At the turn of the 20th century, the United States suffered from rampant inequality, vicious partisanship, a torn social fabric, and unabashed egoism. Individuals and corporations lunged ahead, the devil take the hindmost. But from that terrible epoch—eerily similar to today—something admirable sprang up and flourished: six decades of steady, albeit imperfect, social amelioration.
The United States steadily became “a more egalitarian, cooperative, cohesive, and altruistic nation.” In the 1960s, however, the nation tumbled back toward a brash new Gilded Age, marked by ferocious inequality, bare-knuckle partisanship, social fragmentation, and a culture of narcissism. Putnam and Garrett sum up the three epochs as “I–we–I.”
But what was it about the 1960s that cracked a sunny community and turned it back into a selfish, snarling, and segregated land? ... a powerful potential cause glints through, and the authors seem repeatedly tempted to settle on it... At the height of the civil rights movement, George Wallace, a fiery segregationist, stunned everyone by riding a crude racial backlash to strong showings in the 1964 primaries. The Republican Party, led by Barry Goldwater (in 1964) and Richard Nixon (in 1968 and 1972), cashed in and began to wink at white privilege. Suddenly, the majority of white people stopped voting for Democrats (who averaged just 39% of the white vote in presidential contests between 1976 and 2016).
...in 2005, the U.S. Census Bureau predicted a majority-minority nation within a generation, further stoking white fear. Putnam and Garrett return to racial tensions in four different chapters, raising the question of whether it was white racial anxiety that shattered the great American “we.” The authors do not go so far as saying yes, but they lay out enough evidence to allow readers to judge for themselves.
Despite painting a bleak portrait of recent U.S. history, every shred of data in The Upswing reverberates with the same exhortation: We came together once, and we can do it again. The authors emphasize the role that bold reformers played in imagining a better, more inclusive nation during the 20th century's long upswing. Their book is an extended call for a new generation to take up the fight.