Deep and accelerating inequality; unprecedented political polarization; vitriolic public discourse; a fraying social fabric; public and private narcissism—Americans today seem to agree on only one thing: This is the worst of times.
But we’ve been here before. During the Gilded Age of the late 1800s, America was highly individualistic, starkly unequal, fiercely polarized, and deeply fragmented, just as it is today. However as the twentieth century opened, America became—slowly, unevenly, but steadily—more egalitarian, more cooperative, more generous; a society on the upswing, more focused on our responsibilities to one another and less focused on our narrower self-interest. Sometime during the 1960s, however, these trends reversed, leaving us in today’s disarray.
In a sweeping overview of more than a century of history, drawing on his inimitable combination of statistical analysis and storytelling, Robert Putnam analyzes a remarkable confluence of trends that brought us from an “I” society to a “We” society and then back again. He draws inspiring lessons for our time from an earlier era, when a dedicated group of reformers righted the ship, putting us on a path to becoming a society once again based on community. Engaging, revelatory, and timely, this is Putnam’s most ambitious work yet, a fitting capstone to a brilliant career.
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About the Author
Robert D. Putnam is the Malkin Research Professor of Public Policy at Harvard University and a former Dean of the John F. Kennedy School of Government. Nationally honored as a leading humanist and a renowned scientist, he has written fourteen books, including the bestselling Our Kids and Bowling Alone, and has consulted for the last four U.S. Presidents. In 2012, President Obama awarded him the National Humanities Medal, the nation’s highest honor for contributions to the humanities. His research program, the Saguaro Seminar, is dedicated to fostering civic engagement in America. Visit RobertDPutnam.com.
Read an Excerpt
Chapter 1: What’s Past Is Prologue
“… what’s past is prologue, what to come, in yours and my discharge.”
—William Shakespeare, The Tempest
In the early 1830s a French aristocrat named Alexis de Tocqueville traveled to America at the behest of his government, with a mission to better understand the American prison system. At the time the United States was a fledgling democracy, barely half a century old, and many nations looked to it as a bold experiment. It was an open question as to whether securing liberty and equality by means of a constitution and a participatory government would, or could, succeed.
Tocqueville traveled widely in the newly formed nation, taking detailed notes filled with observations and insights that only an outsider’s perspective could yield. He reflected on almost every aspect of American public life, speaking to countless citizens, observing daily interactions, and examining the various communities and institutions that made up the new nation. Above all, he noted a fierce commitment to personal liberty among the descendants of rugged pioneers who had fought so hard for it. But he also observed the coming together of people for mutual purposes, in both the public and private spheres, and found that a multiplicity of associations formed a kind of check on unbridled individualism. Keenly aware of the dangers of individualism (a term he coined), Tocqueville was inspired by what he saw in America: Its citizens were profoundly protective of their independence, but through associating widely and deeply, they were able to overcome selfish desires, engage in collective problem solving, and work together to build a vibrant and—by comparison to Europe at that time—surprisingly egalitarian society by pursuing what he called “self-interest, rightly understood.”1
Though far from perfect in its execution—indeed, this was an America built upon the genocide of Native Americans, the enslavement of African Americans, and the disenfranchisement of women, and Tocqueville was well aware of the evils of slavery—what Tocqueville saw in our nation’s democracy was an attempt to achieve balance between the twin ideals of freedom and equality; between respect for the individual and concern for the community. He saw independent individuals coming together in defense of mutual liberty, in pursuit of shared prosperity, and in support of the public institutions and cultural norms that protected them. Though there were blind spots still to be addressed, and dangers lurking in some of its flaws and features, democracy in America, Tocqueville felt, was alive and well.2
Were Alexis de Tocqueville to travel to America once again—further on in our national story—what might he find? Would America fulfill its promise of balancing individual liberty with the common good? Would equality of opportunity be realized, and indeed produce prosperity for all? And would shared cultural values, respect for democratic institutions, and a vibrant associational life be the promised antidotes to tyranny? Let’s look at an end-of-century balance sheet.
