Legendary social scientist Robert Putnam: We may be on the cusp of a new Progressive era

Biden is consciously linking himself to FDR and LBJ — but Putnam says the real lessons are even deeper in history

By Chauncey DeVega
March 15, 2021 1:05PM (UTC)
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Lyndon B Johnson, Joe Biden and Franklin Delano Roosevelt (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

Last week, the American Rescue Plan (ARP) was passed by the Democrats in Congress — without a single Republican vote — and signed into law by President Biden. The $1.9 trillion ARP includes such provisions as $1,400 relief checks for most Americans, an increase in tax credits for low and middle-income earners to a maximum of $3,600 dollars a year per child under age six, more food assistance, $300 a week in additional unemployment insurance, hundreds of billions in funds for local and state governments, help in preventing renters and homeowners from being evicted or foreclosed upon, and more money for COVID-19 vaccines and research.

Unlike previous legislation passed by the Republicans during the Trump regime (and before), the vast majority of money and other assistance in the Biden administration's COVID-19 stimulus plan goes to poor, working class and middle-class Americans. By all reports, the vast majority of Americans will receive some form of aid from ARP.

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Historian Heather Cox Richardson expands on this at Moyers on Democracy and also in her newsletter "Letters From an American":

Unlike the previous implementations of this theory, though, Biden's version, embodied in the American Rescue Plan, does not privilege white men (who in Lincoln and Roosevelt's day were presumed to be family breadwinners). It moves money to low-wage earners generally, especially to women and to people of color. Representative Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) called the child tax credit "a new lifeline to the middle class."  "Franklin Roosevelt lifted seniors out of poverty, 90 percent of them with Social Security, and with the stroke of a pen," she said. "President Biden is going to lift millions and millions of children out of poverty in this country."

Many of the most important provisions in the ARP are likely to remain law because programs such as increasing the child tax credit are very popular with the public.

Because they are social Darwinists and plutocrats with no care or concern for the American people, Republicans in the House and Senate unanimously opposed the ARP. Contrary to how the Republicans and broader right-wing (with the help of neoliberal corporate Democrats) have spent decades creating a narrative that "big government" is the "enemy of the people", the ARP offers an example of how the U.S. government can respond quickly if it so chooses (and has the proper leadership): COVID survival checks have already begun to arrive in Americans' bank accounts.

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The ARP is correctly being described as the most progressive legislation since the Great Society, and Biden appears keenly aware of his unique role in history as the successor to a neofascist who attempted a coup during a pandemic and left the country teetering on the edge of a potentially irreversible calamity.

To that end, on Friday Biden invoked Lyndon B. Johnson and the legacy of the Great Society during a Rose Garden speech, saying that this historic legislation "changes the paradigm":

For the first time in a long time, this bill puts working people in this nation first. It's not hyperbole; it's a fact.

For too long, it's been the folks at the top.  They're not bad folks. A significant number of them know they shouldn't be getting the tax breaks they had. But it put the richest Americans first, who benefited the most. And the theory was — we've all heard it, and especially the last 15 years. The theory was: Cut taxes, and those at the top and the benefits they get will trickle down to everyone. Well, you saw what trickle-down does. We've known it for a long time. But this is the first time we've been able, since the Johnson administration and maybe even before that, to begin to change the paradigm.

We've seen time and time again that that trickle-down does not work. … This time, it's time that we build an economy that grows from the bottom up and the middle out. And this bill shows that when you do that, everybody does better. The wealthy do better. Everybody does better across the board.

What can the Democrats learn from history, to help maintain this progressive energy and momentum? How do the vast inequalities and other horrors seen in America's Gilded Age resemble the problems we see in America today? What lessons can be learned from how progressives fought back in that earlier era? And what does that overused term, "progressive," mean in 2021? 

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In an effort to answer, or at least address, these questions, I recently spoke with Robert Putnam, one of America and the world's most distinguished and influential social scientists. Putnam is currently the Malkin Research Professor of Public Policy at Harvard University, and is a former president of the American Political Science Association and a member of the National Academy of Sciences. In 2012, he was awarded the National Humanities Medal, the nation's most prestigious honor for contributions to the humanities.

 He is the author of 15 books including the landmark "Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community" and "Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis." Putnam's new book, co-authored with Shaylyn Romney Garrettis, is "The Upswing: How America Came Together a Century Ago and How We Can Do It Again."

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This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

How are you feeling, given all of the tumultuous changes and challenges the American people have been facing with the Age of Trump and now into Biden's presidency? We have gone from a nightmare scenario to some hope under Biden, but matters are still dire.

Given all the ups and downs of recent months — the pandemic, the economy and politics — prediction is hard, especially about the future. One can imagine many things going wrong — new virus strains, white nationalist terrorism and so on. That said, I'm feeling optimistic about where the country is headed, not merely in the short run, but even in the long run — and the long run is my main concern.

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In my new book "The Upswing," I examine parallels between the second decade of the 21st century, and a period 125 years ago which is very much like our present. I argue that we should and likely will be replicating the kinds of changes that were pursued in the Progressive Era during the first part of the 20th century. There is a phenomenon called the "I-We-I" curve, a movement from selfishness to community to selfishness. That curve is ripe for change in the United States.

Biden and the Democrats just passed a landmark COVID relief and survival bill. Given your concerns about social progress, how do you assess Biden's presidency so far?

