During these decades Americans became – perhaps more than ever before – focused on what we could accomplish together. And this sense of shared responsibility and collective progress was not simply some victory lap after overcoming the Great Depression and defeating the Axis powers, as many have suggested. As this chart makes clear, and as the data we shall present in the forthcoming chapters prove, it was, in fact, the culmination of trends plainly discernible across the previous half century.
By the time we arrived at the middle of the twentieth century, the Gilded Age was a distant memory. America had been transformed into a more egalitarian, cooperative, cohesive, and altruistic nation. At this mid-century moment our still segregated and still chauvinist society was far from perfect, as we shall discuss in detail in later chapters, but as the 1960s opened we were increasingly attentive to our imperfections, especially in racial and gender terms. Our new president described us as poised to tackle our challenges together. “Ask not what your country can do for you,” he said, “ask what you can do for your country.” To Americans at that stage in our history, Kennedy’s argument that collective well-being was even more important than individual well-being was hardly counter-cultural. Though the rhetoric was powerful, to his contemporaries he was stating the obvious.
Over the first six decades of the twentieth century America had become demonstrably – indeed measurably – a more “we” society.
From “The Upswing: How America Came Together a Century Ago and How We Can Do It Again” by Robert D. Putnam