On the broad question of prosperity, things could hardly be better. Huge advances in communication, transportation, and standards of living have brought to almost all Americans a degree of material well-being unmatched in our history. Increasing educational opportunities have made strides toward leveling the social and economic playing field. A wide variety of goods priced for mass consumption as well as innovative new forms of entertainment—all made available in increasingly convenient ways—have improved the daily lives of nearly everyone. On the whole, Americans enjoy a degree of educational opportunity, abundance, and personal freedom of which previous generations only dreamed, a fact which might prompt an observer to paint a rosy picture of this America: widespread progress and prosperity driven by education, technological innovation, and sustained economic growth.
And yet this prosperity has come at a cost. While industries spawned by technological advance have allowed huge corporations to produce unparalleled profits, very little of this wealth has trickled down. The poor may be better off in real terms than their predecessors, but the benefits of economic growth have remained highly concentrated at the top. Extremes of wealth and poverty are everywhere on display.
Class segregation in the form of an entrenched elite and a marooned underclass is often a crippling physical, social, and psychological reality for those striving to get ahead. Young people and new immigrants enter the labor force filled with the hope that the American Dream can be theirs through persistence and hard work. But they often become disillusioned to find how great their competitive disadvantage is, and how difficult it is to make the leap to where the other half lives. American idealism increasingly gives way to cynicism about a rigged system.
But the departure from our past is visible not only in rising inequality and resultant pessimism—it is also apparent in the institutions that increasingly define our nation. Corporate conglomerates are replacing local and craft economies in almost every sector, including agriculture. America’s rugged individuals struggle against the loss of identity, autonomy, and mastery as they are subsumed into the anonymous labor of hyper-consolidated corporate machines and forced to pool meager wages to make ends meet. Corporate monopolies have hoarded profits and gained unrivaled economic influence through a wave of mergers. Because of corporations’ outsized power, workers’ leverage has eroded, and capitalists cite their responsibility to shareholders and market forces as justification for keeping pay low. Corporations search at home and abroad for ever-more-vulnerable populations to employ at ever-lower wages.
In important ways, life is much improved at the bottom of American society, which makes some commentators optimistic that things will only get better. But these gains have come mostly at the price of long hours in insecure low-wage work. Slavery has been abolished, of course, but the still ruthless reality of structural inequality condemns many people of color to a life of intergenerational poverty, and in some ways the situation of black Americans is actually worsening. And women still struggle to participate equally in a society that manifestly favors male wage earners. The economic well-being of the middle class is eroding, and soaring private debt has become a common buttress to lagging incomes.
The economic power of corporations has in turn become political power. While profits mount, so, too, does corporations’ creativity in evading financial and ethical responsibility to the public systems that allow them to flourish. Commercial giants successfully fend off feeble efforts to regulate them by buying off politicians and parties. Politicians collect exorbitant amounts of money from wealthy donors which they use to win elections, creating a dangerous mutuality between wealth and power. Interest groups also relentlessly pressure elected officials both to prop up corporate agendas and, paradoxically, to get out of the way of the free market. Thus, huge swaths of an increasingly interdependent economy go largely unregulated, and the system as a whole occasionally careens out of control. But the stratospherically wealthy remain insulated, even though their reckless actions often contribute to the crashes.
Inadequate regulation further fuels an irresponsible use of America’s vast natural resources. The nation’s GDP soars, but wildlife is disappearing at a dismaying rate, fuel sources and raw materials are exploited indiscriminately, and effluence threatens lives. And while large portions of the country have been set aside as public lands, their fate is vehemently debated, as business interests pressure the government to open protected areas for mining, grazing, and fuel extraction—citing the need for natural resources to feed a voracious economy. The rights and cultures of the native peoples who inhabit and hold those lands sacred are pushed aside in favor of business interests. Furthermore, contaminated products—including food—are sold without regard to the health or safety of consumers. The corporate mentality of the age seems to be focused solely on gaining economic advantage no matter the consequences.
