“Political science is more important than ever before, but it may need to be slightly more nimble and agile — passionate, dare I say. Where’s the passion in political science?” asks Professor Matthew Flinders. “I think to some extent, what political science has allowed to happen is almost to take the passion and emotion out of the subject, which leaves you with an empty vessel” – he adds. In this interview discussing his reflections on Robert Putnam’s book, “The Upswing: How We Came Together a Century Ago and How We Can Do It Again” (co-authored with Shaylyn Romney Garrett), Professor Flinders delves into the evolving landscape of political science and its implications. Putnam’s book serves as a gateway to a broader discussion on US politics, societal progress, engaged scholarship, the significance of the ‘so what’ question, and the future of political science.
The interview is based on the PSR article Democratic Decline and the Politics of the Upswing: How the United States May Have Come Together a Century Ago but Can It Do It Again? – Matthew Flinders, 2022 (sagepub.com)
PSR: In ‘The Upswing,’ Robert Putnam, with Shayla Romney Garrett, describes the American shift from the individualist, self-centred ‘I’ society to a more communitarian, socially conscious ‘We’ society. What are the major characteristics of this phase of U.S. history?
Prof Matthew Flinders: Every fantastic book is actually very simple. The best scholarship has a very simple argument. It’s clean, it’s a sharp focus. And the focus of this book is simple, it’s that we have moved from a ‘We’ society to a ‘Me’ society. We’ve moved from a very collective-eye society to a highly individualised and fragmented society.
The argument is that America went through a transition before where it recognized that the balance between the Me and the We had gone too far and it proactively and collectively introduced policies through the political system to shift the balance back towards a fairer, more egalitarian, more equal society. The high point in this argument is the 1960s. But then it has lost it, and the balance has gone once again too far.
There are a couple of things that are interesting about this book. First, on the one hand, this is a book about American politics and history. On the other hand, it’s not a book about American politics at all. Actually, the broader, macro-political themes and issues that the book identifies are visible around the world in different forms, different contexts, and different textures. But essentially: concern about democratic disaffection, falling levels of trust, high levels of social inequality, increasing fragmentation, democratic dissatisfaction, backswing, backsliding, pitchfork politics, whatever you want to call it. You can see this in many parts of the world. So, there are strong comparative insights from this detailed analysis of American politics. And I think those comparative insights are still there to be fully drawn out.
A second, really interesting issue is that the book was written and submitted to the publisher before Donald Trump became president. In fact, that’s fascinating in many ways (I don’t know if Robert is thinking about doing this), but there needs to be an updated Upswing with the new chapter, which is the Trump years. It just seems that in many ways all of the issues about the ‘We’ collective to the individualistic ‘Me‘ and many of the broader socio-political things that he’s warning against came to a head with the populism of Donald Trump. And yet, the book was finished just before, probably the strongest evidence in favour of his whole thesis happened. So, in that way, The Upswing was pointing towards an emerging pathology that came to its head after the book was published.
You also mentioned that the vision of a ‘We’ society described in the book sometimes downplays the extent of discrimination on various levels. Could you elaborate on that?
I think that’s one of the interesting elements that Robert Putnam and Shayla Romney are working on within certain datasets and they highlight social progress in key areas: education, equality, housing, and culture. And this allows them to design and offer an incredibly simplistic pattern. It’s as if the data, no matter what the topic, show this arc of social progress: growing, growing, growing from the first half of the 20th century, peaking in the 60s and then rapidly falling away. Essentially Putnam is arguing that we need to go back up against progressive politics, interventions, and the role of the state in creating a more equal society.
Now, the slight problem, or the slight issue which other people have now recognized, as in some ways the arc of social progress that Putnam offers is too neat. It’s too simple. Not only the themes that he looks at, there were peaks and troughs throughout the 20th century, but also throughout the whole 20th century. There were areas where certain social groups did feel marginalized and didn’t feel taken into account by the progressive politics that Putnam is essentially praising.
That doesn’t mean that there wasn’t huge social progress, but it means the arc of social progress wasn’t as inclusive as Putnam suggests. And in some ways, the 1960s is almost seen as this golden Age of American Society. And of course, the end of the 1960s is known as being around social protests about race, gender and war. It was a time of complete upheaval in American politics by social groups who felt completely overlooked. Now, thinking aloud, Robert Putnam may well suggest yes, but those protests, those interventions, were themselves based on other cultural and educational games that put the foundations in place for that protest.
But overall, the arc is slightly too neat. And doesn’t quite capture some of the variations in texture and tone and some of the big elements of American Society that didn’t feel part of the gain of the 20th century. And in fact, if you look at some determinants of social and political inequality, they have increased and are increasing, and have increased since that book was published. So, I think what’s interesting, and I don’t want to get too academic on this, but you might say that a macro-political level Robert Putnam’s thesis might be broadly correct.
However, if you were to apply a slightly more fine-grained, mid-level meso-level analysis, I think you would find higher levels of variation which doesn’t really get picked up in the discussion. But again, (and this is a broader issue for political science) I would say Robert Putnam is not a political scientist as such. Robert Putnam has moved into a position where he is a rare breed of political science/ public intellectual.
