Plagued with rising inequality, polarization and social isolation, America is in a tough spot and morale is at a historic low — but we’ve been here before, and our predecessors can show us the way forward, said Shaylyn Romney Garrett in Tuesday’s forum.
An advocate of human connection and community, Garrett co-authored the 2020 book The Upswing: How America Came Together a Century Ago and How We Can Do It Again with Robert D. Putnam. Their research linked America’s current challenges to the “startlingly similar” ones of the Gilded Age of the 1880s and 1890s.
“The tale I’m going to tell you traces the roots of today’s problems,” Garrett said in her address. “I’ll share with you an evidence-based story about how we’ve arrived at our current predicament, as well as some important lessons of history that contain clues for how we might get ourselves out of it.”
Just as in our day, during the Gilded Age extreme individualism often precluded collaboration. Despite an overall increase in material well-being, there was vast inequality, political gridlock, pervasive narcissism, and loneliness across the population because of demographic and technological changes.
“Worried observers” predicted that our democracy stood “on the verge of ruin,” Garrett explained. Yet, “the doomsday prophecies and despairing anxieties of the late 1800s were never fulfilled. The fear that the American project was headed off the rails proved unfounded. So how did we get from the last American Gilded Age to our current crisis? What happened in the intervening century?”
Garrett and Putnam’s research showed that rather than spiraling downward, American society improved in the fifty years following the Gilded Age, by many measures. The economic gap narrowed; political parties began collaborating more; community ties strengthened; mutual responsibility rose as a cultural value.
Though still imperfect, “America experienced a dramatic, multifaceted and multi-decade upswing.” But by the mid-1960s, the upswing “abruptly reversed direction,” leading to a backslide that landed us where we are today, facing the same problems as the Gilded Age.
"What led the last upswing was a reinvention of our shared cultural values"
Plotted on a graph, the history of unity in America looks like an inverted U, which Garrett and Putnam call the “I-we-I” curve: “a gradual climb into greater interdependence and cooperation, followed by a steep descent into greater independence and egoism. From ‘I’ to ‘we,’ and back again to ‘I.’” The trend is reflected in nearly every aspect of American life, down to “our shared understanding of what this nation is all about.”
To find our way back, Garrett suggested that we avoid nostalgically seeking to return to the peak in the 1960s but instead look to the moment the upswing began at the turn of the twentieth century.
Surprisingly, the improvement didn’t start with economic change, nor with legislation. “What led the last upswing was a reinvention of our shared cultural values,” Garrett said.
Following the Gilded Age, the first major transformation was “a change of heart” in the people, fostered by cultural leaders who pushed back against the era’s prevailing philosophy of Social Darwinism and its “every-man-for-himself” mindset. Those leaders included preachers who taught Christ’s message of community and equality, journalists who exposed exploitative and unjust systems, and novelists who imagined a more just America.
Inspired by these visionaries, Americans created measurable change through a simple mechanism: clubs. Reviving a tradition of citizens gathering in associations — which had died off by the 1880s — people formed youth groups, scout troops, sewing circles, day groups, soup kitchens, Rotary clubs, settlement houses, labor unions and more.
“It was this coming together on a human scale that paved the way for a sweeping set of national reforms and innovations, many of which form the very basis of American society as we know it today,” Garrett said, citing consumer protections, free public high schools, child labor legislation, minimum wage, public sanitation and playgrounds as just a few examples. Both the civil rights movement and women’s suffrage emerged from such associations as well.
“No one party, no one policy or platform, and no one charismatic leader was responsible for bringing about America’s upswing as we entered the twentieth century. It was, instead, an immense collaboration of countless everyday Americans — just like you and me.”
Garrett ended her address with a call for each of us to pick up the torch of those who came before, as inheritors of both the democracy they saved and the backslide that ensued. She encouraged everyone to determine how their talents could best be used to unite our nation, following the path set by the cultural leaders of the Gilded Age.
“As Theodore Roosevelt put it, ‘The fundamental rule of our national life — the rule which underlies all others — is that, on the whole, and in the long run, we shall go up or down together.’”