JOHN DALTON: The gist of your argument is that American economic, cultural, social and political trends over the past 125 years follow a coherent narrative arc that you describe as an “I-We-I” curve: a gradual climb from the cut-throat social Darwinism of the Gilded Age to a more altruistic phase spanning the New Deal to the 1960s, followed by a downturn towards the more self-centered ethos of the “me decade,” “greed is good,” and the “selfie generation” of today. In a sense, we’re back to the Gilded Age. What is the biggest lesson you think history can teach us about how we move forward from where we are today?
ROBERT D. PUTNAM: A very important discovery we made doing this research was that when we looked at all the data and saw all those trends turning together at almost exactly the same time, we found that economics was not the leading indicator. It was a lagging indicator. Now think what that means. I’m not saying that we don’t need to worry about economic inequality. Of course we do. But if we’re interested in learning how Americans turned things around the last time, economic reform did not start it off. Cultural changes preceded economic reforms. A moral revolution took place, where people began to think differently about their obligations to others; that’s what triggered the last upswing, not economic policy.
JOHN DALTON: That moral revolution, as you describe in the book, required a lot of work at the grass roots level. And that activism involved a lot of youth. Do you see a similar values-driven youth culture forming today?
ROBERT D. PUTNAM: Absolutely. Look at Greta Thunberg, the environmental activist. And all the young people marching after the killing of George Floyd. And those students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School demanding gun law reforms. That’s perfectly in line with what we learned about the rise of the Progressive movement a century ago. If you look at the people who led the Progressive movement, so many of them were young. Jane Addams, for example, she was in her twenties when she did all that work in the slums of the south side of Chicago that got her the Nobel Prize. And all of these efforts were grass roots programs. They didn’t wait for a leader. So if we’re going to have an upswing today, it will be driven by young people working for change from the bottom up. I’m not saying it’s going to happen; this is not a mechanical thing. But that’s what it looked like back then, young people who could see new vistas, they’re the ones who kickstarted the cultural changes.
JOHN DALTON: Despite all the dire news today, you sound pretty optimistic.
ROBERT D. PUTNAM: You know, this book was written before the pandemic. It doesn’t know about lockdowns. It doesn’t know about all the deaths in the country from COVID-19. It doesn’t know about vaccines and Biden winning the election. It doesn’t know about the riot on January 6. A lot has happened. But when young people learn the value of connecting with one another, that’s when they figure out how to fix the problems they see around them. So am I optimistic? Let me paraphrase the late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, who makes a distinction between optimism and hope that I think is useful here. Optimism is a passive virtue, a belief that things are getting better. But hope is active, it’s the belief that by working together we can make the world better. In that sense, I’m deeply hopeful.