Esteemed political scientist, Harvard University professor, and author Robert D. Putnam will be joined by his co-author Shaylyn Romney Garrett in a virtual discussion about their new book, The Upswing: How America Came Together a Century Ago and How We Can Do It Again (Simon and Schuster) on Tuesday, November 17, at 3 p.m. ET.
The conversation, hosted by the Business for a Better World Center and moderated by Maury Peiperl, dean of the School of Business at George Mason University, is free but registration is required. Mason president Gregory Washington will welcome the audience. The event is sponsored by the School of Business, the Schar School of Policy and Government, the Carter School, and the College of Humanities and Social Sciences.
We caught up with Garrett at her home in Utah to learn more about the book and the inspiration for writing it.
Q: What was behind the idea for what seems to be a dire message of heated societal division and a return to individualism?
Garrett: We hope that the message readers will take from this book is both a word of warning and an inspiration. It's true that if we don't take action on the problems we're seeing today that we are likely headed down an ever-darkening path. The long-run trends we highlight in the book make that perfectly clear. But what's also clear is that within living memory all of these trends were headed in the opposite direction. In short, we've been in a mess very similar to the one we're in today, but we managed to bring about an upswing then and we can do it again.
Q: After the cultural advances of the first half and a smattering of the second half of the 20th century, what happened to reverse the positive direction? Was there one incident or a culmination of events that caused such a serious “down swing”?
Garrett: There isn't one clear cause of the dramatic flip from being in an ever-increasing "we" mode to a distinct "I" mode across multiple variables in our society. But what is clear is that a remarkable confluence of seemingly unrelated trends turned dramatically within a few short years. It's a little bit like watching a flock of birds dancing in the wind: Suddenly, they all shift direction and it's virtually impossible to say which one turned first.
The same is true with the scores of variables that we examine in the book. That said, the ‘60s was a decade that began with a real optimism about what the "we" decades might make possible—including addressing what was certainly the greatest exception to the "we": systemic racism. And yet, just when the Civil Rights Acts began to do that, a clear White backlash rose up to block the measures that would make good on their promise.
It's hard to say whether backlash against racial realignment caused a broader societal turn toward self-centeredness, or vice-versa. And there were many other crises that contributed as well to this dramatic turning point, but race is certainly one of the most important.
Q: We’re having this conversation before the election on November 3. Despite whatever happens on that day, we have to ask: Is there any good news?
Garrett: The good news of this book comes not from looking at the moment in the ‘60s when America turned from "we" to "I," but rather from the last time America turned from "I" to "we," which was when the Gilded Age gave way to the Progressive Era.
The Gilded Age was a time breathtakingly similar to where we are today—extreme economic inequality, rampant discord and polarization, a tattered and fraying social fabric, and a culture marked by narcissism. But a determined group of reformers repudiated that downward drift and achieved a form of mastery over history—that set America on a totally different course toward clear and measurable unity and comity.
Of course, it was a highly racialized form of unity, which is a cautionary tale from this period that we must take on board if we hope to bring about another upswing. Still, if ever there was a historical moment whose lessons we need to learn it is the moment of our last upswing, 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.