What can we learn from America’s history of polarization? How can we use these lessons to unite America and move from an individualistic to a more cooperative culture? Listen to this Wiener Conference Call with Robert Putnam and his coauthor, Shaylyn Romney Garrett, who discuss their new book, The Upswing: How America Came Together a Century Ago and How We Can Do It Again.

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Wiener Conference Calls recognize Malcolm Wiener’s role in proposing and supporting this series as well as the Wiener Center for Social Policy at Harvard Kennedy School.

Mari Megias:

Good day everyone. I am Mari Megias in the Office of Alumni Relations and Resource Development at Harvard Kennedy School., and I’m pleased to kick off this last Wiener Conference Call of the fall semester. Today we welcome Robert Putnam, who is the Malcolm Research Professor of Public Policy at Harvard University, where he retired from active teaching in May 2018. He’s written 15 books that have been translated into 20 languages, including Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. He’s here today to discuss his new book with Shaylyn Romney Garrett, The Upswing, How America Came Together a Century Ago and How We Can Do It Again. His co-author Shaylyn Romney Garrett is a much-sought after writer who formerly led a nonprofit in Jordan to encourage critical thinking among young people. Professor Putnam and Ms. Romney Garrett.

Robert Putnam:

Thanks very much. Hi Shaylyn.

Shaylyn Romney Garrett:


Robert Putnam:

I wish I could actually see all of you. There are a ton of you watching, I know that. And I’m really pleased about that. And I no doubt some of you are former students of mine at the Kennedy School. As it happens, Shaylyn also is a former student of mine. She was an undergraduate of mine and then worked with me for many years on different projects. She’s now a very distinguished social entrepreneur. Obviously she’s a fine writer and she is one of the founding members of something called Weave, which is an Aspen Institute project that is trying around the country actually to build connections among people.

One way of thinking about this is that I write about social connections and Shaylyn actually does this stuff. I’m a talker and she happens to be also a good writer. We would like to give you a short overview of the book that we’ve just published, called The Upswing, How America Came Together a Century Ago and How We Can Do It Again. We’re going to go through a quick, maybe 15-, 20-minute presentation. This has been the suggestion of HKS. We give you that kind of a presentation and then we’ll open it up for questions. I’m sure there are going to be a lot of questions about a range of things because the study itself is very wide ranging.

This is the book, The Upswing: How America Came Together a Century Ago and How We Can Do It Again. And you’ll see on the cover of the book, there’s this funny inverted U-shape curve that’s going to turn out to be the empirical core of this book. Let’s go to the next slide.

America today is in a pickle and nobody needs to be told that. We are incredibly polarized, you can see that opening up any newspaper any day. In fact, we’re probably more polarized than we have been at any period in American history with the exception, but it’s not a big exception. In measured terms it’s only a little more polarized of 1860 to 1865. America is—except in our Civil War—we’ve never been as divided politically as we are today.

Separate from that and independently of that, we are also in one of the most economically unequal periods in American history. The gap between rich and poor has gotten enormous. I’m going to show you a little picture about that in just a second. And again, independently of that, Americans are more socially isolated, have less, to use my jargon, less social capital, fewer connections with family and friends and neighbors and community than we’ve arguably we’ve had in a very long time. And finally we’re a much more self-centered culture. And I’m going to have to say a little bit more carefully. What I mean by that—because culture sounds like a mushy subject, not a thing that a good social scientist in good standing would talk about. But I’m going to show you it turns out to be quite interesting. The first question we ask is, how did we get here? How did America get into this four-fold quandary? And I’m going to show you some pictures that really show how we got here. Not why, but how we got here. Put in the next slide, please.

This looks at the trend over time. All the trends, all the graphs I show are going to be all of the same form. The horizontal axis is the period between roughly 1890 and now. The last, roughly speaking, the last 125 years. And the vertical axis is going to be some composite measure of economic equality or political bipartisanship or social connectedness or our cultural togetherness. And technically speaking, each of these curves represents longitudinal factor analysis. If you know what I mean, that’s great, If you don’t know what I mean, don’t worry about it. It just says it’s an average of many different indicators.

You can see if we start over here. The hard data and economic equality begin in 1913, because that’s when the IRS was established. That’s when we begin to have pretty good data on the distribution of income. And you can see we were pretty low. Before we have data we know that back then the distribution of income was even less equal. Imagine the curve rising. Imagine that we’re down at the very, very low equality, high inequality in the Gilded Age, that’s the first American Gilded Age. But then beginning in about 1915, suddenly we begin to become a little less equal, sorry, a little less unequal, more equal. We’re rising and that’s true for most of the first half of the 20th century. You can see right there, there’s a dip in the roaring twenties when we became a little bit less equal for a while. But then coming out of that and before the Depression even and before the New Deal, we began having a more equal distribution of income that the increasing equality persisted through the 30s, through the 40s, through the 50s. A little dip in the 50s, but then even into the 60s and reached this peak just about 1960, but still we were very equal compared to other periods in American history.

