The Upswing- Are we finally nearing the bottom of a century -long historical cycle?
Updated: Feb 21, 2021
The Upswing: How America Came Together a Century Ago and How We Can Do It Again
Robert Putnam 2020
“All of history, a great wheel, turning inexorably. Just as seasons come and go, just as the moon moves endlessly through her cycle, so does time. The same wars are fought, the same plagues descend, the same folk, good or evil, rise to power. Humanity is trapped on that wheel, doomed endlessly to repeat the mistakes we have we have already made. Unless someone comes to change it.”
― Robin Hobb, Assassin's Quest
Looking back on history, we try to find patterns that can explain both the present and the future. Is history just a random procession of events, or is it a linear progression of progress both materially and socially? Alternatively, could history be a cyclical phenomenon, where trends ebb and flow for no particular reason? Robert Putnam believes that history falls into the cyclical model, and his book, Bowling Alone detailed how things had changed over a century's time. In his new book, Putnam theorizes that we are at a critical inflection point of the cycle, much like during the 1960's, and that important changes could start happening at a dizzying pace for the next decade.
While Bowling Alone was published in 2000, The Upswing came out 20 years later, detailing the same predictable phenomenon that he calls the I-we-I curve. That curve, which you can see on the book cover above, details the transition society made from roughly the years 1890 to 2020. Using relentless data collection, Putnam shows how as a society we have transitioned from an "I" period of the gilded age where individualism reigned supreme and robber barons called all the shots, to a "we" period during the middle of the 20th century when unions, community organizations, and the welfare state reached their peaks, and back to an "I" period in the Libertarian 21st century where individualism reigns again, and government is looked upon with suspicion.
Some may think that we've made some progress as a society since the 21st century began, but watching the promise of the Obama years devolve into stalemate and then retrenchment of the Trump years, I have my doubts. Racism is apparently a thing again, environmental regulations are being relaxed, income inequality is as large as it was 130 years ago, and the social safety net that the Greatest Generation built is falling apart. Is this all because of conscious choices, human failings, or huge trends of human behavior that we are barely aware of? Why is it that whenever we make progress on something there seems to be a reactionary period of retrenchment that swings the pendulum the other way?
Putnam looks at trends in economics, politics, and social cohesion over the period of his curve to paint a convincing period that this cycle drove much of history during that time. The key period seems to be the 1960's, when everything peaked and then started a steady, long-term drop. Tax rates peaked in the 1950's as society looked to big government to win wars, build highways, and establish a safety net- and since then it's been a steady drop in both tax rates and government effectiveness. (Plus a huge rise in deficit spending) Real minimum wages, labor union membership, financial regulations, public colleges, and income equality all peaked around 1960 and started a steady drop all the way to today.
Social capital, which Putnam defines as the aggregate level of social organizations, also peaked in the 60's, leading to a much lonelier and more individualistic society from the "Me" decade of the 70's and beyond. Bowling leagues declined, as did civic organizations like the Rotary, Optimists, Knights of Columbus, and others, and people of all ages dropped out of groups and did more things alone or with their families. Families are smaller and less cohesive, churches have been losing members, and charitable giving has dropped over the past 50 years as a consequence of this trend away from community and towards individuals.
In a simple poll that asked people "Do you agree that people can be trusted?" a depressing trend sees the answer to that question go from 80% yes in 1960 to 32% yes in 2018. We don't trust each other anymore, and that includes the media, government, scientists, and our neighbors- which explains the rise of conspiracy theories today.
Putnam devotes two chapters to the questions of racial relations and sex discrimination during the I-we-I period, and observes that while women have made steady progress even during the downswing period, minorities have plateaued in power and influence after making remarkable progress during the 1960's. The election of Barack Obama may have seen like progress to many, but the protests of 2020 showed that if anything, racial animosities and problems are just as bad if not worse than they were 50 years ago.
We know that the 1960's were a big pivot point for history, but we don't know exactly why. Putnam devoted many pages in his last book trying to pin the blame on something, and the biggest factor that I can recall was television, technology, and the internet. Television especially made it easier to stay home and not reach out to others, as it took the place of public meetings and family dinners. The advent of addictive cell phones, video games, and social media sites makes it even easier to stay in a comfortable, lonely bubble today.
Both of Putnam's books can be a depressing read on what we've lost in the past 50 years, and the few gains we've made as a society, like the Affordable Care Act, have come with great difficulty, resistance, and push-back. I was truly hoping for a hopeful last chapter that shows how great things will be in the 1920's, but instead, Putnam takes us back to the 1920's when progressive reformers like Frances Perkins, Ida Wells, Upton Sinclair, and Teddy Roosevelt started the ball rolling for the last big upswing. What these reformers accomplished during a period that is little discussed today obviously set the stage for much bigger reforms in the 30's, 40's, 50's and 60's. There's not a lot of recent history to make me feel too hopeful that things will change anytime soon.
It would be nice to think that there's a big pendulum that's about to swing towards the causes of community and love of one's neighbor, and maybe there is. Facing certain economic problems, pending environmental disasters, and a society addicted to drugs and technology, it feels like now would be a good time for us to come back together like the Greatest Generation managed to do. Selfishness and greed are not what we need right now, and perhaps people will realize that before it gets too late. Today's problems are too hard to face alone, and even the healthiest and wealthiest among us are not safe from the dangers that lie ahead.
As 2021 dawns, it feels like the Trump era was about as low as we could get. (Gosh I sure hope so, but maybe not). Reality itself is up for grabs, and pathological, narcissistic, greedy liars are apparently running things. The changes that need to happen are most likely to occur at the grass roots, as community organizations begin to grow again, and the end of a pandemic might be just the impetus we need to want to help each other again. Hopefully as we discover that our neighbors, no matter their race, religion, or gender, are actually decent human beings who have something to offer, we'll start back on the path to trusting each other again. At least for another 50 years, when the pendulum may begin its swing yet again.
The debate between individualism and collectivism is one that is ongoing and extremely consequential. Societies that drift too far to either side become miserable, and the sweet spot of the middle keeps shifting. The United States has always been a bulwark of individualism, given its fortunate position where the American Dream allowed many to fan out over a continent and build their own future. Asian countries like China and Japan are the opposite- highly populous countries where collective action is dominant and individualism is hard to express. For America, our peak of collectivism in the 50's and 60's pales in comparison to other developed countries in Europe that created much more powerful welfare states. The debate goes on, and sometimes over trivial distinctions. Individuals need to be free to create some kind of destiny that they can call their own, but societies have to impose guideposts of some kind on individuals to take advantage of humanity's greatest superpower- its ability to communicate, innovate, and collaborate. Nothing of any value comes from just one person, though at many points it is key individuals that move things along.
We are at a peak of individualism in America and government is a shell of its former self. We point to the current ineffectual nature of government as proof that it's always useless, forgetting that our institutions are as good as we make them to be. Hopefully in the coming decade the upswing will create some real benefits as communities collaborate instead of argue, and problems finally start getting solved.