A Philosophical Big Sort

I have previously cited Bill Bishop’s excellent 2008 book, The Big Sort, in which Bishop focused on physical “sorting”–the increased geographical clustering of like-minded Americans choosing to live in areas populated by people who generally shared their political worldviews.

A very thoughtful book review by Ronald Aronson in The Hedgehog Review centered on a different type of American division–what one might call “philosophical sorting.”

The book being reviewed was The Upswing written by Robert Putnam (he of “Bowling Alone” fame) and Shaylyn Garrett. The book looked at what it called the “I-We-I arc” through the lens of the last 125 years of American economic, political, social, and cultural history.

A remarkable assemblage of data and a compelling story about America history, The Upswing begins with the Gilded Age, the period of disintegration, conflict, and aggressive individualism after the Civil War. It was followed by seventy-five years of growth in equality and national community achieved first by the Progressive movement, then by the New Deal, and, under different conditions, by wartime solidarity. But then things went sour: “Between the mid-1960s and today—by scores of hard measures along multiple dimensions—we have been experiencing declining economic equality, the deterioration of compromise in the public square, a fraying social fabric, and a descent into cultural narcissism.” The last century’s upswing has been followed by the slide toward an unhappy collection of democratic ills: inequality, individualism, austerity, the domination of human needs by the “free market,” political polarization, and the blockage of economic and educational gains by African Americans.

According to the review, the book is replete with graphs that reveal a repeating arc: an inverted U. Until around 1970, the data shows an increasing sense of “community, equality, belongingness, and solidarity—a growing “we.” After that, however, the graphs show a “sharp collapse into an individualistic and even conflictual assertion of “I” in values and culture as well as politics and economics.”

This is a story that unfolds in four overlapping parts. First, the trend toward greater economic equality reversed sharply over the past fifty years. Second, political polarization, some of it rooted in the Civil War, gave way under the influence of the Progressive movement to a remarkable degree of political consensus by the 1930s. But then things turned in the other direction as the Civil Rights Act of 1964, supported by substantial majorities of both Republicans and Democrats, led to bitter party polarization that was accompanied by a steep decline in trust in government and a rise in cynicism. Third, social life became anemic as membership in clubs and associations declined (a main theme of Putnam’s Bowling Alone) and the social and cultural force of labor unions dramatically weakened. Fourth, as an indicator of the changing frequency of occurrence of certain words, Google Ngrams tell a parallel story of a rise and fall in values of community and individualism: “association,” “cooperation,” “socialism,” and the “common man,” as well as “agreement,” “compromise,” and “unity,” all showing the same inverted U-shaped curve, rising and then declining steeply, to where we are today.

I was particularly intrigued by the observation that many whites come to champion the idea of individualism…”because it provides them with a principled and apparently neutral justification for opposing policies that favor Black Americans.” If racism is truly a major underpinning of the “I” portion of that I-We-I arc, I’m afraid the “upswing” Putnam and Garrett believe is on the horizon will be a long time coming.

 Aronson is equally dubious about the prospects of an upswing. As he points out, if anything should have prompted a return to “we,” it should have been the pandemic. It didn’t. Americans “sorted” philosophically and politically.

Survey research tells us that 36 percent of Republicans– as opposed to  4 percent of Democrats– thought the 2020 shutdowns were too restrictive. Prominent Republicans insisted that COVID-19 was a hoax and that the death toll was exaggerated. The U.S. has 5 percent of the world’s population–and 20 percent of COVID deaths. Twelve of the fifteen hardest-hit states are governed by Republicans.

The Upswing was published in 2020, prior to the pandemic, and didn’t address it. Other omissions are less understandable.

Aronson points to the multiple social influences that are simply missing from the book’s analysis: the role played by American capitalism’s “outsourcing, deregulation, financialization, speculative bubbles, austerity, and neoliberalism;” globalization; the Vietnam War; “inflation, and American imperialism, including the Cold War and the post–Cold War military-industrial complex.” And as he says, “we must come back in the end to the crucial link between America’s coming apart and its deeply imbedded racism.” 

I am very much afraid that the continued existence of a White Supremacy Party–and the philosophical gulf between Americans that is symbolized by that continued existence–is incompatible with an imminent upswing.

I hope I’m wrong.


  1. It comes down to people that believe someone is taking something from them and all the rest of us. And their political leadership eggs it on.

  2. “…increased geographical clustering of like-minded Americans choosing to live in areas populated by people who generally shared their political worldviews.”

