On this page you’ll find notes arising from American Futures project that Deborah and James Fallows have had underway, with some appearances on Marketplace radio, since 2013. Their full archive is here.
A big theme of our March issue cover stories (main story here; “11 signs of success” checklist; “Library Card”) is that one the bleakest aspect of modern America is the one now dominating the headlines: the dysfunction and bitterness in our national-level politics. The bleakness of that theme is unfortunately what I’ve been writing about through the past week (for instance here).
Back toward the light! To break up the Götterdämmerung chronicles of our national struggle, here come some more reports on the local level. This weekend, my wife Deb reported on the way that public libraries were converting themselves into “maker spaces”—and recapturing some of Benjamin Franklin’s original vision.
Today, some connected reports, starting with ones on the reverse big sort.
In my article I mentioned that even as certain industries were concentrating in the big coastal centers, regional centers were also re-populating. People who had trained, worked, and lived in San Francisco or New York decided that the better overall life balance could be found in Duluth or Greenville or Fresno or Bend. On that theme, here’s an update on the expansion of the aerospace center that has emerged in Duluth, spawned by Cirrus; and another about startups at the Bridgework Enterprise Center in Allentown.
Now a note that arrived from Igor Ferst, who recently moved from S.F. to Columbus, Ohio. Columbus is of course a relatively large city, #15 by population in the United States. It’s also the home of the Ohio State university and the state’s capitol and government offices. But for media purposes it’s in flyover territory and is featured mainly during political events (like today’s primary) or for sports news. Also, in our reports from there, we emphasized the city’s consciousness of being just the right size: big enough to offer just about anything, small and manageable enough to get things done.
From Igor Ferst:
Your reporting in the March issue on the civic and economic revival you encountered in your travels to small and medium-sized cities across America resonated with me immensely, as my wife and I are young professionals in the software business who recently chose to relocate to Columbus, OH after four years in the San Francisco Bay Area.
The biggest improvement to our quality of life is not a lower median house price (though that doesn’t hurt). Rather, it is a sense of freedom that comes from finding personal and professional fulfillment in a vibrant and welcoming city, away from the Bay Area’s grinding commutes and careerist, status-obsessed culture.
I hope other young professionals read your story and start judging cities not by their wealthiest or most famous residents, but by those people quietly working to bring a shared prosperity to the community they love.
Similarly, on Facebook a tech figure named Morgan Fitzgibbons has been chronicling his move from San Francisco back to his original home of Toledo, Ohio. (Both of these items are in honor of the Ohio primary today.) I was particularly interested in his interview with Hoodline, in San Francisco, before he left (emphasis added):
Tell us a little bit about why you're leaving.
The short answer is cost of living. You cannot have creative community in a city that is exorbitantly expensive. It could work if the people with all the money gave to the things that needed to be supported, but unfortunately, that's not the case.
The ceiling in Toledo is much higher for me. It's dirt-cheap to live, and we can really create something special there. For example, there's a 24,000-square-foot warehouse in downtown Toledo in really great shape, and it's for sale for $175K. You put a down payment on that, and the mortgage is $1,000 a month. That's the kind of opportunity you're never going to get here.
Unlike when I moved here, San Francisco's not the only place anymore where it's okay to smoke weed and be gay. There's been a big cultural shift in the rest of the country in the past few years. The thing that drew me to San Francisco is because it's where my people were, but it's no longer the only place.
To be clear about this: America is a big, complex place, and through its history people have always been moving back and forth, metropolis to countryside to suburb and back again. The point in emphasizing the activity in the Columbuses, the Fresnos, the Allentowns, the Toledos is that their activity has gotten less attention than it deserves.
Finally for today, a new story in PS magazine — formally Pacific Standard, formerly Miller-McCune, and for the record a publication with many ties to the Atlantic. (Its current editor is Atlantic alumnus Nicholas Jackson; its previous editor was Maria Streshinsky, once our managing editor here and now at Mother Jones; before her was my friend John Mecklin, now of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists. Also for the record, the story I’m about to mention originated with the New America Foundation, which I helped create. Its author, Chayenne Polimédio, is a current New America researcher.)
