First thoughts, running arguments, stories in progress
The American Futures Notebook
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On this page you’ll find notes arising from American Futures project that Deborah and James Fallows have had underway, with appearances on Marketplace radio, since 2013. Their full archive is here.

Show None Newer Notes
The interior of America was exciting for Albert Bierstadt and the imaginative landscape painters of the 19th century. It's newly exciting, in a different way, now. ('Among the Sierra Nevada Mountains,' Albert Bierstadt, 1868, Smithsonian Institute, via Wikimedia)

1) Meet the Press podcast. Yesterday afternoon I spoke with Chuck Todd for his podcast; the segment has gone up today, and you can find it here on Soundcloud or here from the MTP site.

Mainly we were talking about the election, immigration, the cycles of class friction through American history, the strategic and economic implications of TPP, and so on. But near the end, Chuck (whom I know from his days as editor of Hotline, part of the Atlantic combine) asked me where I’d like to live next.

The premise was: over the years my wife Deb and I, plus our kids when they were little, had lived in a sequence of foreign spots, reporting on what seemed interesting. What and where would be interesting next?

I hadn’t been expecting the question and just said, without thinking, “the interior of the United States.”

By “interior” I meant a shorthand for the places other than the handful of big coastal cities that dominate media awareness and the sense of chic: Boston to DC on the East Coast, Seattle to LA in the west, a courtesy extension to Miami and San Diego, and a smattering of others. Basically this media-mind-map creates a picture of the United States as if it were Australia, with the action all happening along the rim.

Of course a sense of excitement about the rest of the country reflects what Deb and I have been reporting in our travels these past few years, but it actually is something I believe more strongly the more I see. If you were traveling the country wide-eyed and mainly tuned out from the national political news, you would think this is a big, interesting, diverse civilization, in the process of dealing with and beginning to solve the many ills of the era.

Much as I wasn’t expecting the question, Chuck wasn’t expecting the answer, but we agreed and went on to some of the political and economic ramifications thereof.

RJ Messenger (left), successful Erie entrepreneur, at the Radius CoWork space in downtown Erie. Nicolas Pollock / The Atlantic

I hope you'll check out the second in the series of short films that The Atlantic’s video team has done with my wife Deb and me, as we’ve been on the move around the country during the election year. The first in the series is here, and my item describing it is here.

Both these videos, produced by The Atlantic’s Nic Pollock, are meant to match issues that are prominent in the national campaign level with their city-by-city ramifications. This one has scenes from three cities coping with economic and social dislocations: Erie, Pennsylvania; Dodge City, Kansas; and Fresno, California.

You can see for yourself what it shows. But for me one very powerful theme that comes through is the generational contrast we’ve encountered again and again across the country.

It’s starkest in Erie: people in their 50s and 60s, or older, grew up expecting a steady job in a big factory. The last of those giant factories is slowly closing down—sending most of its jobs not to Mexico or China but to (gasp) Texas—and people who used to work there are mournful. People in their 20s and 30s never expected to have those jobs and are reacting differently. As you will see:


To extend a point we’ve made nonstop through these reports since 2013 and in my cover story earlier this year, the dislocations, the polarization, the pain, and the anger of America’s Second Gilded Age are real. But what’s also real is the sense in many (of course not all) parts of the country that a response is possible, that they can be agents of their own destiny, and their community’s, rather than just objects of crushing outside forces.

Entrepreneur Alicia De La Torre, of Dodge City, Kansas Nicolas Pollock / The Atlantic

Over the past year-plus my wife Deb and I have been arguing that the “build a wall!”-style anti-immigration furor in Republican party politics does not match the lived reality of the parts of the United States where immigration is having the biggest and most obvious effect.

That’s part of the case I made in a cover story in March; that I wrote about in Dodge City, Kansas, in July; and that Deb chronicled in a visit with a Syrian refugee family in Erie, Pennsylvania, in August. Through American history, immigration has always been disruptive—at many periods, much more disruptive than it is now. At nearly every point in its history, people already present have viewed whatever group is most recently arrived as “different” and “worse” than the groups that had previously assimilated and generally succeeded. But compared with most other societies, the process of assimilation has continued to grind on in the United States, and overall (as I argue elsewhere) has been to the country’s enormous benefit.    

