Getting back to 'We': Authors discuss lessons learned from history, potential for new American upswing

The participants in the presentation for the Presidential Roundtable series.
Image credit - Amanda Pitts

When considering a 125-year period of American history that represented what two authors dubbed an "I, We, I" curve of how citizens prioritized their engagement with others, how does America get back again to "We?"

Shaylyn Romney Garrett and Robert Putnam both said young people are the key to bringing back that sense of common purpose and community -- just as their counterparts did at the turn of the 20th Century after the country endured a similarly divided period as it is experiencing now.

Garrett and Putnam, authors of the book titled, "The Upswing: How America Came Together a Century Ago and How We Can Do It Again," presented statistical analysis and storytelling on April 6 to describe the ways America overcame a polarizing era and the lessons learned.

Their virtual presentation was part of the final installment in the Presidential Roundtable series examining the Constitution, elections and democracy. The series was hosted by GVSU President Philomena V. Mantella and former presidents Thomas Haas, Mark Murray and Arend Lubbers.

In introducing the discussion, Mantella said, "We must constantly work to form and inform our opinions and to stay curious as we work to continuously learn about the moments in the past and how they're situated in our future."

Before presenting his empirical findings, Putnam observed: "Americans disagree about almost everything, but Americans are really in a pickle. America has reached historic levels, really almost unprecedented levels, of political polarization and separately from that economic inequality."

He then discussed how America during the late 1800s was politically polarized and socially fragmented, which gave way at the start of the 20th Century to a more hopeful, bipartisan time. He said that period -- described as the "We" period -- lasted until the 1960s, with a peak at mid-century.

In the 1970s, the country began reversing that trend, he said, leading to a prolonged period of social disconnectedness and profound income inequality. He referred to this time as a period of "I-ness."

As Garrett described the other part of the "I" historical curve, the late 19th Century, she noted that the citizens who helped lead America out of that divided period had a "moral awakening" where they resolved to not only reform external problems but also their own hearts. These Americans were determined to stem the country's downward drift and felt strongly about the power of ordinary citizens to do that.

"If we are to see another upswing, we will need to see a cultural and moral shift away from this hyper individualistic moment we find ourselves in and back toward a more communitarian or solidarity-oriented mindset," Garrett said.

Garrett did provide a cautionary tale from the advancements America made in the first part of the 20th Century: Not enough attention was paid to inclusion, creating "a structural racism that we are still grappling with even today." 

Both Lubbers and Murray asked questions about the role religion plays in social connectedness. Putnam contended that beyond theology, a religious community can have a broadly positive effect on society because of the fellowship it creates.

Haas raised the issue of the fragility of American democracy at this moment. Garrett noted that similar prophecies about the fragility of democracy were expressed in the late 19th Century until a group of citizens "grabbed the reins of history."

Mantella's question about what advice the authors would offer students stoked an impassioned reply from Putnam. He said the book's intended audience was young people, a group that did not cause these problems but is key to fixing them.

"They’ve never lived in a world that was moving in the right direction, frankly. They’ve never lived in a 'We' world," Putnam said. "They have every reason to be cynical, but people with the same skills and gifts and weaknesses turned America around. Those young people 125 years ago could have let the world drift away but they changed the world. You can do that."

The Presidential Roundtable Series was presented by Grand Valley State University, the Hauenstein Center for Presidential Studies, and the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Foundation, and assisted by the GVSU College of Liberal Arts & Sciences, the Brooks College of Interdisciplinary Studies, the Office of Student Life, the Frederik Meijer Honors College and its Padnos/Sarosik Civil Discourse Program.


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