This new PS story, called “And Now For Some Good News About America,” makes a case that I obviously sympathize with. Namely, that our all-too-obvious national level dysfunction coexists with, and masks, lower-level civic health. For example:
In fact, despite plummeting levels of confidence in government, Gastil and Lukensmeyer [John Gastil of Penn State and Carol Lukensmyer of Arizona] see a new trend of people wanting to be part of the solution.
And yes, people might not have the time to stay up-to-date on government affairs at all times; they might not always care. But when they do, and when they believe that there is real skin the in the game, and get to interact with the government in a substantial way, as Russon-Gilman [Hollie Russon-Gilman of New America] explains, things change.
But how can we give people that extra push that will make them care about what goes on in their community? …
For Lukensmeyer, it comes down to remembering that humans are social beings. We respond to the structures and signals in which we exist. Our response to a certain issue largely depends on how that issue is framed, who is in the room with us when we have that conversation, and to what extent we can manage to keep a civil discourse regardless of likeness of opinion.
More details follow, leading up to:
We need to stop fetishizing leadership; we need to get up from the couch and go to our city hall meetings; we need to talk to our neighbors; and we need to start carrying our own weight in governing ourselves. John Adams, in a letter to a friend, recognized that the glorification of leadership was a hindrance to democratic progress: "The country won't improve," he said, "until the people begin to consider themselves as the fountain of power."...
We can, at the very least, say that, if we're tired of hearing that America is broken, we ourselves can start talking about how to fix it.
Probably a better message to reflect on that whatever we hear this evening about the Ohio and Florida results. (Thanks to Titus Levi for the PS tip.)
Last night the PBS NewsHourran a 10-minute segment hosted by Judy Woodruff and shot in Greenville, South Carolina, where Deb and I have visited frequently and reported extensively over the past few years. A magazine article I did comparing the politically very conservative Greenville with the politically very liberal Burlington, Vermont, is here. Deb’s original and later stories on Greenville’s very innovative public schools are here, here, and here. A full collection of our Greenville and related South Carolina reportage is here.
I thought this NewsHour report did a very effective job of conveying a range of things we’ve seen in Greenville and elsewhere, and that Deb and I have written about in the March issue. Including:
how this part of the former textile zone prepared for the disappearance of that industry, and survived it; how a state with a very troubled racial history develops cross-racial institutions and organizations; how a region considered to be backward in public schooling has developed some of the most creative public schools in the country; how and why governance can function well locally, when it is paralyzed at the national level; how the inequalities and strains of the Second Gilded Age persist; and so on, including some aviation footage.
See for yourself! (A PBS embed is after the jump.) If you haven’t been to Greenville, I think you’ll be particularly surprised by the scenes from the very large (and racially diverse) Redemption Church, and from the Elementary School for Engineering and the Governor’s School for the Arts and Humanities, among others. We appreciate the effort the NewsHour team put into this production, including filming during atypically frigid conditions in Greenville last month.
The GOP/Fox last night was genuinely depressing. Donald Trump has brought the other candidates down to his level, in the process of demolishing the Republican party. No living American has seen anything like what is happening to the GOP this year, because the last time a national party split apart in such an apparently fundamental way was in the mid-19th century, with the self-destruction of the Whigs.
Meta-point: our two-party national politics and our national governing system are for-real in trouble, as I argued here and here. While they flounder, a damage-limiting step is to identify what parts of the American system are still working, and what might be done to expand their recognition and impact.
Three notes on this front:
1) The latest update by my wife Deb, about an innovative and encouraging public middle-school in Greeville, South Carolina. This follows her “America’s tiniest engineers” report on an innovation elementary school in Greenville. (Also, please see this Economist article on our reports and a new book by Antoine van Agtmael.)
