So the Biden-Harris ticket has received, however by slender margins in a number of the battleground states. How did partisanship attain such a pitch that Donald Trump’s tribal enchantment simply cancelled doubts about his manifest unfitness for workplace? And what can Joe Biden do to patch collectively a frayed nation? The political scientists Robert Putnam, creator of the acclaimed Bowling Alone, and Shaylyn Romney Garrett present a wealth of sociologically grounded solutions in The Upswing. Though the title is reassuringly buoyant, it is a story of two long-term tendencies, one benign, the opposite a darkish descent. An unabashed centrism prevails: political stability, the authors recognise, is a dance that requires a measure of cooperation and disciplined deportment from each events.
On the ebook’s core is a set of graphs describing the broad contours of American social, political, financial and cultural life over the previous 125 years. All of the graphs broadly conform to a standard hump-like sample: a rising swell over half a century or so of higher social belief, equality, bipartisanship and civic do-gooding peaking across the Sixties – adopted by a marked and regular decline in all these standards within the subsequent 50 years.
The unhealthy information is that we live via the worst of the downswing, amid gross inequalities, company exploitation of the weak and uncompromising hyper-partisanship. The excellent news is that the US has been right here earlier than – within the late Nineteenth-century Gilded Age – and efficiently pulled itself out of the mire. An antidote emerged to the robber baron industrialists, social Darwinists and anti-corporate populists of the Gilded Age within the type of the Progressive motion, whose beliefs attracted reformers from inside each principal events. Certainly, the short-lived Progressive occasion of the 1910s was an offshoot from Theodore Roosevelt’s “Bull Moose” model of reformist Republicanism.
Though Republican moderates managed to see off this third-party menace, Progressive beliefs – the alternative of oligarchy, clientilism and corruption with fashionable, scientifically knowledgeable administration by middle-class professionals – endured as a major strand in Republican politics. Progressive sentiments knowledgeable the New Deal of Roosevelt’s distant Democrat cousin FDR, but additionally the politics of mid Twentieth-century accommodationist Republicans equivalent to Wendell Willkie and Thomas Dewey.
The best exemplar of harmonious “Tweedledum-Tweedledee” politics was Normal Eisenhower who, declining the chance to run for president as a Democrat, campaigned as a non-partisan Republican and ruled as a big-spending progressive. The “low tide” of partisanship got here within the mid-Sixties when Lyndon Johnson’s battle on poverty, the introduction of Medicare and implementation of black civil rights loved help throughout the aisle from Republicans.
On this age of “depolarisation”, the true ideological divisions lay inside events, between liberal Republicans and anti-New Deal conservative isolationists, between unionised northern blue-collar Democrats, a lot of them Catholic, and southern Democrats – predominantly Protestant segregationists whose cultural values belonged far to the correct of liberal Republicans. The authors word that on problems with race and gender progressive Republicans had been usually to the left of Democrats, and that as late because the Sixties Democrats had been extra more likely to be churchgoers.
Politics was, nonetheless, just one strand in “the Nice Convergence” described by Putnam and Garrett. It was an age not solely of rising revenue equalisation however of volunteering. Individuals participated in enormous numbers in chapter-based civic associations, such because the Elks and Rotarians, the Knights of Columbus and African American Prince Corridor freemasonry. The mainstream Protestant church buildings themselves converged, favouring an ecumenical, theologically slender, all-American faith of social service and serving to out.
Staggeringly exhausting as it’s now to consider, the Southern Baptists initially welcomed the pro-choice outcome within the Roe v Wade abortion case of 1973. Certainly, Putnam and Garrett understand a protracted unobtrusive upswing within the place of girls and African Individuals earlier than the rights revolution of the 60s. The black-to-white revenue ratio improved 7.7% per decade between 1940 and 1970.
However the pendulum had already begun to swing within the different route. Most of us would possibly guess that it was the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 that initiated the flip to inequality and division. Not so, insist Putnam and Garrett, for the Reagan counter-revolution seems to be a “lagging indicator”. Extra ambiguous is the presidency of Richard Nixon, who seems right here in strongly contrasting tones: a liberal Keynesian Republican on the coverage entrance, however hard-boiled and amoral when electioneering.
