The Upswing -Robert D Putnam - Fantastic Book

THE UPSWING: How America Came Together a Century Ago and How We Can To It Again, Robert D Putnam and Shaylyn Romney Garrett’s most recent book is simply amazing!   It is incredibly relevant for anyone interested in the political divide between Republicans/right-wing and Democrats/liberal-center people.   It focuses significantly upon race, gender and class.

Putnam/Garrett’s basic hypothesis is that a (letter) “U” – aptly describes our movement from the gilded age of the late 1800’s through the present.   He sees a movement from a societal “I” focus towards more of a “We” focus and then back to an “I  (completing the “U”).   Timewise things moved to “We” through the progressive era, World War I, (with a lull in the Roaring Twenties), the Depression,  World War II, the post-war periods through the Civil Rights era of the 1950’s and 1960s.   Then starting in a period between the mid- 1960’s and the early 1970’s, things have moved back from “We” to “I” through 2020, when the book was published.

The author’s emphasize in detail how the “We” has commonly not been a fully inclusive “We”.   It has generally been a middle-class white men’s movement.   Upper-middle class white women have pushed women’s issues, often opposing the interests of Black (and sometimes working-class) Women.   They make very clear that a 21st century “We Movement” will need to be much, much more inclusive to succeed.

Putnam and Garrett reject some common popular beliefs about when significant progress has been made related to racism and sexism.  They note the focus on women’s rights being limited to the success in getting the vote in 1920 and the Women’s Movement of the mid-60’s into the 70’s.  Similarly, they note how commonly the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950’s-1960’s is seen as the period when racism was successfully dealt with.  

While not minimizing the popular beliefs in part, the authors speak of things being significantly more complex.    They note that significant growth occurred in much of the first half of the 20th century, leading up to what progress was made in the mid-20th century.  They note, for example, how Black family earnings, while significantly less than the earnings of white families, were moving closer and closer over the first half of the Twentieth Century.

Most significantly, Putnam and Garrett note how racism (particularly) and to a slightly lesser degree sexism, grew over the past 50 years.   They emphasize how white resistance to Black People moving into their neighborhoods and schools, have resulted in an “I” mindset, that has significantly excluded Black  People since the 1970’s.

Quoting from the book:

The polarization that began in the late 1960s was initially driven primarily by race, as the two parties became more distinct and more internally homogeneous.  Johnson and Nixon (ironically, each a moderate within his own party)) were the twin progenitors of that turn toward polarization, Johnson by signing the Civil Rights bills in 1964-65 that (as he himself reportedly had foretold -footnote) cost the Democrats their “Southern strategy” in 1968 to bring those same conservative Southerners into the Republican fold (footnote).  … By 1975, however, Ronald Reagan was raising an impassioned banner of “no pale pastels, but bold colors,” and after 1980 the Reagan Revolution pulled the Republican Party further and further to the right, a movement that would last well into the twenty-first century.(footnote)  The polarization that had begun with civil rights spread quickly across many other issues, as the parties took opposing stances on issues that had not previously been partisan, thus extending and reinforcing the basic polarization.  These increasingly polarizing issues include: … “Big Government”….Abortion and religion … The environment… Education (p.84-6)

Beginning in the early 1940’s, Northern Democrats began to champion civil rights legislation, which some scholars consider to have been a “trial run” for later victories. (p.229)

As Black servicemen came home from fighting for democratic principles, their willingness to submit to undemocratic realities at homes frayed… One example among many was the action of Navy veteran Otis Pinkert, who earned three promotions in the war but on the train ride home was forced to sit in a segregated car.  When he got to his hometown of Tuskegee, Alabama, he expressed his anger by picketing a store that sold primarily to blacks but employed only whites.   He succeeded in shutting the store down and getting a black manager installed in exchange for ending the protest (1) (p.229)

During the closing decades of the twentieth century:

·     Gains in relative life expectancy for black Americans stagnated, beginning to improve again only at the start of the twenty-first century(140)

·     The closing of the black-white gap in infant mortality rates plateaued and in recent years the infant mortality rate for black Americans has increased(141

·     … Relative rates of black homeownership plateaued and even declined

·     Schools began to resegregate(143) (p.240)

Collective racial resentments are among the centerpieces of the new laissez-faire racism era (146) (p.241)

The Sixties was not only a cultural turning point … when…otherwise unrelated public crises brought many long-simmering conflicts to a boil:

·     The assassinations of JFK, RFK, and MLK

·     The Vietnam War …

·     The urban crisis and urban riots

·     The women’s movement

·     The pill and the sexual revolution

·     Watergate and Nixon’s resignation

·     Stagflation and oil shortages and economic malaise (p.306-7)

We saw earlier that it is fruitless to look for a single cause of the we-to-I pivot that occurred during the long Sixties. (p.312)

One final feature of the Progressive movement that is relevant to today’s challenges is its youthfulness.  All of the reformers and writers whose stories and ideas we have featured in this chapter were in their thirties or younger when they became powerful voices and forces for change (p.334)

First is a caution to avoid the temptation to overcorrect.   … Progressives reformers quickly learned that in order to succeed they would have to compromise-to find a way to put private property, personal liberty, and economic growth on more equal footing with communitarian ideals and the protection of the weak and vulnerable, and to work within existing systems to bring about change(27) (p.335)

Throughout this book we have argued that although America’s “we” had gradually become more capacious during the first half of the twentieth century, and as we continued the long historical task of redressing racial and gender inequities, we were in 1960 (and still are) very far from perfection on those dimensions. Americans could have and should have pushed further toward greater equality.    …we did’t take seriously enough the challenge of full inclusion.  Therefore the question we face today is not whether we can or should turn back the tide of history, but whether we can resurrect the earlier communitarian virtues in a way that does not reverse the progress that we’ve made in terms of individual liberties. (p.341)

The authors cite a huge number of studies to document the “I-We-I” historical movement of our country.  They ask us to learn from the successes and failures of the first half of the Twentieth Century.    They particularly urge us to help work in large numbers to build for a inclusive positive “We” future.   They emphasize that such an effort can not rely upon charismatic leaders.   Putnam and Garrett put their hopes in the leadership of our youth.   They are very clear that we, white people, must be seriously committed to counter the systemic racism that has gotten worse in significant ways of the past half-century.   They believe we can learn from the past, and begin an “Upswing” that will finally make our country welcoming for all.   The insightfully wish to help end our massive current polarized malaise.

Hopefully we will listen and do a lot better!   This is a great book, well worth reading.   (I think it nicely complements Richard Rothstein’s excellent: The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America.)






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