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.