Books and newspapers of the day are filled with reports of scandal in both the personal and professional lives of society’s leaders, as journalists work to reveal the rotten core of an America run amok. Politicians are regularly exposed for corruption—trading in power and patronage and taking advantage of their positions in increasingly creative ways. Sex scandals are also common among the elite, and even prominent religious leaders are not immune. Crime and moral decay are the ubiquitous subjects of popular entertainment, contrasting indulgence at the top and indigence at the bottom.
As an after-the-fact attempt at carrying out their civic duty, many of America’s wealthiest donate large sums of money to various philanthropic causes. This largesse erects buildings, founds institutions, and shores up cultural infrastructure, but usually in exchange for the donor’s name being immortalized upon a facade. Industry leaders are often idolized for rising from humble backgrounds by employing the “true grit” of entrepreneurship and become social and cultural icons despite morally questionable actions. The message to ordinary Americans is that anyone can go from rags to riches if they are willing to do whatever it takes.
Indeed, many of the corporate titans who dominate the American imagination live by an ideology of individualism that barely masks selfishness and an air of superiority. A philosophy of supreme self-reliance is common, and the pursuit of unfettered self-interest is considered a laudable ethic to live by. The idea that one must do what is best for oneself at every turn—and that only those willing to live by this code deserve to prevail in the economy—has been translated into a subtle but powerful cultural narrative about the unimpeachable fairness of the market and the undeservingness of the poor. Redistributive programs are often criticized as wasteful and an irresponsible use of resources. But lavish displays of luxury, flamboyant parties, global travel, and opulent mansions are the social currency of the elite—all propped up by a growing underclass of largely immigrant laborers.
A drift toward self-centeredness in private life is matched in the public square. In politics, an overfocus on the promotion of one’s own interests at the expense of others’ has created an environment of relentless zero-sum competition and a repeated failure of compromise. Public debates are characterized not by deliberation on differing ideas, but by demonization of those on the opposing side. Party platforms move toward the extremes. And those in power seek to consolidate their influence by disenfranchising voters unsupportive of their views. The result is a nation more and more fragmented along economic, ideological, racial, and ethnic lines, and more and more dominated by leaders who prove shrewdest at the game of divide and conquer. The inevitable result is political gridlock and a hobbled public sector. Decaying infrastructure, inadequate basic services, and outmoded public programs are a national embarrassment. Citizens rightly despair of elected officials ever being able to accomplish anything at all.
This climate has also created a pervasive disillusionment with the nation’s political parties. Neither seems capable of addressing America’s problems, and many voters are turning to third parties for better options. Libertarian leanings are common while, at the other pole, socialism gains adherents. And a rising tide of populism has captured the enthusiasm of many, especially those in rural areas. America’s democratic institutions strain under the burden of polarization.
In addition to this economic and political malaise, social and cultural discontent are also rising. In an America transformed by the rapid forward march of technology, new forms of communication and transportation have disconnected and reconnected people in countless ways, rearranging identities, beliefs, and value systems. Some optimistically tout the breaking of barriers and narrowing of distances between people, while many others experience loneliness, isolation, and atomization as traditional social structures give way.
The increasingly global information age is inundating people with news from every corner of the earth, and this explosion of information threatens to overwhelm the individual trying to make sense of it all. New ideas in science, philosophy, and religion upend traditional touchstones at an astonishing pace. And a culture dominated by commerce and consumption has made advertising a ubiquitous—and often lamentable—part of daily life in America. Even the reliability of the free press, that critical component of any democratic system, has become questionable, as a drive for profit overpowers a responsibility to the truth.
A fevered pace of life is often blamed for widespread stress and anxiety. Demand for stimulants of all kinds is on the rise as Americans hurry to keep up and strive to get ahead. The growing demand for productivity at all costs is claiming the physical health and emotional well-being of many individuals and families. The combined effect of these powerful technological, economic, political, and social forces is a sort of dizzying vertigo—a pervasive sense that the average person has less and less control over the forces shaping his or her individual life. Anxiety is mounting among the young, who face unprecedented challenges, and appear likely to live shorter, less rewarding lives than their parents did. This nation seems no longer recognizable or intelligible to those brought up in an earlier age, turning many older Americans toward nostalgia for a bygone era.
