Along with celebrating the holidays and taking a badly needed break from email, one of the happier aspects of the break was getting a chance to read long-form prose in big, uninterrupted chunks. So I put on my political theorist hat for a while and read Robert Putnam and Shaylyn Romney Garrett’s new book, The Upswing.
Putnam is best known for his earlier work on social capital, especially Bowling Alone. The new book is about “social connectedness” and its rise and fall in the United States over the last century. “Social connectedness” here refers to behaviors indicating concern for a larger group. That’s a necessarily broad brush, but Putnam and Garrett spend several chapters triangulating its meaning through quantitative analyses of trends ranging from age of first marriage to the choice of uncommon baby names to church attendance to pronoun use in literature to political ticket splitting. In case after case, they trace an “I-We-I” curve in which the culture of individualism appears not as an inexplicable deviation from recorded history, but as a recurring feature. In the early 20th century, as they tell it, individualism was rampant in the United States. Concerns for “we” got stronger from then until the early 1960s. Somewhere in the mid-1960s, the curve changed direction, and the “we” culture started abruptly to move back to a “me” culture.
Although they’re careful to tread lightly on the politics of it, it becomes clear that much of what progressives care about assumes some identification with a larger “we.” To the extent that appeals based on “we” fall flat, progressive causes will struggle. Putnam and Garrett use that framework, and their data, to argue that the popular image of civil rights progress is largely backward: in their telling, Black Americans’ economic situation was improving markedly throughout the early 20th century, with the upward slope plateauing after the ’60s. Putnam and Garrett repeatedly use the image of taking the “foot off the gas” on all sorts of measures of social progress after the ’60s, with varying degrees of plausibility. (They also make some weird unforced errors, such as the claim that “President Carter initiated an affirmative action program to help correct gender imbalances in 1974.” President Carter took office in 1977.) The claim is that when Americans were expanding the circle of “we,” great progress was possible; when the culture shifted to “me,” even the force of changed laws wasn’t enough to keep progress moving forward.
As with any sweeping historical claim, it’s easy to find examples on both sides. For instance, much of the anxiety around “conformity” among 1950s social critics reflected a concern that the culture of “we” had grown too strong. The Lonely Crowd, The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit and The Organization Man were all, in various ways, expressions of the fear of conformism gone too far. (Nearly every episode of The Twilight Zone can be seen the same way. Ayn Rand’s oeuvre is the reductio ad absurdum of this critique.) Having just seen the Russian revolution, the rise of Nazism, the rise of the modern corporation and two world wars in three decades, many thinkers of the time subsumed all of those under the category of “collectivism.” Much of the countercultural fixation in the ’60s and ’70s on smallness, localism and “authenticity” can be understood as a reaction to too much “we.”
In the decades since, by Putnam and Garrett’s argument, a sort of proto-libertarianism has become cultural common sense. We can see that in the decline of/assault on private sector unions, the spread of tax revolts and all manner of risk-shifting from the larger society to its individual members, such as the replacement of defined-benefit pensions with defined-contribution accounts. In 2016, a major-party presidential candidate declared on national television that tax evasion “makes [him] smart,” and he got elected anyway. That’s quite a distance, conceptually, from “buy war bonds.” Even the areas in which progressive causes have won, such as greater respect for the LGBTQ community, are broadly compatible with a libertarian outlook: in the current vernacular, you do you.
Putnam and Garrett get a lot right. I often claim that the reason community colleges struggle is that they were built to create a middle class for a country that no longer wants one. The chronology fits: the bulk of community colleges in the U.S. were established in the 1960s, just as the “we” culture was cresting. In their unabashed inclusivity, community colleges stand as living monuments to the idea of expanding the circle of “we.” As that cultural strand has been increasingly occluded by a more self-centered one, community colleges (and public institutions generally) have struggled. If education is understood as a private good, rather than a public one, then the “community” part of community colleges is an awkward fit. Perhaps that’s why some community colleges are dropping that word from their names entirely. Now we use taxpayer funding to publish a “college scorecard,” to enable students to calculate the best return on investment. That’s not how public goods were ever supposed to work.
