A New Progressive Era?: A Conversation with Robert Putnam and Shaylyn Romney Garrett

March 3, 2021   •   By Gregor Baszak

ROBERT PUTNAM’S SCHOLARSHIP SHOWS that a rigorous data-driven approach need not come at the expense of a sincere and profound interest in bringing about positive social change. This had been his aim in writing the now-classic study Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (2000). The book asked many pressing questions: Had we not once been, in the famous words of the 19th-century French observer Alexis de Tocqueville, a “nation of joiners,” with many blossoming grassroots organizations of engaged citizens actively shaping the business of the young republic from the bottom up? Why, then, did we find ourselves disengaged from civic life and isolated from each other at the turn of the new millennium?


We have made little progress since then, Putnam admits in the preface to the new 20th-anniversary edition of Bowling Alone. But his new book, The Upswing: How America Came Together a Century Ago and How We Can Do It Again, reminds us that there had been another time in modern American history that showed levels of economic inequality and civic disarray similar to our present. Co-written with his former student, the social entrepreneur Shaylyn Romney Garrett, The Upswing recounts the history of the last 125 years as one of a remarkable swing from the Gilded Age’s individualism to the mid-20th century’s communitarian spirit. 


What accounts for these wild oscillations, and how can we once again develop a new “we” spirit in an age that’s plagued by rampant individualism? In our conversation, we tried to create a “we” feeling as best as video chat allowed.


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GREGOR BASZAK: You close your new book, The Upswing, with a reference to the 1888 novel Looking Backward: 2000–1887 by the Populist writer and activist Edward Bellamy. In the novel, as you explain, the protagonist Julian West wakes up in the year 2000 “to find the America he had known completely changed. The cutthroat competition of his own Gilded Age had been replaced by cooperation; and the individualistic ‘winner take all’ mind-set by a deep sense of mutual responsibility and mutual aid.” So much for Bellamy’s utopian vision; in reality his protagonist Julian West would have found what?


SHAYLYN ROMNEY GARRETT: He would have found a scenario that’s remarkably familiar to his own time. We argue in The Upswing that we’re basically living through a second Gilded Age. And that is characterized by deep and almost unprecedented economic inequality and deep political polarization, resulting in a gridlocked public square, a social fabric that is frayed, where our bonds and ties have largely unraveled. We find ourselves lonely and often despairing. We are also seeing a culture of self-centeredness and narcissism. The argument in The Upswing is that these things are measurable and that when you measure them statistically, the place that we’re in today bears remarkable resemblance to that period in which Bellamy was writing.


But interestingly, The Upswing also argues that the America that he had envisioned came and went in the period of 125 years between when he wrote that and today.


At the heart of The Upswing is a notable graph in which you track various measures from the Gilded Age to our own time, such as levels of income inequality, civic engagement, or political comity. In almost all cases, the graph presents an inverted U curve that rises from the turn of the 20th century through to the 1960s before it begins to rapidly drop to today’s low levels. In essence, the graph tells us that in the middle of the 20th century, inequality was low while civic engagement and political comity were high, and that this is no longer the case. How do you explain this overarching swing from “I” to “we” and back again?


ROBERT PUTNAM: The standard way in which social scientists go about this problem is to look for leads and lags: when you find a variable that turns first, that’s likely to be the cause. But in our case, all these variables are so closely correlated that it’s hard to distinguish which might have been a leader or a lagger.


Our first surprise as we sought to find leaders and laggers was that economic inequality was a lagging not a leading variable. We had originally thought that the causal story would be that inequality rose or fell as a result of some other factor, international or purely economic, and that everything else was a consequence of economic change. It’s a crude Marxism that believes that economics change and then every other thing follows that. But the only clear thing we did find was that economic change was more likely the caboose than the engine of this overall curve.


If you don’t just stick strictly to statistical data, you will find another cause, namely a moral and cultural change. This is epitomized by the transition from so-called Social Darwinism to the Social Gospel. Social Darwinism was a crazy misinterpretation of Darwin. The idea was that we’d all be better off if everybody were just selfish and the devil takes the hindmost. It’s a little hard to imagine anybody actually believed it, but that was the dominant theme in American culture in the last part of the 19th century. It was succeeded around the turn of the century by the Social Gospel, a movement that was formed in evangelical Protestant circles. There people realized that in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is on the side of the poor, not the rich. A very similar trend can be found in other religious denominations at the time. It was true in mainline Protestant denominations and certainly in Catholicism during the papacy of Leo XIII. In the aftermath of the Industrial Revolution, the Catholic Church made an effort to become much more aligned with workers’ parties. And in a different way it was true, too, in Judaism. So that kind of evidence led us to say, somewhat surprisingly, that a deep moral and cultural change was the earliest variable to change.


SRG: The historian Richard Hofstadter described this phenomenon as “moral indignation […] directed inward.” This is what characterized the Progressives who were leading this cultural shift. At the time, it would’ve been very easy to point to the idle rich or to point to the robber barons or to point to forces outside of ourselves that were causing this difficult period in American history. But in fact, many of these reformers looked inside and said that there’s a way in which they, as elites, had been complicit in the creation of this deeply unequal, deeply fragmented society. And it was from that inner work that their civic work really sprang.


