The D.I.Y. Way to Heal the Social Fabric: Don’t Do It Yourself

How America Came Together a Century Ago and How We Can Do It Again
By Robert D. Putnam with Shaylyn Romney Garrett

In this good-hearted and sweeping book, the political scientist Robert D. Putnam (with Shaylyn Romney Garrett) offers some hope in bleak times. “The Upswing” begins by invoking Tocqueville’s admiring depiction of America in the 1830s as a land where individualism was balanced by mutual association and common purpose. Yet half a century later came the Gilded Age, a period like our own — of robber barons, widespread corruption, mutual mistrust, political scandal, exploitation of wageworkers and pillaging of the natural environment.

Then the wheel turned again. After 1900, America embarked on a reform era that extended through the 1960s, before we descended into a second Gilded Age. Recent history, Putnam argues, begins well before the New Deal. In the entire period from 1901 (when Theodore Roosevelt succeeded the assassinated William McKinley) through Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, with only a short pause in the 1920s, America steadily became more community-minded.

Many New Dealers learned their values and craft in the Progressive Era of the first Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. “By the time we arrived at the middle of the 20th century,” Putnam writes, “the Gilded Age was a distant memory. America had been transformed into a more egalitarian, cooperative, cohesive and altruistic nation.” These trends operated in the economic, political, social and cultural realms, reinforcing one another. Then they all reversed in tandem. “Between the mid-1960s and today … we have been experiencing declining economic equality, the deterioration of compromise in the public square, a fraying social fabric and a descent into cultural narcissism.”

Putnam terms this pattern the “I-we-I” cycle — from selfishness to common purpose, and back to selfishness again. Though his style is narrative, Putnam backs his hypothesis with an encyclopedic display of data, from social surveys, income and wealth statistics, indexes of political participation, measures of trust and much more.

Along the way, he offers superb, often counterintuitive insights. For instance, much racial and gender progress predated the civil rights and feminist movements of the 1960s. The great migration of Blacks northward, beginning during World War I, led to labor shortages in the South and compelled Southern racists to actually deliver something of separate-but-equal. Spending on Black schools soared well before Brown v. Board of Education.

Yet separate was far from equal. Putnam notes in two nuanced chapters that race and gender don’t quite fit his larger narrative: Black Americans were never welcomed into the overall “we.” Women belonged, mainly as appendages of men. As demands escalated, backlash ensued.

However, for all of its prodigious research coupled with careful qualifications, the book sometimes overgeneralizes. In Putnam’s recounting, the 1960s were the inflection point when America retreated from community to selfish individualism. In the immediate postwar era, he says, corporate moguls accepted responsibility for their communities and workers. By the 1980s, they cared mainly about maximizing profits. Sixties radicals began by pursuing social justice and ended up as culturally insurgent hippies. Progressive goals became more about rights, less about solidarity. Millennials and Gen Xers are far more individualist than their boomer parents.

True enough, but there’s more to the story. Today, many younger people can be described as individualistic — not because they are latter-day Abbie Hoffmans or Milton Friedmans, but because the altered rules of the game leave them little choice.

Jared Bernstein, an economist who advises Joe Biden, calls it the “YOYO Economy.” YOYO stands for “You’re on Your Own.” And as Jacob Hacker observed in “The Great Risk Shift,” costs once borne by government or by paternalistic corporations — health coverage, job security, cheap higher education, retirement income — have now been shifted back to individuals.

The message from Uber, Lyft and established corporations that have converted career jobs to gig work is precisely that you are on your own. A lot of what passes for individualism as value preference is an individualism of desperation.

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.

Spend a day wandering around meetings of business lobbyists in Washington hotel ballrooms and you will see Tocqueville-style networking, on stilts. But this remnant of Tocqueville’s America is limited to the top 1 or 2 percent. Meanwhile, as many social scientists have demonstrated, mass-membership associations that speak for the nonrich have atrophied. The civic decline that Putnam describes is anything but symmetrical.

Today’s individualism empowers the right but fragments the left. Cosmopolitan billionaires, individualist in their profiteering and gated communities, make common cause with nativist social conservatives who express their individualism by toting assault weapons. Both are part of the Trump base. But on the left, different flavors of racial, gender, economic and climate progressives, not to mention animal rights activists, often magnify disagreements rather than emphasize coalition.

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. Theodore Roosevelt’s leadership animated latent demands for reform that had been stunted politically before his accidental presidency. If postwar business leaders were community-minded, those norms reflected the regulations of the New Deal period and the temporary power of trade unions.

In his summing up, Putnam deliberately sidesteps the question of why America became less cohesive. “The various trends we have identified are braided together by reciprocal causality,” he writes, “so it is difficult and even misleading to identify causes and effects.” But as Putnam notes elsewhere in the book, one factor has to be politics. The political events of the ’60s, especially the Vietnam War but also the period’s assassinations and civil rights protests, weakened trust in public institutions and fragmented the New Deal coalition. The resulting loss of faith in government was a setback for the egalitarian left (which relies heavily on public remedy) and a gift to an increasingly militant right.

Putnam acknowledges that today’s government gridlock is far from symmetrical. “Bipartisanship has disappeared from American politics over the last half century,” he writes, “largely because the Republican Party has become steadily more extreme.” Indeed, undermining government is a core Republican strategy. Ronald Reagan’s tactic of disparaging and starving government was all too effective. In the 1990s, House Speaker Newt Gingrich sought to block any bipartisan collaboration, a strategy intensified by the current Senate leader Mitch McConnell. All this was lethal to progressivism, community and trust.

“The Upswing” is 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.

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