Ellie Bohrer is a senior, studying Politics and International Relations

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

Is there such a thing as “we” in America, and has this idea shifted with time? Putnam attempts to answer this by charting out the curve “we” has taken over the course of the last 125 years, showing that from an economic, political, and societal perspective communitarianism was on the rise until the 1960s, when the curve leveled off and society began to decline towards individualism. As part of the generation that has never experienced a “we” society, this book helped me understand why older generations tend to refer to their upbringing as a time of greater national unity. The Upswing provides a detailed examination of whether America was ever truly unified, and not only what we lost in the downturn but what we can hope to gain as well.

One of Putnam’s biggest markers of a “we” society is a robust civic life, manifested by individuals joining local clubs and national organizations. He expands on this idea of engagement in Chapter 4, where he notes that America has been a nation dominated by clubs since its founding (112). This trend continued to rise through the 1920s, dominated at first by male fraternal organizations and then later by women’s suffrage groups and the Knights of Columbus and Prince Hall Freemasonry, clubs focused on African-Americans (116). Overall membership in clubs continued to rise until 1957 – and then began to dramatically fall. What was the cause of this decline? Putnam never offers up a singular explanation.

Instead, he dissects the problem through a multitude of lenses, each of which is accompanied by reasons for America’s downturn. Even with a single factor such as the decline in club membership, there are many possible explanations: large national organizations such as Greenpeace turned to the concept of “mail-order membership”, which led to a rise in numbers but seemingly a fall in the amount of active participation of its members (123). Another factor is advancements in technology. I appreciated the fact that Putnam does not ignore how technology has shaped many aspects of modern society but instead acknowledges that modern technology is an amplifier of trends that predate the invention of the computer; it simultaneously connects and isolates people (126). Those who may have turned to bowling on a Thursday night in 1950 now have a multitude of other options for entertainment – yet very few of these include actual interaction with their neighbors.

It is important to note that the communal associations of the previous upswing do not necessarily indicate a united society: bowling with neighbors may have promoted local engagement, but these neighbors were rarely from different races or socioeconomic backgrounds. Discrimination through the form of 1930s redlining policies would have been a physical obstacle to this type of neighborly engagement, and prejudices and stereotypes a social obstacle. Ethnic minorities were usually excluded from the idealistic version of a unified “we” that existed during the upswing. Reconciling these outliers to the overall curve is one of the biggest dilemmas of Putnam’s book, but he recognizes it and dedicates a special portion of the book to studying the difference experiences had by African-Americans. While he finds that there was an increase in education and overall income equality in a similar pattern to the rest of his data, he also acknowledges that these gains need to be taken in context with the rest of society’s increases (213). Although he does this for the case of women as well, I wish that he had included some other measures other than educational and economic equality (250, 258). He only briefly mentions women’s struggle in the political arena and leaves out some of the other inequalities that women face on a daily basis –  such as harassment, violent crimes, and domestic abuse – altogether.

Ultimately, Putnam leaves his reader to decide what exactly caused the downturn, but he does advocate for the idea of bringing the nation back (or forward) into a new upswing. He holds up the better potions of the Progressive era as an ideal to rally behind: the sense of community, dedication, and responsibility towards each other that defined that era creates a dramatic backdrop from which to examine our current place in history: at the bottom of the curve, in a downturn towards self-focused, fearful individualism (314). If history is a pendulum, then we can anticipate and hope for another upswing, but hopefully one that will include women, African-Americans, and the other marginalized members of American society so that there can truly be a sense of “we”.




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