RP: Another major factor in the Progressive Era was decentralization. Most of the major progress began at the grassroots and not in Washington or at Harvard. It began in ordinary small towns in the middle of America and then spread from there.


Moreover, political leadership was a lagging variable, not a leading one. I’m not saying that Teddy Roosevelt wasn’t important, but he was building on 20 years of experimentation at the grassroots. You might think that in order to get a big change in this society, you’ve got to have a powerful national leader. But that was not true of the Progressive Era, which has direct implications for today.


What provided the spark that led to the proliferation of civic engagement at the turn of the 20th century?


SRG: This was a period of vast transformation. You had millions of people who had moved out of small towns and farms and into industrialized cities. This meant that the traditional forms of connection that they had been used to were no longer adequate in a changed world. So, these people had to invent a new civic infrastructure. And as people tried out new ideas that worked, word spread.


RP: The Rotary Club, for example, was invented by Paul Harris, a young man who had moved from a rural area to Chicago. He didn’t know anybody in Chicago, and he thought: “How do I meet anybody here?” And he had the idea of starting a lunch group and bringing people together. Within 40 years, 500,000 people around the world were having lunch every week based on that simple model. From the beginning, Rotary focused very heavily on community service, and during those luncheons, people stand up and say, “I’d like to recognize Susan across the table, who this week has led an initiative to bring lunch to poor kids.” That’s the way in which the moral and cultural change got implemented in people’s real lives.


SRG: When you look at Rotary, that service-oriented ethos is very different from what business networking would look like today. Business networking today is all about me and what benefit I can get from having lunch with these other people, whereas Rotary was explicitly founded to bring moral uplift to the members and service to those outside. And that’s what we’re trying to illustrate with the “I” versus “we” ethos.


The focus of Bowling Alone was the second half of the 20th century. In The Upswing, by contrast, you looked at developments spanning the last 125 years. Has this wider lens led you to reconsider some of the conclusions that you, Professor Putnam, had drawn in Bowling Alone, or did it mostly confirm them?


RP: Compared to Bowling Alone, The Upswing steps back in two senses. It looks at 125 years rather than just 40 or 50 years; Bowling Alone was about the period from 1960 to, roughly speaking, 2000. In The Upswing, we’re looking at 1890 to 2020. Moreover, Bowling Alone was just about social capital, whereas The Upswing also looks at inequality, political polarization, and cultural factors. That changes your perspective.


For example, I now think that Bowling Alone overestimated how important TV was. The proliferation of TV sets in American households in the 1950s and 1960s can’t explain why social capital was growing between 1900 and the 1950s. And it certainly can’t explain the turning points in economic inequality or in polarization. While I’m very proud of Bowling Alone, its perspective was limited. I don’t say it was wrong. But when you look very closely at something, you see one thing; and when you step back, it looks quite different.


Concurrent with The Upswing, you published the 20th-anniversary edition of Bowling Alone. In the new preface, you, Professor Putnam, write that you had hoped that Bowling Alone would contribute to a revival of communitarianism in America. Did anything change for the better since Bowling Alone was first published?


RP: I say explicitly in that preface that in that respect, Bowling Alone was a failure. I set out to change America, and I didn’t. That’s the simplest answer.


I do think in some respects Bowling Alone did have important consequences. For example, the term social capital is now in very wide use, which wasn’t the case in the early 1990s, when I began the research for Bowling Alone. At that time, in the aftermath of the fall of the Berlin Wall, it was simply unthinkable to claim that American democracy was ailing and that it had to do with our diminishing connections with other people. So, I do think I’ve pushed the ball a little bit in the right direction.


In both books, Bowling Alone and The Upswing, you place a lot of hope on the Progressive movement, past and present. The makeup of the original Progressive movement seems hard to pin down because both Republican and Democratic politicians claimed the mantle of “progressivism,” as did many unaligned activists in the Populist and Socialist parties. Today, by contrast, progressivism is almost exclusively a label used by Democrats. What made progressivism so attractive more than a century ago that it drew such bipartisan support?


SRG: To a certain extent, it’s the fact that it wasn’t exactly a political movement, but rather a kind of a cultural and a moral movement. As we note in The Upswing, in the 1912 presidential election, all three candidates identified as progressives and were jockeying for who would win the mantle of progressivism.


The Teddy Roosevelts really came along later in the process and built upon a Progressive movement that was already in existence. We didn’t first get the Progressive Party, and then everything changed. Instead, Progressivism was a grassroots movement that had a cultural and a moral energy to it that was calling for something different — and politicians from across the spectrum responded to that call.


Today, we’re looking at the reverse to be true. We’re looking for our charismatic political leaders to call forth some sort of national revival that then we’re all going to get on board with. That’s not how it worked last time. If we really want to see another American upswing, it will manifest itself first in a cultural and moral shift and in grassroots action at the community level.


