After the noble aspirations of post-Civil War Reconstruction to build a unified nation faded into the squalid Gilded Age of corruption and exploitation at the dawn of the 20th century, the United States found itself riven by economic inequality and politically paralyzed by partisan polarization. Early 20th-century America was a land of astounding technological progress and great wealth, but the majority of the population suffered in bleak conditions. Politics, rather than redressing the economic and social inequities of the system, was marred by massive corruption and disrupted by sporadic violence.

A century later, Americans living in the 21st century seem to face many of the same woes. And the problems, interlocking and interconnected as they are, seem intractable. Today’s politics are too hateful and divided to generate meaningful reform. And, absent this reform, society is too corrupt and unequal to generate constructive policy.

In The Upswing: How America Came Together a Century Ago and How We Can Do It Again, coauthors Robert Putnam and Shaylyn Romney Garrett say they have learned important lessons from the Progressive Era reversal of entrenched inequality. “By the time we arrived at the middle of the 20th century, the Gilded Age was a distant memory,” they observe. “America had been transformed into a more egalitarian, cooperative, cohesive, and altruistic nation.” Yet, the trend, they show through their overview of 125 years of American political history and social science data, is that “between the mid-1960s and today … 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.”

Perhaps due to the challenges that can arise from co-authorship, the book cannot quite seem to decide what it wants to say about the poor racial equity record of the Progressive movement. On the one hand, there is a sort of old-fashioned liberal argument running through the book that while the “we”-ness of America has declined over the past 50 years, the “we” has become more capacious, so now we can try to return to solidarity, but without the exclusion. On the other hand, Putnam and Garrett offer the provocative argument that in terms of “material well-being” there was “substantial progress toward racial equality over the half century before 1970,” but stagnation since then.

Indeed, one interpretation would be to read the book as suggesting that life was better when we didn’t have high expectations for women’s careers, strong aspirations to racial equality, or many immigrants, and that we should seek to return to those traditional social hierarchies in order to “Make America Great Again” (MAGA). But the authors reject this conclusion without quite being able to explain why.

A better rejoinder to MAGA nostalgia is to simply say it’s not true that we’ve been in national decline for the past 50 years. Statistics have shown that opportunities for women and Black Americans have clearly improved—perhaps most visibly evident in the steady upswing in the diversity of America’s political officeholders. And Americans as a whole are richer, are better educated, and live longer than our midcentury predecessors. Politics is more polarized because we don’t have apartheid rule in the one-party South. The economic inequality story is similar across many countries and thus unlikely to be driven by US-specific changes.

Read the full article about The Upswing by Matt Yglesias at Stanford Social Innovation Review.