Still, something about their narrative didn’t seem quite right. And that’s where I turn to another great midcentury American thinker, Chuck Jones.
Jones was one of the minds behind Looney Tunes. My favorite of his creations was Wile E. Coyote, a hapless predator forever chasing the elusive Roadrunner. Wile E. was a tinkerer, in his way, though his affinity for Acme products never turned out well. One of the recurring jokes was that Wile E. would regularly find himself suspended in midair, having run off the side of a road, but he wouldn’t fall until he looked down. Gravity didn’t kick in until he looked. Once he realized what had happened, he blinked forlornly at the fourth wall and fell, landing with a cloud of dust.
When I tried summarizing The Upswing to my daughter, and I got to the part where the curve inflected in the ’60s, she immediately asked the right question: Why then? Why then, as opposed to 10 years earlier or 10 years later? What was so special about the mid-’60s?
It’s about race, and the category of “we.”
If the book took a view beyond the U.S., it might have noted that more racially homogeneous industrialized societies adopted social democratic reforms much more quickly and thoroughly than the U.S. did. The vaunted bipartisanship of Congress in the 1950s was premised on racial exclusion in which both parties were complicit, if in different ways. The period of an increasingly “we” culture was also a period of severe immigration restrictions, as well as Jim Crow. “We” didn’t mind locking up Japanese Americans in internment camps during the war, or making blackface singers some of the most popular entertainers in the country. The “we” at the time was defined against a clear and unambiguous “they.”
In the mid-’60s, the boundaries between the “we” and the “they” were destabilized in ways that led many white Americans to start turning away from a common culture. The Civil Rights Act, Voting Rights Act and Fair Housing Act were abrupt shocks to many; looser immigration restrictions quickly led to a cultural diversification beyond what many white Americans took as normal. Although Christopher Lasch’s title The Culture of Narcissism often gets used as shorthand to describe selfishness, Lasch’s use of the term was more deliberate than that. He noted that what killed Narcissus, in the story, wasn’t exactly selfishness; it was the inability to see where he ended and the pond began. Narcissism, in his telling, is the loss of clear boundaries between self and other. One reaction to that loss of boundaries is an anxious effort to fortify new boundaries. Imposing order, whether by building walls or by withdrawing from the public sphere to a self-contained bubble, offers the (ultimately false) promise of restoring a lost sense of security.
In other words, it’s not a coincidence that the moment at which much of white America was compelled to look was the moment at which many whites started to withdraw from the “we” culture. Like Wile E., the majority culture had been in an unsustainable position for some time, but didn’t have to face it; once it did, it couldn’t unsee what it saw. At this point, several decades along, a certain strain of herrenvolk populism has become a sort of lifestyle brand. It’s based on the assumption that if Wile E. never looked, he never would have fallen. It’s determined not to let its followers make that mistake.
The task for those of us who believe in inclusion as an ethical imperative is much more difficult than just waiting for the next turn of the cycle. It involves recognizing just how complicated a category like “we” actually is, and how much of it relies on contrast with a “they.” William James recognized the issue over a century ago, when he lamented American intervention in the Philippines. Noting how combat often brings out valor and loyalty, he called for a “moral equivalent of war” that would draw out those same virtues, without the brutality or imperialism. Banding together against a virus, or against a climate catastrophe, is still banding together. That may explain why some otherwise-intelligent people are so offended by public health campaigns; the campaigns imply the existence of a public, and the usefulness of collective action.
That’s exactly what makes them effective. There’s a lesson in there, if one is willing to look.
Inclusion is a choice. It has to be made over and over again, in ways large and small. Putnam and Garrett offer some sense of just how expansive the choice is, and how high the stakes are. On that, I couldn’t agree more.
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