Some Americans have reacted to these many forms of dislocation by turning on their perceived adversaries in an increasingly cutthroat social and economic contest. Racism and gender discrimination persist and are even intensified. Indeed, the progress toward racial equality achieved in an earlier era has in many ways reversed. White supremacist violence is on the rise—often encouraged, rather than prevented, by white authorities. Tensions flare continually and conflict often turns bloody, while trust in law enforcement deteriorates with each successive clash. Massive new waves of immigrants—bringing to America ideas and religious beliefs thought to be strange and threatening—are met with hate and violence. Nativism is common and considered by many to be culturally acceptable and even patriotic. Support for restricting, and even halting, immigration from certain countries and from groups with alien political or religious views is growing. The number of immigrants entering the country illegally soars. Meanwhile, ideologically motivated terrorists ignite a backlash against all immigrants, including crackdowns by law enforcement, nationwide raids sponsored by the attorney general, and threats to civil liberties. In greater numbers than ever before, Americans seem to have stopped believing that we are all in this together.
Almost as often as we are turning on one another, Americans are responding to uncertainty and insecurity by turning to self-destructive behaviors and beliefs. Substance abuse is rampant—taking a tragic toll on family formation and claiming many lives. Materialism, too, holds out an empty promise of relief. Also attractive is a descent into cynicism and spectatorship or the adoption of an apocalyptic worldview: the American experiment has failed, and the best we can hope for is to start from scratch once it all comes apart. Whether the response is lashing out, turning inward, tuning out, or giving up, Americans are becoming increasingly paralyzed by disagreement, disillusionment, and despair. Indeed, many Americans seem to agree these days on only one thing: This is the worst of times.
Worried observers—as Tocqueville certainly would be—use words like “oligarchy,” “plutocracy,” and even “tyranny” to warn of the subtle reemergence of overlapping economic and political power structures that America’s founding was supposed to have banished. Still others lament that the country is on the wrong track morally and culturally. Does democracy in America, they wonder, stand on the verge of ruin?
Though it would appear so in every way, the nation of which we have just written is not today’s America. The foregoing balance sheet is actually a historically accurate portrait of this country in another era, at the opening of the twentieth century, just fifty years after Tocqueville wrote his stirring depiction of a thriving democracy.
The United States in the 1870s, 1880s, and 1890s was startlingly similar to today.3 Inequality, political polarization, social dislocation, and cultural narcissism prevailed—all accompanied, as they are now, by unprecedented technological advances, prosperity, and material well-being. The parallels are indeed so striking that the foregoing description could have been written virtually word-for-word about our nation today. Looking back to a time Mark Twain disparagingly called the Gilded Age turns out to feel eerily like looking in the mirror.
Of course, other commentators have already spotted this troubling similarity. They have rightly warned that without a change in course, Americans today will have been guilty of allowing an ugly chapter in our history to repeat itself. But this comparison—remarkably apt as it is—inevitably begs the question of what actually came to pass the last time our nation found itself in such a troubling state of affairs. Clearly, the doomsday prophecies and despairing anxieties of the late 1800s were never fulfilled—the fear that the American project was headed irretrievably off the rails proved unfounded. So how did we get from the last American Gilded Age to our current predicament? What happened in the intervening century?
This book is an attempt to answer these questions. As such, it is neither a detailed assessment of our current troubles, nor an exhaustive portrait of the turn of the last century. Rather, we seek to provide a more sweeping historical perspective, aided by a vast array of newly compiled statistical evidence. This evidence provides a fresh and striking data-based portrait of the past 125 years of our nation’s history, which is summarized in Figure 1.1.
