The Upswing review - can Biden heal America?

The US remains divided, but this study by Robert D. Putnam and Shaylyn Romney Garrett points out that it has emerged before from an era of inequality and partisanship. Can it again?

Supporters of the president-elect Joe Biden gather near the Texas capitol building to celebrate his victory.
‘What can Joe Biden do to patch together a frayed nation?’ Supporters of the president-elect gather near the Texas capitol building to celebrate his victory. Photograph: Sergio Flores/AFP/Getty Images


So the Biden-Harris ticket has won, but by narrow margins in some of the battleground states. How did partisanship reach such a pitch that Donald Trump’s tribal appeal easily cancelled doubts about his manifest unfitness for office? And what can Joe Biden do to patch together a frayed nation? The political scientists Robert Putnam, author of the acclaimed Bowling Alone, and Shaylyn Romney Garrett provide a wealth of sociologically grounded answers in The Upswing. Although the title is reassuringly buoyant, this is a tale of two long-term trends, one benign, the other a dark descent. An unabashed centrism prevails: political stability, the authors recognise, is a dance that requires a measure of cooperation and disciplined deportment from both parties.

At the book’s core is a set of graphs describing the broad contours of American social, political, economic and cultural life over the past 125 years. All the graphs broadly conform to a common hump-like pattern: a growing swell over half a century or so of greater social trust, equality, bipartisanship and civic do-gooding peaking around the 1960s – followed by a marked and steady decline in all these criteria in the subsequent 50 years.

The bad news is that we are living through the worst of the downswing, amid gross inequalities, corporate exploitation of the vulnerable and uncompromising hyper-partisanship. The good news is that the US has been here before – in the late 19th-century Gilded Age – and successfully pulled itself out of the mire. An antidote emerged to the robber baron industrialists, social Darwinists and anti-corporate populists of the Gilded Age in the form of the Progressive movement, whose ideals attracted reformers from within both main parties. Indeed, the short-lived Progressive party of the 1910s was an offshoot from Theodore Roosevelt’s “Bull Moose” brand of reformist Republicanism.

Although Republican moderates managed to see off this third-party threat, Progressive ideals – the replacement of oligarchy, clientilism and corruption with modern, scientifically informed administration by middle-class professionals – endured as a significant strand in Republican politics. Progressive sentiments informed the New Deal of Roosevelt’s distant Democrat cousin FDR, but also the politics of mid 20th-century accommodationist Republicans such as Wendell Willkie and Thomas Dewey.

The finest exemplar of harmonious “Tweedledum-Tweedledee” politics was General Eisenhower who, declining the opportunity to run for president as a Democrat, campaigned as a non-partisan Republican and governed as a big-spending progressive. The “low tide” of partisanship came in the mid-1960s when Lyndon Johnson’s war on poverty, the introduction of Medicare and implementation of black civil rights enjoyed support across the aisle from Republicans.

In this age of “depolarisation”, the real ideological divisions lay within parties, between liberal Republicans and anti-New Deal conservative isolationists, between unionised northern blue-collar Democrats, many of them Catholic, and southern Democrats – predominantly Protestant segregationists whose cultural values belonged far to the right of liberal Republicans. The authors note that on issues of race and gender progressive Republicans were often to the left of Democrats, and that as late as the 1960s Democrats were more likely to be churchgoers.

Politics was, however, only one strand in “the Great Convergence” described by Putnam and Garrett. It was an age not only of growing income equalisation but of volunteering. Americans participated in huge numbers in chapter-based civic associations, such as the Elks and Rotarians, the Knights of Columbus and African American Prince Hall freemasonry. The mainstream Protestant churches themselves converged, favouring an ecumenical, theologically slender, all-American religion of social service and helping out.

Staggeringly hard as it is now to believe, the Southern Baptists initially welcomed the pro-choice result in the Roe v Wade abortion case of 1973. Indeed, Putnam and Garrett perceive a long unobtrusive upswing in the position of women and African Americans before the rights revolution of the 60s. The black-to-white income ratio improved 7.7% per decade between 1940 and 1970.

But the pendulum had already begun to swing in the other direction. Most of us might guess that it was the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 that initiated the turn to inequality and division. Not so, insist Putnam and Garrett, for the Reagan counter-revolution turns out to be a “lagging indicator”. More ambiguous is the presidency of Richard Nixon, who appears here in strongly contrasting tones: a liberal Keynesian Republican on the policy front, but hard-boiled and amoral when electioneering.

