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Book Review:
Robert Putnam looks back 125 years
to draw conclusions about today

The Upswing

Robert Putnam, 2020

In 2008, I wrote and disseminated a commentary on the most recent Annie E. Casey Kids Count report that included a discussion of Robert Putnam’s famous book, Bowling Alone (2000). In Bowling Alone, Putnam brought together a huge amount of data indicating that the generation of U.S. citizens who grew up prior to World War II had a much higher rate of civic engagement and social connectedness than the generations that came after them. Putnam comments:

“It is as though the post-war generations were exposed to some anticivic x-ray that permanently and increasingly rendered them less likely to connect with the community.” Putnam considers the plausible hypothesis that growing up during the great Depression and then fighting World War II, a war that threatened the nation’s existence, required an increased level of social cohesion. However, Putnam’s analysis indicated that growing up during the depression did not have the same effect on rates of civic engagement as coming of age in WW II. Putnam believes that “as a rough summary, it seems fair to say that about half the overall decline in social capital and civic engagement can be traced to generational change.”      


In Bowling Alone, Putnam considered several factors associated with the generational decline in social connectedness, including the growth of suburbs, use of TV as a primary form of entertainment and time pressures related to work. I found this discussion to be “a disappointing denouement to a brilliant investigation of a fascinating social mystery” in which Putnam discusses (at length) superficial factors “while the main principals slip out the back door.”

Putnam’s most insightful analysis in Bowling Alone concerned historical experiences that led to powerful cultural traditions of sharing and mutual concern rather than a zero-sum conflict over economic resources. In my review, I asked the question: “What do coming of age during WW II, having a Scandinavian heritage or growing up in a state settled by religious communities have in common?” 

In The Upswing (2020), Putnam broadens his historical perspective to the past 125 years (1885-2020) and with his usual mastery of sociological data provides a clear compelling solution to the identity of the “anticivic x-ray”  that has acted like acid on community bonds in America: the ethos of individualism, including beliefs about fairness, decency, freedom and the common good – or more accurately the loss of any widely shared idea of the common good.  Putnam notices that “many of the corporate titans who dominate the American imagination live by an ideology of individualism that barely masks selfishness and an air of superiority. A philosophy of supreme self-reliance is  common, and the pursuit of unfettered self-interest is considered a laudable ethic to live by.” (p. 5) The belief in self-reliance and individual responsibility is so strong that several of Nicolos Kristof’s high school friends featured in his book Tightrope, friends who became drug addicts and petty criminals and who died or lived with chronic pain, strongly subscribed to this ethos.  They blamed themselves solely for their plight; and had little or no compassion for others. Their extended families felt pretty much the same about  them and other family members with drug/alcohol problems and/or histories of criminal behavior.    

The Inverted U – “I”, “We”, “I” and Two Gilded Ages

Putnam has brought together an enormous amount of evidence from both sociological studies and historical discussion showing the same basic pattern in economics, politics, society and culture: an inverted U that began with indicators of extreme individualism, economic inequality, partisan political divisions and cultural narcissism extending from about 1885-1910 ( the first Gilded Age), followed by six decades of steadily increasing community bonds and social capital ( e.g., higher levels of social trust) from 1910-1970,  interrupted by the 1920’s, culminating in a precipitous decline of social connectedness and community spirit from 1970-2020, along with a large increase in income inequality, partisan division and selfish social values defended as ideals, e.g., anti-mask, anti-vaccine sentiment during a global pandemic.  The decline in social connectedness was already extreme in 2000 when Bowling Alone was published. However, the disastrous developments of the past 20 years in the U.S indicates the cumulative devastating effects of the fraying of community bonds:

  • decrease in average life span due to “deaths of despair,” and increase of Americans living with chronic pain

  • increase in the suicide rate, including an increase in youth suicide rate exceeding 50%

  • the gradual loss of a middle class, as economic differences create a society of “haves” and “have nots”

  • intensification of bitter political divisions and political impasse; development of a “Can’t Do” society

  • the growth of anti-democratic forces that threaten democratic institutions

  • incompetence in meeting the challenge of a pandemic; rejection of science

  • the failure to take strong actions to reduce carbon emissions

  • increase in income inequality, intensified by development of a meritocracy based on educational achievement that makes a mockery of equal opportunity 


Putnam devotes chapters to discussion of measures of economic trends, political “comity” and willingness to compromise and work across party lines, social changes reflecting a large steady decline in participation in community groups, clubs, etc. and cultural changes in attitudes. One of the big surprises in the Upswing is Putnam’s view that the increase in income inequality has been a “lagging indicator,”  i.e., an effect rather than a cause, of the trend toward an “I” oriented society.

