The Upswing: A Lesson About the Social Movement We Need

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In The Upswing: How America Came Together a Century Ago and How We Can Do It Again, Robert Putnam and Shaylyn Romney Garrett provide an analysis of the past 125 years of American history that makes a significant contribution to the growing movement to reform American Society. As Putnam has done in his other books, he and Garrett carefully analyze trends in American life in a way that delineates the tangle of problems we are currently experiencing while at the same time offering hope that we can overcome them.

The essence of their analysis is that across a wide variety of societal indicators, the past century and a quarter has involved an upswing in prosocial or communitarian norms and practices, beginning in the progressive era of the early twentieth century. That was followed by a reversal toward less communitarian and more individualistic and self-centered norms and practices.

Putnam and Garrett describe an inverted U over this period and label it “I-we-I.” It began at the end of the nineteenth century with massive economic inequality, which was brought on by the rise of huge corporations that controlled government policymaking and suppressed worker opposition to a wide array of harmful practices. In response to this, the progressive movement arose. It worked to advance norms, policies, and practices that reduced the worst excesses of capitalism and promoted the well-being of the working class. That represented the height of “we” and the top of the inverted U. Then, in the 1960s, the trend toward communitarianism began to wane and we experienced a steady decline in cooperation, trust, and social solidarity accompanied by the burgeoning of a culture of materialism and self-interest, resulting in massive economic inequality.

The degree to which seemingly diverse indicators converge in showing this inverted U curve is remarkable. With respect to economics, income increased and wealth inequality declined over the first half of the twentieth century and then began a steady reversal beginning the 1970s. The same was true of social mobility: up until the 1960s, the percentage of people who were earning more than their parent was increasing, but it has steadily declined since then.

Similarly, in the political realm, we had increasing bipartisanship over the first sixty years of the twentieth century, but declining levels thereafter. Indicators of this include the extent of bipartisan legislation, the degree to which presidential approval is polarized according to party, participation in public meetings, distrust of people in the other party, and disapproval of a child marrying a member of the other party.

The same inverted U shaped, I-we-I curve can been seen in a variety of measures of social solidarity. Starting in 1870 and continuing through the first half of the twentieth century, there was an unprecedented creation of national organizations that engaged millions of Americans and focused on improving one or another aspects of well-being. Organizations as diverse as the Red Cross, the NAACP, the PTA, the ACLU, the Boy Scouts, the Rotary Club, and Campfire Girls came into being, as people came together to address the many needs of society. However, participation in these organizations began a steady decline in the 1960s. Moreover, we shifted from national organizations that were composed of numerous local chapters to organizations that were run from a national office, funded by donations from around the nation, but lacked local chapters.

Other indicators of social solidarity also waxed and then waned. Family formation was increasing in the first sixty years of the twentieth century, with most people marrying and having children at an early age. This peaked in the 1950s and 60s and then began a steady decline, with people waiting longer to marry, cohabiting, being less likely to stay married, and being more likely to remain unattached.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Putnam and Garrett describe the rise and fall of communitarian values over this 125–year period. In the initial years of the epoch, “social Darwinism” — the belief that the poverty of the underclass was simply the result of survival of the fittest — was widely espoused. It was replaced by an emphasis on a “social gospel” and the promotion of norms and practices that sought to reduce poverty and hardship. The 1920s were an exception to this communitarian trend. The onset of the Great Depression, however, led to much greater emphasis on communitarianism. The Second World War created a shared sense of purpose and further solidified people’s commitment to working for each other’s well-being.

Putnam and Garrett’s analysis is particularly valuable because we are now (I hope) at the nadir of the collapse of communitarian values and norms, looking to pull ourselves back up. The book’s recounting of the impact of the progressive movement in evolving a society that tamed the worst excesses of capitalism in the gilded age offers both hope and guidance for what is needed to reverse trends of the past sixty years that have undermined the well-being of so many Americans.

I agree with Putnam and Garrett that the success of the progressive era should encourage us to believe that a social movement can once again rein in the harms of capitalism. To understand how that movement could work, we need to understand how, beginning in the 1970s, advocacy for free-market economics undermined prosocial norms and the economic well-being of a large proportion of Americans.