The trends illustrated below represent a compendium of scores of different measures of century-long phenomena in four key areas: economics, politics, society, and culture. (The underlying numbers that comprise these four curves will be explored in the next four chapters.) As we looked closely at each of these facets of American life, we asked the basic question of whether things have been improving or deteriorating since the turn of the twentieth century. In other words, over the past 125 years, since the last Gilded Age, has America been moving toward
When charting the answers to these questions side by side, we found an unmistakable—even breathtaking—pattern. In each unique case, the trend line looks like an inverted U, starting its long upward climb at roughly the same moment, and then reversing to a downward descent within a remarkably similar time frame.4
FIGURE 1.1: ECONOMIC, POLITICAL, SOCIAL, AND CULTURAL TRENDS, 1895–2015
Source: See endnote 1.4. Data LOESS smoothed: .2.
A great variety of measures shows that on the heels of the first American Gilded Age came more than six decades of imperfect but steady upward progress toward greater economic equality, more cooperation in the public square, a stronger social fabric, and a growing culture of solidarity. Throughout the first two thirds of the twentieth century we actually narrowed the economic chasm born in the Gilded Age, making progress not only during the Great Depression and World War II, but for decades both before and after. In that same period we gradually overcame extreme political polarization and learned to collaborate across party lines. We also steadily wove an ever-stronger network of community and family ties. And our culture became more focused on our responsibilities to one another and less focused on our narrower self-interest. In short, America experienced a dramatic, multifaceted, and unmistakable upswing.
During these decades Americans became—perhaps more than ever before—focused on what we could accomplish together. And this sense of shared responsibility and collective progress was not simply some victory lap after overcoming the Great Depression and defeating the Axis powers, as many have suggested. As this chart makes clear, and as the data we shall present in the forthcoming chapters prove, it was, in fact, the culmination of trends plainly discernible across the previous half century.
By the time we arrived at the middle of the twentieth century, the Gilded Age was a distant memory. America had been transformed into a more egalitarian, cooperative, cohesive, and altruistic nation. At this mid-century moment our still segregated and still chauvinist society was far from perfect, as we shall discuss in detail in later chapters, but as the 1960s opened we were increasingly attentive to our imperfections, especially in racial and gender terms. Our new president described us as poised to tackle our challenges together. “Ask not what your country can do for you,” he said, “ask what you can do for your country.” To Americans at that stage in our history, Kennedy’s argument that collective well-being was even more important than individual well-being was hardly countercultural. Though the rhetoric was powerful, to his contemporaries he was stating the obvious.
Over the first six decades of the twentieth century America had become demonstrably—indeed measurably—a more “we” society.
But then, as the foregoing graph indicates, and as those who lived through that period know too well, in the mid-1960s the decades-long upswing in our shared economic, political, social, and cultural life abruptly reversed direction. America suddenly found itself in the midst of a clear downturn. Between the mid-1960s and today—by scores of hard measures along multiple dimensions—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. As the 1960s moved into the 1970s, 1980s, and beyond, we re-created the socioeconomic chasm of the last Gilded Age at an accelerated pace. In that same period we replaced cooperation with political polarization. We allowed our community and family ties to unravel to a marked extent. And our culture became far more focused on individualism and less interested in the common good. Since the 1950s we have made important progress in expanding individual rights (often building on progress made in the preceding decades), but we have sharply regressed in terms of shared prosperity and community values.
JFK had foreshadowed the transformation that was to come, because his idealistic rhetoric was, in retrospect, proclaimed from a summit to which we had painstakingly climbed, but were about to tumble right back down. And though that summit was certainly not nearly as high as America could hope to climb toward equality and inclusion, it was closer than we had yet come to enacting the Founders’ vision of “one nation… with liberty and justice for all.” Thus, Kennedy’s call to put shared interest above self-interest may have sounded at the time like reveille for an era that was opening—a new frontier of even greater shared victories—but with the perspective of the full century, we can now see that instead he was unwittingly sounding taps for an era that was about to close.
Over the past five decades America has become demonstrably—indeed measurably—a more “I” society.
Generally speaking, each of the trends we uncovered is recognized in the relevant scholarly literature, although they have largely been examined separately. Rarely have scholars recognized the striking concurrence of a multiplicity of factors that followed the same curvilinear course in the twentieth century.5 Furthermore, examinations of these trends have most often focused exclusively on the second half of the curve—America’s downturn—ignoring the equally notable first half—America’s upswing. By contrast, our study aims to achieve a broad analysis of many different variables over a much longer period of time in order to expose the deeper structural and cultural tendencies that have roots in the opening decades of the twentieth century and that have culminated in today’s multifaceted national crisis.
