In 1961, President John F. Kennedy implored Americans to “ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”
Twenty years later, Ronald Reagan won election by asking Americans, “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?” Not if the country were better off; if you were better off.
In a fascinating, compelling and wholly original new book, The Upswing: How America Came Together a Century Ago and How We Can Do It Again, the political scientist Robert Putnam and social entrepreneur Shaylyn Romney Garrett assert that from the Gilded Age of the late 19th century to the present moment, America has oscillated between a society framed by colossal income inequality and political polarization to a more progressive notion of concern for the common good and political cooperation.
Putnam and Romney Garrett observe that following the inequality and political polarity of the Gilded Age a decades-long era began in which Americans embraced the need for cooperation to confront the existential challenges of an economic catastrophe in the 1930s and a World War in the 1940s, and, civil rights legislation and safety net programs in the 1960s.
But then the tide shifted, and deep polarity returned, and it defines our politics to this day.