I have to be clear. America was not a commune. It’s not like the distribution of income was absolutely equal, but compared to other periods in American history, relatively starkly equal in the distribution of income. But then we began a slow long downward climb, which by the time you get to the 1980s begins to plunge. Massive declines in equality or growing inequality, keeps going down less and less equal. We get to down to 19, this data ends in 2015. But you know perfectly well that if we continue the data over the last five years, the distribution of income has gotten much less equal, if we continue to 2020 the graph would be even lower. And you can see that we’ve somehow retraced our steps. Pardon me. Pardon me. I shouldn’t get so carried away but I’m carried away by these graphs.

Note by the way, if you’ll hover the pointer over 1980, the graph at 1980, you’ll see we’d already become rather less equal by the time of the Reagan Revolution. That’s what I’m trying to say. Reagan did not cause this. Reagan administration policies contributed to it afterwards, but it’s interesting. And this is going to be a theme we’re going to be talking about. You can be misled if you think that everything is being determined by national leaders, by presidents and so on. In some sense, Reagan was a consequence of the bigger change not a cause. But you’ll see that more clearly in the next slide, let’s go to the next slide.

The next slide is about, here we’re calling it, Political Comedy or Political Bipartisanship, and you can see America in the late 1890s and the Gilded Age, America was very polarized politically. Low degree of bipartisanship. Politics was mainly about tribal politics. And if you think that’s a familiar sign, just wait. But then beginning around 1900, we begin to have somewhat more bipartisanship cooperation across party lines. And Shaylyn will say more about that in a second. But you can see beginning in the 20s and steadily rising from the 30s, 40s, into the 50s. Stop right there for just a second. That’s a period of unusual political cooperation, bipartisanship cooperation across party lines. And it’s perfectly symbolized by the president of the time. I don’t say he caused it, but he will symbolize it. Dwight Eisenhower was, all historians agree, the least partisan president in American history, except for George Washington.

But then the Eisenhower years passed and still were pretty and there’s a fair amount of bipartisanship up there. And even during the Great Society, pause for a second, even during the Great Society. Most of the Great Society was supported by a majority of Republicans hard is that is to believe, as well as of course Democrats. So we were not yet very polarized, but then beginning in the 70s, we begin to become much more polarized and you could see then polarization kicks in with a vengeance. And now we’re talking about today, we get down there to the very end and we’re now about as polarized. And actually in some sense where we’re about as polarized as is possible to be because we now have to typically in Congress, 100 percent of one party opposing 100 percent of another party and mathematically it can’t get any more polarized than that.

So that’s the trend in political comedy or political cooperation looks similar to the economic trend. Let’s look at the next trend, which is the trend in social capital or social cohesion. And this measures, if I wish I had time to go through the underlying measures here that this graph summarizes. But it’s things like the degree to which people were involved in community organizations, the degree to which people knew their neighbors, even the degree of the cohesion within the family unit, degree of social trust. In other words, a sense that we’re all connected with one another and that graph begins in the 1890s. And once again, there’s a very low level of social cohesion. We don’t have good historical data on this variable. America was awfully fragmented socially and lonely actually in that period. But then again, coming out of that period in the early 20th century especially after 1910, steady rise in social connectedness. Again there’s pause in the 20s but then coming out of that period, and especially after 1940, probably the greatest civic boom in American history, as all Americans were joining clubs and joining bowling leagues and having kids and getting married early in and trusting one another. And then suddenly in the middle 60s, it was a reversal and people stopped going to club meetings and stopped joining groups and they get married later and they have fewer kids, maybe they don’t get married at all. And they are less likely to belong to all sorts of organizations, including bowling leagues. And by now the end of the 20th century, once again, we’re way back down at a low level of social cohesion.

Let’s go quickly to the next slide, which is a slide about cultural solidarity we have in the book. I’m proud of that chapter in the book because we were able to get really good, hard, quantitative evidence about the degree to which Americans thought of themselves as a cultural unit in which everybody was in it. We were all in the same boat or conversely the degree to which we thought it was all about me. And we were only concerned about this individual person and Shaylyn will say a little bit more about that measure. I don’t need to say much about the shape because this graph is by now very familiar to you.

I only want to say one quick thing about this curve because it leads into the next chart. It turns out that Google has digitized all books ever published in America. And this is not just academic books, mostly not academic books. It’s novels, and it’s mystery stories, and it’s gardening books and travel books and children’s literature and so on. Back up, please. Back up, please. It’s called Ingram is a good long run measure of the degree to which we’re the changing culture of America. And I had one day the idea, what if we just looked at the ratio of we to I? The first person singular, the first person plural ratio of that to the first person singular. And I wish I had that graph here, it is a stunning graph. It looks exactly like this graph. And indeed that graph, it is so stunning that steadily the first beginning of the century, we were mostly writing, reading about I. In the middle of the century, we were mostly writing and reading about we in our novels, and in our garden books and in our kids’ literature and so on. It’s astonishing that it’s true. And then by the end of the 20th century, we’re back down only reading and writing books about I.

Let’s have the next slide. The next slide shows how these graphs all fit together. It’s pretty clear. Statistically speaking, statisticians talk humorously about something being really strong if it passes the interocular trauma test, it hits you between the eyes that something’s going on. And this graph certainly passes the interlocutor trauma test. Next slide. The next slide summarizes all of that. And this is what we came to call the “I-We-I” curve. And you can see how it faithfully reflects all of those. I’m not showing you the dozens of individual data sets that underlie this. And this graph summarizes all of them because this was an extremely powerful trend. Shaylyn should we be interested in the top of this graph or the bottom of the graph? Why don’t you take over?

