The main idea of this book is to demonstrate that American society went through cycle of dominance of individualism in late XIX-early XX century’s “Gilded age” that was pushed out by collectivistic progressive movement and cultural changes that led to dominance of communitarian ideas, which picked up in 1950-60s and then returning back to dominance of individualism and inequality that hit bottom in our time. The additional idea is to find some signs that America will start moving back to communitarian future, obviously preferred by authors, sometime soon.
Chapter 1: What’s Past Is Prologue
This chapter begins with Tocqueville’s observation:” the coming together of people for mutual purposes, in both the public and private spheres, and found that a multiplicity of associations formed a kind of check on unbridled individualism. Keenly aware of the dangers of individualism (a term he coined), Tocqueville was inspired by what he saw in America: Its citizens were profoundly protective of their independence, but through associating widely and deeply, they were able to overcome selfish desires, engage in collective problem solving, and work together to build a vibrant and—by comparison to Europe at that time—surprisingly egalitarian society by pursuing what he called “self-interest, rightly understood.”
Then authors move to our time and lament dissolution of associations, pointing out the huge psychological problem that developed in late XX – early XXI century America:” While industries spawned by technological advance have allowed huge corporations to produce unparalleled profits, very little of this wealth has trickled down. The poor may be better off in real terms than their predecessors, but the benefits of economic growth have remained highly concentrated at the top. Extremes of wealth and poverty are everywhere on display. Class segregation in the form of an entrenched elite and a marooned underclass is often a crippling physical, social, and psychological reality for those striving to get ahead. Young people and new immigrants enter the labor force filled with the hope that the American Dream can be theirs through persistence and hard work. But they often become disillusioned to find how great their competitive disadvantage is, and how difficult it is to make the leap to where the other half lives. American idealism increasingly gives way to cynicism about a rigged system.”
After that author moves to the main thesis of this book, which is that America over the last 100+ years went through cycle of decrease in individualism and increase of community reaching the top in 1950s and then went down into dark valley of individualism. It is presented by the general graph:”
Authors stress that community for them somehow means government with its regulations, bureaucracy, and suppression of individuals, while individualism somehow means big corporations, managerial, and financial elite. Then authors present general plan of the book: to go systematically through 6 specific areas and present suport of their main thesis for each of these.
Chapter 2: Economics: The Rise and Fall of Equality
The first such area is economics. At first authors present data on tremendous growth of American wealth:
Authors provide similar graphs and discussion for Income and Wealth, review history of what they call “conversion” of the middle century that was followed by “divergence” of the end of century and beginning of current century. They also look at consequences, such as “deaths of despair”:
Finally authors analyse “how did we get there” by looking at the changes in multiple areas, trying to find causal relation:
Innovation and education – Education does not keep up with market demands
Unions – decline in support and membership
Policy – Taxing and spending, with stress on insafficient and not progressive enough taxing, not enough financial regulation, small minimum wage and so on. Authors also stress change in social norms from being too rich somewhat not nice to bragging of being rich.
Chapter 3: Politics: From Tribalism to Comity and Back Again Here authors look at political environment throughout history of the last century and find the same change: deep division during gilded age growing into unification of midcentury and moving to deep division once again. Here is representation of this process:
Authors look at multiple dimensions of political process and political interactions between people and generally find similar picture elsewhere. One outlier is trust in government which jumpted in 1930s – early 40s when people mistakenly saw in government savior from the great depression and correctly saw it as the driving force in winning WWII. After that it consistently went down after government demonstrated it inaptitude in all conceivable ways:
Chapter 4: Society: Between Isolation and Solidarity
Here authors look at people participation and variety of associations: civic, religious, professional, unions, and even marriage. They find the same picture elsewhere: after growing up in early XX century, dramatic decline and even atrophy for many such institutions. It could be summarized in one graph:
Chapter 5: Culture: Individualism vs. Community
Here authors move into special area of American culture: competition between two visions: one centered on individual and another one on the group or community. Authors base this chapter on research in Ngram, which analyses frequency of use of specific words in published texts. They look at Salience of multiple words:
- Survival of the fittest vs. Social Gospel
- “Association, Cooperation, and Socialism”
- “Common Man”
- “Agreement, Compromise, and Unity”
- “Subversion and Deviance”
- “Responsibility and Rights”
The conclusion across all these multiple points of data presented in the graph:
Chapter 6: Race and the American “We”
The next stop is mandatory discussion of the race relations. Authors go through various inequality parameters: health, wealth, political power, and so on. Unusually for leftists they recognize that black progress to equality was successfully terminated by leftist policies implemented in 1960-70s:
However they stress white guilt – specifically lack of enthusiasm in accepting second class citizenship for themselves among white middle and woring classes.
