We Are on the Verge of Transforming From an ‘I’ Society to a ‘We’ Society

Hope Reese on 2020-10-20

In his new book, Robert Putnam offers lessons from the Progressive Era

Photo illustration; source: CORBIS/Getty Images

It might seem that America today has reached all-time peaks in income inequality, racial strife, and political partisanship. But 100 years ago the state of affairs was strikingly similar, according to Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam — so similar, in fact, that many are calling our current situation the “new Gilded Age.”

In the century since the robber barons reigned, Putnam says there’s been an upside-down U-shaped curve, from an “I” to “we” to “I” society. The trick now is to arc back toward the “we.” Putnam previously explored the causes and consequences of our “I” society in his 2000 book Bowling Alone. In the new book The Upswing, co-authored with Shaylyn Romney Garrett, Putnam looks at the often forgotten Progressive Era (1890s to 1920), when our country managed to become more successful and egalitarian — and offers lessons to bring American into our next “we” phase.

The takeaways from the Progressive Era, according to Putnam, are to start small — with “laboratories of democracies” such as public high schools. Another key is the role of the younger generation; Greta Thunberg, for instance, can be seen as today’s Jane Addams. And policies that were popular in that era, like “antitrust regulation, limits on political fundraising, environmental conservation, comprehensive public health insurance, unemployment insurance, and so on — are equally relevant today,” he says.

GEN caught up with Putnam to talk about racial progress since the civil rights movement, what our “I” society means during Covid times, and what will happen if the Democrats sweep the election.

GEN: What are the most significant parallels between the Gilded Age and today?

Robert Putnam: Great economic inequality, great polarization, great isolation, great cultural individualism, narcissism, and self-centeredness. But people have solved this problem before. We could get America in good shape again.

How does the I-we-I curve relate to the 20th-century civil rights movement?

After Emancipation, from 1880–1900, there was violent terrorism practiced by whites in the South against Blacks. The Gilded Age corresponded with extreme racial inequality. Most people’s impressions of what happened over the next 70 years are not quite accurate. It wasn’t undiluted evil until the lightning bolt of the civil rights movement — Black people know this, but white people don’t — but there was progress. In terms of Black infant mortality, Black education, Black housing — the Black-white gap was closing, from roughly 1930 to 1970.

What about since the 1970s?

The Kerner Commission Report, which President Johnson commissioned in 1967, showed that things were terrible, and we had to fix it. But it was ignored. After 1970, we’ve made essentially no progress. In fact, we’ve gone backward. Blacks are poorer, and less likely to complete high school, and so on, today. If you ask about the real condition of Blacks in Milwaukee or Chicago or Boston, it’s fallen.

The pandemic made it perfectly clear, to whites who were not paying attention, that there was deep structural racism that we haven’t solved. The Black Lives Matter movement brought out, to many whites, that zero progress has been made.

You call this a “wake-up call,” but will the racial conflicts today unite or further divide America?

Every person my age in America, as soon as there were demonstrations, our minds instantly went back to the ’60s. We were sure there would be a huge backlash. We are still holding our breath. But we are living in a different world now. The BLM marches, which are huge, mostly young, and also some (like in Seattle) are mostly white — the long, slow process of generational replacement, these people are much less racist.

There are many good things about the Progressive Era, but there is one thing that we don’t want to replicate. We’ve got to be much more attentive to who counts as “we.” Is it a white, male “we,” or a universal “we?” That was a major lesson about what not to do. Now, we’re much further along.

Do you see an overall pivot about to happen politically, as well?

The pivot has almost happened. If the Democrats take the Senate, we’re already past the pivot. The people in command, the Bidens and the AOCs, will have to face the same things the progressives did 100 years earlier. The progressive movement always disagreed about everything. No social movement is focused on one thing. Some progressives focused on labor, and some were more radical than AOC.

But even if the Democrats sweep the election and we move toward a more progressive agenda, our country is still more polarized than ever, which you’ve said has troubling implications for democracy.

That was also true in the original Progressive Era. But Trump supporters are mostly not violent people. There clearly are some — the Proud Boys, etc .— but that’s a tiny fraction of all the Trump supporters. There will be terrorism, almost no matter what, unless Trump wins — domestic terrorism perpetrated by the fringe of the Trump movement. If Biden is the president, a high priority should be to crack down on it. The first dilemma he would face is to do this, even if he has to do things some of his supporters don’t like, like tapping wires. No American president can allow unrestrained domestic terrorism.

Since you wrote Bowling Alone 20 years ago, you’ve been concerned with the decline of civic life in America. Today, with the rise of smart devices and now the pandemic, we’re seeing social isolation at an all-time high. How can we get our communities back together?

Technology is not an external force. What we make of the internet is up to us. History is not determined by someone outside the system — human beings can bend the course of history. That’s what I’ve been trying to do my whole life: bend history. I don’t mean to be quite so self-centered, but the cycles depend on what American society wants to do.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.