Shaylyn Romney Garrett:

In some sense, this’ll be a bit familiar because there’s a whole genre of books that have been written the last five to 10 years that you might call, the “why America is such a mess” genre of literature. Which tends to focus on this half century of decline. And certainly that’s an important story. But in writing this book, Bob and I were less concerned about the moment that this “I-We-I” trend culminated and more interested in when it began, its inception. Because if you look at this graph, one of the things that should become clear is what a similar situation America was in 120, 125 years ago to the one that we’re in today. On purely hard statistical measures, today’s America is breathtakingly similar to the last Gilded Age. And at that time there were a lot of commentators decrying the decline of America that we’d gone off the rails, that democracy was about to fail. And yet by hard measures across a multiplicity of factors, America steadily, instead of going off the rails, pulled up and out of this into a multifaceted upswing hence the name of the book, “The Upswing”.

Our focus here is on this period when we turned from the Gilded Age to the Progressive Era and basically set in motion a multi-decade upward climb. The lesson of our book here is that, we have successfully weathered this storm once before and we can do it again. There was a dedicated group of reformers that came onto the scene during the Progressive Era at the beginning of the 20th century, who really set in motion a sea change that helped us reclaim our nation’s promise.

If we go to the next slide, we just want to highlight quickly some of the lessons from that last American upswing. What were these reformers doing? And what can we learn both from the data and from the historical record about how we might be able potentially to replicate another upswing today?

A lot of times people ask us as we’re presenting this really sort of shocking confluence of data that Bob has discovered: “Which is the leading indicator? If you could just tell us which thing turned first then maybe we could know what we should focus on in order to bring about another upswing.” And a lot of people assume that the first thing that changed was economics. That we began to address the economic inequality and that after that all of these other indicators came along with it. What’s fascinating about the data, it’s very hard to talk about causes and effects and leads and lags. But one thing that actually is quite clear is that, economics was a lagging indicator. That solving the economic inequality problem turned out to be the caboose rather than the engine of this last upswing. If economics were the caboose, what’s the engine? It’s a little bit hard to say, but when you pair the statistical data with the historical record, what we see is that what seems to have turned first was actually the cultural shift. A cultural shift away from I and toward we. And what this really looked like during the Progressive Era, was an era that was characterized by an intense moral awakening. The Gilded Age was characterized by the social Darwinist mindset. The idea that Darwin’s theory of survival of the fittest not only applied to the natural world, but was a way that we could organize society. It’s a little bit hard to believe that we thought that was a way we ought to organize our society 125 years ago, but it very much was. And onto the scene came a group called, The Social Gospel Movement led primarily by evangelical Protestants but this was a movement that extended to the broader culture as well of people saying, “Wait a minute, this is not the value system on which we want to found our country, this I self-centered narcissistic focus on myself and devil take the hindmost is leading us to a place where we don’t want to be.” And the Social Gospel Movement came along and challenged people to rethink their primary conceptions about themselves and about what democracy was about. The historian Richard Hofstadter characterizes this as not just a moral indignation directed outward, but a moral indignation directed inward. This was a group of really chastened elites who began to ask themselves how they were complicit in having created this multifaceted crisis in America. And they began to manifest that indignation as activism.

Quickly I’ll just go through a few more lessons here. Not only was there a moral and cultural shift, but there was a vast youth engagement that happened. A lot of times we look back to the Progressive Era and we think, oh Jane Addams or these reformers who we see pictures of them later in life when they’re at the end of their careers. But actually most of these progressive reformers were doing their most important work under the age of 30. This was an incredible youth-driven movement, where there was a lot of innovation, a lot of energy amongst young people who were living in a completely changed world from the one that their parents had lived in. And recognized that they had to grab the reins and create a new America for themselves. And one of the things that these young people really prioritized was association. We have to remember that the Gilded Age came on the heels of the Industrial Revolution. There was a mass movement of people out of small towns and farms and into crowded bustling, isolated cities. And so that low point of the curve that Bob was pointing out was really a moment when people were completely dislocated. All of the social connections that they were relying upon a generation earlier were no longer relevant. And so they had to invent new ways of bringing people together. And what this did, was it actively fought the hyper-individualism of the day. And it also created vast new stores of social capital, which fueled this upswing for decades. Those of you who are familiar with Bob’s work on social capital you know that it’s not just a good thing in and of itself, but it actually fuels many other things and brings about positive externalities which were all part of that upswing.

This focus on association was critical at this time. There was a ton of grassroots innovation. Again, people took that moral outrage and translated it into solution building. And when we say grassroots innovation, we mean really grassroots. These were people who were working on problems right outside their doorsteps rather than looking to Washington or to national leaders to bring about some sort of change. They looked to themselves, to their neighbors, to their local communities and began developing solutions.

