How America Came Together a Century Ago and How We Can Do It Again
From the author of Bowling Alone and Our Kids, a “sweeping yet remarkably accessible” (The Wall Street Journal) analysis that “offers superb, often counterintuitive insights” (The New York Times) to demonstrate how we have gone from an individualistic “I” society to a more communitarian “We” society and then back again, and how we can learn from that experience to become a stronger more unified nation.
Deep and accelerating inequality; unprecedented political polarization; vitriolic public discourse; a fraying social fabric; public and private narcissism—Americans today seem to agree on only one thing: This is the worst of times.
But we’ve been here before. During the Gilded Age of the late 1800s, America was highly individualistic, starkly unequal, fiercely polarized, and deeply fragmented, just as it is today. However as the twentieth century opened, America became—slowly, unevenly, but steadily—more egalitarian, more cooperative, more generous; a society on the upswing, more focused on our responsibilities to one another and less focused on our narrower self-interest. Sometime during the 1960s, however, these trends reversed, leaving us in today’s disarray.
In a “magnificent and visionary book” (The New Republic) drawing on his inimitable combination of statistical analysis and storytelling, Robert Putnam analyzes a remarkable confluence of trends that brought us from an “I” society to a “We” society and then back again. He draws on inspiring lessons for our time from an earlier era, when a dedicated group of reformers righted the ship, putting us on a path to becoming a society once again based on community. This is Putnam’s most “remarkable” (Science) work yet, a fitting capstone to a brilliant career.
America's deep-seated divisions were healed in the past and can be again, argues this sweeping and persuasive study. Harvard sociologist Putnam (Bowling Alone) and Aspen Institute strategist Garrett posit a 125-year "I-We-I" arc starting about 1890, during which America, through the Depression, World War II, and the postwar boom, saw a grand upsurge of "we"-centered community spirit, shared economic advancement, social solidarity, and political consensus. Unfortunately, they contend, the upheavals of the 1960s inaugurated a 50-year downswing into the current "I"-centered slough of narcissistic individualism, economic inequality, social isolation, and bitter political polarization. Putnam and Garrett tell this story in lucid prose illustrated with fascinating data on everything from taxes on the rich to marriage rates, the ratio of the words "we" and "I" in books, and the frequency of unusual baby names. While the authors explore possible causes for community unraveling government policy, conservative backlash, do-your-own-thing liberalism, globalization they eschew reductionist explanations. Less satisfyingly, they present no solutions besides vaguely reprising the 20th-century Progressive era's mix of idealism and pragmatism. Still, this fresh, ambitious take on America's fraying social fabric will provoke much discussion.