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The Upswing

How America Came Together a Century Ago and How We Can Do It Again

An eminent political scientist’s brilliant analysis of economic, social, and political trends over the past century demonstrating how we have gone from an individualistic “I” society to a more communitarian “We” society and then back again, and how we can learn from that experience to become a stronger, more unified nation—from the author of Bowling Alone and Our Kids.

Deep and accelerating inequality; unprecedented political polarization; vitriolic public discourse; a fraying social fabric; public and private narcissism—Americans today seem to agree on only one thing: This is the worst of times.

But we’ve been here before. During the Gilded Age of the late 1800s, America was highly individualistic, starkly unequal, fiercely polarized, and deeply fragmented, just as it is today. However as the twentieth century opened, America became—slowly, unevenly, but steadily—more egalitarian, more cooperative, more generous; a society on the upswing, more focused on our responsibilities to one another and less focused on our narrower self-interest. Sometime during the 1960s, however, these trends reversed, leaving us in today’s disarray.

In a sweeping overview of more than a century of history, drawing on his inimitable combination of statistical analysis and storytelling, Robert Putnam analyzes a remarkable confluence of trends that brought us from an “I” society to a “We” society and then back again. He draws inspiring lessons for our time from an earlier era, when a dedicated group of reformers righted the ship, putting us on a path to becoming a society once again based on community. Engaging, revelatory, and timely, this is Putnam’s most ambitious work yet, a fitting capstone to a brilliant career.

Photograph by Martha Stewart

Robert D. Putnam is the Malkin Research Professor of Public Policy at Harvard University and a former Dean of the John F. Kennedy School of Government. Nationally honored as a leading humanist and a renowned scientist, he has written fourteen books, including the bestselling Our Kids and Bowling Alone, and has consulted for the last four US Presidents. In 2012, President Obama awarded him the National Humanities Medal, the nation’s highest honor for contributions to the humanities. His research program, the Saguaro Seminar, is dedicated to fostering civic engagement in America. Visit

"Ambitious. . . . Putnam and Garrett are rewriting the political history of the twentieth century here. . . . [A] magnificent and visionary book."

– Win McCormack, The New Republic

"A top-notch addition to the why-America-is-in-such-a-mess genre. . . . A tour de force exploration of why America got better and then went into reverse."

– Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

"America’s deep-seated divisions were healed in the past and can be again, argues this sweeping and persuasive study. . . . This fresh, ambitious take on America’s fraying social fabric will provoke much discussion."

– Publishers Weekly

"Robert Putnam has long been our indispensable guide to contemporary America. His books on social capital, on religion, and on children are essential reading. The Upswing is another masterpiece; it weaves seemingly unrelated stories into a grand master narrative of the last hundred years. A triumph."

– Professor Sir Angus Deaton, FBA HonFRSE, Nobel Prize winner and coauthor of Deaths of Despair

“In the most ambitious and compelling of his several exemplary books, Robert Putnam masterfully re-casts the history of our country from the Gilded Age to the present. . . . The Upswing is a singularly illuminating book and a clarion call to action.”

– David M. Kennedy, Professor of History Emeritus, Stanford University

“Americans who feel we are now living in the worst of times will see their spirits lifted and their hopes raised after reading The Upswing.  Based on a careful analysis of data trends, Robert D. Putnam’s compelling narratives reveal why we should take inspiration and instruction from how America’s first Gilded Age, a period of despair much like today, turned into the Progressive Era, which moved America in a positive direction for over half a century.  The Upswing is a must-read for those who wonder how we can once again reclaim our nation’s promise.”

– William Julius Wilson, Lewis P. and Linda L. Geyser University Professor Emeritus, Harvard University

"No one understands the United States better than Bob Putnam, and no one else could have written this essential book. The Upswing brings together his vast knowledge, love of data, storytelling ability, and passion. It's an astonishing work that reminds Americans we are a great people, shows us what we can accomplish when we come together, and makes clear that we need to do so again. Now."

– Andrew McAfee, MIT scientist, author of More from Less, and coauthor of The Second Machine Age

"The Upswing is a revelation—tailor-made for this polarized age and destined to be a central reference point for urgent debates and determined activism. Here, one of America’s most renowned public intellectuals gives us a new understanding of our history and a profoundly insightful roadmap for a future we can only create together. Squarely facing race and gender inequity, Putnam and Garrett shed new light on the moral awakening and collective action that a diverse group of Americans sparked more than a century ago—and show how we can build on their example, but also learn from their blind spots, today."

– Xavier de Souza Briggs, Distinguished Visiting Professor, New York University, and former Vice President, the Ford Foundation

More books from this author: Robert D. Putnam