Commentary on Political Economy

Friday 16 October 2020



How to Actually Make America Great

Reversing 50 years of social decline.

David Brooks

This pivotal moment isn’t just the result of four years of Donald Trump. It’s the culmination of 50 years of social decay.

The Upswing,” a remarkable new book by Robert D. Putnam and Shaylyn Romney Garrett, puts this situation in stark relief. A careful work of social science, the book looks at American life from about 1870 to today across a range of sectors that are usually analyzed in separate academic silos.

The first important finding is that between the 1870s and the late 1960s a broad range of American social trends improved: Community activism surged, cross party collaboration increased, income inequality fell, social mobility rose, church attendance rose, union membership rose, federal income taxes became more progressive and social spending on the poor rose.

Many of us think that the gains for African-Americans only happened after the Civil Rights Act of 1964, but Putnam and Garrett show that the fastest improvements actually happened in the decades before. Black school attendance, income gains, homeownership rates, voter registration rates started rapidly improving in the 1940s and then started slowing in the 1970s and 1980s.

The American century was built during these decades of social progress. And then, around the late 1960s, it all turned south.

Over the past 50 years, the positive trends have reversed: membership in civic organizations has collapsed, political polarization has worsened, income inequality has widened, social trust has cratered, religious attendance is down, social mobility has decreased, deaths of despair have skyrocketed and on and on.

Putnam and Garrett take the data from diverse spheres and produce different versions of the same chart, which is an inverted U. Until the late 1960s, American life was improving across a range of measures. Since then, it’s a story of decay.

Why did all these different things happen in unison and then suddenly turn around all at once? Maybe economic change drove everything? But no, the timing is off. Economic inequality widened a bit later than most of the other trends. Maybe it was political dysfunction? Nope. That, too, happened a bit later.

The crucial change was in mind-set and culture. As Putnam and Garrett write: “The story of the American experiment in the twentieth century is one of a long upswing toward increasing solidarity, followed by a steep downturn into increasing individualism. From ‘I’ to ‘we’ and back again to ‘I’.”

The frequency of the word “I” in American books, according to Putnam and Garrett, doubled between 1965 and 2008. The authors are careful not to put it into moralistic terms, but I’d say that, starting in the late 1960s, there was left wing self-centeredness in the social and lifestyle sphere and right wing self-centeredness in the economic sphere, with a lack of support for common-good public policies. But it was socially celebrated self-centeredness all the way across. It was based on a fallacy: If we all do our own thing, everything will work out well for everybody.

As I was reading the book, I was thinking of all the people who work at foundations, nonprofits and all the organizations that try to help people in need and do social repair. I’m sure all these good people at these good places have done good things over the past 50 years, but they have failed to bend these curves. Social conditions got inexorably worse.

That’s because many were operating at the wrong level. They were trying to build programs that would “scale,” but they were swimming against the tide of culture, the pervasive individualistic mentality, and all its social and political effects.

About two and half years ago I helped found an organization called Weave: The Social Fabric Project that was designed precisely to focus on cultural change. We illuminate, support and connect community builders, Weavers, whose daily lives are oriented around social solidarity, not self. We figure culture changes when a small group of people find a better way to live and the rest of us copy them.

I’ve found that about a third of the people I encounter in this work get the power of culture and the importance of culture change, and two thirds don’t really see culture. They focus exclusively on what can be quantified. And yet changing the national mind-set, the values, the norms, is the difficult and necessary work.

Putnam and Garrett hold up the Progressive Movement, not as something we could go back to, but as a storehouse of lessons for us to adapt. Progressivism was “first and foremost, a moral awakening.” Muckrakers exposed social evils. The survival of the fittest mentality was rejected. Then it was a civic renaissance. Between 1870 and 1920 Americans created civic organizations at a rate that’s never been equaled. Then it was a political movement. By 1912 all three major presidential candidates ran as progressives: William Taft, Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt.

Today we need a political change, so we don’t have a leader who shreds the nation from the top. But the great missing pieces are in the civic and cultural spheres: a moral vision that inspires the rising generation, a new national narrative that unites a diverse people, actual organizations where people work on local problems. As in 1870, it’s the work of a generation.

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