    Unless you are house hunting during election time, how do you know the political leanings of neighborhoods? Unless of course you have friends there to provide the information. I had lived in my present home for 11 years, each election posting Democratic yard signs, neighbors around me didn’t post political signs and were friendly. We NEVER talked politics during that 11 years. In 2016 eleven “Trump for President” yard signs sprouted, well fertilized by his bullshit; he was appointed President and they stopped talking to me. In 2020 one Trump yard sign appeared for about a week, then was removed, but they still do not talk to me.

    Race, on the other hand, is easily identified if you are racist and bigoted, making your decision to move elsewhere simple. I mistakenly believed buying my first home at 832 Eastern Avenue was safe for my friends to visit because there was a middle-age Black couple across the street. Apparently they had been there long enough to be ignored, we became friendly. Then the 3 lesbians bought the house next door and we became friends. My 11 year old son’s best friend was the Hispanic boy from a few blocks away. It didn’t take long for the attacks to begin; name calling, harassing then threatening phone calls at night, broken windows, sugared gas tanks, ugly graffiti sprayed on garage and houses. My oldest son, the one with the long pony tail, was working with a small family circus; while changing jobs he came to stay with me for a few days. Driving his hippy VW van with his hippy friend Tim and his full blooded Native American friend Lenny, my concerns increased until they continued their trip south. No political yard signs to identify the “political worldview” of that area.

    My neighborhood is racially mixed but everyone stays behind closed doors. I do know where the registered child molesters and sex offenders live because I receive regular notifications from the Marion County Sheriff’s Department. Someone should write another book!

  3. There will be an upswing, but America has some lessons to learn. Hopefully, they don’t learn them the hard way.

    As Einstein identified in 1949, mankind was already beginning to resent being affiliated with the collective we. He blamed it on the organization of society with communism on one end and capitalism on the other. He said there was a balance in the middle.

    Well, communism collapsed, but the USA’s oligarchy used that as an opportunity to impose capitalism or (say we were right about capitalism) and the oligarchs diminished the government’s role (the collective we) while expanding capitalism’s role (the competitive I).

    A friend of mine likened capitalism to fire. It’s very useful but requires significant control. I could agree with him but it requires a strong government which we don’t have because the oligarchs control it.

    A strong government could easily abuse its position, so we also need a strong press free to hold the government accountable. We don’t have that either because the oligarchy neutered it.

    Now the fire (capitalism) is out of control.

    If you pay attention to what China is doing (CCP) with its billionaires. Xi called them in and said he you are getting too big and control too much of the market. I am going to take some steps to reduce your power and you need to take some steps to reduce your power and wealth so that all of society can benefit.

    If our oligarchy thinks they can fight their way back into being right or in charge, it will get ugly. However, I don’t think the young people will allow it. The changes we need to make are drastic because we veered off course for 40-50 years. Our oligarchs got greedy and who’s going to reel them in? The government who is owned by them? The press who is owned by them?

    Will the failure of Afghanistan be an awakening for them? We’ve been so caught up in our deluded Egos of American Exceptionalism, our pride has blinded us. We believed in our own propaganda.

    We have two choices in life: humbly admit when we are wrong, or double down on our prideful ways. We either learn the easy way or the hard way.

    This is what Putin told us after he met with Biden in his subtle way. We’ve been running with a full head of steam based on willpower alone (pride) which always cometh before the fall.

  4. I really don’t think it is all that complicated. The very rich are promoting propaganda that serves their interests at the expense of the rest of us. Throwing shade on masks and vaccines, promoting racist tropes, preventing poor people from voting and touting individualism and meritocracy all act to harm the ability of people to come together to work for programs that would improve their lives, but unfortunately cost the very rich power and money. I doubt they would miss the funds from an increase taxes but they sure would chafe at the reduction in their power.

  5. We all pin our hopes for the future on the younger generations who are now coming of age. I remember when it was my generation that was supposed to save the world. Look at what we have wrought. We should be ashamed.

  6. Pandemic is not over. The repercussions of climate change are accelerating, so if strife brings more unified society, we could be at its beginning.

  7. What Geraldine said, and with some modification, what Todd said (Capitalism is working quite well – for the capitalists). Aronson’s critiques of The Upswing lay out the realities of “market economics” with his sub-headings and some are worse in their effects than others, like austerity and deregulation and the unmentioned and ill-defined “national interests” we use as a catchall for interference in the affairs of others. (See Viet Nam, Chile, Afghanistan, Iraq et al.).

    Capitalism as currently run amok knows no boundaries, geographical or financial, and I am nearing a Todd view of the scene in macro terms with my oft-stated view that capitalism can work but not as currently practiced. Perhaps by its very nature it can’t work – in a democracy.

  8. No common standards of language or behavior, no common culture-500 TV channels, hundreds of music genres-doesn’t help.