Including a inexperienced tinge to progressive Republicanism, Nixon established the Environmental Safety Company and signed a clear air act. But in the end beliefs had been a entrance for the harvesting of votes. Cynically alert to Southern Democrat disenchantment with Johnson’s civil rights laws, Nixon launched into a Southern technique to woo the solidly Democratic South for the occasion of Abraham Lincoln. The method took many years, and explains one in every of immediately’s most obvious and traditionally illiterate ironies: the flying of Accomplice flags by rural Republican-supporting northerners.
Nevertheless, as Putnam and Garrett exhibit, the Nice Divergence is about far more than political realignment. The good arc of recent American historical past issues financial outcomes, social tendencies and a variety of cultural transitions that the authors describe as an “I-We-I” curve. Issues began to go awry on various fronts from the Sixties. Each the libertarian New Proper and the countercultural New Left supplied totally different routes to non-public liberation. However particular person fulfilment got here at a price in social capital.
Escape from the drab soulless conformity related to the Fifties ended up all too usually in lonely atomisation. An extended street led from the straitjacket of early marriage within the Fifties through the liberty of cohabitation to the rising phenomenon of singleton households. Chapter-based voluntary organisations that concerned turning up for conferences and actions gave strategy to impersonal professionally run non-profits whose Potemkin memberships existed solely as mass mailing lists. Unions ceased to be focal factors of employee camaraderie and sociability, and shrivelled to a core perform of collective bargaining.
What’s extra, the good mid-century levelling of incomes went into reverse. First, the hole grew between the center and the underside, then the incomes of the elite raced away from these of struggling middle-earners, and eventually, as Putnam and Garrett present, the wealth of the highest 0.1% vastly outgrew that of the highest 1%.
The downswing America described on this ebook comprises some stunning options. Partisan antipathy has risen to a excessive pitch as – seen over the long run – the depth of non secular and racial hostilities has mellowed. The authors consider that the brand new group loyalties of Republicans and Democrats are solely weakly ideological, and are based mostly reasonably on emotional allegiances of a tribal nature.
Immediately’s partisans don’t merely dislike their opponents: they detest them, and assign character flaws to their rivals. This helps clarify why Trump was in a position to usurp the Republican occasion and its followers, whereas to all intents and functions jettisoning an entire slew of conventional Republican policieslike a brand new soccer supervisor who adjustments a group’s model of playwithout shedding the allegiance of its hardcore followers. We is perhaps tempted guilty social media for this state of affairs, however Fb and Twitter have an “ironclad alibi”. The beginnings of the Nice Divergence predate the web by many years.
A Biden presidency brings into focus the troublesome job of therapeutic and reconciliation. However right here Putnam and Garrett run into hassle, for it’s unimaginable to determine a single decisive issue that precipitated the downswing. Fairly the authors determine a variety of “entwined” tendencies “braided collectively by reciprocal causality”. Simply as analysis of final causes is treacherous, so too is discovering a compelling plan for throwing the Nice Downswing into reverse. The authors search for the inexperienced shoots of a brand new Progressive motion in numerous types of grassroots activism, however are frightened that they’ve but to see this take a “actually nonpartisan” type. They attempt to be upbeat, however the dominant word is wistful.
But even on their phrases the election does current restricted grounds for optimism. The energetic campaigning efforts of the Lincoln Challenge and different Biden-endorsing Republicans exhibits that the occasion – although lengthy since deserted by its liberal progressives – nonetheless comprises a number of mansions. Think about the crossover potential of libertarians, Republican-inclined, who supply an unpredictable smorgasbord of choices for jaded partisan palates: laissez-faire on morals in addition to markets. In tight races in Arizona, Wisconsin and Georgia, Jo Jorgensen, the third-party Libertarian candidate, drew small however vital numbers of disaffected Republicans away from Trump.
And what are we to make of the quiet Trump phenomenon, the massive numbers of voters who unostentatiously turned to him, largely, it appears, due to the financial system? That voters – nonetheless narrowly self-interested – is no less than amenable to purpose. Regardless of all of the worrying auguries, the election was not a simple scrap between whites and minorities. Trump misplaced white males to Biden, however gained stunning proportions of Latinx and African-American voters, and received area of interest teams equivalent to older Vietnamese-Individuals. Immediately’s tribes haven’t, alas, dissolved, however tomorrow’s appear probably on either side to be rainbow coalitions.
• The Upswing: How America Got here Collectively a Century In the past and How We Can Do It Once more is revealed by Swift (£25). To order a duplicate go to guardianbookshop.com.