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Trying to find an American “We”

The genre of “we have a polarized and screwed up political society, here’s how we got here, and here’s how we can get out of here” is a crowded field. Few can enter it and write a noticeable, let alone noteworthy, book. Robert Putnam is one of the few. The Upswing: How America Came Together and How We Can Do It Again, written with former student Shaylyn Romney Garrett, advances the thesis that the Progressive movement of the early 20th century saved an American society ravaged by the destructive individualism of the Gilded Age. A society of “I” became a society of “We.” Unfortunately, since the height of the “we” society in the mid-20th century, we have again become a society of “I.” While the thesis is interesting, the reader finishes the book wanting something more.

The “I” Society and the “We” Society

According to this narrative, the communitarian social fabric of Tocqueville’s America was torn apart by the rapacious individualism of the Gilded Age’s laissez faire obsession. The authors write, “The United States in the 1870s, 1880s, and 1890s was startlingly similar to today. Inequality, political polarization, social dislocation, and cultural narcissism prevailed—all accompanied, as they are now, by unprecedented technological advances, prosperity, and material well-being.” This is the “I” society, one with an “I am in this for myself, my neighbor be damned” ethos. But beginning with the Progressive era, there were “more than six decades of progress toward greater economic equality, more cooperation in the public square, a stronger social fabric, and a growing culture of solidarity.” This is the “we” society, one that has a “we are all in this together” ethos typified at its height by a president who adjured Americans to “ask not what your country can do for you [but] what you can do for your country.”

Regarding politics, the authors argue that the upward trend of the U-curve is toward cooperation between parties. In civil society, there was a revival of Tocqueville’s associations, the individualism of the Gilded Age giving way to the communitarianism of the 20th century. Civic association participation was relatively low in the late 19th century, but rose throughout the early 20th as many new organizations were created and grew to thousands of chapters across the country. Many of the organizations were segregated by race and sex, but growth among organizations happened for men and women, and for blacks even more than for whites. Family formation increased during this period as well. Lifelong singleness and later marriages were relatively common in the latter half of the 19th century. But as the Progressive Era dawned, people increasingly formed families at earlier ages. The trend peaked in the 1950s and 1960s and the age of marriage began to steadily rise as did the rate of never-marrieds. The same was true of religious and civic involvement, with people becoming more involved throughout the first half of the century and then increasingly “bowling alone” in the latter half.

An important point is that the Great Depression and World War II, crisis periods which have historically increased solidarity and government-induced equality, do not explain the trends highlighted here. The trends toward equality and solidarity began decades earlier than those events and continued after them. What the authors see by taking a longer view are developments that may have been accelerated by particular events, but are actually part of a larger movement with interlocking causes and effects not reducible to those events. The authors compellingly demonstrate that the bulk of progress toward racial and gender equality took place before the major victories of the Civil Rights movement and before the women’s movement really got going. For example, the greatest improvements toward racial voting equality were made between 1952 and 1964, with only modest gains after the Voting Rights Act. Similarly, the major growth in women’s voter turnout was between 1920 and 1950.

Just a few short years after Kennedy’s assassination, American society experienced a reversal of the trends toward we-ness, and instead experienced “declining economic equality, the deterioration of compromise in the public square, a fraying social fabric, and a descent into cultural narcissism.”  The “I” society had returned. All of the data marshaled shows an inverted U-curve, with a rise from the 1890s until the mid-1960s across all measures of equality and solidarity only to then decline across the same measures.

The authors acknowledge several caveats to their argument. Solidarity and equality of the previous age may have been a solidarity of the white male. Growth in the equalization of wages was mostly a growth in the equalization of white men’s wages across industries and classes. A sense of solidarity between political parties was mostly a sense of solidarity between white men in the Republican and Democratic parties. They further posit that the failure to achieve egalitarian solidarity during the 1960s contributed to the individualism and egoism we see today.

The insistence on the union of equal individuals in the national state may be at odds with the creation of families and Tocquevillian associations.

The emphasis upon growth in equality and solidarity, rather than absolute equality and solidarity does paint, frankly, a distorting picture. The authors acknowledge that in absolute terms we are clearly much better off. Economic growth measured in per capita GDP has been enormous and on a continuous upward slanting growth curve from 1870 until today, with a minor dip during the 1930s. Pointing out the trend toward less equality is not to deny that in some absolute sense everyone’s life is getting materially better or that today we are not more equal in many senses than we were before. Clearly racial and gender equality, for instance, is greater today than in the era of Jim Crow. Rather, the authors mean that the rate of change over time in racial and gender equality reaches a peak in the 1960s and then declines precipitously thereafter. The Civil Rights era and the Great Society were in fact the culmination of changes that took place for more than half a century prior, but they seemed to cap progress rather than to hasten it. Furthermore, other changes that result from a decline in equality and solidarity include a decrease in upward mobility and the uneven distribution of physical health improvements. The failure to distribute evenly material and social gains has deleterious effects for those at the bottom, as seen in reversals of life expectancy and an increase in deaths of despair in some populations.

Regarding equality, this admission seems to undermine the authors’ point. There isn’t a decline in equality, we are just failing to reach parity. We’re stalled. But as a society, we are not less equal than in the 1960s regarding race and sex, we are just not as equal as we think we should be by now. The authors call this the “foot off the gas” phenomenon. But that isn’t the same as saying that we have become less equal. Whatever concerns we might have with a slowdown in progress toward equality, it does not constitute a downswing as such. When a society has righted a number of historic inequalities it makes sense for the issue to lose its urgency. Also, while economic inequality can have downsides, there seem to be deeper issues of distributive justice at work. Why do some obtain vast wealth? Is it through innovation that benefits many? Or through appropriation? The answers to such questions seem at least as relevant as whether the ensuing wealth is equally distributed.

To their credit, the authors address a number of perspectives that try to explain the changes that took place in American society, especially in the 1960s, and acknowledge some validity of other insights about those changes. The major point is that the social changes that took place did not have a single cause, but resulted from largely disconnected events and causes that had a synergistic effect in pushing society as a whole toward egoism.

They further admit that a single thesis (i.e. the I-we-I phenomenon) does not explain everything. The decline in family formation, for example, is dependent upon a lot of factors including the availability of birth control and the change in gender roles. However, what does not get as much attention in the book as it should is the way in which some of the values the authors support might work at cross purposes. For example, the decline in family formation and accompanying solidarity may have been linked to the aftermath of rising gender equality. They argue that family formation increased throughout the early 20th century because of rising prosperity and solidarity, a feeling of “togetherness” suffusing society in general. Then it declines in tandem with rising individualism and the continuing rise of equality (even if equality is not rising as fast). But an insistence on equality is not going to create an incentive to form families or increase social solidarity. Sure, solidary and equality rose together, but their relationship may be more tenuous and even contradictory than correlations suggest.

Furthermore, social solidarity between neighbors and persons will necessarily revolve around certain functions performed by their associations. This implicates complex issues of human loyalty and the functional role of associations in their members’ lives. Essential to this discussion is that such associations are exclusive in certain respects when it comes to their function and values. To achieve solidarity within the group, they must be exclusive in some way, that is, not in solidarity with everyone else. There are certainly toxic forms of exclusivity evidenced by racial exclusion and the like, but a certain element of exclusion is necessary in every group if it is to achieve solidarity amongst its members. The value of equality as it became a central American ideal would tend to undermine this sort of associational solidarity. The same can be said for family formation. It isn’t clear how a growth of collective “we-ness” would reverse the decline in family formation. If anything, the insistence on the union of equal individuals in the national state is at odds with the creation of both families and Tocquevillian associations.

The Politicization of Society

The authors seem to mostly value what we might style the “political activism” of social cooperation. For example, the authors note that women’s groups form and grow in the late 19th century as part of the burgeoning of civil society associations, but they shift their focus “from reading and conversation to grassroots mobilization on behalf of social and political reform.” The targets of their activism were school reform, urban poverty, child labor, women’s suffrage, and the like, resulting in support for the Progressive Era constitutional amendments and other progressive reforms. As one women’s leader put it, “we prefer Doing to Dante, Being to Browning . . . We’ve soaked in literary effort long enough.”

Much of what the authors praise as growth in solidarity is a growth in political solidarity: Americans seeing each other as fellow Americans, citizens of the national American state. The broad sense of the “we” society was a national society, one where the “we-ness” was particularly attached to the national community. While Americans increasingly work together in a plethora of social groups during this period, these social groups are increasingly politicized, by which I mean they are concerned with the use of political power to achieve their goals. While some of the associations vaunted by Tocqueville were political, he was especially impressed with those that accomplished strictly social ends: the building of barns and roads, the organization of educational and religious institutions, and the like. In these associations, Tocqueville saw that Americans governed themselves in a way distinct from Europe where one would find the government or an aristocrat taking the lead. American citizens worked together to actually do things together—as a society of self-governing individuals, to solve social problems through social means, as distinct from political means.

There’s nothing wrong with loyalty to the nation, but solidarity with one’s neighbor derived therefrom is fragile, because it is not based upon mutual interest, love of place, or affection for something else concrete.

We should consider that the progressive politicization of social groups may have been the very means through which the “we” society declined. The “we” society cultivated by the burgeoning of social groups was undermined by the cooption of groups for political ends: their goals were distorted away from the use of social authority and toward the use of state power. As noted above, government intrusion did little to hasten the broad strides toward progressive aims of equality and solidarity. So much for the benefits. What about the costs? Might there have been a downside to the progressive emphasis upon social change through the political action of the national state?

The authors dismiss the conservative critique that government programs crowd out social groups by demonstrating that social groups and government programs multiplied in tandem. But to argue that this correlation means that the growth of government programs does not undermine the social groups or civil society more broadly is to miss a deeper critique about how these associations are eventually rendered functionless. The progressive push for groups to be engaged in political activism, seeking to use political rather than social means to achieve their goals, makes the groups function as little more than proxies for their members’ broader membership in the state.

The task of bending the goals of civil society associations toward the work of the national state strikes me as central and not incidental to the progressive project. President Wilson worked assiduously to undermine individuals’ attachments to their local loyalties and alternative authorities and to reorient them toward the national state in what Robert Nisbet dubbed the first total state. The effect of this nationalization of authority was to centralize citizens’ loyalty. As that national authority continued to flourish, over time it would have the effect of draining civil society of its independent purposes. The effect here is not just institutional, but psychological. Citizens will see their primary civic identity as national, rather than local, and political rather than social. There’s nothing wrong with loyalty to the nation, but solidarity with one’s neighbor derived therefrom is fragile, because it is not based upon mutual interest, love of place, or affection for something else concrete.

Here’s the real tragedy of that era. The rise of social groups and political comity praised by the authors was more of a resettling of social structures after the disruptions and dislocations of civil war and the industrial revolution—not a recovery from the effects of laissez faire ideology. The economic, social, and political challenges resulting from war and economic upheaval generally individualize populations, leading to lower marriage rates and less social capital formation. As the country adjusted to these changes, the social fabric was in the process of renewal, rewoven into new social groups appropriate to the new era. The authors’ praise the rise of social groups through the progressive era. But the movement toward social rebuilding was coopted by Progressive politics, the building of social capital was channeled toward building the administrative state, the energy that was being put into binding individuals together in civil society by, say, reading Dante and Browning, was diverted into “doing” and “being,” which were further flattened into political doing and being.

What we need are social entrepreneurs, people who will innovate socially to revive community and solidarity. But we further need to make sure that these people are not coopted toward political ends as they were in the early 20th century. We do need an upswing, but it must be an upswing characterized by social, rather than political, revival. One that seeks immunity from, rather than control of, political power. I am reminded of Alasdair MacIntyre’s famous appeal at the end of After Virtue for the rise of a St. Benedict, but “another—doubtless very different—St. Benedict.” What we need in response to our current travails is a social upswing, but it is going to have to be “another—doubtless very different—social upswing” from the one so ably described in this book.

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