 Putnam believes that political changes have led to increased income inequality, while social and cultural changes in attitudes have laid the foundation for conservative or centrist political institutions. In other words, politics is deeper than economics;  and cultural attitudes have shaped American politics, in Putnam’s view. However, Putnam’s analysis leaves unanswered the question, “what accounts for the individualistic bias of the past 50 years?” The most likely answer is the steady increase in income inequality, political decisions that have achieved a transfer of about a trillion dollars per year from the bottom 99% to the top 1% of the wealthiest Americans, and social behavior that has weakened the strength - and collective efficacy -- of local communities. In other words, economics, politics, social behavior and cultural attitudes regarding fairness, decency and the common good have interacted to produce the current state of American society.


It is difficult to overstate the increase in income inequality that has occurred in the U.S. since 1970. Putnam comments:

 “Over the four decades between 1974 and 2014, inflation-adjusted annual market income fell $320 for households at the 10th percentile ( the bottom tenth), rose $388 for those at the 20th percentile ( the bottom fifth), rose $5230 for those at the national median, rose $75,053 for households in the top 5%, rose $929,108 for those in the top 1 percent, and rose $4,846,718 for those in the top 0.1 percent. There are no misprints in that sentence.”  And “If today’s income was distributed in the same way that 1970 income was distributed … the bottom 99 percent would get roughly $1 trillion more annually, and the top 1 percent would get roughly 1 trillion less.” (p. 40) Furthermore, “This growing inequity is linked with growing inequality in other spheres of society, including our children’s prospects for upward mobility and even our physical health.” (pp. 40-41). 

Putnam maintains that during the progressive era (1910-70) a steady increase in economic opportunity among all social classes led to impressive upward mobility in the U.S., while in recent decades differential access to higher education resulting from income inequality has reduced social mobility for children raised in homes with parents who lack a college degree.  In the aggregate, education is no longer an avenue of social mobility for children from low- income families;  rather, it is how privilege is transferred from one generation to the next.  

Putnam views tax policies in states and at the federal level as “as a broad century ebb and flow of egalitarianism … at work.” Fiscal policies (both tax and spending) have benefited the elderly, ”mostly ending the scourge of  elderly poverty,” (p. 61), but with little effect on the large differences in income and wealth between the top 1% and bottom 50% of the population. 

Putnam asks the question, “Why were policies that favored equality in force during the Great Convergence (Progressive era to the 1960’s), and why did they all then change in the decade or so around 1965?  It can hardly be a coincidence that all these factors moved up and down in one synchronized leap.” (p.65) Along with several famous economists (Krugman, Piketty, Saez, Atkinson, et al), Putnam believes that changing social norms regarding fairness and decency is part of the answer. However, what led to the sea change in social norms? There is an ugly possibility I discuss below that the racial uprisings of the mid-to-late 1960’s led to a dramatic shift in American social attitudes that became more prevalent during the Reagan, Clinton and Bush Presidencies.  According to this perspective, a majority of  Americans were so disturbed by racial strife, including violent protests, from 1965-75 that they abandoned their commitment to racial justice and inequality, and came to espouse a libertarian vision of freedom to amass unlimited wealth and social privilege, while blunting the impact of civil rights legislation on housing, school integration and law enforcement practices.