Now the Atlantic’s video team has put out a great video treatment of this theme. It’s produced by Nic Pollock and was shot this summer in Dodge City, Erie, and also the San Joaquin Valley of California around Fresno.

I’ll have more to say about the video and the theme soon, but for now I say: I hope you’ll watch this.  It’s the first of a series of videos that match national-level rhetoric on an election-year issue with the city-by-city reality of these difficult questions. I hope you find this interesting—and, well, moving, as we did in meeting the families you see here.

Again, think of the actual people you see in this video, as Deb and I cannot help doing, as you listen to the next “build a wall” speech.

Part of the old manufacturing corridor in Erie, Pennsylvania. Manufacturing is still underway in many of these buildings, and the city is in the middle of considering a sweeping plan for economic and civic revitalization. James Fallows

Not to over-personalize, but I feel as if my life in the past few weeks recapitulates the argument my wife Deb and I have been making in our American Futures travels.

When I’ve been embroiled in national politics—which matter!— through magazine articles, or the Trump Time Capsules or Trump Nation series, I completely feel the embroiled-ness, and the embattlement, that this campaign has brought to the nation as a whole.

But then Deb and I get to go back to reporting on the aspects of current American life other than the national political struggle, and find that even now they remain surprisingly positive. (“Positive” in the same sense I argued in my cover story back in March: The country has big problems, but in much of the country, most of the time, people feel as if they are moving forward rather than backward in dealing with them.)

Two examples: Last week at this time, I was in Fresno, California, talking with representatives of the California Partnership for the San Joaquin Valley about the ways their collaborative efforts matched patterns we’d seen elsewhere in the country, from Maine to Mississippi. I also had a chance to see how far and fast work has progressed on re-doing Fresno’s historic Fulton Street Mall, whose saga over the years you can read about starting here and here. The one sad note in Fresno is that Peeve’s Pub, whose founder Craig Scharton has been a central figure in Fresno’s re-imagining of itself, and whose ups and downs I’ve tried to chronicle, is in a down phase and has closed its doors. It is missed.

This afternoon I will be in Erie, Pennsylvania—which I mean to compliment by thinking of it as a Fresno of the east—for the “Metro 100” conference on the city’s future, co-hosted by Erie’s Jefferson Educational Society and the Erie County Gaming Revenue Authority (which I’ve covered in a previous post). That conference is followed by an evening public session from the Jefferson on actually implementing Erie’s new civic-revival plan. If you’re in the area, come on by!

A collaboration of libraries and communities around the country Outside The Lines

During our American Futures tour around the country over the past three years, Jim and I have seen libraries, one after another, stretching to engage the people in their communities. They sometimes work in surprising and quite un-library-like ways, at least by traditional measures.

For example, libraries become offices for entrepreneurs and start-ups. They are safe places for children, and sometimes offer supervised homework help and even meals.  Librarians learn how to help patrons with health issues and personal financial challenges.

Libraries are hubs of technology, from helping library users print documents to sponsoring Maker Spaces. And they are centers for the community, providing space for citizenship classes or a corner for seed-lending programs for avid gardeners.

This week, more than 250 libraries and organizations around the country, and actually the world, are busy broadcasting the message of the new relevance of libraries in people’s communities and lives.

Outside the Lines is a week-long celebration of creative library events and experiences to introduce, or re-introduce libraries to their communities. The idea grew from a collaboration between passionate Colorado library directors and marketers, including the Colorado State Library and Anythink Libraries, a public library system in Adams County, Colorado, Erica Grossman of Anythink described to me.

A cowboy with his herd in Maine, en route to Turkey. courtesy Quoddy Tides

Last night my wife Deb put up a report called “Little Town, Big Art.” It’s about how a surprisingly ambitious effort in The Arts—painting, sculpture, photography, drama, music, festivals (like the Pirate Festival underway this weekend), etc.—had given a very small place a much larger economic and cultural presence than it would otherwise have.

Here is a follow-up note on a less artsy aspect of that same place, Eastport, Maine. As I mentioned in this item, “The World Comes to a Tiny Town,” one of the ways in which this part of Down East Maine was connected to the world was by shipping pregnant cows across the Atlantic, mainly to Turkey. That business has become yet another casualty of the horrific warfare in Syria and its spillover effects into Turkey.

