In this day and age, a blog post about pronouns might be expected to focus on the issue of personal gender pronouns. Here, though, I have in mind not personal but political pronouns, not the third-person identifiers we now often see following someone’s name, but the first-person pronouns by which politics proceeds.
In their new book, The Upswing, Robert Putnam and Shaylyn Romney Garrett examine, as their subtitle foretells, “How America Came Together a Century Ago and How We Can Do It Again.” The emphasis on “We” is not mine but very explicitly that of the authors.
The Upswing is an attempt to put our current political situation into an expansive historical context, stretching across more than a century. “The United States in the 1870’s, 1880’s, and 1890’s was startling similar to today,” the authors tell us, fleshing out that similarity by noting that in those last decades of the 19th century, “Inequality, political polarization, social dislocation, and cultural narcissism prevailed …” Indeed, those characteristics prevailed so thoroughly that “looking back to . . . the Gilded Age turns out to feel eerily like looking in the mirror.”
Putnam and Garrett proceed to substantiate this thesis with a truly impressive amount of sociological, economic and other data, all of it coalescing into the inverted “u” curve image on the book’s cover. “Over the first six decades of the twentieth century America had become demonstrably – indeed measurably – a more ‘we’ society,” they write. “During these decades Americans became – perhaps more than ever before – focused on what we could accomplish together.”
But that was then, and it didn’t last, as Putnam and Barrett are at pains to demonstrate. “Over the past five decades [i.e., since roughly 1970] America has become demonstrably – indeed measurably – a more ‘I’ society,” they write, and then proceed to summarize their multi-faceted research: “This metatrend … is a phenomenon we have come to call the ‘I-we-I’ curve: a gradual climb into greater interdependence and cooperation, followed by a steep descent into greater independence and egoism.”
Not content to let the story end there, the authors of The Upswing turn briefly back to the Progressive Era (out of which their curve had begun its rise) for signs of hope. “Perhaps the single most important lesson we can hope to gain from this analysis is that in the past America has experienced a storm of unbridled individualism in our culture, our communities, our politics, and our economics, and it produced then, as it has today, a national situation that few Americans found appealing. But we successfully weathered that storm once, and we can do it again.”
Here the argument of The Upswing parallels that of Citizens Uniting to Restore Our Democracy, which had been written without what would surely have been the benefit of their later publication. Chapter Five of Citizens Uniting is entitled “Drawing Hope from History: Recalling the Progressive Movement.” That chapter narrates in some detail what The Upswing more briefly recounts as “the story of those who, during the last American Gilded Age, refused to let go of the reins of history, and took deliberate action to reverse its course.”
I expect to devote a few future blog posts to the Citizens Uniting argument that we are now in need of a 21st century equivalent of the Progressive Movement. Some of the most promising steps in that direction are catalogued on the Citizens Uniting website. Here, though, I want to return to Putnam and Barrett’s contention that the historical arc they identify as beginning with the Progressive Era can fruitfully be portrayed as an “I-We-I curve.”
The Upswing’s authors and most of its readers must now be hoping that the transition from the Trump to the Biden presidency will mark the beginning of a new “upswing” in the shared pursuit of common purpose. Clearly, this moment brings to an inglorious end the reign of the most thoroughly narcissistic occupant of the presidency in American history. If there was ever a time when we might yearn for an upswing from “I” to “we,” this is surely that time.
But there is nothing automatic or guaranteed about that transition. Above all, we absolutely must understand that Joe Biden cannot accomplish it by some remarkable act of individual will. If we expect that to happen, it will simply be proof that we have not yet begun to turn the corner.
Nor can this be dealt with as a neat us vs. them partisan matter, with right all clustered on one side and wrong on the other. In fact, the eight years of the Obama-Biden administration had contributed in many ways to the unfortunate trends that Putnam and Garrett document, not least because Barack Obama had been swept into office on a wave of messianism that built up more expectations than any one individual could ever have fulfilled.
Worse, Obama himself, while never anything like the narcissist who succeeded him, still exhibited far too often what some came to call his “pronoun problem.” (A telling example of that tendency is detailed in the epilogue to Citizens Uniting.) The far more important message in that book, as in The Upswing, is that (even though his oath of office begins with the word “I,”) no one individual president can turn the I-We-I curve into a new upswing. But as the first words of the Constitution remind us, “we the people” can do this together.
That is also one of the key messages of the recent report from the powerfully cross-partisan Commission on the Practice of Democratic Citizenship. One of the central recommendations in Our Common Purpose: Reinventing American Democracy for the 21st Century is that we should “establish a universal expectation of a year of national service,” in order “to inspire commitment to American constitutional democracy and to each other” as a baseline experience among all citizens.
As we look to emerge from the twin nightmares of the pandemic and the deep distress of our body politic, something like what this commission suggests may be just the medicine we need. But if so, it will be administered to a democratic body that has maintained a surprising vitality almost in spite of us. The solid ground of democratic citizenship, lying right here under our feet, will be our most valuable asset as we, like our ancestors a century or more ago, seek to work our way out of the deep distress into which our democracy has fallen.