Robert Putnam with Shaylyn Romney Garrett, The Upswing: How America Came Together a Century Ago and How We Can Do It Again. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2020. 480 pages.

By remaining merely pessimistic, not necessarily catastrophist, I have become a relative optimist.
— New York Times columnist Ross Douthat

There is a profound contradiction in this otherwise valuable book. This contradiction is reflected in the cover, in which the cheeriness of WE in bold red is belied by the downward-facing curve. If readers are to be persuaded that America can “come together” as it did in the early 20th century, they would at least expect to find a “how to” section at the end, with insight from current manifestations about how to “do it again.” But it is only in more recent short writing and public lectures that Robert Putnam and Shaylyn Romney Garrett try – unconvincingly, in my view – to have us believe that Americans have good reason to be optimistic about a coming “upswing.”

Going deeper

I am a few years younger than Robert Putnam, and, though not an American, I have spent much time in the United States over the years and continue to follow developments there closely. I have been impressed by Putnam’s work since first encountering his development of the concept of social capital to explain deep and lasting economic differences between northern Italy, with its guilds, clubs and choral societies, and the south, where such social capital – networks and norms of civic engagement on which trust is built – was absent. I attended the ceremony in Uppsala, Sweden, at which he was awarded the Skytte Prize (political science’s “Nobel” prize) in 2007.

The prize was richly deserved. Putnam has been a rarity among social scientists: taking on important issues (rather than just ones to which you can apply state-of-the-art statistical analysis that will get you published in academic journals), painstakingly gathering and applying the fullest relevant data and secondary source material available to address those issues, and writing in clear, nonacademic prose. In addition, while careful to be as objective as he can be, he never loses his perspective as what Americans call a liberal in the best sense of the word.

It was when Putnam, now at Harvard, turned his attention to his own country and began portraying how American life had been steadily unravelling that he became known outside of academic circles. In Bowling Alone (2002), he documented the decline of social capital, for which he used as proxies membership in bowling leagues (he was an avid bowler growing up), Rotary Clubs, churches and other local associations. As the social bonds created by these groups frayed, life satisfaction went down. Declining social capital, he showed, brought rising crime rates and other indicators of deteriorating neighbourhood quality of life. More recently, in Our Kids (2015), he described the new inequality – the precipitous fall in social mobility – in numbers and stories from his hometown of Port Clinton, Ohio, and other communities.

For much of his career, his focus has been on exploring what went wrong and why. Bowling Alone made Putnam and social capital household words. In the process, he challenged his compatriots to address what was going on around them. He didn’t always have comprehensive explanations for what he described, something unavoidable if you are prepared to take on hard issues in a changing context. This is especially the case with his latest book, which is also his most ambitious – though it has received only a fraction of the attention that Bowling Alone did. The Upswing is a sweeping analysis of 125 years of American history, highly readable and full of interesting insights. His brief conclusion, however, which he has followed up with shorter recent contributions, has more than a whiff of wishful thinking.

It is understandable that, after having written highly influential books that told Americans to be very concerned, indeed depressed, about the developments taking place in their country, on turning 80 he would be reflecting on his legacy, looking for a perspective on the future of his country that could coat the bleak portrait associated with his work with a silver lining. This presented a real challenge since he could not, as comparativists can and do, look to improvements elsewhere, in developing countries in particular, to compensate for the bleakness of the contemporary picture back home. So if he could not go wider, then he would go deeper than in his earlier work: into the long historical trends – the “arc of history” – of the United States over 125 years.

Writing a book about the United States with Trump in the White House and entitling it The Upswing was, as Jim Hacker in Yes Prime Minister would say, “courageous.” Still, in the months following publication, Putnam could see Biden’s election (despite Trump and his allies trying to block it) and the Democrats taking over Congress as confirmation that things were getting better. This perspective is harder to maintain as the pandemic enters its third year, with a likely coming congressional victory by Trumpite Republicans. Consider this excerpt from a January 14 column in the New York Times by the moderately conservative and generally not pessimistic David Brooks:

In 2020, the number of miles Americans drove fell 13 percent because of the pandemic, but the number of traffic deaths rose 7 percent … In 2021 motor vehicle deaths were up 18.4 percent even over 2020 … The number of altercations on airplanes has exploded, the murder rate is surging in cities, drug overdoses are increasing, Americans are drinking more, nurses say patients are getting more abusive … Schools have seen an increase in both minor incidents, like students talking in class, and more serious issues, such as fights and gun possession … Drug deaths had risen almost continuously for more than 20 years, but overdoses shot up especially during the pandemic … In October, CNN ran a story titled, “Hate Crime Reports in U.S. Surge to the Highest Level in 12 Years, F.B.I. Says.” … The number of gun purchases has soared …