Bob Godfrey of Eastport, one of whose careers has been as a photographer, sends an email about the kind of surprise the pregnant cattle brought to his town:

Downtown Eastport, from above, on our previous visit James Fallows

Early in 2014, I wrote a magazine article about the 1,300 residents of Eastport, Maine, with the title “The Little Town That Might.” The theme was that this tiny settlement, on the farthest extreme of Down East Maine just one mile across a strait from Canada’s famous Campobello Island, was trying in every conceivable way to invent a viable economic and cultural future for itself.

It had invested heavily in its very deep-water port (because of the Maine fjords, it is the deepest on the U.S. Atlantic coast) to handle shipments to customers around the world. It was making itself into an arts and tourism center, including whale-watching and other eco-tourism activities along its spectacular coast.

Head Harbour Light, at the far eastern tip of Campobello Island near Eastport (James Fallows)

It was becoming a major salmon-farming locale, in addition to its lobster and scallop industries. An indefatigable group of local citizens pursued plans to redevelop beautiful-but-tattered buildings downtown. And on through a list that you can read about in that article and a number of accompanying posts.


There was one more element in the portfolio of Eastport ambitions: a plan to generate electricity from the powerful currents of its Passamaquoddy and Cobscook Bays, which feed into the adjoining and famously tidal Bay of Fundy.

Eastport, Maine, "the little town that might," where we're back for a return look at a city trying to remake itself. James Fallows

My wife Deb and I are on the road again this week, but as a reminder of the ongoing theme:

  • People across the country are aware of the serious economic, political, cultural, social, public-health, infrastructure, environmental, and other problems of contemporary America during this Second Gilded Age;  but
  • in most parts of the country, the possibility of dealing with those problems seems closer at hand, and more encouraging, than it does in national politics.

Updates for today:

1. Syrian Refugees in Erie. Two weeks ago, Donald Trump gave a big, angry speech in Erie, Pennsylvania, about the economic decline of the area and the threat posed in particular by Syrian refugees. Just after that, Deb spent time with a Syrian refugee family in Erie. You can read her report here.

The more we have traveled in parts of America that are actively undergoing ethnic and cultural change—whether western Kansas with its Latino immigrants, or South Dakota with its refugee arrivals, or Allentown, Pennsylvania, as it shifts from Pennsylvania Dutch to Latino, or Holland, Michigan, as it shifts from Dutch-Dutch to a more varied population—the more frequently we have witnessed the ongoing power of the American assimilative process.

Around the world and over the eons, ethnic change and newcomer-adjustment has never been automatic or problem-free. But the process moves on more irresistibly in the United States than in most other societies. And based on what we have seen, in most parts of the country it’s occurring with less tumult and trauma than at many other points in our past. (For instance: 1840s; 1880s-1910s; mid-1960s; early 1980s.)

Deb’s report on the Zkrit family—formerly of Aleppo, now of Erie—conveys part of what we have seen. But so does this response, which came in from a reader in the Midwest:

Is it possible to send the Zkrit family packages, welcoming them? Maybe a PO box?

My wife and I have two girls, 8 and 5, and are heartbroken at what is happening to the Syrian people. We’re blessed to know we’ll never know this type of suffering: for ourselves and for our kids.

Deb put the reader in touch with the refugee-resettlement group in Erie. Obviously this is just one note from just one (generous) family. My point for now is how heavily the anecdotal evidence weighs for us on this same side. Over the years we’ve seen and heard more of this kind of response than the “build a wall” “send ’em back” “we don’t want them here!” tone so familiar from political news.


2. Where government works, in Oklahoma. When it comes to national voting patterns, Oklahoma is arguably the very most conservative state. The current FiveThirtyEight polls-only reading gives Donald Trump a 99.4 percent chance of victory there. A reader in an Oklahoma city sends this note:

My wife and I were enjoying a libation on the front porch this Sunday evening in the heartland, when we hear someone cry out “Call 911!” We see smoke a few houses down. Within two minutes, the first fire engine. Within 10 minutes, two more, plus police and EMT. [JF: The reader sends a photo of the immediate response, which I’m not using because it would identify the neighborhood.]