We love to highlight the example of the high school Movement in America. The high school revolution was a dramatic shift that happened during this upswing and oftentimes we think, oh, either A, public high schools always existed, or B they were invented by national education bureaus or something like that. When in fact the story is a much more interesting one. You had small towns in the Midwest full of people who looked around and said, this economy has entirely changed. My child needs a secondary education in order to succeed. And at the time, the only form of secondary education that was really available were expensive private schools or schools that had certain criteria for, only the brightest students could get in. And so these towns actually banded together and created the first ever fully public high schools in around 1910 in small towns in the Midwest in America. These were people working in what Louis Brandeis, called the “Laboratories of Democracy” in order to solve problems themselves. And these high schools that they created, became an idea that basically went viral. And within a couple of decades they were free public high schools publicly funded by local tax initiatives all over the country.

Another lesson here is that, the charismatic leadership in this period really lagged. The Teddy Roosevelt’s and his Square Deal program didn’t come along until later in this process. And they were really building on the coalition building that was being done at the grassroots. People like TR translated this popular uprising into policies and programs that could be adopted on the national level. And that was critical to again, keeping this upswing going for many decades. But the true roots of it, were at the grassroots, not in political leadership. And so all of these are lessons that we can look to today in terms of starting with a moral shift, with questioning this hyper individualism, looking to our youth, the post-boomer generations to lead us out of this problem today. They certainly didn’t cause it, but their innovation is going to be part of the solution here, a huge part of it. Again, focusing on bringing people together, focusing on starting very locally, hyper locally at the grassroots and not looking to one administration or one national leader to be our salvation. Those are some of the positive strategic lessons that we can learn from this period.

And I want to focus quickly now on one not so positive lesson from this period of the Progressive Era. We’re lauding these progressives as people who engineered this upswing. But an important fact of this historical moment was of course, that many of these progressive reformers were themselves racist. Their moral awakening and their circle of moral concern only extended so far. And the “we” that they were building America toward was of course not nearly inclusive enough. If we’re looking to this period for lessons, one of them is, that this “we” that we were building toward in this first two thirds of the 20th century was highly racialized. And a lot of the structural equality, excuse me, structural inequality that we are reckoning with right now as a nation was knit into this upswing. And so if we want to have another upswing today, if we want to see or bring about another upswing today, full inclusion, a fully inclusive “we” must be at the absolute core of anything that we set about to do today.

The last thing that I want to touch on here is, a little bit about the story of race. Because there’s no way that we can talk about “I” and “we” and “the American we” without discussing race and the traditionally excluded groups in this country. We don’t have a lot of time and we want to get to questions so I’m going to be very brief. We devote an entire chapter in the book to discussing race and “the American we” and also an entire chapter in the book to discussing gender and “the American we.” And the real question there is, this book focuses on trends. When and how were things changing and how fast? And we asked the same question when it came to race and gender. When and how were we trending toward equality or not in racial and gender terms. And so I want to just touch quickly on the race story, because there are some surprises here. And again, we just published an op-ed in the Sunday New York Times this past weekend, which summarizes this argument if you’re interested in learning more, I’d encourage you to go look that up. I’m just going to be very brief here.

A lot of times when we think about the story of racial inequality over the course of the 20th century, the same period that we’re looking at on the I-We-I data, we often think that all was exclusion and oppression, and there was really no movement toward equality for most of the century until you get to the Civil Rights Era, when you see this dramatic upturn. Instead of an inverted U, the movement toward equality might look something more like a hockey stick. And in many ways, that’s true. Particularly when it comes to exclusion, exclusion from professional schools and jobs, exclusion from appropriate representation in mainstream media. When we look at things like residential segregation or political representation. But actually when you look at the full range of data, there are some surprises here about how and when we were moving toward equality. The entire story of racial equality is not actually a hockey stick story. If we go to the next slide, I’ll show you briefly what that looks like.

In fact, when you look at the movement over the course of the century toward material equality between Blacks and whites, what you actually see is a too slow but nonetheless unmistakable move toward equality during the first two thirds of the century. If you look at this graph you see that there was actually upward momentum, particularly between the 1940s and 1970, which is a bit surprising. And we’re talking about things here like life expectancy, high school completion, earnings per worker, home ownership. And at the top of that graph we have 1.0, which represents full equality. Certainly we never achieved anything close to fully quality, but it is a bit of a surprise to see that most of the movement here happened before the Civil Rights Movement. Something in the background was going on here, called the Long Civil Rights Movement. We now understand that the Civil Rights Movement wasn’t just something that was concentrated in the 1950s and 60s, there was a lot of agitation going on amongst Black Americans advocating for their place within this “American we.” And actually to the extent that Black Americans were moving toward parity with white Americans during this period. It was largely due to their own efforts, their own organizing through the Long Civil Rights Movement. But also especially their movement out of the deeply oppressive South and into the slightly more hospitable North during the Great Migration. That’s what we’re really seeing during that period.

But interestingly, just as the dam of legal exclusion broke and we thought we might move or accelerate toward further equality what do we see? If you look here on the graph, right at 1970 instead of acceleration of these trends toward parity, we see stagnation. What we call in the book, the “foot off the gas period,” where America begins to essentially reverse progress on racial equality. And an important part of this story is definitely white backlash to the Civil Rights Movement. During that peak of “we-ness”, we were able to achieve historic civil rights legislation, but that was a very fragile consensus. And as white Americans were asked to make room for Black Americans in real significant ways, public opinion really turned. And I think that some of the stagnation is definitely a result of that.

