(CBS Local)– A new Simon & Schuster book from authors Robert Putnam and Shaylyn Romney Garrett will have readers thinking about what America has been as a country and what it could be. “The Upswing: How America Came Together a Century Ago and How We Can Do It Again” takes a look back at the political, social and economic trends of the past 100 years and explains and how a society consumed by a culture of me can become a nation defined by the notion of we again.
Putnam is a Harvard University political scientist and the recipient of the 2012 National Humanities Medal from President Barack Obama. Meanwhile, Romney Garrett is a scholar and an award-winning social entrepreneur. Both authors think their book is coming out a perfect time because they believe the past can inform the present and the future.
“We are both interested in how America got in a pickle and we are in a real pickle. America is in a real crisis. Shaylyn and I were interested in how we got there and how we get out of there. America has hardly been in worse shape than we are now,” said Putnam, in an interview with CBS Local’s DJ Sixsmith. “We are more polarized politically almost than we’ve ever been. We are more unequal economically than we have almost ever been. We are more socially fragmented than we have almost ever been. We are more inward focused and focused on ourselves than community more than we’ve ever been before. We go back 50 or 60 years and 125 years and what we find 125 years ago is the Gilded Age. It was a period of extreme inequality, extreme political polarization, extreme social fragmentation and extreme self-centeredness. If that sounds a little familiar, it is familiar.”
“I’ve been an enthusiast of the Progressive Era for a long time,” said Romney Garrett. “It came on the heels of the Gilded Age. It was where we saw a very concerned group of reformers grab the reins of American history and say we’re not going to be in this mess any longer. We are going to right the ship and we’re going to pull up out of this upswing. I don’t know if they really knew it at the time, but with the benefit of this 125 years lens, we really see the way in which they engineered a fast, multi-faceted, very clear upswing in our nation’s history that lasted two thirds of a century.”
Romney Garrett was a student of Putnam’s 30 years ago and the two have collaborated and stayed in touch ever since. One of the biggest questions of the book is what can we learn from the past and how can we apply it to what is happening today. While some of the issues were different during the Gilded Age, a lot were actually pretty similar.
“The Progressives were engaged in a very clear project of moral awakening,” said Romney Garrett. “They were not just saying that inequality was bad for our economy, but they were saying inequality was is contrary to our primary conception as a nation. They were asking how they were complicit in the problems they were seeing around and not just pointing the finger at the rich. They also engaged in citizen innovation. Instead of saying we need a national leader to come along and save us, they said to themselves there are problems right outside my door step. Some of the solutions they created bubbled up to the municipal level, to the state level and ultimately became blueprints for vast national changes that shaped the America we know today.”
“We’re not trying to say that the content what people did back then was the right solution, but we’re saying the strategy they used is something you can really learn a lot from,” said Putnam. “It’s very clear that the top political leaders did not cause this. Charismatic leadership is not what was needed. The lesson we learned from last time is don’t wait around for a charismatic leader, that is not the way to go. This process was very decentralized. The national level was so blocked and the country was so polarized politically, it started with ordinary people and ordinary towns and cities.”
“The Upswing: How America Came Together a Century Ago and How We Can Do It Again” is available today wherever books are sold and watch all of DJ Sixsmith’s interviews from “The Sit-Down” series here.