This article appears in the March print edition alongside the cover story, “Can America Put Itself Back Together?”—a summation of James and Deb Fallows’s 54,000-mile journey around America in a single-engine plane. More dispatches from their ongoing reporting trip can be found here.
By the time we had been to half a dozen cities, we had developed an informal checklist of the traits that distinguished a place where things seemed to work. These items are obviously different in nature, most of them are subjective, and some of them overlap. But if you tell us how a town measures up based on these standards, we can guess a lot of other things about it. In our experiences, these things were true of the cities, large or small, that were working best:
1. Divisive national politics seem a distant concern. We first traveled during the run-up to the bitter midterm elections of 2014, then while the Supreme Court was ruling on same-sex marriage and Obamacare, and then as the 2016 presidential campaign was gathering steam. Given the places we were visiting, I imagine that many of the people we interviewed were Donald Trump supporters.
But the presidential race just didn’t come up. Cable TV was often playing in the background, most frequently Fox News; if people had stopped to talk about what was on, they might have disagreed with one another and with us. But overwhelmingly the focus in successful towns was not on national divisions but on practical problems that a community could address. The more often national politics came into local discussions, the worse shape the town was in.
2. You can pick out the local patriots. A standard question we’d ask soon after arrival was “Who makes this town go?” The answers varied widely. Sometimes it was a mayor or a city-council member. Sometimes it was a local business titan or real-estate developer. Sometimes a university president or professor, a civic activist, an artist, a saloon-keeper, a historian, or a radio personality. In one city in West Virginia, we asked a newspaper editor this question, and the answer turned out to be a folk musician who was also a civic organizer. What mattered was that the question had an answer. And the more quickly it was provided, the better shape the town was in.