2) A note from a reader in Irvine, California, about the dangers of a persistent gap between viable local governance and failed national politics:
I've been reading the reactions to your recent article and your follow on commentary in the "notes" section with interest. I've had a few thoughts regarding your reference of Warren Buffet's recent annual letter, the recent Tom Friedman column, and also the themes you've explored during the course of the American Futures project:
I think what you were thinking when you referenced Buffet is in line with what Paul Krugman would call a "Scandinavia lite" approach i.e. a country with open trade policies, flexible labor markets, whose citizens are shielded from the inherent uncertainty of such a system by a strong safety net that secures essential things like a universal basic income and healthcare for everyone. However, doing this will require intelligent, pragmatic action at the federal level and not at the local, city level. [JF note: agree, as I pointed out.]
A lot of the "Commons" (i.e. transport and communication infrastructure, education/training, basic and applied research, law enforcement) needed to support entrepreneurship at the local level requires federal action, and when I say federal action in this email, I mean funding as well as enforcement of federal policies.
Local communities, in order to be truly successful, will need to be open, tolerant, diverse, and will need to be able to provide a space where the interests of all have a voice regardless of race, sex, religion, ethnicity, and only federal action can provide a legal basis to ensure this nationwide. [JF: Of course federal policies matter, but there can be a huge and significant place-by-place difference on this front.]
From these points above, I would say that the local-level hybrid solutions that promote competitiveness and resilience will require federal support and action. They can proceed without them of course, but their impact can only be maximized if the appropriate amount of federal support is made available.
In other words, both federal policies that develop the Commons and provide a viable safety net for citizens as well as local hybrid solutions are important, but in the grand equation, the former outweighs the latter.
My main response to these last points is, as I argued at the end of my story: Yes, sure, local efforts bolstered at the national level are more effective than something that is standalone-local. But what is your Plan B? It would be better if we had functioning national politics right now. But we don’t, and it will be a while until that changes. What is the best response until that changes? Might it be something like — hmmm, where have I heard this before? — “think globally, act locally”? More from this reader:
Unfortunately, in our country today, pragmatic, effective, federal action is stymied by the simple fact that one half of our political system has lost its collective mind, and this is where I loop back to your article.
In it, you introduced many wonderful people, many of whom are Republicans working to revitalize their communities. But in another manifestation of Paul Samuelson's adage "people are micro efficient, but macro inefficient", these same folks keep sending some really unhinged people to represent them in the Federal government, and this disconnect for me, is the biggest danger for the country.
It seems like a lot of the Republicans working intelligently to solve problems at the local level just shut off their minds and decide purely on some loosely thought out ideology when it comes to what should happen at the Federal level, and they never seem to see the connection between what they do and how the federal government enables it. I have personally seen this in the companies I've worked at where smart, principled people who are Republicans (e.g. an IT manager) have questioned whether our President is in fact a closet Muslim, or (e.g. a Marketing executive) who have acknowledged the need for universal healthcare just as long as the government doesn't have a hand in it, or (a senior actuary at my current company) have questioned whether the ACA is working even as they've seen company enrollment and financial performance improve from gains made in the main ACA programs, or (my old boss) have completely forgotten the lessons of Iraq and wondered why we don't just send troops into Syria and Iraq and Libya to teach people why they shouldn't mess with us.
Trump is the reductio ad absurdum scenario for the tactics the GOP has adopted over these last eight years, but it only did that because Republican voters (like many of the folks represented in your article) rewarded them for this behavior or at the very least did not punish the party for it...
You would think that more and more, people engaged in local level experiments to improve the quality of life in their communities would gravitate to a similar party at the federal level, but I don't see that happening. In fact, every year the GOP becomes even more extreme and crazy, and if they ever get a chance to implement their "platform", the resulting dislocation and pain will overwhelm any hybrid local initiative or solution. These two opposing realities - local level success stories and federal level horror story - cannot exist concurrently indefinitely...sooner or later one dynamic will subsume the other.
That's why as long as the dysfunction at the federal level remains, I'm a lot more skeptical that the community level revitalization you've reported on will scale into a national story . Hope I'm wrong.
This is of course the first-principles question about the next stage in American political evolution and survival, and the one I tried to address in the final part of my article. More to come — over the weeks, and the years — on this theme.