When I went to college … I never worried that I might say something in class that would get me ostracized. But now the college students I know fear that one errant sentence could lead to social death … This is what it feels like to live in a society that is dissolving from the bottom up as much as from the top down.¹

Yet, dissolving from bottom up is the opposite of what Putnam, in his most recent interventions, suggests. I return to his contention that things are on the verge of getting better after summarizing the argument in The Upswing, which is full of rich material giving flesh to the curve depicted on the cover. It says very little about America today, arguing instead by analogy: the same things that were wrong and made improvement seem hopeless before the first upswing began are once again present now. Readers who are unconvinced by this argument, as I am, will nonetheless learn much from the historical analysis presented in clear, nonacademic form by Putnam and his coauthor, Shaylyn Romney Garrett.

To summarize, The Upswing sets out “a long arc of increasing solidarity” beginning early in the 20th century, and then increasing individualism beginning in the early 1960s, affecting economic equality, politics, social capital and culture. The authors see the urban riots, assassinations and campus violence, as well as the Vietnam quagmire, as putting an end to that solidarity. This was the beginning of a downswing toward an increasingly zero-sum view of society, with a depletion of social capital in the form of bitter partisanship, deep inequality and isolation, leading eventually to Trumpism.

Here The Upswing builds on Bowling Alone, with a depressing portrait through the second decade of this century. But by showing that this depressing description of America over these past 50 years also applies unexpectedly closely to the America of 1900, the authors arrive at a positive conclusion. It didn’t stay that way back then: early in the century there came an upswing of “mutualism and solidarity,” depicted in numerous charts setting out such indicators as rates of unionization, voter turnout and membership in churches and community clubs. The new ethos was expressed in the emerging communitarianism of the Progressive era, in reformers like Jane Addams and John Dewey and muckraking journalists like Upton Sinclair, Lincoln Steffens and Ida Tarbell. In portraying the trajectory of American society since 1900 in their four curves – economic inequality, political partisanship, social capital and cultural narcissism – they see “an unexpected and remarkable synchronicity in trends in four very different spheres.”

Through painstakingly researched and presented data, every gauge turns out to take the form of an inverted U- or V-shaped curve; from very low rates of all of these (let’s simplify by referring to the sum total as social capital) at the turn of the century to a high point around the beginning of the 1960s and then down to levels similar to 1900 as we get into the 21st century. At the high point of the curve, we find the lowest gap between rich and poor, the most favourable health indicators, the highest social spending to help the poor, the lowest political polarization and the strongest feeling that Americans were moving forward together.

Apart from the standard statistical indicators, the authors make use of an innovative measure to track social capital in the form of “cultural narcissism”: the “Ngram” database from Google’s digitalization of millions of books since 1880, which makes it possible to measure the use of particular words and phrases over time. They are thus able to track the rate of usage of terms reflecting “we” compared to “I,” showing the rise of the “selfie culture” emerging in the late 1950s. They use such Ngram data for terms like survival of the fittest, which faded through most of the 20th century “only to win a new lease on life in the twenty-first century.” Usage of association, cooperation and socialism rose steadily for 75 years following 1880 and then declined. The path of the term common man began its decline sooner, in the early 1950s.

In a parallel analysis published since, in the December 2021 Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, Marten Scheffer and his coauthors report on the rise of fact-free argumentation. Use of sentiment-laden words such as feel and believe declined systematically while the use of words associated with fact-based argumentation such as determine and conclusion rose steadily until the 1980s, when emotion-laden language again surged in both nonfiction and fiction, as well as in New York Times articles.²

Overall Putnam and Garrett paint a convincing portrait of an America that was broadly improving, when children could expect to earn more than their parents, when politics was not purely partisan, when hope of a “Great Society” seemed realizable. This was the time when Putnam – and Joe Biden – were embarking on their careers. I frequently visited the United States in the late 1950s and early 1960s when still a teenager.