But bringing this back to our I-We-I thesis and this is the last thing I’ll say. Layering this graph on top of the I-We-I curve, what’s interesting here is, the moment that we took our foot off the gas turns out to be the same moment when more broadly America shifted from “we” ethos to an “I” ethos. And so what we argue here is that, there’s a lot more to this story, I’m giving the very briefest version of it. But essentially one of the defining features of the “I” period has been a heavy emphasis on rights and individualism throughout our broader culture. And interestingly, the “we” decades turned out to be more fertile soil for a movement toward material equality at least than the “I” decades have been. Which is just a thought provoking thing for us to wonder if whether one of the preconditions of us really getting back on track and moving toward racial equality is going to be a refocusing of our efforts and our national narrative on a truly inclusive “we.” “We” can be defined in more inclusive or exclusive terms. And certainly there was a highly racialized “we” during this first two thirds of the century. But this is just some interesting food for thought as we look at the story of how race layers onto this question of the I-We-I century.

Let’s just end with the last slide, which are some words from Teddy Roosevelt. “The fundamental rule of our national life, the rule which underlies all others, is that on the whole and in the long run, we shall go up or down together.” In many ways the last American upswing because it did not take seriously the goal of full equality had knit into it the seeds of its own demise. And so any upswing that we would hope to engineer today has to be fully inclusive. And our hope is that we’re beginning to see some of these things that we saw in the Progressive Era emerging in America today. We’ve been in a mess like the one we’re in today, we can get out, we got out of it once we can get out of again. And that’s the message of hope that we hope to present in this book.

Robert Putnam:

Thanks very much Shaylyn. Great. I’m not sure actually who’s now managing questions. We’re eager for questions in the time that remains.

Mari Megias:

We are going to open up the session for your questions. Just wanted to note that this call is on the record and will be posted later online. To ask a question, please use the virtual hand raising feature of Zoom and Margaret Miller will notify you via Zoom’s chat feature that it’s your turn to speak. Also make sure to unmute yourself when you hear from Margaret. Please also make sure to keep your question brief and end it with a question mark. And finally, if you could state your name and your Kennedy School affiliation. Lots of rules here. I’d like to start things off by asking you a question that was submitted earlier by Benjamin Schwartz, MPA 2017. And that question is, at first social media seemed like a boon to democracy. But we have since seen it used to divide or radicalize. How does the digital ecosystem affect our ability to come together and how can individuals and leaders navigate this new landscape to bring us back together?

Robert Putnam:

Shaylyn should I do this? It’s a very, very interesting question. And I wish we had a lot longer. That is this question about the impact of social media. Actually I’ve done a lot of thinking about it in the aftermath of the book called, “Bowling Alone” that I published 20 years ago. Because “Bowling Alone” talked about how we were not coming together and used bowling leagues as an example. But then four or five years after “Bowling Alone” was published, social media were invented. And then the question is can Facebook or TikTok replace bowling leagues? And initially there was this period of enormous cyber euphoria. The thought that the social media was going to completely transform our lives and it was going to be one long unending global community. After about five years, that no longer was a very prominent view. And the same thing has happened actually during the pandemic. Early in the pandemic people were thinking, oh, this is fine. It’s going to be maybe even better that we can talk to our relatives all the way around the world anytime we want. But we’ve all just been through Thanksgiving and we know that that idea that virtual connections are just as good or maybe better than face-to-face connections. I think the country has reached a consensus that it isn’t that, face-to-face connections matter a lot. And face-to-face connections are not perfect, of course they’re not. We can get polarization and we can get inequality even in a face-to-face world. But I think our view is that, what was once thought to be a panacea that everything wrong with society was going to be fixed, is no longer plausible. And indeed in some respects, the issue of polarization that we’re living with has been exacerbated by social media. I do not believe actually that social media are the full cause of this. I think that there are a lot of other factors that have played a role in the polarization, but social media have not been a help.

Mari Megias:

Thank you very much. Our next participant is Diego Cordoba Mallarino, and he’s going to ask a question.

Q: Hello. Very good presentation. I’m a member of the Dean’s Council. I was wondering if this pandemic that is kind of COVID, which is the last of trust in institution that is like a worldwide pandemia as well. How do you see that in the future ‘cause at the end, what one senses is that during the 20th century, there was a lot of trust in institutions and nowadays we’re losing it together with media, traditional institutions, with other science institutions that are not trusted anymore. How do you see that?

Robert Putnam:

Shaylyn. Thank you very much Diego. Shaylyn, I want to just say one data thing and then you can answer more fully to that question. The data thing is that, trusted institutions especially public institutions was higher in the 20th century, but it was far from constant. And in fact, trust in institutions, trust in government perfectly mirrors the I-We-I curve. That is in the 50s and 60s, most Americans trusted the government and they trusted other institutions of society. And then exactly in the same pace, the graph looks identical as we became a more “I” society. We also lost faith in our public institutions above all government. Over my lifetime trust in government, measured by one standard question has gone from 75 percent hard to believe. But when I was growing up 7 percent of Americans said they trusted the government to do what’s right most of the time. And that’s now down below 20 percent, that’s the statistical facts. But Shaylyn what’s the deeper answer to that?