3) Last for today, here is entrepreneur, boat-builder, and charter-boat captain David Ryan, who has appeared over the years in this space,
On the "Everything's getting worse and so what" front.
The first job I ever had as a fully independent freelance commercial photographer happened to be in the television section of a Medford OR appliance store at the height of the post-Rodney King verdict riots in LA. All around me on dozens of screens large and small were images of LA going up in flames.
About a year later I had decided that I needed to move to New York and somewhere in there a senator from a southern state was going on about how it was the end American greatness, and something about the fall of Rome. This was in the very early Nineties, so all the prosperity of and optimism of the Clinton years were will ahead of us.
"End of the America? Fall of Rome?" I recalled my trip to Italy a few years earlier and how nice Rome was and I thought living in a fallen empire isn't as bad as people make it out to be, and when I got to New York I named my company Crumbling Empire Productions.
I did business under that name for about 10 years, until the Spring of 2002 when I was asked to produce a documentary about 9/11, and it seemed in bad taste to have "Crumbling Empire Productions" in the credits. I retired the name.
Back in Oregon I was a modestly active member in the Medford Chamber of Commerce, and one of the things I learned is just as everyone's blood is red, every American's money is green, and when you're doing business with people, whether it's selling them services they need (like photography) or business stuff you need, conducting mutually beneficial commerce with other people goes along way to helping, if not see their people of view, at least see past their point of view.
Are their limits to that? Sure. But I've never ever had anyone refuse to do business with me because we disagreed on what the top income tax rate should be, or what our nations policy vis a vis Serbia or Syria should be. Yes, I've heard (and said!) intemperate things about abortion, guns, gays, etc. But you know what? That's never stopped money from exchanging hands either, and the fact that money was changing hands probably restrained the conversation to the level of strong disagreement rather than vile outburst.
Are we at the end of American preeminence? I don't know. We weren't 25 years ago. I don't think we are now. I don't care. I've 15 people working for me building a boat I expect (hope) will take thousands of people out each summer for many summers to come. And if the empire really is crumbling, if things really do get worse than they are in Rome today, I'll get on my boat and sail some where I like better.
… what will be required to produce resilient citizens and communities [is] forcing a politics that is much more of a hybrid of left and right.
It is the kind of politics you already see practiced in successful communities and towns in America — places like Minneapolis; Austin, Tex.; Louisville, Ky.; Chattanooga, Tenn.; and Portland, Ore. — where coalitions made up of the business community, educators and local government come together to forge hybrid solutions to improve their competitiveness and resilience. We can’t get there at the national level since one of our two major parties has gone nuts and we have designed paralysis into our politics.
Sounds right to me! This is very much in sync with what my wife Deb and I have seen across the country, and have tried to explain here.
Previously in the Hmmm series:
We’ve seen things that fit Warren Buffett’s world view: America is in way better overall economic shape than the rest of the world, and also has better prospects than political rhetoric suggests. But it needs to do more to help those being hurt and left behind by today’s technological transformations.
We’ve internalized the Robert Wood Johnson / NPR / Harvard study: Americans think the nation’s health care system as a whole is a disaster, but are surprisingly satisfied with the care they get themselves.
We what’ve seen place-by-place parallels the NYT’s observation that while politicians are angrier than ever, many voters (even while casting votes for the likes of Trump) take the longer, calmer view.
And now we’re nodding along with T. Friedman in his observation that local-level governance continues to function—partly because people there don’t have the luxury of becoming purely “shut it down!” obstructionist like the national-level GOP.
This compilation is just to note harmonic resonance among observations that don’t fit the “everything is getting worse” tone of national political discussions. The country has lots of problems, and lots of people figuring out solutions.
In the presidential primary on Tuesday, Texas Republicans seem set to throw themselves behind the two candidates [Trump and Cruz] who are doing all they can to stress the seams, pop the rivets, blow apart whatever counts as unity in 21st-century Texas...One way or another, it looks as if white grievance will finish first and second with the Texas G.O.P.