After it is clear everything is under control, the fire is out, and the house was empty, we turn to leave. I mention to my neighbors, “Ya know, folks complain about gummint, but look what we just saw happen.” A neighbor replied, “Yep. Gummint works here in *[city name]*...”

And of course by extension it doesn’t work anywhere else.


3) Worst place in America. A year ago, Christopher Ingraham of the Washington Post wrote that by some objective measures the “worst place” to live in America was the tiny city of Red Lake Falls, Minnesota. Of course he’s aware, as everyone is, that other cities could seem “worst” by other measures. San Bernardino, where Deb and I have spent a lot of time, is arguably worse-off than any other place in California. Mississippi usually has more than its share of “worst” lists. Erie is seriously threatening to close its public high schools.

But Red Lake Falls could make its case. Earlier this year, as a journalistic and data-analysis experiment, Ingraham, his wife, and their small children actually moved there. This past week he wrote about what he has found.

By now you can probably guess what’s coming: Ingraham reports that things are actually going better in this “worst” place than you would ever guess from afar. Sample from his story “What life is really like in ‘America’s worst place to live’”:

The data do not tell you about the relentless industriousness of the people here. Everybody seems to have three or four jobs. One of our neighbors runs a beef cattle operation during the day, drives a bulk mail truck between Fargo and Grand Forks, N.D., at night, and picks up odd trucking jobs here and there on the side. He and his wife built a lovely stone patio behind their house earlier this summer, which I’ve seen them use twice.

The spirit of industry is shared by the younger generations, too. Shortly after we arrived, our friends who run a tubing business in town offered to see whether any of their high school-age summer staff would be interested in babysitting for us on the side. “A lot of the kids are looking for a second job,” they explained. Throughout the summer, kids have stopped by periodically to ask whether there’s any yardwork that needs doing, to make a few bucks for the county fair.

Even though everyone seems to be holding down multiple jobs, opportunities for additional work abound. Around here, you see “help wanted” signs everywhere—at gas stations and restaurants, even hanging on the window at the Red Lake Falls Gazette, the local newspaper serving the town, which publishes once a week.

Statisticians also have not figured out a great way to capture neighborliness, either. Since we moved here three months ago, folks have gone out of their way to help us feel at home.

Of course I realize (as Ingraham must) that the “everyone has three or four jobs” detail could also be a data point for the wage-slavery of modern America. And of course the pressure on middle-income jobs is the fundamental problem of just about every economy in the world, from America’s to China’s to Egypt’s.

But the part of the country where Ingraham now lives, like many others we have visited, was never based on the high-wage factory jobs whose loss has been so traumatic for former paper-mill workers in northern Maine or former steelworkers in Allentown. I know what Ingraham means in talking about “industriousness,” rather than immiseration, as a way some smaller communities have worked for a long time (it is familiar from my small-town upbringing) and that is not automatically associated with economic resentment or fatalism. The piece is very much worth reading.


4) The dynamics of news. In the same vein, a reader who I believe lives outside the U.S. writes about the split between widespread pessimism on America’s overall prospects, and much brighter feelings about the parts of America people know first-hand. During the Republican convention, Politico had the headline: “GOP Delegates Say the Economy is Terrible—Except Where They Live.” The reader writes:

If this is a generalized phenomenon, it would seem to be a result of the news and opinion media those folks were ingesting. That is, their view of themselves was sincere and positive but their view of the country as a whole was skewed by the information they were taking in.

The combined reality of each of their data points, however, would actually be that the general malaise we hear about is not supported, at least not by their anecdotal evidence.

Downtown Dodge City, Kansas James Fallows / The Atlantic

This week’s election news out of Kansas was the defeat in the GOP primaries of some of the hardest-line Tea Party Republicans, at both the Congressional and local- and state-legislative level. The most publicized single upset was that of Rep. Tim Huelskamp of Kansas’s First Congressional District, which covers a huge amount of mainly rural territory in the western half of the state. The “Big First” also includes Dodge City and Garden City, which we began writing about last month.

A theme in the local coverage of these election results, which very powerfully matches what we saw there and plan to discuss further, is the contrast between (on the one hand) the harsh, tribal-friction, polarized tone of today’s national politics plus the very conservative policies that Gov. Sam Brownback and his allies have brought to Kansas, and (on the other) the tone of civic, economic, and educational life at the local level in these same places.

