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Signs of (Civic) Life

Robert Putnam revisits his ‘Bowling Alone’ thesis. But there are shifts and stories that the data can’t capture.
January 29, 2021
Signs of (Civic) Life
Rotary Club of Covina with foreign students, 03 March 1952. (GettyImages)

The Upswing
How America Came Together a Century Ago
and How We Can Do It Again

by Robert D. Putnam and Shaylyn Romney Garrett
Simon & Schuster, 465 pp., $32.50

We are living in a hyper-partisan, unequal, xenophobic time, when civil society is fragmenting, social capital is decaying, and communal life is fraying—so argue Robert Putnam and Shaylyn Romney Garrett in The Upswing. And, they say, this situation is nothing new: That description fits America’s Gilded Age just as aptly as it does our own.

Putnam, arguably the most famous and respected political scientist of our day, is best known for Bowling Alone, a book published in 2000 that grew out of a 1995 journal article. The book was immediately influential and became one of the best-known titles in social science over the last half-century. It details America’s trend toward individualism from the golden era of social solidarity of the 1960s, telling a story of the country’s civic decline over the course of the last four decades of the twentieth century.

The Upswing’s origin story goes like this: Putnam was examining historical data sets (his idea of a fun time) and noticed a striking pattern. When he looked at a variety of metrics—economic inequality, political partisanship, social dislocation, cultural narcissism—across the last hundred-some years of American life, he noticed that they all tracked one another. They were high in the Gilded Age, decreased steadily until the 1960s (an unprecedented time of economic equality, social and political harmony, and communitarianism) and then began to rise once again through to our present day. There was, across the century, an “I-We-I” trajectory.

After spotting this pattern in the data, Putnam recruited Garrett, with whom he had written a previous book a decade ago—American Grace, on America’s religious culture—to help him bring the statistical trends to life. A former student of Putnam’s, Garrett has had an illustrious career of her own, having spent years in the Peace Corps in the Middle East and helped found a social-fabric research initiative with David Brooks at the Aspen Institute.

The Upswing can be thought of as an improvement on, and a restatement of, Putnam’s Bowling Alone general thesis—extending the previous book’s scope in various ways, including by examining data further back in history to America’s Gilded Age.

Notably absent from Putnam’s analysis in Bowling Alone was data on associational life in America’s minority and African-American communities. This was partially due to the limited data available at the time the book was published. The Upswing seeks to help fill the gap: From the outset the authors emphasize the African-American experience, and they dedicate an entire chapter to analyzing the limited data available on the civic life of America’s minority communities.

In this chapter, entitled “Race and the American ‘We,’” Putnam and Garrett examine whether the gains in social and communal solidarity over the first half of the twentieth century—the “upswing” from the 1890s to the 1960s—came at the expense of women and historically marginalized groups, particularly African Americans. After the Civil War, hopes of racial equality—some two thousand black men held posts in local, state, and federal government during Reconstruction—were soon dashed as these gains gave way to the racist violence and bigotry of Jim Crow.

‘The Upswing’ by Robert D. Putnam and Shaylyn Romney GarrettAlthough slavery had been abolished, the Gilded Age saw the social and economic exclusion of black Americans continue: The gap between the experience of white and black Americans widened from the end of the nineteenth century until about the middle of the twentieth. Thus, Putnam and Garrett note, at the very same time that America was in many ways becoming more equal, with measures of social solidarity on the rise—moving toward the American “we”—African Americans continued to be excluded from many social and civic associations.

But Putnam and Garrett also argue that the story of black Americans in the first half of the twentieth century is more complex than it appears. Improvements on some select measures of health, education, economics, and voting began before the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s. For example, Putnam and Garrett show that the ratio of black life expectancy to white life expectancy steadily rose from 1900 through today—from about 0.69 in 1905 to 0.95 in our own era.

By most measures, education for black students in the South was woefully below what was available to white students before the Supreme Court held segregation unconstitutional in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954—but even under Jim Crow, Putnam and Garrett point out, attainment of degrees by black students began to rise, spending on black schools was slowly increasing, and attendance rates of black elementary school students matched those of white students by 1940.

Ratios between blacks and whites in metrics like wages and home ownership also rose during Jim Crow, Putnam and Garrett note. They also see this trend in the franchise: Voter registration rose among African Americans in the years leading up to 1956; from 1940 to 1956 alone, “the number of registered Southern black voters increased more than seven-fold,” a rise too steep to be solely the result of lowering the voting age in 1943 and eliminating white primaries in 1944.