I came back generally hopeful about the openness to improvement and optimism about future possibilities of my American neighbours (something I later learned was shared by the Swedes and Europeans generally). While Putnam admits that the rosy picture applies especially to Whites, he presents data showing that the real conditions of Blacks were improving significantly even before the Supreme Court ruled against segregated schooling in Brown, mainly as a result of economic conditions that favoured Blacks moving to the industrial north, and that despite the consolidation of the civil rights movement, progress toward equality slowed by the latter 1960s.

Unlike Putnam, I am a boomer, and like many of my generation, I identified with the North American New Left movement in the 1960s. Hence, like many, I look at that decade from a different perspective than he does. What Putnam portrays as the high point of America living up to its goals as the 1960s began was for us, a few years later, a “one-dimensional” society to be rejected. In my commune in Washington, D.C., in the late 1960s, we read Herbert Marcuse and agreed with him that the “advanced industrial society” around us created false needs to tie us into the “system” of production and consumption via the mass media and advertising. We sought to escape a technology-based totalitarian rationality that permeated the culture and public life and to oppose in words and deeds the hyperconsumption, waste and environmental damage it caused. And since the industrial working class – and thus the trade union movement – was now integrated into capitalism, and state socialism in the East failed to inspire us, we looked, with Franz Fanon, to decolonization movements in the developing world as the harbingers of change.

Hence, while I find persuasive the data presented by Putnam and Garrett showing that by the late 1960s the curve had begun to swing downward away from involvement in community associations, I do not see this merely as a reflection of a new self-centredness but rather of our having measured the accomplishments of previous generations against an unattainable standard. I could see this as, writing in 1969, I reflected on my generation’s experience:

The American New Left is … groping, it seems, more than ever. It is learning that its “holy” alliance with the Black Power movement is little more than a treaty to cover dirty linen. It is finding that the people it appeals to in its theory of participatory democracy are being mobilized all right – but against it. It is finding that it is more capable of seizing university buildings than of knowing what to do … after the inevitable restoration of stability.

It is turning, quite understandably, to questions of the whole person – of how to live as a radical person in the society; thus the emphasis of radicalism in the professions, and on the building and maintenance of community; from sensitivity groups to urban co-ops, to rustic communitarian retreats …

The division between … the wheelies and the feelies is far deeper than factional … The wheelies … concentrate on direct action and look upon the entire attempt to build new ways of life as self-indulgence … The feelies … answer that there’s no use trying to bring change and organize others when you’re uptight yourself … In an underground newspaper, a free school, or a commune, the feelies demand that all the structures be simply eliminated … The wheelies say that all this is well and good, but the paper won’t get out.

Putnam’s depiction of the emergence of advanced industrial society in the United States is the other side of Marcuse’s coin. A key case in point is that for Putnam support for trade unions is a positive indicator of social capital. He draws from Gallup polling data to show how popular (after the red scare of the late forties and early fifties) unions became, and how they fell to their lowest level in the 21st century (figure 1). That they are now apparently making a comeback suggests that in this one area, perhaps, Putnam’s optimism may be warranted.

Another positive measure is that in recent years a similar curve shows emerging generations to be especially open to racial and religious intermarriage – as opposed, we should add, to marriage between partners of different partisan political affiliations. Indeed, one of the starkest contrasts between 1960 and 2020 is the attitude toward a Republican marrying into a Democratic family and vice versa.

Putnam’s bet

Though I have only skimmed the surface of, and thus not done justice to, this important book, I turn to the claim in the title that the low point has been reached and that there are signs of an upswing, signs mostly identified elsewhere than in the book itself. For example, Putnam and Garrett cite a journal article written by Putnam’s daughter Lara along with Theda Skocpol and published in February 2018 in the dark early days of Trump in power:

The new upsurge is not centered in the progressive urban enclaves where most national pundits live … About half the country lives in the suburbs, twice the number who live in either fully urban or rural settings. More than half of Americans are also women – and of those, half are in their thirties to sixties. It is in this Middle America, and among these Middle Americans, that political developments since the November 2016 election have moved fastest and farthest … At the current pace, it seems likely that the pop-up leaders and grassroots groups will, by 2019, have repopulated the local layer of the Democratic Party in much of the country … It will look like retired librarians rolling their eyes at the present state of affairs, and then taking charge.

