From "I" to "We"
Here’s the good news about the awful condition we’re in, from one of the great American people-watchers, Robert Putnam of Bowling Alone fame: it’s that we’ve been here before. “Unprecedented” is the wrong tag on this crisis of 2020, Bob Putnam says: 2020 is more like a hindsight mirror on the Gilded Age, that Mark Twain mocked post-Civil War: the age of gaudy monopoly fortunes, popular pessimism, unfairness to freed slaves and to women, scandalous politics up to the turn of the twentieth century and the birth of progressive reform. In our panicky Second Gilded Age today, Putnam says, the underlying problem is the same: we’re a “We the People” kind of country living through a me-me-me mistake. What will cure us, he says, is “all together” values, and he can see them coming in Black Lives Matter and climate activism.
Remember the shift in Beatles’ hits of the 1960s: “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” from ’63, was a hymn to togetherness. “Eleanor Rigby” in ’66 was about “all the lonely people.” By 1970 the song was “I, Me, Mine.” There’s a turn in those lyrics away from trust, engagement, social empathy. And for our guest Robert Putnam and his co-writer Shaylyn Romney Garrett, there’s a key to the anxious American doldrums of 2020: politics broken, economy gasping, public health missing, social capital depleted. Their book is upbeat in a down time, titled The Upswing.
We’re an individualistic society with a communitarian streak or maybe vice versa: but the “I” and “Me” impulses are always in struggle with the “We” in “We the People.” What’s crashing all around us, Putnam and Garrett argue, is the Second Gilded Age of “I alone” monopoly wealth and much social misery. They are here to remind us the first Gilded Age was much the same or worse by the 1890s, and got cured in the twentieth century by a parade of common causes—like public high-school for everybody, progressive taxation on monster money, and strong unions to the peak of a shared prosperity in the 1950s post-war and JFK’s 1960 spirit of “ask what you can do for your country.” It’s been downhill ever since, in the tax cuts of the 1980s, austerity, precarity—Lily Tomlin’s line: “Just remember: we’re all in this alone.”
Co-author of The Upswing, and author of Bowling Alone.
Co-author of The Upswing.