America: a nation of narcissists?

The Upswing: How America Came Together a Century Ago and How We Can Do It Again
by Robert Putnam. Swift Press, 2020. 571 pages

Robert Putnam earned deserved fame two decades ago for writing Bowling Alone, in which he charted the decline in community and social capital which had occurred in America in the latter half of the 20th century.

Since then, he has written other interesting books on related issues including his most recent work -- The Upswing: How America Came Together a Century Ago and How We Can Do It Again -- which came out in late 2020.

Putnam and his collaborator Shaylyn Romney Garrett cover familiar ground here in their focus on community and draw a parallel between America’s current social and economic divisions and the situation which existed there at the close of the “Gilded Age” more than a century ago.

According to the authors, towards the end of the 19th century, wealth was increasingly concentrated in the hands of the few, racial and ethnic tensions were increasing, and the growth of America’s burgeoning cities had not been accompanied by a corresponding growth in a sense of togetherness.

Tracing developments in this period, Putnam’s initial examination of the social science data led him to perceive that this period of plutocracy and division had been followed by decades of enhanced social solidarity, which brought with it greater economic equality, increased church attendance and rising levels of civic engagement.

When examined together, he observed an inverted U-curve which rose steadily until around the 1960s, at which point the “Great Convergence” ended and society once again descended into rampant individualism.

“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,” they write, adding that “[o]ver the past five decades America has become demonstrably - indeed measurably - a more ‘I’ society.”

The book looks at the different areas which have been impacted by this shift including economics, politics, society, and culture.

Critics of the post-World War II era of consensus often accuse those who praise its stability of overlooking the many ways in which specific groups were marginalised prior to the various social reforms of the 60s.

Possibly to preempt such criticism, Putnam and Romney Garrett also include chapters examining the changes which have occurred in race and gender relations, and how this has altered the sense of the American “We.”

It is difficult to dispute the veracity of the authors’ core thesis about the movement from “we” to “I.”

Economic inequality has risen over the last half century. The wealthiest 1 percent of Americans owned 45 percent of the country’s total wealth in 1913; this figure halved to 22 percent by the 1970s but was back up to above 40 percent by 2016.

Secularism has made extraordinary advances in recent years, a fact recently demonstrated by the historic Gallup findings showing that more than 50 percent of Americans are not members of a religious congregation.

People are shunning other social institutions too: in the mid 1970s, 64 percent of Americans had attended at least one club meeting in the previous year, but this fell to 33 percent by 2005.

The authors were also able to use analytical tools to examine word usage in American publications over the decades, which produced fascinating results showing how usage of the word “we” has fallen while usage of “I” has increased.

Whatever the shortcomings of contemporary social science, America is truly blessed to have eminent figures like Putnam (as well as conservative-leaning figures such as Charles Murray or Yuval Levin) who study the social changes which have occurred but mostly gone unremarked upon in the broader West.

Another commendable aspect of Putnam’s work is his broad focus on the wide array of societal institutions.

Rather than concentrating exclusively on the state and public bodies, he clearly sees the role which was played by churches and other civic bodies as being a crucial component of the positive changes which occurred during America’s Progressive Era, which followed on from the Gilded Age and was such a contrast to it.

The authors leave readers in no doubt about what the slump in social participation has cost broader society, and highlight the essential role which religion plays in all of this.

“Religious Americans are two to three times more likely than matched secular Americans to belong to secular organisations, like neighbourhood associations, Rotary, or the Scouts, and to be active in local civic life. Rigorous statistical analysis suggests (surprisingly, perhaps to secular Americans) that the link between religious involvement and civic do-gooding is not spurious, but probably causal,” they write.

Laying out a similar case to that described by Tim Carney in Alienated America, the authors make it clear what secularisation has cost society.

Elsewhere, though the authors appear broadly supportive of socially liberal policies, they also address the darker side of this transformation by suggesting that liberation can sometimes lead to selfishness, just as the modern focus on self-actualisation can lead to narcissism.

Less positively, there is a greater degree of partisanship in The Upswing compared to Putnam’s previous books -- a fact possibly explained by its publication just before a presidential election.

While lamenting the reluctance of the American public to support more spending on public education, the authors overlook the widespread dissatisfaction with public schools, and the role which left-leaning teachers’ unions have played in stymieing reform (or in the Covid era, actually preventing schools from re-opening).

When assessing the increased political polarisation in America, they lay virtually all the blame on one side, writing that the ideological positioning of the Democratic Party has not changed much “whereas the Republican centre of gravity moved further and further to the right.”

This ignores the rise of the Democratic Socialists, the party’s increased extremism on race (to the point where elected representatives call for the virtual abolition of policing) and the growing intolerance of many Democratic politicians towards religion.

In much the same way, when reflecting on political changes in the mid to late 20th century, the assertion that “the New Right had much more long-term success than the New Left” appears entirely mistaken.

Right libertarians have had little or no success in shrinking the size of the American government. Spending and the debt are now higher than ever and the increased powers which the US government acquired to deal with the pandemic are not likely to be fully relinquished.

The New Left, in contrast, has had enormous and continued success in reshaping societies, to the point that the cultural consensus which existed during the heyday of American community has been completely undermined.

In some areas, the analysis is strangely limited in scope.

In his last book about social inequalities - Our Kids, published in 2015 - Putnam highlighted how the “collapse of the traditional family hit the black community earliest and hardest,” while also noting with concern that the same destructive process had begun to hit white communities in recent decades.

Here, however, the authors have little to say about this, in spite of devoting a large portion of the book to explaining differences such as health or economic outcomes between black and white Americans.

“The Upswing” in the early and mid-20th century which the authors invoke in this book clearly involved the government acquiring more responsibilities, but it also involved an individualistic society becoming more religious and socially engaged.

This is the important difference, however. A century ago, those arguing for state-led solutions generally regarded churches and other non-state institutions as allies in a shared struggle for positive social reform.

This is most definitely not the case now, and political leaders are increasingly jealous of any threat to their power, and the erosion of the aforementioned social consensus makes any meaningful change more difficult.

The book’s authors are enthusiastic about the prospects offered by a new Democratic president intent on promoting an activist form of government, but they seem overconfident in assuming that this will kickstart a revitalisation of American life.


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