Biden is proving to be just what the doctor ordered for a shaken country, focused explicitly on "we," not "I." It's not just his well-known empathy for people in pain, nor his equally well-known propensity to work across the aisle, but also his ability to adapt to changed political circumstances. While he tried to work with Republicans on the Hill — and polls show that the public believes he was sincere in that effort — he also proved able to act on his own when the GOP party leaders blew him off. His rising poll numbers show that he's got most of the public, including many Republican voters, on his side.

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From the Age of Trump and its many disasters to Biden's presidency and its potential and opportunities, it feels as though America is in a world-historical moment. Who knows what happens next? How do you make sense of what could be a true turning point in history?

I have that same feeling. I also felt that way during another pivot point in American history, which was the middle of the 1960s. I went to college in the fall of 1959 and graduated from college in the spring of '63. That was a period of time when we — the whole country, but especially college students and other young people — thought that we were going to change the world. We were going to end racism and social inequality, for example. Everybody in the world knew that big things were happening in all spheres of life. It's an experience that is very difficult to explain and describe to someone who has not lived through such a moment.

What about backlash and right-wing reactionary politics?  

When you are in a world-historical moment, some moment of great change, you do not know how it is all going to turn out at the end. That's the nature of the thing. One is so close to the surface that they cannot get up to that 30,000-foot level and see what is happening in context, to see what is just around the corner. In the 1960s, we did not know what was going to happen next and it could have been anything. And in that case, what did in fact happen next was exactly the opposite of what we hoped. The reform movement of that period seemed to be winning, but then there was a dramatic reversal and basically bad things happened in every respect.

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That was true in terms of racial justice. It was true in economic terms with Richard Nixon. Those questions of backlash are hanging over us now too.

If you could bring a Progressive-era activist through time to America today, what do you think they would see that is familiar? What would be different?

The first thing they would see would be completely familiar to them. That time traveler would see a world of great inequality. That is the world they knew in the Gilded Age. It was a world of intense political polarization like America's present. Social relations among people, that is, their connections to their families, to the community and to religion and so on, were weakening.

That time traveler would see that is true here today. Their era was one of great narcissism or even self-centeredness. That is true in America today as well, especially given Trump's presidency. He is the greatest narcissist of all.

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And then, if our visitors from the Gilded Age were a bit more thoughtful, they would see that the strategies used during their era to fight back against inequality might work today as well.

We need a moral revival right now across issues such as racism and political polarization, and also more generally in terms of how our society treats human beings. We can learn from the Gilded Age how so many of our country's problems require local solutions as well.

During the Gilded Age there was a great amount of experimentation with local solutions which would be piloted in different parts of the country and then shared nationally if they worked. These were called "laboratories of democracy." Many of the solutions did not come from Washington. Then, as now, we also needed grassroots mobilization. And another echo of the past with the Progressive movement is how young people were the leaders. It will likely be young people who again lead the United States out of our current crises as well.

If you were to write a simple mission statement, what does it mean to be a progressive?

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"We want to make progress." Progressives also believe that we have the right ideas about how to solve problems. However, progressives are not exclusive in how we find solutions to problems. Other people and groups may have good solutions as well.

A mission statement for progressives right now would be: Think morally. That is the first part of the mission statement. Progressives must think about how to make changes that will improve the lot of the least well-off people in society. Progressives should also think scientifically in terms of solutions and real evidence. Do not rely on old myths or hearsay and rumors.

What do we know empirically about the impact of social capital and the "I-We-I" curve on American society today?

Children who grow up in social isolation do far worse than children who grow up in communities where the "we" is emphasized. In such communities the neighbors look out for one another. "We-ness" also positively impacts education and health and social mobility. People who grow up in areas where there is low social capital do not live as long. They also have higher mortality rates from many diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and cancer.

How come America's death rate from COVID is so much higher than almost every other country in the world? How does such a thing happen?

The country was at the lowest ebb of our "we-ness," that sense of collective care and concern and identity. America was at a low point in social capital, which meant that when the pandemic hit we were more vulnerable than other countries. Trump did not cause that accidental coincidence. It was a function of low social capital and COVID happening at the same time.

What advice do you have for young progressive activists today? 

Change happens because people want to make change. We are agents. We are not merely the objects of history. We are the agents of history. That's what change-makers during the Progressive Era understood. You can make a difference, and without you society is not going to change for the better.

Do you have any advice for the Biden administration and the Democratic Party on how to keep their momentum and work to create the progressive renewal you described?

Politically, their top priority has to be the midterm elections, and the American Rescue Plan is an excellent start. Whatever else may affect the Democrats' chances in 2022 — from Dr. Seuss to crises at the southern border to unexpected Supreme Court decisions to shenanigans in Trump's Republican Party to voter suppression — the electoral fundamentals next year will be, a) whether the pandemic is in the rearview mirror and b) whether the economy is booming again. All the experts agree that the COVID-19 rescue plan has more or less assured those two fundamentals. I'd much rather be playing Nancy Pelosi's hand than Mitch McConnell's hand over the next two years.

I'm focused much more on the next two decades than the next two years. But the prospects for the long run depend on what happens in the short and medium run. I'm more optimistic today than I have ever been in my life that within my lifetime. And I'm now 80! America may once again pivot toward a "we" society — more equal, less polarized, more altruistic, less socially fragmented and more attentive to historic, structural inequalities.


Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a politics staff writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at Chaunceydevega.com. He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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