Adding a green tinge to progressive Republicanism, Nixon established the Environmental Protection Agency and signed a clean air act. Yet ultimately ideals were a front for the harvesting of votes. Cynically alert to Southern Democrat disenchantment with Johnson’s civil rights legislation, Nixon embarked on a Southern strategy to woo the solidly Democratic South for the party of Abraham Lincoln. The process took decades, and explains one of today’s most glaring and historically illiterate ironies: the flying of Confederate flags by rural Republican-supporting northerners.

However, as Putnam and Garrett demonstrate, the Great Divergence is about much more than political realignment. The great arc of modern American history concerns economic outcomes, social trends and a range of cultural transitions that the authors describe as an “I-We-I” curve. Things started to go awry on a number of fronts from the 1960s. Both the libertarian New Right and the countercultural New Left offered different routes to personal liberation. But individual fulfilment came at a cost in social capital.

Escape from the drab soulless conformity associated with the 1950s ended up all too often in lonely atomisation. A long road led from the straitjacket of early marriage in the 1950s via the freedom of cohabitation to the growing phenomenon of singleton households. Chapter-based voluntary organisations that involved turning up for meetings and activities gave way to impersonal professionally run non-profits whose Potemkin memberships existed only as mass mailing lists. Unions ceased to be focal points of worker camaraderie and sociability, and shrivelled to a core function of collective bargaining.

What’s more, the great mid-century levelling of incomes went into reverse. First, the gap grew between the middle and the bottom, then the incomes of the elite raced away from those of struggling middle-earners, and finally, as Putnam and Garrett show, the wealth of the top 0.1% vastly outgrew that of the top 1%.

The downswing America described in this book contains some surprising features. Partisan antipathy has risen to a high pitch as – seen over the long term – the intensity of religious and racial hostilities has mellowed. The authors believe that the new group loyalties of Republicans and Democrats are only weakly ideological, and are based rather on emotional allegiances of a tribal nature.

Today’s partisans do not simply dislike their opponents: they loathe them, and assign character flaws to their rivals. This helps explain why Trump was able to usurp the Republican party and its followers, while to all intents and purposes jettisoning a whole slew of traditional Republican policieslike a new football manager who changes a team’s style of playwithout losing the allegiance of its hardcore fans. We might be tempted to blame social media for this state of affairs, but Facebook and Twitter have an “ironclad alibi”. The beginnings of the Great Divergence predate the internet by decades.

A Biden presidency brings into focus the difficult job of healing and reconciliation. But here Putnam and Garrett run into trouble, for it is impossible to identify a single decisive factor that caused the downswing. Rather the authors identify a range of “entwined” trends “braided together by reciprocal causality”. Just as diagnosis of ultimate causes is treacherous, so too is finding a compelling plan for throwing the Great Downswing into reverse. The authors look for the green shoots of a new Progressive movement in various forms of grassroots activism, but are worried that they have yet to see this take a “truly nonpartisan” form. They try to be upbeat, but the dominant note is wistful.

Yet even on their terms the election does present limited grounds for optimism. The energetic campaigning efforts of the Lincoln Project and other Biden-endorsing Republicans shows that the party – though long since abandoned by its liberal progressives – still contains several mansions. Consider the crossover potential of libertarians, Republican-inclined, who offer an unpredictable smorgasbord of options for jaded partisan palates: laissez-faire on morals as well as markets. In tight races in Arizona, Wisconsin and Georgia, Jo Jorgensen, the third-party Libertarian candidate, drew small but significant numbers of disaffected Republicans away from Trump.

And what are we to make of the quiet Trump phenomenon, the huge numbers of voters who unostentatiously turned to him, largely, it seems, because of the economy? That electorate – however narrowly self-interested – is at least amenable to reason. Despite all the worrying auguries, the election was not a straightforward scrap between whites and minorities. Trump lost white males to Biden, but gained surprising proportions of Latinx and African-American voters, and won niche groups such as older Vietnamese-Americans. Today’s tribes have not, alas, dissolved, but tomorrow’s seem likely on both sides to be rainbow coalitions.

The Upswing: How America Came Together a Century Ago and How We Can Do It Again is published by Swift (£25). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com.