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An eerily similar era gave way to social progress in the United States—will it happen again?

The Upswing: How America Came Together a Century Ago and How We Can Do It Again

Robert D. Putnam with Shaylyn Romney Garrett
Simon and Schuster
2020
480 pp.
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In the 1890s, a biracial coalition swept to power in North Carolina, infuriating white supremacists, who primed themselves for the next election. “You are Anglo-Saxons,” shouted former congressman Alfred Moore Waddell to white voters in Wilmington in 1898. “Go to the polls tomorrow, and if you find the Negro out voting, tell him to leave the polls and if he refuses, kill him.” Intimidation and violence defeated the coalition, and the day after the election, militiamen led white mobs through the city’s Black neighborhood, killing, burning, and looting. After the ethnic cleansing, Waddell declared himself mayor and, in doing so, managed something rare in U.S. history—a violent coup (1).

As Robert Putnam and Shaylyn Romney Garrett show in their remarkable new book, The Upswing, race relations were not the only phenomenon at low tide then. At the turn of the 20th century, the United States suffered from rampant inequality, vicious partisanship, a torn social fabric, and unabashed egoism. Individuals and corporations lunged ahead, the devil take the hindmost. But from that terrible epoch—eerily similar to today—something admirable sprang up and flourished: six decades of steady, albeit imperfect, social amelioration.

On every imaginable dimension, Putnam and Garrett find a rising communalism. Economic equality soared. Social networks flourished. Solidarity grew. Comity spread. The United States steadily became “a more egalitarian, cooperative, cohesive, and altruistic nation.” In the 1960s, however, the nation tumbled back toward a brash new Gilded Age, marked by ferocious inequality, bare-knuckle partisanship, social fragmentation, and a culture of narcissism. Putnam and Garrett sum up the three epochs as “I–We–I.”

Other social scientists have charted the same bell curve, but perhaps none have packed in so much data across so many dimensions: from income equality and economic mobility, to infant mortality, collaboration in Congress, church membership, social trust, and the list goes on. The authors even note how communally minded parents of the past opted for the familiar when they named their children (e.g., John and Mary) whereas today’s egoists insist on something that stands out (e.g., Jaden and Harper).

But what was it about the 1960s that cracked a sunny community and turned it back into a selfish, snarling, and segregated land? After much searching, the authors declare that “it is fruitless to look for a single cause.” Nonetheless, a powerful potential cause glints through, and the authors seem repeatedly tempted to settle on it.

At the height of the civil rights movement, George Wallace, a fiery segregationist, stunned everyone by riding a crude racial backlash to strong showings in the 1964 primaries. The Republican Party, led by Barry Goldwater (in 1964) and Richard Nixon (in 1968 and 1972), cashed in and began to wink at white privilege. Suddenly, the majority of white people stopped voting for Democrats (who averaged just 39% of the white vote in presidential contests between 1976 and 2016) (2).

Over the past 50 years, the backlash spread from civil rights to welfare policies (“we” do not want to pay for “them”) to immigration (another racialized “them”) and, eventually, to all government action, leading some citizens to question the very idea of good policy, science, and expertise. By the 1990s, the political parties were channeling unprecedented tribal division. Democrats embraced all the so-called minorities, while Republicans spoke to racial anxieties. And just as the temperature was rising, in 2005, the U.S. Census Bureau predicted a majority-minority nation within a generation, further stoking white fear. Putnam and Garrett return to racial tensions in four different chapters, raising the question of whether it was white racial anxiety that shattered the great American “we.” The authors do not go so far as saying yes, but they lay out enough evidence to allow readers to judge for themselves.

Despite painting a bleak portrait of recent U.S. history, every shred of data in The Upswing reverberates with the same exhortation: We came together once, and we can do it again. The authors emphasize the role that bold reformers played in imagining a better, more inclusive nation during the 20th century’s long upswing. Their book is an extended call for a new generation to take up the fight.

References and Notes:
1. J. A. Morone, Republic of Wrath: How American Politics Turned Tribal, From George Washington to Donald Trump (Basic Books, 2020).
2. 1976–2016 voting average computed from the Roper Center’s “How Groups Voted” data (https://ropercenter.cornell.edu/how%20groups%20voted).

About the author

The reviewer is at the Department of Political Science, Brown University, Providence, RI 02912, USA.