Putnam and Garrett suggest that one explanation for some of the statistical improvements in the lives of black Americans even amid the widespread segregation and exclusion is the “Great Migration”—the movement, between 1915 and 1970, of approximately six million black Americans from the Jim Crow South to the North and the West. Putnam and Garrett also note that black Americans, despite being excluded from the white mainstream, created their own businesses, schools, voluntary associations, literary societies, churches, and many other organizations to offer community to one another as they settled in new cities. Such associations further contributed to the proliferation of associational life in America during the first half of the twentieth century more broadly.

Their point in showing these social, economic, and political improvements over the course of the last century is not to diminish the racism in America’s past. Far from it. Indeed, Putnam and Garrett acknowledge both the realities of American racism as well as trends that run counter to their thesis. They also readily recognize that we still have a long way to go in pursuit of social, economic, and political equality today. Rather, they aim to show that racial disparities on many fronts were diminished during “America’s ‘we’ epoch,” and that many trends toward equality have slowed during “America’s ‘I’ epoch” of more recent decades. They aim to confront us with the evidence of stagnated progress when it comes to racial equality, and encourage us to keep pursing the ideals of equal opportunity under the law enshrined in America’s founding documents.

Putnam and Garrett deserve credit for incorporating the experience of black Americans into their work. Yet readers should approach their conclusions with caution: As the authors themselves recognize, on many of the most interesting and important questions, there simply is not a lot of reliable, national, longitudinal data on race.

Also noteworthy is Putnam and Garrett’s use of biography to make their case. They briefly tell the life stories of several famous American social and political reformers to show that many of these luminaries were active in a select few decades—helping precipitate the “upswing” of the first half of the twentieth century. Perhaps more importantly, the authors show that each of these reformers effected such grand changes only after experiencing a “moral awakening”—not unlike what the authors hope to elicit in their readers.

For example, Putnam and Garrett tell the story of Frances Perkins, who witnessed the Triangle Shirtwaist fire in New York City in 1911, in which hundreds of factory workers were killed. The tragedy motivated Perkins to dedicate her life to pursuing fair working conditions for American laborers; she would serve as the secretary of labor—and the first ever woman in a president’s cabinet—under Franklin Roosevelt, and was instrumental in creating Social Security.

Paul Harris moved to Chicago in 1896 after graduating from law school in Iowa, and was surprised by his loneliness and isolation in the big, industrial, and anonymous city. He formed an organization for local professionals, gathering in 1905 with three other men for the first meeting of a Rotary club meeting (the name referring to the practice, soon dropped, of rotating meeting locations).

And after Ida B. Wells refused a train conductor’s orders to give up her seat, she was dragged from the train—despite citing the 1875 Civil Rights Act banning racial discrimination in public accommodations. She sued the rail car, and while her suit was unsuccessful, her article about the experience was widely read, and she became a prominent journalist and a newspaper editor and owner—and would continue to fight for civil rights throughout her life.

These vignettes, clumped together in the last chapter, constitute the book’s most engaging part. Biography and storytelling are powerful tools of both instruction and inspiration, and it is encouraging to see The Upswing employ these tools in a way that Bowling Alone did not. These anecdotes are also the part of the book that is most accessible to readers. It would thus have been useful if Putnam and Garrett had tried to find a way to disperse these stories throughout the book, to bring the data to life, rather than relegating them to the book’s last few pages.

To the extent that The Upswing doubles down on the Bowling Alone thesis that America is in a state of civic and social decline, the new book is left open to some of the same criticisms leveled at Putnam’s previous work.

In 1999, a few years after the publication of the original “Bowling Alone” essay, Everett Carll Ladd, the longtime executive director of the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research, wrote The Ladd Report, a book that grew out of his work with other social scientists who believed that Putnam’s argument was overly simplistic and that social capital and civic engagement were never in crisis at all. Ladd argued that while the specific metrics Putnam selected may have indicated decline, a broader view showed that social capital was building elsewhere. “In case after case where a group that’s been important in the past now finds itself losing ground, or at least struggling to maintain its place, investigation shows that the main cause is simply strong competition,” Ladd wrote. “The Elks and the Boy Scouts are less prominent and active now than they were a half century ago; but the Sierra Club is much more so. Bowling leagues are down, but U.S. Youth Soccer has emerged de novo and engages more than two million boys and girls, together with an army of adult volunteers.”