This change will come smoothly and cooperatively in some places and through conflict and displacement in others. The change will move farthest and fastest outside of the metropolitan cores where local Democratic Party patronage structures still persist. Purple suburbs, mid-size cities, big towns in red regions – these are the unexpected epicenters of the quake underway. The cumulative result will be local Democratic Party leadership across much of America that is slightly more progressive and much more female than it was, although not much more socio-economically diverse. Everywhere, the renovated party locals will be passionate about procedural democracy: determined to fight gerrymandering, regulate campaign activities and finance, and expand and guarantee voting rights for all.³

It is impossible to quantify this upsurge. But I am sceptical. So far, the only evidence of its effect on politics was the mobilization of parents seeking to take power over the schools that allowed GOP candidate Glenn Youngkin to be elected Governor of Virginia in 2021 over his Democratic opponent, former Governor Terry McAuliffe – a mobilization that apparently is spreading.

One aspect of Putnam’s hopes for an upswing lies in technology. In the afterword (written with Jonah C. Hahn) to the 2020 update of Bowling Alone, he declares that he is open to a positive response to the question of whether the internet has reversed the decline of social capital. Social media, which had not yet really emerged when the book was first published in 2002, carry implications for social engagement: they both enable and deform.

In lectures and interviews along with his coauthor in 2021,⁴ he was somewhat more positive, stressing that the internet has greatly increased the possibilities for real-time communications which can merge with actual direct human face-to-face encounters in what he calls an “alloy” between virtual and real, as in a neighbourhood book club. While suggesting that on balance the internet may actually be reversing the decline in social capital, introducing previously unthinkable opportunities for social connection, it can also bring unprecedented levels of alienation and isolation. Putnam and Hahn noted in the afterword to the updated Bowling Alone that “social media seem to foster political disagreement, amplify polarizing content, and suppress constructive discourse.” The internet also contributes to inequality between white collar workers who can work from home and blue collar workers who cannot.

Still, Putnam is hopeful, in part reflecting his experience during the pandemic: “Emerging digital technology like Papa … can hook you up with companions of different ages, arrange for grocery delivery and many other activities we took for granted when we were younger. Along with the necessities of life, Papa brings members and Pals (younger folks who assist older adults) together with a mobile app that makes lasting connections easy.” Putnam, who was at Harvard when Mark Zuckerberg was there initiating Facebook, insists that many Facebook friends are real friends and that such networks proved their worth as people like himself were isolated by the pandemic. Hence, in response to a question at one of his lectures, Putnam said that he is willing to give favourable odds that the upswing is on its way. I personally would take that bet.

If it were up to him, Putnam would restore some form of national service, rallying youth around “the moral equivalent of war.” In earlier years the draft constituted a kind of “bridging” program that promoted social capital. He admits that young people have been very much against restoring the draft, but he finds hope in recent signs among the young of a decrease in cynicism and increase in idealism: support for environmental causes, Black Lives Matter. I would like to believe that he is right, that he could call on young people the way JFK did when he said “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country” and founded the Peace Corps. But that was in 1961 and, as Putnam tells it so well, all things considered, it was a downswing from there.

Trumpism unshaken

As I write in early March, the Ukranians are heroically standing up to the Russian invaders. At the same time I read that Russian President Vladimir Putin would not have invaded Ukraine had President Trump still been in office, a majority of Americans said according to the results of a new poll. The survey released Friday from the Harvard Center for American Political Studies (CAPS)–Harris Poll found that 62% of Americans believed Putin would not have pulled the trigger if Trump were still president.

Unquestionably, Putin’s gambit brought a missing sense of common purpose to the democratic world. Yet it does not seek to have shaken Trumpism in the United States. In the first days of the Russian invasion Donald Trump, at a Conservative Political Action Conference event, told his audience of high-profile Republicans that if Democrats want to fight for democracy abroad, “they should start with the democracy that is under threat right next door, a place called Canada.”

I wonder if today Putnam would still tell his American readers that that the upswing is on its way.


¹ David Brooks, America is Falling Apart at the Seams, New York Times, January 13, 2022.

² Marten Scheffer, Ingrid van de Leemput, Els Weinans and Johan Bollen, The Rise and Fall of Rationality in Language, PNAS, Vol. 118, No. 51.

³ Lara Putnam and Theda Skopcol, Middle America Reboots Democracy: We Spent Months Talking with Anti-Trump Forces – and They’re Not Who Pundits Say They Are, Democracy: A Journal of Ideas, February 20, 2018.

⁴ For example, on February 9 at the Kennedy School at Harvard; on February 10 before the Family Action Network; and on July 26 as part of the McCloskey speakers series hosted by the Aspen Institute.