The Multi-Dimensional Reality of the Nation, vs. the Flattened Reality of National Politics

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.
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!