‘The Upswing,’ by Robert D. Putnam: An Excerpt
WHAT’S PAST IS PROLOGUE
“. . . what’s past is prologue, what to come, in yours and my discharge.”
—William Shakespeare, The Tempest
In the early 1830s a French aristocrat named Alexis de Tocqueville traveled to America at the behest of his government, with a mission to better understand the American prison system. At the time the United States was a fledgling democracy, barely half a century old, and many nations looked to it as a bold experiment. It was an open question as to whether securing liberty and equality by means of a constitution and a participatory government would, or could, succeed.
Tocqueville traveled widely in the newly formed nation, taking detailed notes filled with observations and insights that only an outsider’s perspective could yield. He reflected on almost every aspect of American public life, speaking to countless citizens, observing daily interactions, and examining the various communities and institutions that made up the new nation. Above all, he noted a fierce commitment to personal liberty among the descendants of rugged pioneers who had fought so hard for it. But he also observed the coming together of people for mutual purposes, in both the public and private spheres, and found that a multiplicity of associations formed a kind of check on unbridled individualism. Keenly aware of the dangers of individualism (a term he coined), Tocqueville was inspired by what he saw in America: Its citizens were profoundly protective of their independence, but through associating widely and deeply, they were able to overcome selfish desires, engage in collective problem solving, and work together to build a vibrant and—by comparison to Europe at that time—surprisingly egalitarian society by pursuing what he called “self-interest, rightly understood.”
[ Return to the review of “The Upswing.” ]
Though far from perfect in its execution—indeed, this was an America built upon the genocide of Native Americans, the enslavement of African Americans, and the disenfranchisement of women, and Tocqueville was well aware of the evils of slavery—what Tocqueville saw in our nation’s democracy was an attempt to achieve balance between the twin ideals of freedom and equality; between respect for the individual and concern for the community. He saw independent individuals coming together in defense of mutual liberty, in pursuit of shared prosperity, and in support of the public institutions and cultural norms that protected them. Though there were blind spots still to be addressed, and dangers lurking in some of its flaws and features, democracy in America, Tocqueville felt, was alive and well.
Were Alexis de Tocqueville to travel to America once again—further on in our national story—what might he find? Would America fulfill its promise of balancing individual liberty with the common good? Would equality of opportunity be realized, and indeed produce prosperity for all? And would shared cultural values, respect for democratic institutions, and a vibrant associational life be the promised antidotes to tyranny? Let’s look at an end-of-century balance sheet.
On the broad question of prosperity, things could hardly be better. Huge advances in communication, transportation, and standards of living have brought to almost all Americans a degree of material well-being unmatched in our history. Increasing educational opportunities have made strides toward leveling the social and economic playing field. A wide variety of goods priced for mass consumption as well as innovative new forms of entertainment—all made available in increasingly convenient ways— have improved the daily lives of nearly everyone. On the whole, Americans enjoy a degree of educational opportunity, abundance, and personal freedom of which previous generations only dreamed, a fact which might prompt an observer to paint a rosy picture of this America: widespread progress and prosperity driven by education, technological innovation, and sustained economic growth.
And yet this prosperity has come at a cost. While industries spawned by technological advance have allowed huge corporations to produce unparalleled profits, very little of this wealth has trickled down. The poor may be better off in real terms than their predecessors, but the benefits of economic growth have remained highly concentrated at the top. Extremes of wealth and poverty are everywhere on display.
Class segregation in the form of an entrenched elite and a marooned underclass is often a crippling physical, social, and psychological reality for those striving to get ahead. Young people and new immigrants enter the labor force filled with the hope that the American Dream can be theirs through persistence and hard work. But they often become disillusioned to find how great their competitive disadvantage is, and how difficult it is to make the leap to where the other half lives. American idealism increasingly gives way to cynicism about a rigged system.