Chapter 7: Gender and the American “We”
In this chapter authors going through similar exercise for gender equality.
Chapter 8: The Arc of the Twentieth Century
This is kind of summary chapter:” In this chapter we aim to see the forest, not merely the trees and leaves. We begin with a summary of the broad changes that have animated the four thematic chapters—economics (Chapter 2), politics (Chapter 3), society (Chapter 4), and culture (Chapter 5). We step back from detailed narratives of specific topics, specific variables, and specific decades to ask how America changed over the last 125 years in terms of the balance between the individual and the community.”
Authors provide combined graph:
Authors then discuss their search for driver of these changes and conclude that it is cultural development, rather then economic or political. However they admit that such causial relationship has very week support in data and they have no solid explanation for I-WE-I cycles. However they note an interesting anomaly: cycle temporary interruption in 1920s when increase of movement from Gilden age “I” to massive “WE” was paused and resumed only after beginning of Great Depression. Authors also go into somewhat detailed discussion of causation in science and refer to work of Robert Shiller about narrative economics in which he claims that economic changes often preceed by changes in generally accepted narratives. Eventually authors give up on causal explanaitons reviewing a number of them and finding all of them lacking. They also look in details at 1960s as turning point period that changed direction from WE to I.
Chapter 9: Drift and Mastery
In the last chapter authors look at the overall development of last 113 years, taking as starting point Edward Bellamy’s “Looking Backward 2000-1887” and comparing predictions with reality. They go through bios of a number of personalities of Progressive Era in early XX century trying to find analogs in our time in hope to find indicator of similar movement from “I” to “WE” that occurred between 1929 and 1960. At the end they come with this conclusion:” Throughout this book we have argued that although America’s “we” had gradually become more capacious during the first half of the twentieth century, and as we continued the long historical task of redressing racial and gender inequities, we were in 1960 (and still are) very far from perfection on those dimensions. Americans could have and should have pushed further toward greater equality. Therefore the lessons of history that we glean from the I-we-I century are two-sided: We learn that once before Americans have gotten ourselves out of a mess like the one we’re in now, but we also learn that in that first Progressive Era and the decades that followed we didn’t set our sights high enough for what the “we” could really be, and we didn’t take seriously enough the challenge of full inclusion. Therefore, the question we face today is not whether we can or should turn back the tide of history, but whether we can resurrect the earlier communitarian virtues in a way that does not reverse the progress we’ve made in terms of individual liberties. Both values are American, and we require a balance and integration of both.
MY TAKE ON IT:
It is an interesting collection of data and I pretty much agree with authors’ framework of economic, cultural, and political developments of the last 100+ years. The only difference I have is that I see no problem with causal explanation of these developments. From my point of view there is always tension that arises from dual character of human nature: individualistic need to take care of self without which survival of individual is not possible and similarly strong need to take care of a group one belongs to because destruction of the group makes chances of individual survival close to nil. The early XX century for America meant practical absence of any external thread to existence of main group – nation, but multiple threads to individual subgroups – farmers, workers, small businessmen, college graduates with skills not commensurate with ambitions, and so on, all threatened by big corporation and superrich individuals that undermined these groups’ viability. The initial advancement of collectivism during the Great Depression was linked to use of political power to compensate for their market failure via political means: unions, wealth redistribution and multitude of economic support government programs, creation of multitude of sinecures in government, and so on. All this was welded into one huge communal entity by WWII, which put the very survival of group – America into question. After victory in WWII, which made America superpower for which any thread was mainly unthinkable and even individual survival pretty much assured, the other driver of human action – individualism start moving to dominance. It brought in all kind of group weakening actions from buying cheap foreign products to moving manufacturing offshore. The main focus of struggle shifted from survival of America to prospering more than neighbor, even if it means denying prosperity to this neighbor. It also included moving to gated community to separate oneself from this former neighbor. The good/bad news is that this period is coming to the end because there is real threat of external domination once again – China and its communist / expansionist direction of development. Similarly, to the past we will probably have powerful consolidation of internal interest groups and increasing dominance of collectivistic approach, at least for a while. And, since unlike mid XX century current American elite is tightly linked to global elite and it seems does not mind to be subordinate to Chinese communist leadership, the change could include destruction of the part of this elite that will fail to awake their sleeping internal patriotism. It would be interesting to watch how American collectivism of masses will clash with Socialist / Globalist / Chinese collectivism of elite.