Facebook Twitter

A charismatic leader won’t save America, but these people might

Young people, grounded in founding principles, will have to lead the next upswing — to get away from the “I” and back to the “we”

SHARE A charismatic leader won’t save America, but these people might


America is more technologically connected than at any point in history. Yet, social capital is in decline, political division runs deep, communities are crumbling and the country seems to be more narcissistic and fragmented than ever. Nevertheless, from the statistical analysis and cultural trends, America has been here before.

The question we should be asking then is not, “How did we get into this mess?” but rather, “How have we gotten out of this mess before?” The answer to the second question may surprise you, but it should guide our struggling society upward.

The path to the bottom

I spent time with authors Robert (Bob) Putnam and Shaylyn Romney Garrett regarding their research and learning in what they refer to as the “I” then “we” then “I” cycle of society. I interviewed them for my podcast and column this week and there was so much relevant and important content in their work that I wanted to share more with readers as a powerful conversation starter. 

Garrett laid out for me some historical context from the late 1800s: “You had the culture of the Gilded Age, which was what historians have called Social Darwinism — the idea that the survival of the fittest was a good way to organize society, that society was just sort of one giant competition, and there are winners and losers and that’s just how it is.” 

Garrett then shared how the shift toward “we” began: “People really began to question the idea that society was a competition, and replaced it with the idea that society should be measured by how it takes care of its most vulnerable, by its focus on duties rather than rights, and (by its) responsibilities to one another. And that prompted a different way of thinking about everything: the role of government, the role of citizens, what the economy should look like.” 

The upswing

Not surprisingly, it was the shift away from narcissism that created a more enlightened view of individual and societal possibilities. Garrett told me, “There were a lot of changes that came out of that moral awakening. … That moral awakening, was largely youth driven. ... These young people who were having these sort of moral moments that were driving them to do something different in society. And largely what they did was to create new ways of bringing people together.”

Garrett concluded, “They were in a society that was hyper individualistic, that had changed from the sort of small-town farm life of the pre-industrial era, into the big, busy, anonymous cities of the industrial era. And they realized that they literally had to invent new ways of bringing people together, and particularly bringing people together across lines of difference. They created new ways of what they called ‘association building.’ That’s kind of an antiquated term today, but association was the term they used for it. And they created vast new stores of social capital, which we know from Bob’s work — social capital fuels a lot of other good things in a society. And so creating these new ways of bringing together face-to-face ties was a huge part of what fueled this upswing.”

Putnam commented that, “A mistake that we often make is that we’re always looking for some charismatic political leader to come and save us … to lead the way forward into a brighter American future. But again, charismatic political leadership is a lagging indicator to progress.”

He continued, “One of the things that we learned from the last upswing was the importance of grassroots activity, that change was not a top-down, but rather was a bottom-up phenomenon. And I think that’s even more relevant now. I think we all know what our national politics is like at the moment. But I think the hopeful sign right now is that you can begin to see the seeds of renewal in the country at the grassroots level.”

Coming out of a pandemic, economic difficulties and civil unrest, many individuals have hunkered down in the “I am just looking out for No. 1,” narcissistic mindset. Such an approach only compounds the problems we face in society. Others continue to look to Washington and political officials to fix all that ails society.

Think about “new ways of bringing people together” in context of today’s connectivity and possibilities. I agree with Garrett and Putnam that young people, grounded in founding principles, will have to lead the next upswing — to get away from the “I” and back to the “we.”

Young Americans bringing people together in “we” moments that matter can make a difference for other human beings while lifting neighborhoods and communities. Older Americans will need to engage, cooperate and contribute. All will need to associate, connect, find common ground and discover the power of “we.”