James Fallows was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences today, honoring nearly 50 years of work in the media. Since being commissioned to write a profile of the senator from Texas, presidential hopeful, and “cool cat” Lloyd Bentsen in 1974, he has done most of that work as a writer, editor, blogger, and sometime talking head at The Atlantic over the course of a 40-plus-year tenure interrupted just twice by stints as a speechwriter in Jimmy Carter’s administration and the editor of U.S. News & World Report. Fallows has held multiple roles in his time at the magazine; he's now an Atlantic staff writer.
Over the past half century, Fallows has published millions of words in the magazine and on the website, composing thousands of articles and dozens of cover stories about politics and global affairs. Beyond his prolific production of long-form stories, Fallows has in more recent years become a beloved blogger, connecting with readers through shorter and more frequent online posts. During the 2016 presidential campaign, Fallows began compiling entries for the “Trump Time Capsule” to “catalogue some of the things Donald Trump says and does that no real president would do” —and went on adding to it even after Trump became president and continued doing those things.
His writing comprises its own kind of time capsule: a contemporaneous history of the events and developments of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. He described the experience of owning a personal computer when most people still didn’t, covered the Vietnam War origins of the guns now at the center of domestic gun-control debates, and questioned the merits of Reagan-era military spending as the Cold War drew to an end. His insight, extensive reporting, and engaging writing have made his articles essential reading in their moments of publication and have lent them a timeless relevance, and resonance.
These eight pieces, written over the course of Fallows’s Atlantic career, offer a glimpse of what the American Academy of Arts and Sciences honored today.
In the last year of Carter’s administration, Fallows assessed where the president had gone wrong. “After two and a half years in Carter’s service,” he wrote. “I fully believe him to be a good man.” But he observed that Carter lacked “the passion to convert himself from a good man into an effective one, to learn how to do the job.” As a result, he wrote, Carter’s achievements failed to live up to his intentions.
The first successful personal-computer models were released to consumers in the mid-1970s; Fallows got his at the end of that decade, and wrote about it for The Atlantic three years later. He described both how the machine had improved his writing and editing process and the new distractions and dangers it posed before making specific recommendations to readers. “I’d sell my computer before I’d sell my children,” he wrote. “But the kids better watch their step.”
Following the passage of the 1965 Immigration Act amendments, which lifted quotas governing immigrant nationalities, the flow of immigrants into the United States from the developing world increased significantly. With the rise in newcomers came a rise in anti-immigrant sentiments—sentiments that Fallows challenged in this 1983 article. “In countless ... places … the words heard in the air, the clothes and faces seen on the street, the courses taught in the schools, have all changed because of immigration,” he wrote. “But it is far from clear to me that the changes under way are ominous or bad.”
The end of the Cold War in the early 1990s was celebrated as a victory for the laissez-faire capitalism championed by Americans. But in 1993, Fallows explored alternate approaches driving growth in economies around the world—and the ways they echoed moments from the history of the United States. “Every country that has caught up with others has had to do so by rigging its rules: extracting extra money from its people and steering the money into industrialists’ hands,” he asserted.
Fallows tackled this enduring question at a time when Fox News and the internet were still in their infancy and most Americans got their news from television and newspapers. His conclusion: There was a gulf between how the public and the media saw the world. Viewers wanted substance, and the media was covering the game instead. “The most depressing aspect of the new talking-pundit industry,” Fallows wrote, “may be the argument made by many practitioners: the whole thing is just a game, which no one should take too seriously.”
Four months before American troops invaded Iraq, Fallows laid out why they shouldn’t. By entering the war, he argued, the United States would end up mired in a potentially decades-long period of occupation during which it would have to take responsibility for running and protecting Iraq. “The day after a war ended,” he cautioned, “Iraq would become America’s problem.”
By 2007, China had become the manufacturing center of the world—the subject of much hand-wringing over the years from people who feel the associated jobs should return to American workers. But Fallows argued that Americans shouldn’t be so resistant to China’s new economic role. “Are we uncomfortable with the America that is being shaped by global economic forces?” he asked. “If so, those trends themselves, and the American choices behind them, are what Americans can address. They’re not China’s problem.”
Beneath frequent displays of support for the troops, Fallows assessed in 2015, America was “a country willing to do anything for its military except take it seriously.” And that relationship was good for neither the country nor the military. He described the dangers posed by the public’s “reverent but disengaged attitude,” and the more serious engagement that should take its place.