This is a video of Robert D. Putnam and Shaylyn Romney Garrett discussing their new book, The Upswing: How America Came Together a Century Ago and How We Can Do It Again in a Tisch College Distinguished Speaker event last night. Our dean, Alan Solomont, introduced everyone and then I interviewed and moderated Putnam and Garrett.
I really do recommend the book and intend to write about it in more detail. It’s methodologically and conceptually interesting. More importantly, it’s a hopeful and patriotic book that comes at an urgent moment.
During our conversation, I proposed a summary of the book’s position that the authors seemed willing to accept. They advocate an appropriate balance between individualism and communitarianism. They believe that a society can be too communitarian, and perhaps that was even true of the US ca. 1960. But now we are far too individualistic. The balance can be restored, as it was in the half-century after 1900. To accomplish that change requires a decentralized and pluralistic effort that encompasses social innovation and social entrepreneurship, organizing and advocacy, cultural work, leadership, and policy changes at all levels of government. This effort should be pragmatic, not ideological, although it can attract people with a mix of ideological views and agendas who overlap on the idea that America should be more of a “we” and less of an “I” society.
An excellent example was the “high school revolution,” a decentralized movement that raised the proportion of Americans who completed high school from less than 10% to more than 70% in a few decades, fueling economic growth and equity. No single law accomplished this revolution; no individual is especially associated with it. It was a “viral” movement that, in turn, contributed to a much broader movement to strengthen American community. I’m guessing that various agendas converged to make this happen, from local boosterism and immigrant assimilationism to ambitious reform agendas, including socialism.
The implication is that we can do the same again, and it might even turn out that leaders as disparate as Barack Obama, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Patrisse Cullors, and Mike Lee–plus countless founders of nonprofits and community organizers–will turn out to be early participants in a new upswing. We certainly need it.