When they went to the polls, residents of the First District and the state as a whole voted for Huelskamp, Brownback, and all Republican presidential candidates in the past 80 years except two. (The exceptions were FDR against their own Alf Landon in 1936, then LBJ against Barry Goldwater in 1964.) But in their community life, they passed a significant permanent sales-tax increase for public investments; a largely white electorate voted a significant bond issue for a public school district with mainly minority students; and handled the complexities of multi-ethnic life in a way different, more “we’re in this together” way from what each night’s news might suggest.

That’s for further elaboration in days to come. For now, my purpose is to point out this latest post by my wife Deb Fallows, about how children of migrant laborers are being educated, cared for, and incorporated in this small city in western Kansas. It follows her report last week on how a similar process is underway at Dodge City High School.

This is operating-level America, which is so many places is practical-minded and inclusive in a way that differs starkly from the campaign struggle that will engage the country for the next 96 days. Our main hope for the country is that this real-world practicality and humanity will prevail. Deb’s story tells you more about it, and also has an embedded video of Edward R. Murrow’s famous Harvest of Shame. As a bonus you see it below.

All this is why, even while going crazy during the election, I feel more positive about the country’s prospects than I otherwise might.


The title of this item is obviously an allusion to Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter With Kansas, about the tension between economic interests there and in other non-super-elite parts of America, and their voting behavior.

Mayor Kevin Heeke of Spearville, Kansas (far left), with Atlantic interview and video team yesterday (Deborah Fallows)

For the past week my wife Deb and I have been in western Kansas — Dodge City mainly, also Garden City, briefly Spearville. There will be a lot more to report in coming days on the economic, cultural, and political news from this part of the country. What you see above is something that touches all of those themes: me talking with Kevin Heeke, the mayor of Spearville, about the hundreds of wind turbines that have transformed the economy of the wheat- and corn-farming regions in this extremely windy part of the country.

But I can’t let this day end without noting the black-versus-white, night-versus-day contrast between the way immigration, especially from Mexico and other parts of Latin America, is discussed in this part of the country where it is actually happening, versus its role in this moment’s national political discussion.

These cities of western Kansas, Dodge City and Garden City, are both now majority-Latino. People from Mexico are the biggest single immigrant group, and they are here mainly for work in the area’s big meat-packing plants. Others are from Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Cuba, and more recently Somalia and Sudan, among other countries. You might think of Kansas as stereotypical whitebread America. It’s pure America, all right — but American in the truest sense, comprising people who have come from various corners of the world to improve their fortunes.

Every single person we’ve met here — Anglo and Latino, African and Burmese and other, old and young, native-born and immigrant, male and female, well-educated and barely literate, working three jobs and retired and still in school—of all these people, we’ve asked the same questions. Namely: how has Kansas handled this shift in demography? And how does it sound, in this politically and culturally conservative part of the country, to hear the national discussion about “building a wall,” about making America “a real country again,” of the presumptive Republican nominee saying even today that Americans are “angry over borders, they're angry over people coming into the country and taking over, nobody even knows who they are.”

And every single person we have spoken with — Anglo and Latino and other, old and young, native-born and immigrant, and so on down the list — every one of them has said: We need each other! There is work in this community that we all need to do. We can choose to embrace the world, or we can fade and die. And we choose to embrace it. (The unemployment rate in this area, by the way, is under 3 percent, and every business we’ve talked with has “help wanted” notices out.)

This is in small-town western Kansas. And it is what we have heard in every discussion. I could give 50 examples, and eventually will, but here is one for now. A white man who grew up in this area, and works in construction, told us a few days ago: I wasn’t sure about the change in town. It’s different. But these people want to work. They want a better life for their children. We need them. Without them, we would shrivel up.

The details and the profiles and the specific extended quotes will follow. For today I just want to register: if you came to a part of America that had undergone some of the most profound recent ethnic change, and that was by inclination in no way trendily progressive, you would find Americans responding the way your best idea of America would suggest: inclusive, embracing, assessing newcomers on their character and behavior rather than on the categories to which they might be assigned (of course with the strains and tensions social change always brings).