But on a trip across southeast Texas on the eve of the primary, I met voters who — with an exception or two — did not seem to think they were near any abyss, as Mr. Cruz has warned. At a nostalgically 19th-century event — a rodeo parade on Saturday in Houston — Texans seemed perfectly at ease with the times.
Political rhetoric suggesting that the country is on the verge of collapse, and meanwhile a city-by-city, person-by-person sense that the apocalypse is still quite some distance away — yes indeed! That sounds very much like the country my wife Deb and I have been reporting on and trying to describe in our pages.
This passage by Lawrence Downes resembled many other moments across the country through the past few years:
I watched [the parade] for a while with Kemal Anbarci, a 52-year-old petroleum engineer, born in Turkey, who loves Houston. “I really feel American,” he said. “I feel like I belong here.” He said he voted Republican when he lived in California, but was waiting until after the primary to see who is the most unifying candidate. He called Houston “a wonderful place to be if you are not native-born.” He observed that the riders in the parade were ethnically diverse, but rode in segregated groups. “It’s wonderful,” he said, “but they are in chunks.” He laughed.
Many people are discouraged about America. But the closer they are to the action at home, the better they like what they see.
This sounds like the old political saw that people hate the Congress but feel better about their own Representative. But it’s different in a significant way.
The hate-the-Congress / like-the- Congressman paradox is based on the tension between locally connected politicians, who by definition know how to make themselves likable to their own constituency, and the Congress as a whole, which everyone can see is polarized and hamstrung. You don’t have to wait to be told that national government is stalemated. You know that it is, because of the nonstop news of shutdowns and faceoffs.
But the NPR / Robert Wood Johnson / Harvard study that is the basis of today’s report parallels what my wife Deb and I have reported about economic, educational, cultural, and social trends across the country. Namely, that people feel more positive about the part of America they directly experience than the other part they hear referred to in political discourse in the news.
“Feel more positive” doesn’t mean “think there are no problems.” The health system, the school system, and every other system is under severe strain. But more people feel more positively about more aspects of the current U.S. scene that you would infer from most coverage, or from virtually any political discourse. Recognizing this point matters not for generating complacency but rather for grasping the possibility of progress. As my current piece says in its conclusion:
When the national mood after the first Gilded Age favored reform, possibilities that had been tested, refined, and made to work in various “laboratories of democracy” were at hand. After our current Gilded Age, the national mood will change again. When it does, a new set of ideas and plans will be at hand. We’ve seen them being tested in places we never would have suspected, by people who would never join forces in the national capital. But their projects, the progress they have made, and their goals are more congruent than even they would ever imagine. Until the country’s mood does change, the people who have been reweaving the national fabric will be more effective if they realize how many other people are working toward the same end.
A very interesting graph from the NPR report, showing how views of each person’s own health-care experience vary with income:
When I was living in and reporting from China, I spent a lot of time trying to hammer this point home: whatever you might say about China — good or bad, friendly or hostile — there was some place in the country where it was true, and also some place where its opposite was true. Thus embracing China’s contradictory realities was not some minor fine-tuning detail but a starting-point necessity in thinking about the place. In case you haven’t read China Airborne, a further riff on this theme comes after the jump.*
Today’s America is not quite as contradictory as China. Yes, the U.S. has extreme poverty and growing inequality; but no, we don’t have a peasant population in the hundreds of millions. But America is complex and contradictory enough. Thus the message of my current cover story involves this superficially contradictory sequence:
The United States is suffering the ills of the Second Gilded Age, as it is distorted by the same pressures toward inequality and dislocation that affect virtually every society today.
Despite point #1, America’s overall prospects remain better than any other major country’s. That’s because of scale, resources, adaptability, geographic advantage, education (yes), research-and-entrepreneurship culture, “soft power,” openness to immigration, and lots more.