But the departure from our past is visible not only in rising inequality and resultant pessimism—it is also apparent in the institutions that increasingly define our nation. Corporate conglomerates are replacing
local and craft economies in almost every sector, including agriculture. America’s rugged individuals struggle against the loss of identity, autonomy, and mastery as they are subsumed into the anonymous labor of hyper-consolidated corporate machines and forced to pool meager wages to make ends meet. Corporate monopolies have hoarded profits and gained unrivaled economic influence through a wave of mergers. Because of corporations’ outsized power, workers’ leverage has eroded, and capitalists cite their responsibility to shareholders and market forces as justification for keeping pay low. Corporations search at home and abroad for ever-more-vulnerable populations to employ at ever-lower wages.
In important ways, life is much improved at the bottom of American society, which makes some commentators optimistic that things will only get better. But these gains have come mostly at the price of long hours in insecure low-wage work. Slavery has been abolished, of course, but the still ruthless reality of structural inequality condemns many people of color to a life of intergenerational poverty, and in some ways the situation of black Americans is actually worsening. And women still struggle to participate
equally in a society that manifestly favors male wage earners. The economic well-being of the middle class is eroding, and soaring private debt has become a common buttress to lagging incomes.
The economic power of corporations has in turn become political power. While profits mount, so, too, does corporations’ creativity in evading financial and ethical responsibility to the public systems that allow them to flourish. Commercial giants successfully fend off feeble efforts to regulate them by buying off politicians and parties. Politicians collect exorbitant amounts of money from wealthy donors which they use to win elections, creating a dangerous mutuality between wealth and power. Interest groups also relentlessly pressure elected officials both to prop up corporate agendas and, paradoxically, to get out of the way of the free market. Thus, huge swaths of an increasingly interdependent economy go largely unregulated, and the system as a whole occasionally careens out of control. But the stratospherically wealthy remain insulated, even though their reckless actions often contribute to the crashes.
[ Return to the review of “The Upswing.” ]
Inadequate regulation further fuels an irresponsible use of America’s vast natural resources. The nation’s GDP soars, but wildlife is disappearing at a dismaying rate, fuel sources and raw materials are exploited indiscriminately, and effluence threatens lives. And while large portions of the country have been set aside as public lands, their fate is vehemently debated, as business interests pressure the government to open protected areas for mining, grazing, and fuel extraction—citing the need for natural resources to feed a voracious economy. The rights and cultures of the native peoples who inhabit and hold those lands sacred are pushed aside in favor of business interests. Furthermore, contaminated products—including food—are sold without regard to the health or safety of consumers. The corporate mentality of the age seems to be focused solely on gaining economic advantage no matter the consequences.
Books and newspapers of the day are filled with reports of scandal in both the personal and professional lives of society’s leaders, as journalists work to reveal the rotten core of an America run amok. Politicians are regularly exposed for corruption—trading in power and patronage and taking
advantage of their positions in increasingly creative ways. Sex scandals are also common among the elite, and even prominent religious leaders are not immune. Crime and moral decay are the ubiquitous subjects of popular entertainment, contrasting indulgence at the top and indigence at the bottom.
As an after-the-fact attempt at carrying out their civic duty, many of America’s wealthiest donate large sums of money to various philanthropic causes. This largesse erects buildings, founds institutions, and shores up cultural infrastructure, but usually in exchange for the donor’s name being immortalized upon a facade. Industry leaders are often idolized for rising from humble backgrounds by employing the “true grit” of entrepreneurship and become social and cultural icons despite morally questionable actions.
The message to ordinary Americans is that anyone can go from rags to riches if they are willing to do whatever it takes.
Indeed, many of the corporate titans who dominate the American imagination live by an ideology of individualism that barely masks selfishness and an air of superiority. A philosophy of supreme self-reliance is common, and the pursuit of unfettered self-interest is considered a laudable ethic to live by. The idea that one must do what is best for oneself at every turn—and that only those willing to live by this code deserve to prevail in the economy—has been translated into a subtle but powerful cultural narrative about the unimpeachable fairness of the market and the undeservingness of the poor. Redistributive programs are often criticized as wasteful and an irresponsible use of resources. But lavish displays of luxury, flamboyant parties, global travel, and opulent mansions are the social currency of the elite—all propped up by a growing underclass of largely immigrant laborers.
