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How U.S. history could provide a path out of polarization

The U.S. feels more deeply divided than it has in decades. According to social scientist Robert Putnam, the data backs up that assessment. Putnam, author of the seminal work on social capital and isolation “Bowling Alone,” believes looking back to American history can help pave a new path to unity and equality. Paul Solman reports on Putnam’s new book with Shaylyn Romney Garrett, “The Upswing.”

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    In this increasingly divided time, a new book looks to history to help find a path to unity and to look for new ways to move toward equality.

    Paul Solman is our guide for his regular series, Making Sense.

  • Paul Solman:

    Harvard social scientist Robert Putnam, famous for his bestseller 20 years ago about increasing disconnectedness in America, "Bowling Alone."

  • Robert Putnam:

    The Collapse and Revival of American Community": Bowling is big in America, you know. But bowling in leagues, bowling in teams is off by about 40 percent. So the fact that we're bowling alone represents one more missing occasion for connections.

  • Paul Solman:

    But this fall, Putnam is in semi-seclusion, with wife Rosemary in resplendent rural New Hampshire, and he appreciates the irony.

  • Robert Putnam:

    I have taken a ton of criticism and teasing from my family for 25 years for writing about how important it is that people connect to one another, but, in order to do that, I come up here in total isolation.

    Of course, it's different now with the coronavirus, mostly because we're trying to escape from the risks down in down in the city.

  • Paul Solman:

    Putnam's refuge is especially ironic, in light of his new book, "The Upswing," the culmination of his work about social capital — that is, social connectedness — and how to rebuild it in an ever-more on-your-own America, as polarized as it was in the late 19th century.

  • Robert Putnam:

    This is the first Gilded Age. We were very polarized. We were very unequal. And the next 70 years, basically, everything rises. We get more and more connected. We get less and less polarized. We get more and more equal.

  • Paul Solman:

    And thus the upswing to a more egalitarian society, from untouchable Gilded Age fortunes of the 1890s, summer cottages of Newport, Rhode Island, for example, with rooms of marble and gold, to a national income tax, almost only on the rich, in 1913, the New Deal of the 1930s.

  • Former President Franklin Roosevelt:

    I pledge myself to a New Deal for the American people.

  • Former President Lyndon Johnson:

    The Great Society rests on abundance and liberty for all.

  • Paul Solman:

    The Great Society of the 1960s, rotary clubs, bowling leagues, ever more economic equality. But what swung up sure swung down.

  • Robert Putnam:

    When the boomers came of age, they inherited a society that was moving in the right direction…

  • Paul Solman:

    Yes.

  • Robert Putnam:

    … and very, very affluent. And they blew it.

  • Paul Solman:

    But we thought we were doing the right thing and bringing America to the right place.

  • Robert Putnam:

    Yes. I know you did.

  • Paul Solman:

    So, rock 'n' roll, never trust anybody over 30, down with authority, non-conformity, self-expression, that began the downswing?

  • Robert Putnam:

    Yes.

  • Paul Solman:

    Which then expressed itself economically?

  • Robert Putnam:

    Yes. If you think we're not all in this together, it's every man for himself.

  • Paul Solman:

    OK, boomers, check out these meticulous, data-driven charts, in which Putnam shows how, starting in the '60s, America became less economically equal, less politically tolerant, less socially engaged, less altruistic, the era of me, myself and I, and many of you, too.

  • Shaylyn Romney Garrett:

    My job was really to come in and figure out a way to tell this story so that it was more than just numbers and curves and data.

  • Paul Solman:

    Putnam's partner on this latest project is his former student Shaylyn Romney Garrett, a cousin of Mitt, though her politics aren't related.

  • Shaylyn Romney Garrett:

    I will never forget the moment when we're sitting at the dinner table with Bob and Rosemary and he starts telling me about these obscure data sets that he's been tinkering with on Google, called Ngram data.

  • Robert Putnam:

    The Ngram program can tell you how often a given word has appeared in any book published in any year.

  • Paul Solman:

    So Putnam typed in the words I and we.

  • Robert Putnam:

    It was exactly the same curve as all these other curves we'd been studying.

  • Paul Solman:

    And the data punchline is that, in the late 19th century, it was I, I, I. It then became more we, we, we, we, up until the 1960s. And then, in all the literature that's assembled, it becomes more and more I, I, I again?

  • Robert Putnam:

    Yes, not overnight, of course, Paul. It's a gradual trend.

  • Shaylyn Romney Garrett:

    You see a real shift, not just away from using the first-person pronoun to the we pronoun, but in asking Americans to rethink what this nation is really about in terms of our core values.

    And we saw a shift away from the social Darwinism, that sort of dog-eat-dog mind-set of the time, into what historians call the Social Gospel, which was a movement that tried to get us to think more about what we owe to each other, what responsibilities do we have to each other in a society, rather than simply the idea that a society is one giant competition.

  • Paul Solman:

    Which is where we are today.

  • Robert Putnam:

    We're even more polarized now — I'm talking about the data — even more polarized now than during the Civil War.

  • Paul Solman:

    The purpose of Putnam and Romney's book, to depolarize, spur a new upswing to bring us back together.

  • Shaylyn Romney Garrett:

    Sometimes, we look at the political polarization today and say, oh, well, that was nice that they did that back then, but we can never do that today, because nobody can agree on anything.

    Well, the lesson of this book is, we have been in that exact same place before, and this group of determined reformers managed to pull us up out of it, by immigrant activism, by worker activism, by muckrakers, one of the most under-recognized of whom is Ida B. Wells, a Black American engaging in a moral outcry against lynching.

  • Paul Solman:

    Joining the activists back then, those atop the polarized society, who began to think twice.

  • Shaylyn Romney Garrett:

    Chastened elites. They were people who had this realization that America was going off the rails, and that they had played a part in shaping the underlying values that had created that deeply unappealing situation that they found themselves in.

  • Paul Solman:

    People much like Bob Putnam himself.

    Being up here, the we should all get together guy…

  • Robert Putnam:

    Yes.

  • Paul Solman:

    … who bemoans the fact that we're bowling alone…

  • Robert Putnam:

    Right.

  • Paul Solman:

    … do you feel guilty that you're sequestered and protected?

  • Robert Putnam:

    I do, of course, because of the implications for inequality.

    The average income of people here along the pond is probably $300,000 or $400,000 a year. The average income of the people 400 or 500 yards back is probably $25,000 or $30,000 a year. Forget about the virus. The degree of inequality embedded in my life, this is just not fair.

    At some level, that fairness is the core here.

  • Paul Solman:

    For the "PBS NewsHour," this is Paul Solman.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    A lot to think about. And we've got to have hope.

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