Despite point #2, the main American weakness, in both relative and absolute terms, is that our system of national government is at a historic ebb in effectiveness. That’s particularly troublesome now, because adapting to the turbulence of this era would be so much easier and less destructive with some national policies, like those that accompanied the adjustment to the previous Gilded Age. Then it was: worker-safety and child-labor laws, the minimum wage, unionization. Now: portability of health care, pensions, lifelong training, and other benefits as the “gig economy” replaces the long-term one-company career.
Despite point #3, lots of American families, organizations, and communities are figuring out their own responses to this era’s opportunities and problems. These are worth noticing in their own right; and as they accumulate, they can provide a guide for national action — if such a thing should become possible again.
With that, bring on Warren Buffett! Today’s NYT has a story about Buffett’s annual shareholder letter for Berkshire Hathaway. The Times headline conveys the contrast with today’s political rhetoric.
The whole thing is worth reading (in PDF here), but let highlight these two resonant parts. You’ll see why I noticed them.
First, on the overall U.S. prospect:
It’s an election year, and candidates can’t stop speaking about our country’s problems (which, of course, only they can solve). As a result of this negative drumbeat, many Americans now believe that their children will not live as well as they themselves do.
That view is dead wrong: The babies being born in America today are the luckiest crop in history.
And he goes on to explain why he thinks so.
Then, the complication:
The productivity gains that I’ve just spelled out – and countless others that have been achieved in America – have delivered awesome benefits to society….
To this thought there are offsets. First, the productivity gains achieved in recent years have largely benefitted the wealthy.
Second, productivity gains frequently cause upheaval: Both capital and labor can pay a terrible price when innovation or new efficiencies upend their worlds. We need shed no tears for the capitalists (whether they be private owners or an army of public shareholders). It’s their job to take care of themselves….
A long-employed worker faces a different equation. When innovation and the market system interact to produce efficiencies, many workers may be rendered unnecessary, their talents obsolete. Some can find decent employment elsewhere; for others, that is not an option….
The answer in such disruptions is not the restraining or outlawing of actions that increase productivity. Americans would not be living nearly as well as we do if we had mandated that 11 million people should forever be employed in farming. The solution, rather, is a variety of safety nets aimed at providing a decent life for those who are willing to work but find their specific talents judged of small value because of market forces. (I personally favor a reformed and expanded Earned Income Tax Credit that would try to make sure America works for those willing to work.) The price of achieving ever-increasing prosperity for the great majority of Americans should not be penury for the unfortunate.
So: the U.S. prospects are better than most people think, and unrecognizably better than “we are doomed!” campaign rhetoric insists. Check! And even a growing economy leaves too many people out—who for moral, political, social, and economic reasons must be brought back in. Check again!
The Buffett-Fallows mind meld is complete. Well, apart from the picking-shrewd-investments part.
And if you don’t trust Warren Buffett on U.S. economic fundamentals? Here’s the 2015 year-end economic outlook from Vanguard (emphasis in original):
At full employment, the U.S. economy is unlikely to accelerate this year, yet is on course to experience its longest expansion in nearly a century, underscoring our long-held view of its resiliency.
As in past outlooks, we maintain that U.S. long-term (potential) GDP growth is near 2%, versus its historical average of 3.25% since 1950. This lowered projection is based on demographic headwinds and, to a lesser extent, on a more subdued expectation for labor productivity growth. However, we see our 2% U.S. trend growth estimation as neither “new” nor “subpar” relative to pre-crisis levels, if one both accounts for structurally lower population growth and removes the consumer debt-fueled boost to growth between 1980 and the global financial crisis that began in 2007.
*As promised, here is how I introduced the contradictions theme in the introduction to China Airborne:
The main surprise of living in China, as opposed to reading or hearing about it, is how much it is a loose assemblage of organizations and aspects and subcultures, an infinity of self- enclosed activities, rather than a “country” in the normal sense. The plainest fact about modern China for most people on the scene often seems the hardest to grasp from afar. That is simply how varied, diverse, contradictory, and quickly changing conditions within the country are.