This is worth noting at a time when it would be easy to assume that Americans in general were fearful, close-minded, and ready to reject those who were different in any way.

Production line at Mi Ranchito Tortilleria today, on the south side of Dodge City, Kansas. Mi Ranchito is a successful immigrant-owned startup, popular with customers of all ethnicities. (James Fallows)

I can barely express how strongly I wish that anyone writing or opining about American “nativism” or “resentment” could come to a place like this, and see real Americans of many backgrounds responding to real demographic change. We are better, still truer to ourselves, than some of our politics now suggests.

Driving into Dodge from the east side of town (James Fallows)


For previous items on this theme, please see this thread.

Activity into and out of Dodge City, Kansas, yesterday afternoon, out the right side of the plane looking west as we neared a landing on runway 14 on a boiling hot day. (Deborah Fallows)

My wife Deb and I have started out on the road again—northern Texas recently, now western Kansas, with a diversion to Colorado and then far southern Texas once again. Reports on substance are in the pipeline. This is a brief but meant-to-be-emphatic report on tone.

If you live in the world of national politics and especially of the presidential race, you feel bad. If you’re a Republican, you feel bad because feeling bad is the campaign theme. Donald Trump last week: “We’re not going to have a country anymore.” If you’re a Democrat, you feel bad because of the possibility that a man like Trump might win. If you’re in the media, this is your world. If it’s your world, you feel bad — as I have both documented and exhibited in my “Trump Time Capsule” and “Trump Nation” threads.

All those things do matter. One lesson of American history is that the values, the personality, the associates, the experience, and other traits of a president have consequences. So five-plus months from now, when tens of millions of Americans go to the polls, their choices for president — and Congress, and governorships, and state legislatures — will have a big effect.

But another lesson of American history is that for the great majority of the citizens outside the media or professional-politicians’ world, elections really don’t command attention until the fall. And even then, they are part of life, not the thing itself. As I mentioned in my Atlantic story three months ago, even while Deb and I were visiting areas very heavily affected by immigration over these past few years, we never encountered talk about “building a wall,” or reference to other “burning” issues in national politics at all. Conceivably this was because people felt powerless to affect national events. But more often the reason seemed to be the gap between the practical-minded possibilities of local-level compromises and solutions rather than the ritualized, hostile, zero-sum standoff that is much of national-level politics and national-level political media as well.

I’m reminded of this because right now we’re in a place — Dodge City, Kansas — that is thriving by some measures, with an unemployment level of just over 3%, yet that has serious challenges like any other city’s plus those added by the budget contortions of Kansas as a whole. But the discussions we’ve had so far, which are just beginning, have again been about the practical and the positive: what has worked, what might work better, what are the resources the community might bring to bear, what is the long-term plan.

We barely talk this way at the national level any more. But in many component parts of the country, it’s the way people still behave. As Deb and I are reminded yet again.*

Scene in the window of what was once a school, then was a municipal building, and is now the home of the new “farm to bottle” Boot Hill Distillery on Boot Hill in Dodge City. (James Fallows)

* … which makes an uplifting way to observe our wedding anniversary!

The twists of the White River, namesake of Whitewater, in Arkansas (James Fallows)

In one way or another, all Clinton-era “scandals” trace back to Whitewater. That was the late-1970s Arkansas real estate deal that prompted an investigative crusade by the NYT during Bill Clinton’s presidential run in 1992 and well into his first term. Congressional and special-prosecutor investigations followed. Whitewater was one of the matters Deputy White House Counsel Vince Foster was dealing with at the time of his suicide. It was how special prosecutor Kenneth Starr first got onto the Clintons’ trail. The strongest case that it was all a misbegotten and cynical anti-Clinton effort was made by Gene Lyons and Joe Conason in their 2001 book The Hunting of the President: The Ten-Year Campaign to Destroy Bill and Hillary Clinton. I find their argument convincing; judge for yourself.

But if you were ever wondering, where did this all happen?, I am here to help. The scene above is of a serpentine portion of the White River in central Arkansas, namesake of Whitewater, as it appeared yesterday on a steamy June afternoon, looking southward out the left window from an altitude of 4,500 feet. This part of the river, in the vicinity of Searcy, is about 100 miles south of the hillier and more wooded area where the actual Whitewater development was located. Still: White(River)water!