A drift toward self-centeredness in private life is matched in the public square. In politics, an overfocus on the promotion of one’s own interests at the expense of others’ has created an environment of relentless zero-sum competition and a repeated failure of compromise. Public debates are characterized not by deliberation on differing ideas, but by demonization of those on the opposing side. Party platforms move toward the extremes. And those in power seek to consolidate their influence by disenfranchising
voters unsupportive of their views. The result is a nation more and more fragmented along economic, ideological, racial, and ethnic lines, and more and more dominated by leaders who prove shrewdest at the game of divide and conquer. The inevitable result is political gridlock and a hobbled public sector. Decaying infrastructure, inadequate basic services, and outmoded public programs are a national embarrassment. Citizens rightly despair of elected officials ever being able to accomplish anything at all.
This climate has also created a pervasive disillusionment with the nation’s political parties. Neither seems capable of addressing America’s problems, and many voters are turning to third parties for better options. Libertarian leanings are common while, at the other pole, socialism gains adherents. And a rising tide of populism has captured the enthusiasm of many, especially those in rural areas. America’s democratic institutions strain under the burden of polarization.
In addition to this economic and political malaise, social and cultural discontent are also rising. In an America transformed by the rapid forward march of technology, new forms of communication and transportation have disconnected and reconnected people in countless ways, rearranging identities, beliefs, and value systems. Some optimistically tout the breaking of barriers and narrowing of distances between people, while many others experience loneliness, isolation, and atomization as traditional social
structures give way.
The increasingly global information age is inundating people with news from every corner of the earth, and this explosion of information threatens to overwhelm the individual trying to make sense of it all. New ideas in science, philosophy, and religion upend traditional touchstones at an astonishing pace. And a culture dominated by commerce and consumption has made advertising a ubiquitous—and often lamentable—part of daily life in America. Even the reliability of the free press, that critical component of any democratic system, has become questionable, as a drive for profit overpowers a responsibility to the truth.
A fevered pace of life is often blamed for widespread stress and anxiety. Demand for stimulants of all kinds is on the rise as Americans hurry to keep up and strive to get ahead. The growing demand for productivity at all costs is claiming the physical health and emotional well-being of many individuals and families. The combined effect of these powerful technological, economic, political, and social forces is a sort of dizzying vertigo—a pervasive sense that the average person has less and less control over the forces shaping his or her individual life. Anxiety is mounting among the young, who face unprecedented challenges, and appear likely to live shorter, less rewarding lives than their parents did. This nation seems no longer recognizable or intelligible to those brought up in an earlier age, turning many older Americans toward nostalgia for a bygone era.
Some Americans have reacted to these many forms of dislocation by turning on their perceived adversaries in an increasingly cutthroat social and economic contest. Racism and gender discrimination persist and are even intensified. Indeed, the progress toward racial equality achieved in an earlier era has in many ways reversed. White supremacist violence is on the rise—often encouraged, rather than prevented, by white authorities. Tensions flare continually and conflict often turns bloody, while trust in law enforcement deteriorates with each successive clash. Massive new waves of immigrants—bringing to America ideas and religious beliefs thought to be strange and threatening—are met with hate and violence. Nativism is common and considered by many to be culturally acceptable and even patriotic. Support for restricting, and even halting, immigration from certain countries and from groups with alien political or religious views is growing. The number of immigrants entering the country illegally soars. Meanwhile, ideologically motivated terrorists ignite a backlash against all immigrants, including crackdowns by law enforcement, nationwide raids sponsored by the attorney general, and threats to civil liberties. In greater numbers than ever before, Americans seem to have stopped believing that we are all in this together.
Almost as often as we are turning on one another, Americans are responding to uncertainty and insecurity by turning to self-destructive behaviors and beliefs. Substance abuse is rampant—taking a tragic toll on family formation and claiming many lives. Materialism, too, holds out an empty promise of relief. Also attractive is a descent into cynicism and spectatorship or the adoption of an apocalyptic worldview: the American experiment has failed, and the best we can hope for is to start from scratch once
it all comes apart. Whether the response is lashing out, turning inward, tuning out, or giving up, Americans are becoming increasingly paralyzed by disagreement, disillusionment, and despair. Indeed, many Americans seem to agree these days on only one thing: This is the worst of times.
[ Return to the review of “The Upswing.” ]
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