Any large country is diverse and contradictory, but China’s variations are of a scale demanding special note. What is true in one province is false in the next. What was the exception last week is the rule today. A policy that is applied strictly in Beijing may be ignored or completely unknown in Kunming or Changsha. Millions of Chinese people are now very rich, and hundreds of millions are still very poor. Their country is a success and a failure, an opportunity and a threat, an inspiring model to the world and a nightmarish cautionary example. It is tightly controlled and it is out of control; it is futuristic and it is backward; its system is both robust and shaky. Its leaders are skillful and clumsy, supple and stubborn, visionary and foolishly shortsighted….
Such observations may sound banal—China, land of contrasts!—but I have come to think that really absorbing them is one of the greatest challenges for the outside world in reckon- ing with China and its rise.
1) On Point. I spoke today with Tom Ashbrook of WBUR and his On Point audience, about my contention (in the current cover story) that even in this time of wage stagnation, political paralysis, and growing inequality, more is happening at the local level than most Americans realize. You can find the whole show here or listen below.
I valued this conversation because for the first half-hour Ashbrook (whom I’ve known since we were correspondents in Japan in the 1980s) asked me in six different ways: Really, how can what you’re saying be true? Then in the second half callers asked their versions of the same question.
All this gave me a chance to try six+ different presentations of points that seem contradictory but, according to me, are simultaneously true.
One is that the United States is suffering the strains of a Second Gilded age, in ways ranging from increasing inequality to decreasing faith in national institutions of any sort (except the military).
Another is that at the same time, many organizations, institutions, localities, and other groups are finding ways to adapt more successfully to these circumstances — and that the news of their record is under-represented in our sense-of-America in these times.
And precisely because national-level responses to these strains are logjammed for the foreseeable future, it’s worth recognizing what alternatives we have.
In the article I quote Philip Zelikow, of the University of Virginia, to similar effect:
“In scores of ways, Americans are figuring out how to take advantage of the opportunities of this era, often through bypassing or ignoring the dismal national conversation,” Phillip Zelikow, a professor at the University of Virginia and a director of a recent Markle Foundation initiative called “Rework America,” told me. “There are a lot of more positive narratives out there—but they’re lonely, and disconnected. It would make a difference to join them together, as a chorus that has a melody.”
2) Berdoo. Over the past year-plus Deb Fallows and I have written frequently about San Bernardino — recently the focus of international attention, but long before that a community with as challenging a combination of economic and political obstacles as any in the country.
Here are two positive recent stories about the city. One, in the NYT, covers the group Generation Now (which we’ve frequently written about), plus others active in public arts as part of San Bernardino’s civic revival.
The other is the opening of a craft brewery in San Bernardino: Brew Rebellion, which three days ago had its grand opening in what was once the commissary of the former Norton Air Force Base, now San Bernardino International Airport. The San Bernardino Sun wrote all about it here. As the Sun story said:
The “Berdoo” location is small compared to most breweries, but the dedication to quality is an obsession to owner/head brewer, Andy Sutfin.
“We are happy to be here in San Bernardino and other brewers who questioned whether our town is a craft beer town, have found out they were wrong,” Sutfin said.
Congrats San Bernardino! (For why Brew Rebellion’s move is a good sign, see #11 on this list.)
Over the past few years we’ve mentioned many of the positive developments underway in the three counties of northern Mississippi (Lowndes, Clay, and Oktibbeha) collectively known as the “Golden Triangle.” They’re featured in my current cover story; in the video that the Atlantic’s team has produced; in the discussion I had yesterday on Fareed Zakaria’s GPS; and in the remarkable student essays that my wife Deb has collected from high school students at the Mississippi School of Mathematics and Science (MSMS) in Columbus. The two latest offerings from MSMS students are here and here. Earlier ones are here. I promise you won’t regret the few minutes it takes to look at them.
All of the places we’ve reported on, like the country they’re part of, have a mixture of good and bad trends. Columbus is now coping with its local version of the racial police-violence problems being brought to light nationwide.
Last October, a white Columbus police officer named Canyon Boykin shot and killed a black Columbus resident named Ricky Ball. The shooting was on a Friday night, after a traffic stop (for broken tail light). You can read the background in this story soon after the shooting from the Columbus Dispatch, and this follow-up.
