, Tom Johnson became a successful business executive. By the 1890s, he was a major owner of street railways in Brooklyn, Cleveland, Detroit, Indianapolis, and St. Louis, and had also invested in Ohio and Pennsylvania steel mills. But like many Progressives, he was radicalized by the writings of Henry George, who desired a fairer distribution of “the astronomical wealth of monopolistic businesses.” After witnessing the Johnstown Flood of 1889, which killed more than 2,200 people, Johnson aided affected families, but also became increasingly critical of capitalists like Henry Clay Frick, who was partly responsible for the tragedy.

To push reforms further, Johnson “served two terms as a U.S. Representative, and four terms as mayor of Cleveland.” As mayor he attacked corruption; improved housing conditions, policing, and sanitation; built civic centers, parks, and homes for the elderly and indigent; and lowered utility costs. Journalist Lincoln Steffens called him “the best Mayor of the best-governed city in the United States.” Such municipal reform was part of the Progressive agenda. Other such reformers mentioned by Putnam include Wisconsin’s Republican governor Robert La Follette and the mayors of Detroit and Toledo, Hazen Pingree and Sam “Golden Rule” Jones.

Generalizing about the Progressive movement, Putnam writes it “was, first and foremost, a moral awakening.” Aided in part by the religious thinking of the Social Gospel thinkers, “Americans from all walks of life began to repudiate the self-centered, hyper-individualist creed of the Gilded Age.” The movement was also pragmatic, not ideological, for “true innovation requires openness to experimentation that is not premised upon ideological beliefs. To structure debates within a gridlocked left/right framework precludes the sheer inventiveness that animated . . . [the era’s] upswing and generated solutions that appealed to a broad bipartisan swath of Americans.” Putnam believes that Progressives came to realize that “to succeed they would have to compromise—to find a way to put private property, personal liberty, and economic growth on more equal footing with communitarian ideals and the protection of the weak and vulnerable, and to work within existing systems to bring about change.” And to do so by “slow and steady reforms as an alternative to calls for revolution.”

These lessons regarding moral urgency, pragmatism, and compromise are ones that Putnam thinks modern reformers need to apply. In various marches and protests of recent years (like the Women’s March of January 2017 and “activism around climate change—the ultimate ‘we’ issue”) the author perceives moral concerns. But he does not yet “see a truly nonpartisan movement” bringing “issue-specific efforts together in a compelling citizen-driven call for large-scale reform.” Nor does he see “a broader vision for the future of America.” (For some thoughts on such a vision, see here.)

Besides learning from what the Progressives did right, we should, Putnam insists, learn from what they did wrong. Most significantly, they failed to make the “we” they stressed inclusive enough, paying insufficient attention to gender and racial discrimination. The gains we have made since the 1960s--some of them in the Great Divergence--must not be undone but built upon. In the penultimate paragraph of his book, Putnam writes, “The question we face today is not whether we can or should turn back the tide of history, but whether we can resurrect the earlier communitarian virtues in a way that does not reverse the progress we’ve made in terms of individual liberties. Both values are American, and we require a balance and integration of both.”

With the diminishing sway of the polarizing Donald Trump and increasing prominence of the more unifying Joe Biden, such “balance and integration” seems more possible--especially if, as Putnam urges, we learn from our history.