Notes From the Road: Drought, Politics

Politics as sport spills over into real life.
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Deborah Fallows

1. Water. This was a scene over eastern South Dakota a few days ago. It's the part of the state that locals refer to as East River, as in East [of the Missouri] River, and that is an extension of the flat, fertile, formed-by-glaciers territory of Iowa and southern Minnesota.

Exactly one year ago, a landscape like this, and its environs for hundreds of miles around, was not green but a seared brown, in the midst of the historic drought and intense heat wave in the center of the country.  

In much of the central and western stretches of the country, the drought persist, as the latest NOAA chart below indicates. And of course, as we have heard from everyone involved in farming or ranching in this region, the effects of underlying climate shift are visible in the Midwest as elsewhere. This is just to indicate how the cropland looks when the rains return.

2) Politics. Casual conversation in Washington DC, where we live, defaults to political handicapping. Do we think Hillary will run? What do we make of the NYT's preemptive resurrection of the old "Clinton scandals?" Does John Boehner wish he had some other job? Might Mitch McConnell really lose his? How do the Clintons really feel about the Obamas? And what about Cruz and Rand Paul and Cantor and ... 

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In the past two weeks, roughly 2 % of the observations or questions we've heard from people have touched on the topics that occupy 98% of cable-news and talk radio air time. I can think of two examples: One was from a woman who is Hillary Clinton's contemporary, wondering about her possible run. The other was from a former pig farmer, saying he was tired of all the bickering and logjam. All the rest has been about their family, their business, their city, or occasionally their state. Will the kids come back and join the family business? What will new Chinese regulations do to markets for US exports there? How are the schools handling the new Somali refugees? What about this new state tax? 

The point is obvious but to me newly vivid. Most people who talk and write about national politics assume that the country as a whole is as interested in the spectator-sports aspects of this drama -- plus its anthropology, and its science, and its psychology, and its hero-myth overtones -- as journalists and bloggers are. In fact, people are mainly interested in their own lives. This is true around the world, and throughout time, but it is easy to forget.

Oh, there is one exception. Many people know about "the sequester," because it is having real effects. The Forest Service can't cut down diseased trees. Refugee-resettlement programs are running into problems. U.S. researchers can't go to international conferences. A river channel can't be dredged. Thus does politics-as-sport spill over into real life.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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