Autumn Miller is a senior studying History and Politics & International Relations

(This post is the next in Readings in Reconciliation.  Click to learn more about the segment and the series, From the Field.)

Robert Putnam, of the Bowling Alone fame brings his wisdom once again to the current discussion on the polarized political climate that the United States finds itself. Putnam looks to analyze political, economic, social, and cultural trends from the Gilded Age that led to the “I” era of American history. After a while the pendulum that Putnam describes swings to the “we” communitarian side, in which Americans took care of their neighbors and cared about individuals outside of themselves. Both times in American history are self-identified by Putnam in hopes to draw a parallel between the Gilded Age and today. The idea is to see what citizens did in an earlier time to come together as a community that could be applied to today (7-9). Matters of politics and society are not solved simply by identifying the problems but finding the balance between communitarian and individualism.

While Putnam was a favorite for a long time, he does his best work in shorter prose. Putnam wrote a lot of words and identified problems, but never supplied a solution to these problems. This takeaway also shows that history is not a single, coherent story that is mutable to whatever narrative someone wants to tell. Putnam acknowledges that he simplifies history for the sake of his argument, but the problem arises when he does so. “Any simplified history of a social institution as complicated as the family in a variegated nation over a turbulent century will miss many important subtleties,” (146). Robert Putnam is not a historian, nor does he claim to be such, however this becomes clear with a quick dismissal of the small nuances in history.  For this reason, Putnam cannot produce valid solutions because his historical analysis fails immensely.

Though it may be nitpicky, small insignificant details that are thrown throughout the work created a false narrative. One of such includes the Founding Fathers and what they may have or may not have foreseen when creating the government. “The Founding Fathers famous failed to anticipate the rise of political parties in their new republic…” (69). This kind of message to an uninformed audience, to which have access to this book, will further deepen the hatred of the two political parties and cause more polarization. They could be led to believe that the Founding Fathers were not able to see what could be coming down the road for the new nation. This assertion is simply not true; a deeper dive into the Federalist Papers besides the one Putnam decided to crack open, would prove that they had thought of that, so the system was created to prevent large parties from gaining control. (See, for example, Federalist #10.) Now we know from hindsight, that the system they had thought was perfect against preventing this event failed. That blame could not be set on the Founding Fathers for the corruption of the system years after their generation had gone. Putnam also provides no solutions to the problems that he identifies, other than, “It was, instead, the result of countless citizens engaging in their own sphere of influence and coming together to create a vast ferment of criticism and change – a genuine shift from “I” to “we” (338). The idea of citizens engaging in their own spheres of influence is not a new idea and considering the general lack of political efficacy displayed by United States citizens, it is a lackluster solution.

The only genuine thing that could be agreed on is that there should be a balance between the “I” and the “we” because going too far in either direction can lead to disaster. Putnam does not see either of these ideas as competing, but ideals that can coincide with one another (339). The idea that equality and freedom, “I” v. “we”, is when there is one without the other, when the United States has come to be the balance of both. It would make sense that freedom is the equality of others living together. Putnam agrees in this thinking that whatever the solution is to solve these polarizing issues, there should be a balance between “I” and “we” (141). However, there is no solution for this balance suggested, not even the beginnings of one. If someone who researches in this space cannot produce one for a book, how can politicians and the common people possibly come up with a solution.

The last chapter supplies the only real substance of value from Putnam, while the main parts of the book involved extraordinarily little besides throwing numbers around to somewhat quantify the vague points he was making. While it was interesting to see the change in thought from “I” to “we”, it was frustrating that Putnam would author a book with all the quantifying data. Then at the very end, supply no solution other than working in our own spheres of influence. That solution helps no one.


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