The Roots of American Misery


Among recent inquiries into the sources of American discontent, one finds many simplistic diagnoses based on dubious cliches, but also deep insights that look beyond headline economic indicators and conventional wisdom. And yet analyses that address root causes and offer meaningful solutions remain few and far between.

TOWNSHEND, VERMONT – ’Tis a season of trauma and introspection in the United States. As America faces a choice between an Obama-era restoration and the ongoing Grand Guignol presidency of Donald Trump, four leading scholars – two from Harvard and two from Princeton – offer accounts of how their country went from city on a hill to global laughing stock.

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The political scientist Robert D. Putnam has written (in collaboration with Shaylyn Romney Garrett, a “writer and award-winning social entrepreneur”) a sprawling account of American discontent and its evolution over the course of the past century. Their central thesis is that things got better across all measurable dimensions – economic, political, social, and cultural – from the early twentieth century until the late 1960s. But then they got worse, culminating in today’s decadence and dysfunction, so reminiscent of the Gilded Age. Putnam illustrates this grand historical sweep with a single inverted-U curve, which he calls the “I-We-I Curve.” The curve, Putnam tells us, captures the rise and fall of common purpose and collective spirit, and conversely, the fall and rise of self-absorption and narcissism – perhaps indecently reflected in our national leaders.

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The exact construction of the curve is not very clear. In a footnote, Putnam reports that it is the product of a “factor analysis”; the details are omitted. Much of the book builds on graphs showing a similar pattern for sundry matters, from marginal tax rates and political bipartisanship to civic engagement – a topic Putnam has already presented extensively in his most famous work, Bowling Alone. Apparently, the I-We-I curve is a combination of these patterns.