Shaylyn Romney Garrett:

Along with the lack of trust in institutions, we’re seeing a lack of trust in each other, social trust. And I think that when it comes to rebuilding trust in institutions, I think actually rebuilding trust in each other is a place to start. I also think that this idea of starting at the grassroots is where we’re going to begin to rebuild trust in institutions. We see that even with the pandemic. We see people looking to their governors to be the leaders and feeling more comfortable with that rather than looking to a national institution that they may have lost trust in. And so I think, again, some of these lessons from the Progressive Era are actually quite relevant here in terms of how we might go about rebuilding trust in our institutions. First of all, we need to rebuild trust in each other. We need again to prioritize association, prioritize relationship as the wellspring of trust more broadly. And then I also think that that hyper-local focus of rebuilding and restoring trust in local institutions can then bubble up into more broad support for national institutions. It’s going to be really interesting to see what happens with the vaccine being rolled out in this environment of deep mistrust of institutions. But I think we’re going to have to look to the local to rebuild this.

Mari Megias:

Great. Thank you very much for that question and answer. Our next participant is Joseph Bower. Go ahead.

Robert Putnam:

Hi Joe.

Q: Hi Bob. One of the things that fascinates me about the curve, particularly the last one is that the slow upward trend from 1940 to 1970 really corresponds to growth in the economy and what happens in 1970, 71 to 73 is the oil crisis. Real wages at that point begin as what is a decline essentially, they stay flat until today.  One of the things for example, if we think about, it’s one thing to ask us to embrace and include another race when our income is getting better. It’s another thing when our income is flat, some people are getting richer and richer and richer. The liquidity that came with the oil crisis flooded our system, and we got leveraged buyouts, the hollowing out of whole parts of the United States. There were huge negative economic forces.

Robert Putnam:

Right. Joe, I think I got the question. It’s a quite sensible question. I’m interrupting only because I want to make sure that other people have questions too. I don’t disagree with that description, but it doesn’t fit our data. First of all, keep in mind, the only thing our data does show is that, economic change is a lagging variable, not a leading variable. And what that means in general is, all these economic things you’re talking about were happening after, that doesn’t just turn on as you know very well when I say that I’m not talking about just exactly what was happening in 1970, but over the course of the whole curve, economic changes were lagging behind, not leading changes in family and changes in culture and changes in politics and so on.

And secondly, I think that the second point I’ve really already made which is, don’t focus only on a pair of variables like economics or the growth of the economy and race. You make a quite logical point. We’re trying to zoom back from that Joe, both in terms of the numbers of variables and in terms of time. And when you look at the larger picture I think we see things that are not possible when you’re focusing more narrowly on one or two variables over a shorter period of time. I don’t say Joe whether you’re convinced, but do you understand, did I make what I say make sense?

Joe: Oh yeah. I’m just fascinated that it turns out the 1940–1970 period shows up again and again and again, and then the 1970 to today period shows up.

Robert Putnam:

Joe we should let other people join in.

Joe: Right.

Mari Megias:

Thank you very much. Our next questioner is Sean Rush.

Q: Hi, thanks for the opportunity to chat with you. My question is. In the most recent election, 74 million people voted for Donald Trump, despite his chronic mendacity, antics, and reality television presidency. What are those 74 million people seeing in Trump? Because you talk about polarization. I know a lot of people who I respect, who nonetheless voted for Trump and I just don’t get it. What am I missing?

Robert Putnam:

This is one Shaylyn where we know perfectly well who’s the right person to answer this question. You should explain briefly why you’re the right person to answer the question.

Shaylyn Romney Garrett:

I live actually in Southern Utah right now near Zion National Park. I live in one of the reddest parts of a very red state. I definitely, I’m surrounded by people who voted for Trump. And so this is a question on my mind a lot as well. But I think it’s important to remember here that when you look at that I-We-I curve, we are in the depths of the “I” moment. This is not something that should be a surprise that we are voting for someone who displays this narcissistic set of cultural values. That is a deeply ingrained part of our cultural DNA right now. It doesn’t have to be, it hasn’t always been. But it’s a reflection of who we are, which is why when we look back at that Progressive Era, what we began to see was people saying, “Wait a minute, is this who I want to be? Is this who we want America to be?” And I don’t know that we’ve begun to see that shift on a broad scale yet. And so I guess what I’m saying is, again, not to be overly simplistic, but we’ve been here before in terms of this deep narcissism. And just because we’re seeing that manifest now does not mean that we’re doomed to go further down that darkening path.

And so the question is, what happens now? What happens now that we have a president that’s trying to light the way toward a different cultural moment? Are we going to see those people shifting or continuing to fight it? We’re not here to predict the future, we don’t know. But what we do know is that, this long-term trend toward narcissism, toward polarization, toward me, me, me competitive, I, I, I this long predated President Trump. This was happening much before he came onto the scene and it will continue to happen unless we choose something different.

The real lesson here is that, we have agency as citizens to right the ship or to let it continue to drift. And the question is whether we’re going to take the reins of history and say, this is not the value system that we want to see reflected in our leadership. This is not the value system that we want to see reflected in our own lives. And we’re going to begin to make different choices. That’s what happened then and that’s what will have to happen today. When and how is another question, but that’s what we’re looking for.

Caller: Great. Thank you.

Mari Megias:

Yes. Thank you. Our next person up is Roxanne Cason. Go ahead.