This is a man who speaks to presidents regularly. This is a man who’s heavily involved in Community Action and trying to change politics. So, this is a book that I think isn’t written purely for an academic audience. It’s written to be read by a wider audience within and beyond academia. And that might explain why some of the more detailed micro-political, methodological issues are not explored in the detail that maybe members of the academic community would like.
Throughout the whole 20th century, there were areas where certain social groups did feel marginalized and didn’t feel taken into account by the progressive politics that, that Putnam is essentially praising. That doesn’t mean that there wasn’t huge social progress, but it means the arc of social progress wasn’t as inclusive as Putnam suggests.
Can we say that Putnam’s book is a critique of neoliberal policies?
For me the most interesting element of the book and where if I were to say there was the book provides a foundation for more work to be done. Or if I was talking to Robert Putnam, having a cup of tea and saying, you know, great book, what about X? It would be: the book has a long title. It’s The Upswing. How America Became Great or Solved Social Issues, And How It Can Do It Again. So, what’s interesting about the book is it isn’t designed to be just a historical analysis. It’s designed and explicitly about how we’ve done it before in history. History offers lessons on how we can make the art go back up again. What’s really interesting about the book is: that it is about 250 to 300 pages long, of the main chapters, 95% are historical analyses of the past. And to be honest yes, you could see it as a criticism of neoliberalism, but we don’t really need more criticisms of neoliberalism. It’s sort of some extent what political science has been doing for a long time.
The interesting part for me was what can be done, which is squeezed into about 20 pages of the book. And is also fairly broad apple pie, sort of we’ve got to get together. We’ve got to find new solutions. It isn’t actually detailed technical policy prescriptions and for me, that was the interesting element that a book that is set up that we’ve done it before. We can learn from history. We can procreate an upswing. It almost takes you to the brink of an intellectual cliff. And you want to jump off and you get there. And you’re left hanging. Because actually that last bit of what should be done it’s nowhere near substantive or detailed. And for me, that’s a really interesting question, not just about why those more solution-orientated content isn’t there because none of these issues are easy. But, there is a broader issue here that Putnam is suggesting that we can learn from history. We can learn about what happened between 1900 and 1910, and we can take those insights and lessons. He talks about investigative journalists and the muckrakers and the role they played in politics.
You could see it as a criticism of neoliberalism, but we don’t really need more criticisms of neoliberalism. It’s sort of some extent what political science has been doing for a long time. The interesting part for me was the and what can be done.
But we’re talking about the 21st century. We’re talking about an age now of Internet social media, algorithmic governance, and globalisation. I’m not wholly convinced that actually, the lessons from the 20th century are going to provide us with insights for the 21st century. Just because the pace of socio-political change and technology has moved, I made some rather terribly cliched statements that the book is on a carthorse and now we’re on the information superhighway. But the scope of change is so massive. I’m just not convinced that we can automatically say because we’ve done it again, we’ve done it in the past. We can do it again.
And coming back to reinforcing inequalities: you mentioned Donald Trump and his presidency. How has it influenced the quality in the US society, also in the context of The Upswing?
There is an obvious link between the, in many ways, declining arc of social progress that Putnam followed up until around, I think his data goes up to the mid-1999 or something like that. In many ways, what Trump has done now, if you were to carry on the data was that the dip today has gone far lower than Putnam even thought it would have done.
In many ways, again, I think what’s interesting is that populism is itself a reaction against sections of the community that feel lost, vulnerable, dejected, peripheral, and overwhelmed. They don’t support the populist strongman. They often feel they don’t have any choice. It’s almost a protest vote to make those more mainstream parties take notice of a broader constituency. So, in many ways, Trump funnelled and inflamed frustrations for his own benefit. Those in many ways came ahead in the assault on Capitol Hill itself. But I do think what’s interesting now, and I know Donald Trump thinks that he may have a second crack at the Presidency, is that if you look at current data in America about what are their key political issues and concerns, what’s fascinating is the economy is still #1. But #2 is the health of democracy. So, I think a really interesting legacy effect, which might be slightly more positive, is that a lot of Americans now realise that democracy, faith in democracy, participation and listening not just talking, are aspects of democracy that are far more fragile than they ever really understood.
Now, whether that legacy effect of alerting people to the fragility of democracy will last or have some practical value in the next elections, I’m not sure. But it is fascinating. In opinion polls at the moment, constitutional democratic issues would never really be up there as a list of key concerns. It’s right up at the moment in a post-Trump context.
What I think is interesting is that in many ways, political science doesn’t have a choice. Research funding for the discipline will increasingly require political scientists to demonstrate or provide an answer to the so what question.
So, can this book be considered a part of solution-orientated political science? What would be – in your opinion – the implications of this book for the condition of political science in general?