Nicholas Lehmann made this point as well in an Atlantic essay published in 1996—a year after Putnam first aired his thesis. Lehmann suggested that Putnam either overlooked or was too quick to dismiss organizations and initiatives that have sprung up in place of bowling leagues and other longstanding fixtures of American social life. As Ladd later would, Lehmann also noted the dramatic example of U.S. Youth Soccer: In 1996, U.S. Youth Soccer had 2.4 million members, up from 1.2 million ten years prior, and from 127,000 ten years before that. Today, it’s worth noting, its annual membership is nearly 3 million.

Lehmann also noted the number of restaurants in America—which rose dramatically, from 203,000 in 1972 to 368,000 in 1993—as a counterpoint to Putnam’s thesis. Today, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are about 660,000 restaurants in America; the National Restaurant Association puts the number even higher, at over 1 million. Would the number of restaurants increase so dramatically—considerably faster than the growth in population—if people were eating out together less? Of course, the growth in restaurants could mean that fewer families are eating at home together, or at least cooking at home, which would indicate something important about our culture. But it also is an indication of increased informal social ties. And, as the coronavirus pandemic has so vividly and painfully reminded us, restaurants and bars, most of which have experienced disruptions or closures, remain central not just to the American economy but to how we socialize.

Moreover, it is worth examining whether even the indicators of civic health that Putnam was right to flag as worrisome in Bowling Alone are still as bad today. In a new National Affairs essay marking the book’s twentieth anniversary, I looked at more recent data—which was difficult to do, since Putnam produced that book in something of a golden age for longitudinal survey research—and found that the state of American civic life is much more nuanced than a monolithic narrative of decline.

For example, since Putnam wrote Bowling Alone, voting rates have increased—and in 2020, turnout was higher than in any presidential election in more than a century. Although church attendance has continued to fall, charitable giving has stayed relatively level. This shows that the true state of American civic life is much more complex than a simplistic narrative of decay and deterioration. For The Upswing merely to regurgitate Bowling Alone’s data on civic and social decline leaves it vulnerable to these criticisms.

But this is not necessarily the fault of Putnam and Garrett. They, like any synthesizers of others’ research, are constrained by the data available to them. More research on—and better research metrics and tools for studying—the state of American civic life are needed. This is because the old means of measuring civic life don’t always capture the reality.

For example, while we may not be attending Rotary clubs together anymore, we are coming together in other ways. New forms of engagement, argues Princeton researcher Robert Wuthnow, are taking the place of older forms that are declining. There has been a shift away from institutional, traditional civic organizations, but Americans are increasingly using short-term, task-oriented networks to find new ways to meet needs and solve problems. Wuthnow calls these “loose connections,” and they are, as Putnam himself has noted, fluid and difficult to measure and track—but they are still means of connectedness.

Like Bowling Alone, as well as the small cottage industry of books on American civic decline inspired by it, The Upswing suffers from what I call the “last chapter problem”: These books primarily go about describing the problem, and don’t dedicate much space to potential solutions.

Putnam and Garrett, in their book’s final chapter, gesture at the need for “civic revival”—and as mentioned, they look to the lives of reformers in the past to better understand how revival has happened before. They note that the Progressive movement was a very youthful one. The most prominent reformers—including Teddy Roosevelt, as well as those mentioned above—were in their thirties or younger when they became forces to be reckoned with in their missions for social change. But what are we to make of that fact? Putnam and Garrett could have made a tighter connection to how, specifically, that particular historical observation is relevant to fostering a civic revival today.

Overall, the book might have been more useful—not to mention a more apt fulfillment of its subtitle (“How America Came Together a Century Ago and How We Can Do It Again”)—if the authors had allotted more than just a few pages at the end for a discussion of a practical roadmap for the renewal they so desire.

Such a discussion could have taken many forms, including focusing on and learning from the people who are currently a part of creating a civic revival today—the subject of Garrett’s work at the Aspen Institute. More research is needed on these people—modern reformers, civic innovators, and social healers comparable to those who accomplished so much during the Progressive era. A book-length treatment on them alone is merited.

All in all, The Upswing is a massive scholarly feat that reminds us of the way in which looking to the past can allow us to see the present more clearly—and to think with more care about our part in helping our democratic project flourish once more.

Alexandra Hudson

Alexandra Hudson, an Indianapolis-based writer, is the author of a book on civil discourse forthcoming from St. Martin’s Press. She is also the editor of Civic Renaissance, a newsletter and intellectual community dedicated to moral and cultural renewal. Twitter: @LexiOHudson.