Q: Hello, thank you so much. I’m a big follower of your work. And I have always felt that it made a huge contribution. My question is you mentioned something about feminism, tracking what was happening to women. But you didn’t elaborate. I wonder if you could a bit. And my relationship is I’m on the Women’s Leadership Board and I served as Chair Emeritus.

Robert Putnam:

Go for it Shaylyn-

Shaylyn Romney Garrett:

Sure. The story with gender is a little bit similar to the story of race although a bit more complicated. Interestingly we present a lot of data, similar data to what we look at with regard to race, to ask the question of were are we moving toward gender equality over the course of this 20th century and when. Because again, a lot of times this cartoon history of the 20th century is that there was really no progress for women until the feminist revolution and then everything changed. When in fact, the data shows something quite different. In the words of the economist, Claudia Goldin, we were actually moving toward what she calls a Grand Gender Convergence over the course of the 20th century. Women have for example, always had more education than men. And we’re moving into work to a surprising degree. Again, over the course of that first two thirds of the 20th century. Again, that “we” decade and when women were moving into the “we” was characterized by things like occupational segregation. There were again, exclusionary facets of this, much like there were with race. And it was really those facets that drove the feminist revolution. You had all these educated, empowered women who were still being kept out, who were still being fired if they got pregnant, who still couldn’t get access to a credit card on their own. And that was what the feminist revolution was about, those aspects that were left unaddressed.

But to a surprising extent, women were moving into the “we” during these “we” decades. And largely that has continued unabated, we don’t see the same foot off the gas that we see with race. And yet we also don’t see that we’ve gotten toward equality and we don’t see that we have addressed the occupational segregation issue. And we don’t see that we have addressed the core problem of caregiving in this society, which is unequally on the shoulders of women. I’m a working mom and I’m a working mom during COVID. I understand exactly what this looks like and how there are many things that we’ve yet to address in terms of bringing women fully into the “we.” But interestingly, the century and the data looks quite a bit different than you might expect if you’ve subscribed to that cartoon history of long delayed progress until the feminist revolution. I would encourage you to just look at that chapter to see a little bit more of the detail behind that story.

Caller: Thank you. I look forward to reading.

Mari Megias:

Yes. Thank you very much. Our next questioner is, Robert Rodriguez. Go ahead.

Q: Yes. My name is Robert Rodriguez. And I’m a graduate of the MPP program in 1992. Professor Putnam, you are very near and dear to me. And it’s a delight to see you and to listen to you. And Shaylyn you’re terrific. You make a great combination with Professor Putnam. So thank you. One thing that is troubling to me and I wonder on a historical basis how you see it changing, is the total disconnect between Wall Street and Main Street. And as somebody who’s built a career in money management, is a little staggering to see these COVID numbers rising and these long-term unemployment rising, and the stock market is saying, “Oh, we’re seeing past that. And now we got the vaccine and we’re going to get richer.” And now I think the percentage of the population that participates in Wall Street is big enough that you could actually have a big chunk of the country saying, “We’re doing just fine.” But here’s my question and it relates to a very local type of organization to that end, chambers of commerces across the country, much like bowling leagues, in some cases they’re still dominated by older white men. What is the changing role for local chamber of commerce in this environment?

Robert Putnam:

Robert, that’s a very interesting set of questions. Actually it’s not a single question that you’ve answered. And so we’re going to have to pick and choose. I’m going to pick one part of that question, Shaylyn then you can go on to the other.

The disconnect between what you’re calling Wall Street and Main Street, which is certainly characteristic today was precisely the same thing at the end of the Gilded Age. It was exactly like that Robert. I can tell you there was the conflict between the folks on Wall Street and the folks on Main Street. The Main Streets were a little more rural then, ‘cause this was a somewhat more rural country, it was exactly the same conflict and exactly the same kinds of reforms that were then inaugurated. Which were for example, anti-monopoly legislation. You could almost literally reproduce those laws today. And the senior Senator from Massachusetts has in fact on this, she’s issued a statement of which she said, “Look what was being done in the first decade of the 20th century. And we had to do that now.” And she’s right. It’s astonishing. What’s happened of course in the middle of this period, is that all those regulations that had kept a certain balance of economic power in America, they were all, how did they disappear? Deregulation, where did deregulation came from? It came from Ayn Rand and this I designate, so that issue of Main Street/Wall Street is actually a classic example of what we are writing about here. Shaylyn do you want to pick that out or anything else from that, from what Robert asked?

Shaylyn Romney Garrett:

Yeah. Bob focused a little bit on this policy implications of how to reverse that Main Street/Wall Street divide. But I think again, going back to this narrative of the Progressive Era, what preceded those policy changes was as I mentioned at the beginning, this sense of elites actually recognizing the class divide. And we’re talking about a very physical class divide. This was not a time when we had documentaries where we could see things about what was going on, how the other half lives. But you did see the rise of the Muckrakers whose whole purpose was to shed a light on what was happening on the Lower East Side in New York, two miles from Wall Street. And this was a real shocker for a lot of elites who then suddenly realized, “I don’t know anything about this other half of America” and many of them actually chose to go and experience life in those parts of the country in order to understand them. And they were completely transformed by those experiences. And those were the people who ultimately became the national advocates for trust busting, the national advocates for child labor legislation, and for consumer product regulation, and all of these things that were affecting the lives of people who 10 years ago, they’d never given a thought to who they were and what they were doing.

