These Are Not the Worst of Times; America Has Been Here Before

Over the first six decades of the twentieth century American had become demonstrably – indeed measurably – a more “we” society.

Over the past five decades America has become demonstrably – indeed measurably – a more “I” society.

By using advanced methods of data analysis to combine four key metrics of economics, politics, society, and culture into a unified statistical survey, authors Robert Putnam and Shaylyn Romney Garrett have been able to discern a single core phenomenon – a single inverted U-curve that provides a scientifically validate summary of the past 125 years of American’s story.

The Upswing traces the roots of today’s problems to the last time the same problems threatened to engulf our democracy. It contains an evidenced-based story about how we have arrived at our current predicament. The authors examined how economic inequality, political polarization, social fragmentation, cultural narcissism, racism, and gender discrimination each evolved over the course of the last 125 years.

Putnam and Romney Garrett argue that the state of America today must be understood by fist acknowledge that within living memory, each of the adverse trends they now see were going in the opposite direction. To a surprising degree century-long trends in economics, politics, society, and culture are remarkably similar, such that is tis possible to summarize all of them in a singe phenomenon:

The story of the American experiment in the twentieth century is one of a long upswing toward increasing solidarity, followed by a steep downturn into increasing individualism. From “I” to “we,” and back again.

Perhaps, according to the authors, the single most important lesson we can hope to gain from this analysis is that in the past America has experienced a storm of unbridled individualism in our culture, our communities, our politics, and our economics, and it produced then, as it has today, a national situation that few Americans founded appealing.

But, America successfully weathered that storm once, and the authors believe we can do it again.

If there were ever a historical moment whose lessons we as a nation need to learn, it is the moment when the first American Gilded Age (1870-1900) turned into the Progressive Era (1900-1915), a moment which set in motion a sea change that helped us reclaim our nation’s promise, and whose effects rippled into almost every corner of American life for over half a century.

Putnam and Romney Garrett hope that an awareness of the this moment may find the tools and inspirations needed today to create another American upswing – this time with an unwavering commitment to complete inclusion that will take us toward yet a higher summit, and a fuller and more sustainable realization of the promise of “we.”

Inspired and adapted from The Upswing: How American Came Together a Century Ago and How We Can Do It Again, by Robert D. Putnam and Shaylyn Romney Garrett


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