Putnam and Garrett attribute the crumbling of social solidarity and communitarian values to the tumult of the 1960s and early 1970s. The civil rights movement and Vietnam war undermined respect for authority and trust in government and contributed to rejection of the older generation’s norms, including those involving religiosity, premarital sex, and monogamy. The women’s’ movement changed the norms about what women could and should be doing. The deaths of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy in 1968 further undermined confidence that the nation was or could be reformed in the ways that they had called for.

In a sense, free-market advocates caught a wave. The disorder of the late sixties and early seventies had many people frightened and unsure what was needed. There were nearly two thousand bombings of businesses in 1970. Business leaders had every reason to be concerned about the future of capitalism. It was in this context that Lewis Powell wrote his famous memo calling on the business community to play a much more assertive role in advocating for business interests.

Free-market advocates provided a coherent and appealing analysis of how the economy worked that blamed government excess for the disorder of the late 1960s. They recognized that directly attacking advocates for liberal policies would be seen as self-serving. In order to advance their interests, they would need to work over “an indefinite period of years” to change people’s thinking about government and free enterprise. Jane Mayer [1] documents the large network of wealthy people who invested in university programs to promote free-market ideas and nurture the careers of scholars, journalists, lawyers, and pundits who believed in free-market economics. Thanks to the broad web of think tanks, university programs, and journalists, they created, many influential people became convinced that pursuing their own economic well-being would, like an invisible hand, benefit the entire society.

These wealthy influencers convinced many people that government regulation harmed the economy at the same time that it limited freedom. They said that government had grown too large, that its regulation of business impeded economic growth, and that social welfare programs undermined people’s motivation to take responsibility for their own well-being.

Finally, they invested heavily in the election of politicians who would implement free-market policies. Powell advised, “Business must learn the lesson, long ago learned by labor and other self-interest groups. This is the lesson that political power is necessary; that such power must be assiduously cultivated; and that when necessary, it must be used aggressively and with determination — without embarrassment and without the reluctance which has been so characteristic of American business.”

Conservative business leaders heeded the call. In the fifty years from 1970 to 2020, thanks to effective investment in advocacy for free-market ideas, they took control of the majority of state legislatures and solidified their hold on those legislatures and the House of Representatives through gerrymandering and voter suppression. Through their creation of the Federalist Society, they advanced the careers of lawyers and judges who further strengthened conservatives influence on policymaking. A series of Supreme Court rulings eroded virtually any limits on what could be spent to ensure conservative control; other rulings made it easier to suppress the votes of those who might oppose their hegemony.

While I agree with Putnam and Garrett that the upheaval of the late 1960s was a turning point in social solidarity, I believe it’s important to recognize that the slide toward our current state of disunity was accelerated by the steady erosion of economic well-being of the lower half of the population. Conservative advocacy was responsible for the erosion of unions, the decline in regulation of harmful corporate practices and the value of the minimum wage, the reduction of welfare supports as well as taxes for upper incomes, the loss of high paying manufacturing jobs, and the increase in economic inequality. As Putnam and Garrett note, it was only after economic inequality began to increase that political polarization began to grow.

The declining fortunes of white working-class Americans made them easy targets for political advocacy that blamed the welfare state for their declining status. At the same time, as Michelle Alexander [2] has documented, the re-imposition of oppressive law enforcement in neighborhoods of concentrated disadvantage undermined the economic and social advancement of a large proportion of the Black community.

Understanding what free-market advocates have achieved over the past fifty years is vital to dismantling their accomplishments. Every sector of society has been corrupted by the central tenet of free-market advocacy, namely that the selfish pursuit of one’s own wealth will necessarily benefit everyone. The social movement that Putnam and Garrett call for must pinpoint and publicize the ways in which each sector has embraced values, norms, and policies that advance the interests of some at great cost to the well-being of many. It will need to promote alternative norms, policies, and practices that are founded on the value of ensuring the well-being of every person. Here is what I believe this social movement needs to do.

· Business is dominated by free-market policies that prevent regulation of numerous detrimental practices such as the marketing of harmful products (tobacco, alcohol, guns, unhealthful food, fossil fuels) and pernicious financial practices such as payday loans and corporate-dominated arbitration of customer disputes. A nascent reform movement is advancing new forms of corporations whose practices are guided by their impact not only on the investors, but on employees, customers, and the communities in which they operate. [3, 4]

· The U.S. health care system is organized to maximize the profits of insurance companies, the pharmaceutical industry, and many providers, while it fails to prevent the social conditions that contribute to chronic illness and disparities in health. The research portfolio of the National Institutes of Health similarly fails to devote enough resources to ameliorating social determinants of ill health. [5] Reform requires not only that we regulate the business of healthcare, but that we address the social and economic conditions that stress so many Americans.