Putnam’s discussion of the similarities between the first Gilded Age (1885-1910) and the second Gilded age( 1970-2020) is extraordinarily informative and insightful. Putnam comments that “Both periods involved intense sectarian bitterness, … polarization rested on internal party cohesion and zero-sum inter-party conflict that resisted compromise and demonized opponents, with no common ground.” (p. 71) Putnam argues that “at the turn of the century (1900), American politics, both North and South was violently riven as it had not been for nearly half a century.”  Polarization and political impasse led to  public discontent which fed the rise of third parties; “by 1912, such third parties would receive 35 percent of the national popular vote for president, the high-water mark for third parties in American history.” (p. 73)   The Progressive era “disrupted existing party coalitions. … One mark of the …. blurring of party lines is that the major reforms of that period were enacted during both Republican and Democratic administrations with support (and opposition from both sides of the aisle.” ( p.74)  Major pieces of Progressive legislation from 1906-1919 received on average 40% of the votes of the opposing party.  Putnam states: “Party line votes were beginning to be replaced by bi-partisan coalitions.” (p. 75) According to Putnam, “… in the 1930’s (Roosevelt’s New Deal) “harder times coincided with an almost unprecedented degree of cross- party collaboration.” ( p. 77)

Putnam maintains that “ For more than two decades after World War II American politics remained much less tribalized and polarized … “ And “a gradual rise in an emphasis on racial equality in both parties was one aspect of the surge in “we” values. (p. 79) The Eisenhower and Nixon administrations did not seek to eliminate New Deal programs, quite the opposite, according to Putnam.  Even after LBJ declared a war on poverty and promoted groundbreaking civil rights legislation, “all major bills were supported by majorities or substantial minorities within both parties. On average, these bills were supported by 74 percent of Congressional Democrats and 63 percent of Congressional Republicans …” ( p. 83) Contrast this level of bipartisan support for progressive legislation with the zero support of Republican Senators for Biden’s expanded infrastructure bill.

Putnam comments that “The polarization that began in the late 1960’s was initially driven primarily by race … “ (p. 84) as the South abandoned the Democratic party and the Republican party discovered the electoral benefits of inflaming racial divisions. My hypothesis is that white fear of black revolt and black violence was the tipping point for a polar shift in social values around 1970, just as the South’s fear of slave revolt was one of the precipitating factors for the Civil War. 

Putnam discusses measures of current political partisanship indicating that “Partisan hostility in these feeling thermometers is now even more intense than racial or religious hostility.” (p. 97) Until reading Upswing I was puzzled at the extreme bitterness of U.S. political divisions when there is no single issue such as slavery to generate such mutual loathing between liberals and the Trump base. Putnam’s analysis makes clear that the polarization of cultural values, i.e., “I” vs. “We” accounts for the depth of these feelings.  It is not just that the two sides in the culture war have opposed views on a wide range of issues, e.g.,  gun control, abortion, police reform, etc.  Rather, practices and conditions viewed as ideal by one group, i.e., as the embodiment of virtue, are viewed by their opponents as an indicator of a loss of ethical moorings, or as flatly evil.  It is a short step from loathing a group’s political and social values to loathing the persons who identify with these values.  Putnam’s perspective is that cultures are organized around polarities, e.g., “I” vs. “We”,  or “kind vs. cruel” as George Packer asserts regarding American culture in Last Best Hope. Societies, like persons, are given to exploring the full range of their defining polarities as reflected in periodic sea changes in dominant social values.   


Society: isolation and solidarity      


Putnam asserts: “it is hard to name a major civic institution in American life at the close of the twentieth century that was not invented in these few decades at the opening of the twentieth century.” ( p. 113) Putnam acknowledges that many of these institutions were closed to women and racial minorities for most of the twentieth century; nevertheless, “this flurry of organizational innovation was not confined to white males, for growth was substantial among women and ethnic minorities, and in fact even more rapid among blacks than whites.”  Most civic organizations included both middle class and working-class members “and served the same function of mutual aid and moral uplift.” (p. 114) Putnam argues that “this period of institutional ferment (creation of civic institutions) ended around 1920, having laid the foundations on which civic America would rest for the next one hundred years.” (p. 117)  Many of these civic organizations were national in scope, i.e., were “franchise-form organizations” that were easily replicated “to meet a seemingly inexhaustible  demand from Americans for ways to connect.”  (p. 117)  