  9. I would agree with Todd, especially in terms of Capitalism being a fire. Steroid Capitalism since the 1970’s has been and is an uncontrolled wildfire, consuming and reducing to ashes all that stands in it’s way. How many factories here in America have been reduced to piles of rusting metal??

    With NAFTA and other trade agreements, America was gutted of it’s factories and they were located “off shore” to places where human rights and environmental regulations were ignored or did not exist. Just to top it off the tax havens were set up for the Oligarchy. Oh and if you are wealthy enough you can go into space for a few minutes.

  10. There’s a movie on Netflix that everyone should be watch – Capital in the 21st Century, based on and featuring the author of the book of the same name, Thomas Pikitty. Amazing movie, but only there until, I think it was September 7.

  11. We allow the radical rich to bribe ‘our’ politicians with
    campaign contributions then moan about the results.
    We cannot have a real democracy unless we drive Big
    Money out of our politics with a public campaign funding
    system. So gang. How do we secure such a system?

  12. I fear the movement to “I” is highly fueled by racism and a backlash to the election of Obama.

  13. Tom – By legislation, legislation that (hopefully) will pass muster with a 6-3 conservative count of justices.

  14. I live in a neighborhood of different races and there are other gay people besides me who live here. One of my neighbors who lives at the edge of our neighborhood had a large Trump sign in front of her house during the 2020. I treat her with respect. I have seen her picking up litter along the road that leads out of our neighborhood.

    I have talked with some of my neighbors. We watch out for each other.

    It is true. We not only have silos on social media. We live in communities that are silos. Our involvement in clubs i.e. The Lions Club, Kiwanis, and yes, even churches has declined. There is no doubt in my mind that these clubs had members of both political parties and encouraged civil discourse. They united people around common goals for the greater good. I got to experience that sort of civility in Toastmasters. We did not discuss politics. We only supported people’s desire to become better speakers and leaders.

    Church membership has declined as well due to the inability of churches to change with the changing times and social values. In small towns, churches are a central part of the social fabric.

    I just posted my new song “Black Wolf/ White Wolf” on Facebook. I hope it moves peopleof all political stripes to respond to the pandemic by feeding the white wolf.

  15. “Until around ’70….” coincidental with Nixon’s win, using “the Southern Strategy.” My, my.
    I am afraid that your pessimism, Sheila, is justified. A bit of optimism might be found in the apparent fact that the Millennials now outnumber the Baby-Boomers.
    Sadly, the racist lines that led to the philosophical and political sorting response to the pandemic, were fed by The Former Guy, the GQP, and their racist media fans.
    Todd, I have to agree with the entirety of your comment, and “We have two choices in life: humbly admit when we are wrong, or double down on our prideful ways. We either learn the easy way or the hard way,” brings me back to pessimism. The oligarchs will not suddenly “care.”
    Tom is right.
    Peggy, you send shivers up and down my spine. We were “supposed” to, but it may only have been that we thought “we were supposed to….” The oligarchs became scared and the Koch Boys began their ongoing now 50 year crusade, in response to the apparent “promise” we exemplified.
    One of what you might call our anthems, the song “Aquarius/Let the Sun Shine In” has been known to bring tears to my eyes exactly because the sun did not shine in.
    Tom is right.
    MCL, I hope you are right, as well, but increased scarcity, as the effects of climate change become still more extreme, might just push the human race toward energized barbarism. Scarcity has a penchant for leading to war.
    Darn, I’m such downer, today!
    But, wait, the House Special Investigation Committee is putting on the brass knuckles.

  16. While the fury seems recent I saw it even before the Americans with Disabilities Act came into force as people were infuriated that anyone would ask them spend a bit of their largesse to make life better for someone disadvantaged. However, I trace it back to the frantic letter (to ,was it Madison?) insisting that something be done to divide oppressed whites from oppressed blacks before they unite and overthrow their oppressors.

  17. Don’t underestimate the effect of entire generations being raised on Cold War propaganda. What served to defeat Soviet Communism still serves to hide the ugliness of Capitalism, even from those most victimized by it.

  18. Mitch. Unfortunately, while Gen X, Y, Z are generally less prejudiced, they are very me-centered and disconnected from civic concerns, especially political activity.

  19. Lester–your dismissive lumping together of young people is inaccurate. My students were very community oriented. They also all voted, and many of them were very politically involved. Does that mean that everyone in their age cohort was equally involved? Of course not. But both my anecdotal experience and social science data suggests that these generations are more–not less–involved than their predecessor cohorts.

  20. In short, one of major arguments against those programs is often fundamentally flawed.

    The interesting follow-up question is: how many of those making the “cost” argument know they are wrong, but still make it for other reasons they’d prefer not to describe overtly?

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