Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO)
Many despair at the polarization of modern democracies and the US in particular. Robert Putnam shares that feeling but believes that lessons from history can show us a way out, if only we heed the right lessons. In this book, he analyzes the pattern of 'I'- and 'we'-oriented trends in US history. From a period remarkably like our own in the late 1800s, marked by inequality, social dislocation, and cultural narcissism, the US gradually entered into an era of increased community. The book traces a range of developments, from economics and cultural expressions to race and gender. The wealth of material makes this a rich and nuanced picture. The core chapter, at least for this reader, is the last one, on trends and ideas from 'The Progressive Era', ca. 1890–1920, that helped build remarkably sturdy ideas of community and responsibility: leaders with a strong sense of moral obligations, associations with resilient ideas about aims and action, and stunningly diverse people and groups united in common causes. Putnam is aware of the precarious balance between such communitarian ideals on the one hand and individual freedom on the other, but insists that the balance can be struck, not through mindless compromise, but by making sure we do not set our communal aims too low. This is not a book only about America, but more generally about values and trends that cause societal change. It serves as a reminder of the need for diverse, yet strongly knit communities. This view of greatness achieved through communal action, and by identifying shared responsibilities and interests, is clearly crucial to charting a course towards peaceful societies.