Putnam states:  “For most of the twentieth century  growing number of Americans were involved in such chapter- based associations. … virtually every year more women belonged to women’s clubs, more rural residents belonged to the Grange, more youths belonged to the Scouts, more Jews belonged to the Hadassah and B’nai B’rith and more men belonged to fraternal clubs.  As the decades passed, America seemed more and more to fit Tocqueville’s description of us as a nation of joiners.” (pp. 118-19)  By mid-century, Putnam maintains, “Across lines of race and gender most Americans belonged to one or more of these groups and our national rate of civic involvement was at or near the top in world rankings.” (p. 120) Membership rates peaked in the early 1960s and by 1969 “began a period of sustained decline … by 2016 more than a century’s worth of civic creativity had vanished.” ( p. 120) “In the mid-1970’s nearly two- thirds of Americans still attended club meetings, but by the mid-2000’s two thirds never did.”  ( p. 125)      


Putnam asserts that “the broad picture is one of declining involvement in community organizations” ( p. 127) beginning around 1970.  “For nearly half a century now Americans have been dropping out of organized community life in droves, exactly the opposite of what was happening a century ago. (p. 127)        

Putnam provides evidence of a large steady decline in church membership and church attendance during these same decades, though the decline in organized religion began prior to 1960 from near record highs in the early 1950’s. Thirty- five to forty percent of millennials “say they have no religion.”  (p. 141) Putnam offers compelling data showing the same pattern in union membership and in marriage rates, along with a sharp rise in divorce and cohabitation during recent decades. “ … Americans’ decisions about family formation followed the same inverted U-curve  that we have seen in inequality and polarization … and in other forms of community connectedness…” ( p. 156)                 

For unexplained reasons, Putnam does not discuss the effect of ubiquitous use of smart phones and social media in this chapter, trends that have substituted virtual social contact for in-person contact, and intensified the isolation,  loneliness and desperation of many Americans.


Putnam comments that “By Culture, we mean beliefs, values and norms about fundamental aspects of American society.” (p. 164) Putnam echoes the literary critic, Lionel Trilling’s view that “culture” as we use the term always entails a contest, a dialectic, a struggle,” and he quotes the historian, Jennifer Ranier- Rosenhagen: “There is no period in American history when thinkers have not wrestled with the appropriate balance of power between self-interest and social obligation.” (p. 165) Putnam argues that American history has been characterized by pendulum swings between individualism and communitarian values, “but the pendulum doesn’t swing by itself.”  Changes in cultural values and social norms are “an active ingredient in the dynamics of political, economic and social life.” ( p. 165) Putnam offers evidence that cultural tends have been reflected in the subjects and themes of books published in the U.S. from 1880-2008 that refer to either “survival of the fittest” or “social gospel.” He  (and his co- author) found “a fading of individualistic themes from American cultural debates during the first two-thirds of twentieth century paired with a rising of communitarian sentiment … followed by a sharp reversal of those trends from the 1970’s into the twenty first century.” (p. 170)  Putnam states that “From the New Deal through World War II and into the postwar period the exaltation of shared values, social solidarity and the ordinary middle class American way of life intensified.” ( p. 176) However, “in the decades after the Sixties, … the “American dream” as used by politicians and ordinary citizens was steadily converted into a symbol of individual material success … not collective moral success,” (p. 177) Putnam argues.

Putnam acknowledges that “one of the virtues of the 1960s pivot away from communitarianism was greater tolerance and support for diversity and racial and gender equality.” (p.182) A libertarian emphasis on individual freedom has led to an increased acceptance of LGBTQ rights and of tolerance for a wide variety of lifestyles that would have been viewed as socially deviant in the 1950’s. Putnam asserts that “Conformity is the dark twin of community, for communitarianism almost by definition involves social pressure to conform to norms.” (p. 183) By the 1950’s, social critics began to publish books regarding the dangers of too much conformity, too many “other-directed” people as discussed in David Reisman’s famous book, The Lonely Crowd.  Books appeared on both the political Right and libertarian Left in the 1950s or early 1960’s extolling the virtues of extreme individualism, e.g., Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

A new generation of conservatives were “inspired by Rand’s extreme libertarianism, stressed the virtues of individualism, unfettered capitalism, and inequality over egalitarianism and collectivism.” (p. 187) Growing income inequality was not a cause for concern, rather it was an indication that American society was rewarding talent, hard work and technological innovation, as it should. In this view (expressed succinctly by Mitt Romney in the 2012 Presidential election) society consists of two classes, “makers” and “takers.” A main goal of the Republican party was (and is) to prevent any redistribution of income and wealth, and to allow the wealthiest Americans to  become even wealthier through tax cuts and by privatizing public services. No amount of wealth is too much, and no amount of a tax increase is acceptable. The accumulation of wealth is a virtue; and freedom is viewed as the unfettered right to use that wealth as one pleases.

It is this view of virtue, freedom and the common good that has put the U.S. onto a South American trajectory toward political violence and autocracy.  It is next to impossible in a democracy to prevent 99% of the population from redistributing a fraction of the fabulous wealth possessed by the top 1% (or even .1%) of the population, 600 of whom are billionaires.  Furthermore, in this world view, any legal requirement to sacrifice or change one’s behavior for the common good ( e.g., a vaccine mandate) is tyranny, and must be resisted by force if necessary. 


Putnam’s chapter, “Race and the American “We” contains some of the best sociological analysis I’ve read in recent years. At first glance, Putnam appears to develop an implausible account of race relations in the U.S., i.e., that the passage of Civil Rights legislation in the 1960’s was the culmination of several decades of improvements in racial equity, followed by several decades of stagnation which Putnam describes as “taking our foot off the gas.”

According to Putnam: “… in the opening decade of the twentieth century, by almost every measure, the black-white gap in America was enormous. Life expectancy for people of color was just 33 years compared to 47.6 for white Americans. Black children were only about half as likely as white children to be enrolled in school, and the schools they attended were dismally underfunded and overcrowded which, combined with the legacy of slavery, resulted in a black literacy rate of just 55.5%, compared to 93.8% for whites.” (p. 202) The average income and rate of home ownership for black Americans was about one-half that of whites.

Putnam asserts that “… progress toward equality for black Americans didn’t begin in 1965. By many measures, blacks were moving toward parity with whites well before the victories of the Civil Rights revolution, despite the limitations imposed by Jim Crow. And second, after the Civil Rights movement that long standing trend toward racial equity slowed, stopped and even reversed. Unlike the “hockey stick” image ( no progress for several decades and then sudden progress in the1960’s), these trends embody a too slow but unmistakable decades long drive toward equality, followed by a period in which Americans took our collective “foot off the gas” so that progress slowed and even in some cases reversed.” (p. 203)

Putnam proceeds to examine long term trends in health, education economics, and voting. Some highlights:

  • In the early 1900’s, black American’s average life span was about 70% of white life expectancy.  By 1960, black life expectancy was about 90% of whites, but then “progress virtually halted. By 1995, the life expectancy ratio (whites living 10 percent longer than blacks) was exactly the same as it had been thirty-five years earlier.”  (p. 205)

  • “The first half of the twentieth century brought significant improvements in the relative racial equality of educational access. …  in the South, the elementary school attendance gap between blacks and whites was virtually eliminated between 1900-1940 … which is not to deny that “this schooling was racially segregated and very unequal in quality.” (pp. 206-7)

  • “As with rates of attendance, the fastest and most dramatic progress toward blacks and whites finishing high school was achieved before 1970.” (p. 207) “… today, black Americans are completing college at a lower rate compared to whites than they were in 1970.”( p. 208) “ … despite the fact that white educational attainment was rising throughout this period (1900-1965), between 1940 and 1970 black educational achievement was rising even faster, so the black- white gap was narrowing …”  (pp. 208-209)


Putnam acknowledges that there was a dramatic difference in the quality and educational focus of segregated schools for whites and blacks during the Jim Crow era; but maintains that “looking at the national trend toward school integration over the course of the twentieth century, change began much earlier than is often believed.”  Furthermore, the sharp rise in integrated schooling following Brown vs. Board of Education “leveled off in the early 1970’s, after which a modest trend to re-segregation emerged. … Thus, measures of the drive for racial equality in the quality, quantity and integration of education …  show a clear “foot off the gas”‘ pattern, with progress being made in the first two-thirds of the century, followed by stagnation beginning in roughly the 1970’s – precisely when America began its downward plunge from  “we to “I.” (p. 210)  


One of the persistent liberal fantasies of recent decades is that structural racism can be overcome, or greatly ameliorated, by reducing differences in educational outcomes between low- income children and their more advantaged peers, while doing nothing about income inequality which has steadily become more extreme since 1970. Educational reform initiatives which sought to equalize educational  opportunity between low-income children, middle class children and upper middle- class children have had little or no discernable effect; or have increased racial inequities in educational achievement.

Putnam argues that “Overall, African American incomes rose relative to white incomes for the first two thirds of the century,” with the largest improvement occurring between 1940-1970. (p. 210) According to Putnam, “ the very same factors  that were creating income equalization across the American economy  … were also driving equalization between black and white workers,” (p. 211) as black Americans fled the South to Northern cities in the Great Migration. The national income gap between blacks and whites has widened since 1970 such that “the difference between median black and white earnings today is “as large as it was in 1950.” The same is true regarding black- white differences in home ownership, which were as great in 2017 as in 1950.  (pp. 211- 214) Putnam asserts that the increase in income inequality in recent decades has been disproportionately harmful  to black families. He states: “Once again, we see the unexpected pattern of changes in black- white ratios of material well being … incomplete, but substantial progress toward racial equality over the half century before 1970, but then a surprising halt to the progress over the subsequent half century.”  (p. 214 )

Putnam asserts that a main exception to reductions in black- white inequality between 1940-70 was the growth of systematic residential segregation: But residential segregation truly accelerated and consolidated between 1940 and 1970 thanks to overlapping federal policies, discriminatory realtor practices and organized white resistance to the second wave of the Great Migration … Thus, even as black Americans were moving toward equality of outcomes with their white counterparts in health, education, income, and voting … they were nonetheless being systematically excluded from equal opportunity, equal access and the cultural mainstream in many ways.  ( pp. 220-221)

Putnam writes that “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.

  • Black-white ratios in high school and college attainment showed little or no improvement.

  • Progress toward income inequality between the races reversed and … the black- white income gap widened significantly.

  • Relative rates of black home ownership plateaued and even declined.

  • Schools began to resegregate.

  • The trend toward generational liberalization of white attitudes slowed. “ ( p. 240)


Putnam concludes that white backlash to the goal of racial equality may be a main reason “why America turned from “we” back to “I”.  In fact, it is certainly possible that America’s larger turn toward “I” was … a response to the supreme challenge of sustaining a more diverse multiracial “we” against a backdrop of deep, historically embedded and as yet unresolved racism.” (p. 243)


In his final chapter Putnam asks regarding the inverted U of “I”, “We”, ”I” from 1885-2020:  What caused this pattern?”  He maintains that “at this stage the available evidence offers virtually no indication of an uncaused first cause of the I-we-I syndrome.” Putnam comments:

“Given the tensions between community and individualism it is natural to use the metaphor of a pendulum … As the pendulum moves steadily in one direction countervailing forces begin to build up, and the pendulum reverses direction.”  

The current state of American society suggests why pendulum shifts in cultural values occur after decades of extreme movement toward one pole of a cultural divide. Five decades of “I” social norms have led to disastrous events, most recently the inability of the U.S. to respond competently to a global pandemic and  inaction in the face of global warming that has the potential to destroy civilization and most biological species in a massive extinction event before the end of this century, as well as the possibility of political violence on a vastly increased scale.  


Pendulum shifts in cultural values occur when a critical mass of the population conclude that the country is headed for disaster or even destruction without a complete reorientation in worldview. The U.S. is at that point in our history.   

Dee Wilson























© Dee Wilson

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