The name Robert Putnam is almost synonymous with the concepts of social capital and civic renewal. He is a Harvard-based political scientist with an international reputation not only for excellence in research but also for relevance in terms of social impact. If there were a Nobel Prize for the discipline, Putman would have undoubtedly received it.

His latest book, The Upswing, written with Shaylyn Romney Garrett, which was the focus of a dialogue event with both authors at the Institute for Community Studies earlier this month, has generally received rave reviews and undoubtedly offers a magisterial synthesis of a vast range of statistical datasets that cover a wide range of themes, but all produce an incredibly uniform historical curve. The ‘arc of the twentieth century’ which the text reveals with such eloquence is one that seems to offer a consistent pattern of extreme individualism, inequality and conflict at the beginning of the century, which gradually reduces across all measures and dimensions up until the mid-1960s. After which, the achievements of the progressive era are gradually reversed until we come to the disaffected democracy we see today.

The economic, political, social and cultural trends from 1885 to 2015 all reveal what Putnam and Romney Garrett, capture in the notion of an ‘I’-‘We’-‘I’ arc of the twentieth century. The core thesis of the book is that, as America has lifted itself out of a pit of economic, social and political despair before then it must be able to achieve a similar ‘Upswing’ again.

Putnam is clearly an optimist. He’s a ‘glass-half-full’ kind of chap. The election of Donald Trump and the continuing shadow of Trumpism that hangs like a dark cloud over American politics is never tackled head-on. This is largely a historical analysis that looks back in order to peek forward. And yet Trump arguably haunts each and every page of this book and the word ‘peek’ is carefully chosen (not a phrase I thought I would ever write).

The ‘peek’ forward comes in the final chapter when the narrative turns from an emphasis on the past to one on the future. ‘Just how all Americans might work together to engineer another upswing is the final question this book takes on’ (p.314). But this is the question that is never really answered.

After ploughing through eight chapters and 315 pages of deep historical data the reader is brought to a rather Obama-esque crescendo – ‘Yes, we can!’ – the focus on the second half of this book’s sub-title, ‘How we came together a century ago and how we can do it again’.

It’s this how can we do it again element which is the million-dollar question for politicians, policy-makers and civic groups within and far beyond America. It’s this focus on designing the future, not on understanding the past, which is – if we are honest – the main reason most people are going to buy this book. And yet in this regard they are likely to feel as if they have been left hanging rather than (up)swinging. 

And finally we 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 (p.19) [emphasis in original].

Although I’m also generally a ‘glass-half-full’ kind of chap, I must admit to being slightly less convinced that the insights from the past (particularly around ‘The Great Convergence’ of the mid-twentieth century) will actually offer as many useful lessons for thinking about the future as the authors seem to suggest. The challenges and trends that the first ‘Upswing’ (let’s be positive and assume that there will be a second one – ‘Yes, there will!’) apparently triumphed against are arguably incomparable to those of the late nineteenth and into the early twentieth century. Then was railroads and now it is information super highways.

For all of the text’s undoubted positivity the lack of any clarity or detail about how to achieve the eponymous ‘Upswing’ leaves a gaping hole which is itself to some degree reflected in the structure of the book. The final chapter on ‘Drift and Mastery’ is heavy on hyperbole but light on detail. It limps to cover less than thirty pages when, by comparison, the concluding endnotes and acknowledgements stretched across over one hundred pages.

The Progressives who raised America out of the trough of the Gilded Age clearly had a desire to reverse the downward drift of society and so, as Putnam and Romney Garrett suggest; ‘[I]n their diverse stories… we may find a blueprint for how to create a similar turning point today’ [italics added](p.319). They have undoubtedly uncovered an interesting set of stories but I’m far less convinced that they finds anything that might be called a blueprint for how to turn things round today. And yet it’s exactly this blueprint, roadmap, societal scheme or democratic design which is needed if an ‘upswing’ is to be achieved. Indeed, if there’s one thing we must take away from this considerable work, it must be the rousing call that we need new mechanisms and a new ecosystem that supports and empowers young people to be the solution on their own terms. Shifting from the United States to the United Kingdom, the second part of this blog seeks to provide if not the blueprint then at the very least a fresh way of thinking about the future, not the past.

Matthew Flinders is a Civic Fellow of the Institute for Community Studies; Founding Director of the Sir Bernard Crick Centre and Professor of Politics at the University of Sheffield. He is also Vice-President of the Political Studies Association of the United Kingdom and Chair of the Universities Policy Engagement Network.

Thumbnail image  credit frank mckenna on Unsplash

Institute for Community Studies Posted on: 8 April 2021


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