Taking the Long View: Robert Putnam’s The Upswing

The acknowledgements section of The Upswing contains a surprising note from Robert Putnam. In thanking his wife, he confesses that he had promised her that his 2015 Our Kids would be his last book. It was interesting to read his apology at the end of the book as it brings forth the big question of what motivated him to write it.

In many ways, Putnam picks up the themes he addressed in Bowling Alone, American Grace, and Our Kids. In all three books, he had explored society’s turn away from more traditional communitarianism. In the first, he argued that people were less likely to belong to community organizations. In the second, he (and co-author David Campbell) documented the major changes in American religion in the second half of the 20th century. In the third, he examined the ways in which economic and social inequality were replicated in American families — a condition he felt was very different from his own upbringing in 1950s small town Ohio.

What’s different about Upshift is the timeframe that he used. Rather than beginning somewhere mid-20th century, as these analyses often do, he begins in 1913. That longer timeline provides a different perspective in that what had looked like decline is seen as increase, plateau, and then decline. Examining a range of data points on economic, political, social, and cultural variables, he argues that the composite factors lay out in a curvilinear fashion with moves toward increased economic fairness, political compromise, social stability, and social responsibility for the first 50 years before reversing, in many ways ending even up worse than they were in the Gilded Age.

[As an aside, I should mention a quick analysis I did a few years ago on membership in the United Methodist Church. We tend to focus on the post-70s decline but the slope of the growth curve prior to 1950 creates exactly this curve.]

For each of the four factors Putnam explores, a similar pattern emerges. Take economics for example. There is data on the growth of educational attainment in the early part of the century. This is complimented with changes to income and wealth over time, shifts in tax policy, and the degree of upward mobility. In each of those areas, there is a move toward lessened inequality in post WW2 society which plateaus until the early 1970s and then falls precipitously (Putnam always orients “better” as “up”.) This argument is very similar to what Robert Reich argued in his 2011 Aftershock, where a period of general middle class economic wellbeing gives way to increased concentration of wealth at the top of the income/wealth spectrum.

Unfortunately, Putnam doesn’t share the equations used to combine all of his various indices into the solid line summary shown above. If you aren’t statistically inclined, you might be glad of that but I was frustrated by not being able to conceptually understand how all these features come together.

The politics chapter uses data on voting patterns, ticket splitting, attitudes toward the other party, faith in government, and belief in government operations. These improve over the first half of the time period before falling rapidly to levels today below those early in the 20th century.

The society chapter draws on religion, family, marriage and children, membership in social organizations, union engagement, and generalized social trust. The cultural chapter (probably the weakest) uses Ngrams from publishing to show how individual focus (for example on wanting unique baby names) give way to consensus (common baby names) and back. The authors contrast the prevalence of “rights” language as opposed to “responsibility” language.

Putnam and Garrett have a chapter on Race and a chapter on Gender. In each chapter, they demonstrate the ways in which the general upward patterns present in the previous chapters didn’t work the same way for Blacks and Women. This is helpful data in exploring the uniqueness of these subgroups within society but I found it somewhat confusing in that they were part of generic data present in the previous chapters. Putnam asserts that the most significant period of economic and social strengthening for Blacks was in the period immediately prior to the 1964-65 civil rights legislation. He also argues that the growth in the role of Women in society was more significant in the first half of the century than it was after the 1970s feminist movement. The picture of Women in society is limited by data showing women working out of economic necessity and still being burdened by the “second shift” problem of being responsible for household duties.

In many ways, I came away from The Upswing feeling that it was a marvelous compilation of data in search of a coherent explanatory framework. In the closing chapter, the authors struggle to find the theoretical answer to what drives the patterns in the curves above. Does economic inequality drive political isolation? Is it a shift away from religion or traditional family that drives cultural individualism? Which ones are the leading indicators and which are lagging indicators?

The authors examine a number of changes between 1968 and 1978. Beginning with the assassinations of JFK, MLK and RFK, riots ranging from Detroit to the Chicago Democratic Convention to Student protests of the Vietnam war, Watergate, and the stagflation that burdened the Carter administration. They suggest that these social disruptions pit sectors of society against each other, substituting subgroup passions for a collective sense of social identity.

The book, while commendable for exploring such a long time horizon, would have benefitted from a better theoretical orientation. I would argue that economic inequality is a principal driver with the political sphere being a direct result of that. The social and cultural realms respond to those two structural conditions. Yes, I’m an economic determinist who believes that ideological structures are built as representations of core distributions of money and power. (That’s more Weber than Marx, by the way.)

I was also surprised at the relative inattention to the huge impact of suburbanization as driver of social change, especially as encouraged by government policy. Media could also have used more attention as a mechanism through which social changes are labeled (even today protests are framed as destruction of property).

In working through tremendous data over the span on a century, the book seems to miss the role of power in creating the shifts the authors document. One of the dynamics of social change is that powerful structures can stand in the way. Every one of the social disruptions of “the sixties” became an opportunity for upstart groups to challenge the powers-that-be. But they also become an opportunity for those powers-that-be to keep those upstart groups at bay or to coopt them or to redirect their efforts in ways that protect basic structures.

This morning, my friend Paul Djupe shared an analysis arguing that Christian Nationalists weren’t dealing with concerns over potential oppression but over a concern for Social Dominance. I think that argument can be generalized to explain that changes Putnam documents. One of Paul’s scale questions dealt with the idea that people should “stay in their place.”

The more social changes might demand accommodation from those with who held power in the periods of quiet consensus, the more those in power will push back. Economic inequality, political polarization, social isolation, and loss of “the common good” might be a small price to pay to maintain the status quo.

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