And yet today many corporate CEOs will gladly espouse “progressive” viewpoints in PR statements and newsletters to their customers while the progressivism of old was often antagonistic to corporate power. Isn’t that all just a smoke screen?


RP: The relationship between business leaders and reform is not simple. It was not simple in that period. There were people who had been robber barons who changed their mind. There are a lot of corporate robber barons today. Some of them also are, both in their money and in their policies, becoming more progressive — both with a capital P as well as with the small p. I think we’ve got to be really careful not to make simple assumptions about the relationship between business leadership and reform.


Of course, it’s part of the argument of the book that a lot of the problems in that earlier period, exactly like the problems today, are corporate monopolies in newly formed sunrise industries. It was the telephone, railroad, and auto and oil industries then, and it’s the internet now. So, of course, there were and are serious problems caused by excessive corporate power, but the relationship between corporations and corporate leadership and reform is not so simple as good guys versus bad guys. And it’s not constant over time.


SRG: Bob likes to point out that America was capitalist throughout this entire “I-we-I” period that we’re talking about here. But there were different versions of capitalism in these different periods. One of the examples we highlight is that of George Romney and Mitt Romney. Mitt is my second cousin, so it strikes a little bit close to home.


George Romney was a successful businessman. He was a CEO. He was governor of Michigan. And he ultimately ran for president. And when he was a CEO, he repeatedly turned down bonuses that his company offered to him simply because he felt like it was immoral that the corporate leadership would make so much more money than the workers on the line. Writers like Paul Krugman have documented this period as having something called an “outrage factor” that really reined in extreme income inequality. Fast forward to Mitt Romney — very similar profile, very successful CEO, governor of a state, ran for president — who repeatedly took millions upon millions in bonuses from his companies and then goes on to state that America consists of “makers and takers.” Forty-seven percent of Americans do nothing but just take, take, take.


That’s a very different mindset from the one that his father had. You could say that the “we” period was characterized by a stakeholder capitalism, and the “I” period by more of a shareholder capitalism.


RP: George Romney explicitly argued that there ought not to be a very great difference between the income of workers on the line in his businesses and the CEO. He talked about how they were all part of the same enterprise and, therefore, there ought to be caps on the annual income of CEOs. And there ought to be special policies within his company to raise the wages of the frontline workers. Mitt Romney’s whole career, by contrast, is based on doing away with that and getting rid of workers and all the profit going to the management. It couldn’t be a more startling contrast. I’m not making a point that one of these people was a good person, and one was a bad person. I don’t think Mitt Romney is a bad person. But the cultures in which they were operating were completely different.


In 2015, the political scientist Lee Drutman documented a large disconnect between average Americans on the one hand and what he called “business Republicans” on the other. While most Americans are in favor of increasing Social Security but against expanding immigration, business Republicans favor the exact opposite: cuts to Social Security and increasing immigration. But far from being limited to libertarian Republicans, this has been the bipartisan DC consensus. What makes for this disconnect between what seems to be actually a consensus among Americans on the one hand and Washington on the other?


RP: Remember that in the Progressive Era political leaders were the lagging not the leading variable. If our analysis in The Upswing is right, where we ought to see change first is not in the White House or for that matter in the cabinets; we ought to see the change occurring first at the level of the grassroots. It ought to be occurring in who shows up to demonstrate. It ought to be showing up in local groups of citizens, probably bipartisan or nonpartisan folks, who get together in Duluth or in Mobile, Alabama, or in New Hampshire or in Springfield, Missouri, or wherever. That’s where local leaders ought to get together.


But if you look to depictions in the national media, Duluth, Springfield, Mobile — that’s where hopelessly despicable people live.


SRG: What you’re identifying is the disconnect between the national narrative and what’s actually happening on the ground. And that’s another problem for civic innovators to step in and solve. Local journalism has been decimated by the corporatization of media. But people are waking up to the fact that they can’t have a successful and functional community if they don’t have local journalism. People have begun thinking about alternative forms of media that can actually report on what’s really happening in these towns and cities to help people realize they might have more in common, and they might agree upon more than they otherwise would be told by the national media.


RP: Shaylyn and I are not in a prediction business, but we are in the hope business, and I’m hopeful that what we’re talking about here is not science fiction. This is not something that is going to happen 100 years from now as was the case in Bellamy’s novel. But we’re also not going to solve the big problems in four years of Biden. Never in American history did we solve them in four years. Solving big problems takes time. But can I imagine a pivot that will move us in the right direction in the next four or eight years? Absolutely, I can.


What we learned from that earlier period is that history is not determined by something outside. We think that the critical factor is really citizen agency — that the choices that individual people make will, in fact, determine whether we end up on one path or another.


The fundamental message we want to convey to our readers, especially our younger readers, is: Don’t be cynical. Don’t think that this is all determined by somebody else. Working with others, you can make a difference because people exactly like you, people of the same age as you, changed things the last time. We’ve brought about an upswing once before, and we can do it again.


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Gregor Baszak is a PhD candidate in English at the University of Illinois at Chicago. His Twitter handle is @gregorbas1.