· Our educational system is failing to reduce disparities in educational outcomes despite the fact that effective instructional practices [6] and social-emotional development programs [7] are available. Higher education is failing to do the research and training that is needed to prevent most problems of human behavior. [3] We need an unprecedented investment in prevention science [8] in our universities so that they do the research and training that ensures that the next generation of Americans are able to lead productive lives in caring relationships with others.

· Our criminal justice system oppresses minority group members, fails to prevent crime, and fails to rehabilitate offenders. It needs to be reformed so that practices that increase all people’s safety and success are selected and expanded and those that cause harm are eliminated.

· Much of our news, entertainment, and social media are corrupted by the choice to pursue an audience through disinformation and appeals to fear and hatred. Social media directly contributes to conspiracy theories, the spread of the coronavirus, and hate crimes, while contributing to the profits of Facebook and other social media platforms. [9, 10] We need to regulate social media to curb its contribution to hate, illness, and division.

· Even with a Biden victory, our political system will continue to favor the interests of the wealthy thanks to gerrymandering, a conservative judiciary, and the limited success that the Democratic party has thus far had in addressing the needs of people in the so-called red states. [3] We need to convince a much broader range of Americans to support reducing the influence of money in politics and to vote for the policies and programs that can steadily improve the well-being of all of the people whose fortunes have declined over the past fifty years.

To organize the pursuit of these reforms, I have created a nonprofit organization, Values to Action. Our plan is based on my book, Rebooting Capitalism: How We Can Forge a Society That Works for Everyone. We are creating study circles — small groups of people who work on a single slice of the problem in a given sector and produce a product that furthers reform. Initial study circles are identifying a menu of policies and practices that can enhance Americans’ financial security, health, and social solidarity. Values to Action supports local study circles in advancing the policies and practices they choose to pursue. In this way, the social movement to increase social solidarity and the common good will gain strengthen as local successes multiply.

Over the past forty years, behavioral scientists have identified a wealth of policies and programs that can significantly improve well-being.7 Values to Action will support the re-emergence of strong local organizations that can bring this knowledge to bear on the conditions that have undermined family well-being, and harmed millions of Americans. Because our efforts include a strong emphasis on caring and compassion, we believe this work will also promote the kind of social solidarity that contributed to the cooperation and unity that Putnam and Garrett documented was so much more common in the first half of the twentieth century. Our hope is to contribute to the next upswing toward a thoroughly nurturing society.

1. Mayer, J., Dark money: The hidden history of the billionaires behind the rise of the radical right. Penguin Random House: New York, NY, 2016.

2. Alexander, M., The New Jim Crow. The New Press: New York, 2012.

3. Biglan, A., Rebooting Capitalism: How behavioral science can forge a society that works for everyone. Values to Action: Eugene, OR, 2020.

4. Biglan, A. If corporations want to help they will have to forgo some profits. (accessed January 8, 2020).

5. Vargas, A. J.; Schully, S. D.; Villani, J.; Ganoza Caballero, L.; Murray, D. M., Assessment of Prevention Research Measuring Leading Risk Factors and Causes of Mortality and Disability Supported by the US National Institutes of Health. JAMA Network Open 2019, 2 (11), e1914718-e1914718.

6. Berens, K., Blind Spots: Why Students Fail and the Science That Can Save Them. Collective Book Studio: Oakland CA, 2020; p 222.

7. Biglan, A., The nurture effect: How the science of human behavior can improve our lives and our world. New Harbinger: Oakland, CA, 2015.

8. National Academy of Sciences; Engineering; Medicine, a. Fostering healthy mental, emotional, and behavioral development in children and youth: A national agenda; National Academy of Sciences: Washington, DC, 2019.

9. Marantz, A., Antisocial: Online extremists, techno-utopians, and the hijacking of the American conversation. Viking: United States of America, 2019.

10. Taplin, J., Move fast and break things: How Facebook, Google, and Amazon conered culture and undermined democracy. Little, Brown and Company: New York: NY, 2017.

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