I’d love to just highlight one quote from Jane Addams, one of my very favorite, progressive leaders who said, “We are under a moral obligation in choosing our experiences, because it is our experiences that ultimately determine our understanding of life.” I believe that Wall Street has an obligation to go and understand what’s going on, on Main Street and if they are able to do that in a heart-centered way, again, we’re looking for this moral awakening, I think that that’s when things and opinions about what needs to happen in America begin to change. And I’m most encouraged by movements who are bringing Republicans and Democrats but also elites and working class people into the same spaces so that they can experience each other and understand each other’s stories and begin to change their thinking about this “we,” that has become completely fractured in America. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Mari Megias:

Thank you very much. We have time for one more quick question. Nelson Reyneri, you’re up.

Q: Good morning I’ll be brief. Saying hello from Seattle. Nelson Reyneri, MPA too from 1994, 1993 rather. And it’s nice to also hear other folks like Robert old friends on. I’m glad you’re getting the reception that you’re getting. And the last question ironically I’m also a Chair-elect of the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. And in Washington and Seattle we started something Together Washington inspired Shaylyn by what you’re doing there. I know you’re not predicting the future, but in fine Kennedy School fashion, thinking of the regression model, I’ll throw out three variables all these, demographics, digital you’ve talked about social media, and democracy. And when you look at those, I wonder if we’re all aligned and trying to bend the curve upward. Do you think that makes it harder, faster, easier, enabler or not? Any thoughts on that? And again, thank you-

Robert Putnam:

Nelson. I missed or maybe a word in that question. Do I think what makes it harder or easier?


I think if you look at that model, what I’m taking away is that we need to and we can bend that curve upwards.

Robert Putnam:



But now I think obviously, to not make it too simplistic, we’re dealing in a world that has at least those three, you take the demographics, it’s not just a Black and white. You’ve got a lot of other cultures and communities et cetera. Democracy we’ve looked at unprecedented situation, that challenge democracy as an institution. How do we incorporate those three concepts and thinking about the model?

Robert Putnam:

Immigration itself and diversification not just Black/white but Hispanics and Asian-Americans zone, is a really interesting topic. We touched on that a little bit in the book, but I honestly just isn’t time now for me to begin talking in a second or two about all that. I guess I would want to say that and we know actually it happens in, Shaylyn and I know a lot about what’s happening in Seattle we were just last, I forgot when it was. Yesterday. I guess talking to a group in Seattle about these issues. And there’s a lot of good going on in Seattle as you very well know. I want to emphasize this point.

What we see in that earlier period, Shaylyn talked about this before. But it’s the sense, it’s the key to this whole discussion. We are not condemned by history, people have agency. And now let me talk about Seattle. Seattle has strengths and weaknesses. It has great inequality I know very well. I’ve walked the streets of Seattle, and I know the difference between the rich districts and the poor districts. It has great diversity. And it’s had to deal with a lot of recent challenges, not least the Boeing disaster, as well as of course the pandemic. But we’re not condemned either locally by our local strength conditions or by nationally where we are in the world or what we are in history. The message that we want to convey especially to young people, is where we think the problem with young people today it’s not their problem. But they have been taught by their experiences, which have been all in this “I” period, to be very cynical, that nothing matters. You can’t do anything. And we want to say, we understand where you’re coming from. Boy do we understand exactly where you’re coming from, but don’t get misled by the period of American history you’ve lived through. It is possible to change the course of our history. And you can do it, it was people exactly like you that did this in the past. Shaylyn do you want to add anything to what I’ve said? Maybe you can close off the sermon there.

Shaylyn Romney Garrett:

Again, when you name these three things, demographics, challenges to our democracy, and digital divides. It’s easy to think of those things as forces beyond our control, things that are happening to us. And that’s actually we closed the book, the title of our closing chapter is Drift and Mastery. Which of course takes its title from a book by Walter Lippmann published in 1914 in which he identifies this exact tendency that sometimes in a society, we have the tendency to think that everything is just drifting and we have no control over it. But actually the core message of democracy itself is that, we can master the future. It is up to us what our digital tools look like are determined by our choices. Both the choices of the users and the choices of the creators. And focusing our attention on that rather than on these big shifts that seem like they’re out of our control is actually where we regain our sense of agency in the face of a situation that feels almost out of control. I’m one of these people who’s lived only during the downturn. And yet I am optimistic looking at the historical record that our fellow Americans lived through a similar time when technology and democracy, everything seemed to be going off the rails. They reclaimed our nation’s promise. We can do it again and that’s our hope.

Nelson: Thank you. Thanks Mari.

Mari Megias:

Thank you very much to everyone who called in to listen to this Wiener Conference Call. And a special thank you to Robert Putnam and Shaylyn Romney Garrett. We’re so sorry we didn’t get to everyone’s questions. Just want to note, this was the last call of the semester. Watch your email for invitations to the spring series of Wiener Conference Calls. Thank you again to everybody.

Robert Putnam:

Thank you very much for having us.

Shaylyn Romney Garrett:

Thank you.