On Wednesday, January 25, Robert Putnam, professor of public policy at Harvard University, and Shaylyn Romney Garrett addressed BYU students and faculty at the Wheatley Institute. The subject of their address was their recent book The Upswing: How America Came Together a Century Ago and How We Can Do it Again. It describes the rise and fall of American social capital- from a low point at the beginning of the 20th century, to its heights during the 1960’s and its subsequent decline to new lows today.
Putnam opened the lecture by describing the current state of American society. Citing data from his books, he noted that according to several key metrics, the country is in deep trouble. Americans are facing record levels of political polarization, economic inequality, social isolation, and cultural self-centeredness, all of which are harming the individual well-being of Americans.
While we are certainly facing difficult circumstances, Putnam and Romney are more interested in the story of how we got here. They note that all of their metrics- polarization, inequality, isolation, and narcissism- show a similar trend over time: a bell curve. With a low starting at the beginning of the 20th century and climbing to its peak in the 1960’s. However, this bell curve is declining to a new low in the present.
They call this the “I-We-I Curve,” showing how America went from a fractured and individualist country in 1900 to a communitarian and relatively united country in the postwar era, until its decline back towards individualism in the present. This “I Society,” they claim, is responsible for many of the social problems which have become prominent in American society, such as dramatically increased rates of loneliness, mental health issues, and “deaths of despair.”
After looking at the data, Romney noted, many people’s response is to be nostalgic for good times past. However, she argued that this is unhelpful for a couple reasons. First, the ‘We Society’ of the postwar era was deeply flawed. It largely excluded racial minorities and women. Second, it does not offer meaningful solutions to the crisis we face. Instead, Romney and Putnam’s thesis is that we should look at “the Upswing,” the period from the 1910’s to the 1950’s where America came together as a country. We have faced a crisis before, and solved it. By looking back to the Upswing, we can learn what solutions were applied before and apply them to our society today.
They suggest that the key to the Upswing is in the transition from the Gilded Age to the 20th century Progressive Era. There are a few notable trends that they draw particular attention to. First, the initial change in American society was not economic but moral and cultural. Starting with the Social Gospel movement, Americans became increasingly concerned with the welfare of society. Only after people became morally and politically conscious and active did economic inequality diminish. Second, the movement was a youth-driven grassroots movement, rather than a one imposed top-down by leadership.
The notable names of the Progressive Movement, like Teddy Roosevelt, were creations of rather than the creators of the movement. Finally, Putnam and Romney asserted that the progressives understood association- or community- to be both a means and an end. Bringing people together allowed them to accomplish goals that could not be done individually, but bringing people together was also a goal itself, a creation of the kind of civil society appropriate for a republic. This created a social fabric which increased community rather than individuality.
They were also careful to criticize the progressive institutions for failing to be inclusive enough. Many institutions were discriminatory or simply racist, and they argued that this tendency integrated into the structure of the movement is what sowed the seeds of its later dissolution.
The lecture concluded with an exhortation to BYU students in particular to become active in politics and civil society. Putnam and Romney said that one of the keys to creating a new Upswing will be the activity of the youth applying the lessons of the last Upswing to contemporary circumstances. By reviving American civic associationism and bringing moral concern for the well-being of society back to the forefront of American politics, Romney and Putnam believe that we can reverse the decline of American society.
Written by: Joseph Addington
Opinion Editor of The Cougar Chronicle
The Cougar Chronicle is an independent student-run newspaper and is not affiliated with Brigham Young University or The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints