The Upswing | Robert D. Putnam

Summary of: The Upswing: How America Came Together a Century Ago and How We Can Do It Again
By: Robert D. Putnam


Get ready to embark on a journey through the history and the critical moments of America’s eras of prosperity and division in ‘The Upswing: How America Came Together a Century Ago and How We Can Do It Again’ by Robert D. Putnam. This summary will take you through the vital ups and downs in American society, highlighting the oscillation between the ‘I’ and ‘we’ mentalities and their consequences. Dive deep into the politics, culture, social issues, and economics as the book unravels the Progressive Era and its lessons for today’s America.

“Tocqueville’s Reflections on American Society”

French aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville, after visiting America in the 1830s, admired the way Americans balanced respect for individualism with strong community values. If he visited today, he would see a more prosperous, educated nation with a rigged system that disproportionately favors those with wealth and power. Tocqueville would bemoan the near-plutocracy that disregards merit and the environment. Despite America’s achievements, it risks becoming less hospitable to life.

The Cycles of American Progress

The United States faces political polarization and societal division which threatens citizens’ faith in media and quality of life. However, this is not a unique time in history, as there were similar divides during the Gilded Age of the late 1800s. The Progressive Era that followed brought about economic, gender, and racial equality along with political compromise and communitarian values. Unfortunately, marginalized groups were left behind, which led to a reversal of progress in the 1970s. This pattern of progress, reversal, and progress again is a constant theme in American history.

American Progress: From Equality to Inequality

The Progressive Era brought unprecedented advancements in American society, spanning free public education, improved healthcare, and technological innovation. However, these gains did not always equate to equal distribution, with most benefits going to the wealthy. This imbalance peaked in the mid-1970s when equality gains were reversed, initiating an era of inequality. With the top 1% doubling its share of national wealth by 2014 and the top 0.1% owning about 20% of national wealth, American youth faces unprecedented prospects of earning less than their parents. A massive collective effort, as in the previous century, is required to restore equilibrium and propel progress towards a fairer society.

The Rise of Political Polarization

The mid-20th century saw Republicans and Democrats increasingly voting across party lines. However, the early 1960s marked a shift as people sought a clear choice between the parties. Differences over government size, abortion, environment, education, and race relations opened up wider divisions, with Republicans taking right-leaning positions. Over the decades, the Republican Party grew more conservative, and voters became more entrenched in their views, seeing supporters of the other party as ideologically extreme and personally flawed. Marrying across political lines decreased, and this polarization led to political gridlock and lower confidence in the government. The trend either ends or modulates with the collapse of democracy. Today, cross-party presidential approval has drastically dropped to less than 10%.

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