By using advanced methods of data analysis to combine our four key metrics into a unified statistical story, we have been able to discern a single core phenomenon—one inverted U-curve that provides a scientifically validated summary of the past 125 years in America’s story. This meta-trend, represented in Figure 1.2, is a phenomenon we have come to call the “I-we-I” curve: a gradual climb into greater interdependence and cooperation, followed by a steep descent into greater independence and egoism. It has been reflected in our experience of equality, our expression of democracy, our stock of social capital, our cultural identity, and our shared understanding of what this nation is all about.
FIGURE 1.2: COMMUNITY VS. INDIVIDUALISM IN AMERICA, 1890–2017
Source: See endnote 1.4. Data LOESS smoothed: .1.
In each of the next four chapters of this book we will consider a single core trend: economics, politics, society, and culture, and reflect upon how its unfolding has contributed to our nation’s upswing toward a “we” ethos and subsequent downturn toward an “I” ethos. As we zero in on each inverted U-curve, we will take a deep dive into the myriad underlying statistical measures that comprise the overarching trend but, equally important, we explore its historical context—the unique confluence of circumstances, forces, and factors that likely contributed to its formation. As a result, in the historical narratives throughout this book we will revisit certain characters and events several different times as we view the century’s unfolding through our four basic analytical lenses—economics, politics, society, and culture.
Two additional analytical perspectives that we will apply to this time period, devoting a separate chapter to each, are race and gender. Indeed, no discussion of “I” and “we” in the twentieth century could be complete without asking the question of how these trends were or were not reflected in the experience of traditionally excluded groups. However, because our analysis necessarily relies upon data sets that span 100+ years of history, we spend far less time in this book discussing the experience of Latinos, Asian Americans, Native Americans, and other peoples of color than we do African Americans. This is certainly not because these groups and their unique stories are unimportant, but because the statistical sources on which this book relies do not consistently single out other peoples of color alongside African Americans until late in the twentieth century, making it nearly impossible to discern long-term trends in a rigorous way. Our discussion of race is therefore focused on African Americans, and our mention of other racial and ethnic minorities is limited.
While aggregate measures of economic inequality, political polarization, social fragmentation, and cultural narcissism all follow a strikingly similar inverted U-curve over the course of our 125-year period, the story is far more complex when it comes to measures of racial and gender equality. Because African Americans, women, and many others had to fight to achieve even basic forms of equality and inclusion during the first two thirds of the twentieth century, it might be fair to assume that any supposed “we” America was moving toward in this period was inherently racist and sexist. Indeed, it is imperative for this study to consider the very real possibility that the “we” taking shape at this time was a fundamentally white, male “we.”
The broad-strokes histories of both race and gender in twentieth-century America are often characterized not as an inverted U-curve, but as something resembling a hockey stick. In other words, widespread intolerance, inequality, and oppression are often thought to have been the unchanged norm for blacks and women until the watershed changes of the mid-Sixties Civil Rights and feminist revolutions led to improvements at an unprecedented pace. However, this cartoon history is in important respects misleading. A close reading of the data, which we will present in later chapters, indicates that a surprising number of gains in both racial and gender equality happened well before 1970—and in fact constituted a long period of progress that corresponds to the story told by the variables charted above. It seems that as America’s sense of “we” was expanding over the first two thirds of the century, blacks and women actually benefited as racial and gender disparities in education, income, health, and voting gradually narrowed. We will therefore argue that the rights revolutions of the 1960s and 1970s must be seen not as a bolt from the blue, but rather as the culmination of more than four decades of progress. This progress was most often made in persistently segregated spheres, was (in the case of race) driven largely by black Americans themselves rather than by institutional change, and was certainly far from sufficient, but it is nevertheless a vitally important part of the history of equality and inclusion in the twentieth century.
Furthermore, our examination of race in twentieth-century America will show that the decades after 1970—the period Americans often believe brought about the greatest gains in racial equality—actually represented a marked slowdown of progress for black Americans. (The story of gender equality is somewhat different, as we shall explain in detail in Chapter 7.) This period of deceleration is as surprising as it is clear, but also corresponds to the story told by the curves charted above. It seems that as America took a more individualistic and narcissistic turn after 1970, we simultaneously took our “foot off the gas” in pushing toward true racial equality. This surprising and even counterintuitive story, which focuses not on absolute levels of racial equality, but the rate of change over time, challenges some popularly accepted ideas about the history of race relations in this nation. Thus, when it comes to racial equality the shape of the curves looks different, but the phenomenon underlying the data turns out to be a subtle and unexpected confirmation of the story of America’s I-we-I century. We will lay out this case in detail in Chapters 6 and 7, which is why the preceding chapters will address questions of race and gender only lightly.
And yet, despite the real and often underemphasized progress African Americans and women were making early in the century, our analysis also reveals the undeniable ways in which the mid-century “we” was nonetheless highly racialized and gendered, and just how far short of the goal we were, even at a time when America’s comity and cohesion were at an unprecedented high. It is thus critical to avoid nostalgia about the 1950s as some sort of “golden age” in America’s quest for an egalitarian society—exactly because of the experience of people of color, women, and other embattled groups. Indeed, we will see clear evidence of the fact that America’s failure to create a fully inclusive, fully egalitarian “we” over the first two thirds of the century played a critical role in the nation’s larger turn toward “I.” Why this is and what it could mean for the challenges we face today will be one of the more thought-provoking questions this book will take on. And it may turn out to be a key that unlocks a greater understanding of why today—half a century after the Civil Rights and women’s revolutions—we find ourselves in a society still deeply divided along racial and ethnic lines and still struggling to define and achieve gender equality.
Our ongoing failure to achieve racial and gender equality and inclusion is a deeply troubling aspect of our national life—indeed one that violates foundational principles of the American project. However, it is far from the only problem our country now faces. In politics we’re fighting in exceptionally angry ways; in economics the gap between rich and poor is tremendous in virtually all aspects of life; in social life we are often lonely, disconnected, and despairing; and our “selfie” culture continually reveals itself to be blindly narcissistic. Today we find ourselves living in an extremely polarized, extremely unequal, extremely fragmented, and extremely self-centered nation, a fact of which we are all painfully aware. For nearly fifty years, across party lines and with only a few short interruptions, most Americans—by a two to one margin or more over the last decade—have said that our country “is on the wrong track.”6 A recent study by the Pew Research Center revealed that Americans are “broadly pessimistic” about the future, with clear majorities predicting that the gap between rich and poor will widen, that the country will become yet more divided politically, and that the US will decrease in importance on the world stage over the next thirty years.7 The American Psychological Association reports that “the future of our nation” is a bigger source of stress among average Americans than even their own finances or work.8
How did we get here? Until we can answer that question, we shall be condemned to plunge further down an ever-darkening path.
The 1960s represented an extraordinarily important hinge point in the history of the twentieth century—a moment of inflection that changed the course of the nation. But, as this book will argue, accurately answering the question of how we got here is only possible when viewing the Sixties as a second inflection, not a first. The coming apart set in motion in the mid-1960s, though deeply salient to those who lived through it, was a phenomenon whose effects were largely equal and opposite to what had happened as the century opened. Only when our lens zooms out far enough to consider both of these hinge points together can we begin to get an accurate picture of how we have arrived at our current predicament—and how we might navigate our way out again. Indeed, our hope is that by presenting a new, evidence-based story spanning the past 125 years of our nation’s history we might begin to bridge the “OK Boomer”9 generational divide—and the many other lines of fracture facing our nation—in order to construct a shared vision for the future that we can all work toward together.
Rebecca Edwards, a historian of the Gilded Age, observed that “the lessons one draws from a period of history depend to a large degree on one’s choice of beginning and ending points.”10 This book will argue that the historical period from which we must take our instruction today doesn’t start in the 1960s. Looking back only that far has taken many commentators down the road of nostalgia—leaving them little more to do than lament some paradise lost and argue about whether and how we should re-create it. In other words, looking to the moment when an upswing culminated turns out not to be very instructive. Looking to the moment of its inception proves far more fruitful, especially when the context of that moment bears a striking resemblance to the context in which we find ourselves today. As represented in the subtitle of this book, our thesis is not that we should return nostalgically to some peak of American greatness, but that we should take inspiration and perhaps instruction from a period of despair much like our own, on the heels of which Americans successfully—and measurably—bent history in a more promising direction.
If, as Shakespeare wrote, “what’s past is prologue,” then what follows surely depends upon us gaining a right understanding of where we’ve been. The seldom remembered second half of the Shakespearean epigram—“what to come, in yours and my discharge”—reveals not a pessimistic statement of historical determinism, but rather a more realistic and even optimistic argument that the past merely sets the agenda for choice going forward. Coming to see our past more clearly serves to better prepare us to gain mastery over our future.
Let us begin, then, at the beginning.
This book will trace the roots of today’s problems to the last time these same problems threatened to engulf our democracy. It contains an evidence-based story about how we have arrived at our current predicament. We will examine how economic inequality, political polarization, social fragmentation, cultural narcissism, racism, and gender discrimination each evolved over the course of the last 125 years—not merely the last fifty. Doing so will unearth some unexpected twists and turns, and will challenge some settled truths among pundits and historians about the twentieth century—the “American Century.”
Rather than citing some recent event or offering a narrative of long-run decline, we will argue that the state of America today must be understood by first acknowledging that within living memory, each of the adverse trends we now see was going in the opposite direction. And we will show that, to a surprising degree, century-long trends in economics, politics, society, and culture are remarkably similar, such that it is possible to summarize all of them in a single 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 to “I.”
The Upswing is a history of the United States in the twentieth century, but it is avowedly a simplified history, and it leaves out much that is also important. But in so doing, it accentuates real trends that are highly relevant to our current set of challenges. This book is, therefore, an exercise in macrohistory, and as such it will be controversial among historians. Furthermore, writing contemporary history is always precarious, because our understanding of the past evolves as the future unfolds. Peaks, valleys, and inflection points take on new meaning in the light of each new decade. But we borrow our motto from Alfred North Whitehead: “Seek simplicity and distrust it.”11 Finally, this book is not primarily about causal analysis. It is about narratives. Narratives, as we use the term, are not merely entertaining tales, but events linked together in trends inter-braided by reciprocal causality. The strands of a narrative are inextricable, but still interpretable, and therefore instructive as we look to the future.
As Tocqueville rightly noted, in order for the American experiment to succeed, personal liberty must be fiercely protected, but also carefully balanced with a commitment to the common good. Individuals’ freedom to pursue their own interests holds great promise, but relentlessly exercising that freedom at the expense of others has the power to unravel the very foundations of the society that guarantees it. Looking back over the full arc of the twentieth century, we will see these ideas and their consequences borne out in vivid historical and statistical detail. And finally we will turn to the implications of our findings for reformers today. For the arc we describe is not an arc of historical inevitability, but an arc constructed by human agency, just as Shakespeare suggested.
Perhaps 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 found appealing. But we successfully weathered that storm once, and we can do it again. If ever there were a historical moment whose lessons we as a nation need to learn, then, it is the moment when the first American Gilded Age turned into the Progressive Era, 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.12 Understanding what set those trends in motion, then, becomes of critical importance. We will therefore close our book by examining the inflection that set the stage for the twentieth century’s communitarian climb, attempting to glean lessons from the story of those who, during the last American Gilded Age, refused to let go of the reins of history, and took deliberate action to reverse its course. In their story, more than in the story of those who lived through a supposed golden age, we may find the tools and inspiration we need today to create another American upswing—this time with an unwavering commitment to complete inclusion that will take us toward a yet higher summit, and a fuller and more sustainable realization of the promise of “we.”