What I think is really interesting at the moment is that Universities and higher education academics are increasingly expected to work in a different context. That is a context where their work is expected to have some – not direct, not simplistic – but it’s able to have some relevance, potentially some impact beyond academia. I know, and I completely understand that many academics don’t agree with this agenda. And actually, I’ve just written a big piece which is actually about the importance of political science and whether political science should reject the impact agenda. Putting that to one side, what I think is interesting is that in many ways, political science doesn’t have a choice. Research funding for the discipline will increasingly require political scientists to demonstrate or provide an answer to the so what question. And for too long, political science didn’t have an answer to the so what question. That’s it, simple.
If you’re going to have public money, you need to have an explanation that you can give to anybody beyond the academic arena as to why your research should have public funding. And I think that what’s interesting about Putnam’s book is it demonstrates that there is a big public demand in public appetite out there for what I call engaged scholarship.
Putnam’s work is based on absolutely top-class political science. But it is translated and written for a more engaged mass public audience. Of course, there are many other political scientists, and social scientists who are very good at doing this sort of work. Hochschild’s book Strangers In Their Own Land around why American voters in the Deep South find Trump attractive. I’m not on commission, but Hochschild’s book is the most beautiful book that has been read by a massive audience within and beyond academia.
So, I think the importance of Putting’s book is it demonstrates that writing for a public audience doesn’t have to involve dumbing down your scholarship. In fact, I think that in many areas political science suffers. And particularly the social sciences suffer from a cultural barrier which says: if this work is readable and accessible to a broad audience, it can’t be real scholarship. And the truth is, as I said before, if you look at all the strongest, most seminal books in political science, they share a common issue: a simple, concise argument, accessible, flowing, coherent, and readable. And too much political science still is teched up, verbose, and beyond the understanding of all but the four or five people in that tiny subfield that read that work.
Now, I think things are changing. I think younger early career researchers, want to engage, they’ve got a passion for engaging. But the problem is the incentive structure within political science still has a very narrow academic currency. Whether you get a job or whether you get promoted is based on how much external research you can bring in and your peer-reviewed academic publications. Now again, people will say “Oh, that’s changing”, and it is changing, but it is changing very slowly. Because universities and higher education tend to be very risk-averse.
And I think until there is an opportunity for political science to almost cease the impact agenda and redefine what relevance is, and why the discipline therefore matters. In a sense, this is what Putnam’s book does show – that you might argue, looking around the world today, that there’s been no time when an engaged, vibrant political science was more needed in society. To help people understand some of the clashes, challenges, arguments and truths, alternative truths and fake news that’s out there. It doesn’t mean telling people what’s right or wrong. But it’s about engaging with different publics, and different communities in different ways to help them have the tools and frameworks to think for themselves more deeply about that increasingly fluid, loud and polarised context in which they’re living. So, in a sense, political science is more important than ever before, but it may need to be slightly more nimble and agile. Passionate, dare I say. I mean, where’s the passion in political science? When’s the last time anybody read a journal article and came away thinking: Blimey, that really fired me up with an interest in an area?
So in a sense, political science is more important than ever before, but it may need to be slightly more nimble and agile. Passionate dare I say. I mean where’s the passion in political science?
I read something that I had completely not thought of before. I mean, maybe people can write to me and say that they’ve read those pieces, but a lot of academics would say to me: Oh, politics study is not supposed to be passionate. It’s supposed to be technical, sophisticated, scientific. I don’t believe that politics is about emotions. It’s about relationships. And I think to some extent, what political science has allowed to happen is almost to take the passion and emotion out of the subject, which leaves you with an empty vessel.
When it comes to engagement and the ever-pressing “so what” question, some researchers emphasise that engagement can lead to a pitfall, as sometimes it means focusing on negative processes and phenomena, and it often does not bring expected effects. What’s the solution in such a case?
And then what’s really good is that there is a new strand of what’s called positive political science. This is exactly on studying success in politics, what can we learn from success instead of always studying failure where we can find success, how can we scale up, scale out, and scale down?
First of all, I think that political science has got very much hung up on problem-focused analysis. We know what most of the problems are, what we actually need is more solution-orientated political science. Now, a lot of people again will say “No, that’s not the job of political science”, but I think there is space to do both problem and solution-orientated. It doesn’t have to be one or the other. And then what’s really good is that there is a new strand of what’s called positive political science, particularly within the governance and public administration sphere led by scholars, at Utrecht University in the Netherlands, and this is exactly on studying success in politics, what can we learn from success instead of always studying failure where we can find success. How can we scale up, scale-out, and scale down?
But again, there is a danger that a political science that only ever studies and promotes examples of failure, blunders, disasters, etcetera. It just becomes part of a broader negativity which fires up a politics of pessimism amongst the public. So, in a sense, I’m not calling for the political scientist to be naively positive, but it is to at least acknowledge, that many governments around the world got many things wrong. But there were also examples of where things went well and where we might learn positive lessons for building up resilience for the future.
Listen to the full interview: PSR Interviews #20: Professor Matthew Flinders, Democratic Decline and the Politics of the Upswing – YouTube
Questions and production
Dr Eliza Kania, PSR/Brunel University London