Since then the situation has grown more complicated and much more bitter. In two recent stories for the Guardian, here and here, Matt Kessler of the University of Mississippi has written about the police department’s contradictory reports about the case, and about the lawsuit that Boykin, the police officer who was fired after the shooting, has filed alleging that his treatment reflects anti-white racial bias.
Even so [despite the increased nationwide focus on white-on-black police violence], Ball's shooting death likely would never have hit the national radar were it not for a lethargic, tight-lipped response by city leaders compounded by sloppy handling of the evidence, including the presence of two, seemingly contradictory incident reports that were distributed to separate media.
As a result, what might have been regarded as a tragic incident has become fodder for those who see something sinister in how the case has been handled, casting doubt on the credibility of local officials, and by extension, reflecting poorly on the entire community.
Suddenly, the local/regional story has found a national audience.
I offer this not to provide any original information or authoritative insight on the case but rather to note an important development in a community we have highlighted. Also I suggest another look at the final few minutes of this video from Mississippi, in which an influential NAACP and labor-union leader in the region, Lewis O’Dneal, talks about what has changed in the region, and not, during his lifetime from the segregation era onward. He appears starting around time 7:35 of the video below.
This morning I was on Fareed Zakaria’s GPS program on CNN, talking about the project behind my current Atlanticcover story. A YouTube version of the full show is here; a one-minute out-take, in which I talk about why some people decide to make Duluth (above) or Redlands the center of internationally successful enterprises is here. A podcast is here.
If you go to the full-version video on YouTube (don’t yet see official CNN version), “Fareed’s Take” on the Sanders-budget controversy is for the first five minutes, then Thomas Friedman until time 10:15.
I talked with Fareed Zakaria from about 10:30 until about 21:00. The discussion is about vocational training, manufacturing startups, immigration, and whether a second age of reform is in view. In the final 90 seconds I make my best “here is what it all means” case. After that, you have the actually famous people on the show! They are the Indian magnate Mukesh Ambani and actor Shah Rukh Khan.
Before closing with another shot of Duluth, here is a note from reader Ron Davison that captures some of the impression we are trying to convey:
When I began business travel about 20 years ago, I would often come back home to San Diego so thankful that I didn't live in the place that I'd just visited. Now, as often as not, I leave a place feeling a little wistful about not getting to live there, or at least to spend more time.
So glad to see something that seems to describe the country I work in rather than the one that shows up on TV.
More of the Loll office in Duluth. The point in the article and the interview is that this resembles something you’d expect to see in San Francisco or Seattle, but it’s in northern Minnesota.
While I’m at it, here is another look at a great short documentary that the Atlantic’s video team shot in Mississippi:
The end of my current story in the magazine, on “How America Is Putting Itself Back Together,” explores the contrast between what I’m describing as healthy civic society at the city-by-city level, and the bitter dysfunction of modern national politics. We’ve been reminded of the latter once more by the reaction to Antonin Scalia’s death, and the tone of the GOP debate last night.
How can that gap possibly be bridged? Well, I tried in the article. One theme: because people know that national politics is hamstrung, they have found ways to ignore or work around it. And soon I’ll be writing more about some of the presentations at a very useful “Mayor’s Conference” in Redlands, California, that I mentioned here.
For now, I offer another explanation — a long note from a reader that I’m quoting in near-entirety, because I think it touches on some interesting themes.
This reader grew up in what was then an Eastern Bloc country, came with his parents to Brooklyn as a child, and now lives and works in California. He ties the civic “we’re in this together” themes we’re talking with to the ups and downs of some of the presidential campaigns. Over to him:
I wanted to let you know how much I believe [that what we have been describing] is a truth about the country. Because as I was reading the article, I was thinking about my friends and family and I couldn't stop thinking of people who were doing the kind of work you're highlighting.
From my friend who left a major city to go to the southwest and has become heavily involved in all manner of theatre arts, community building, tutoring children and adults with speech disorders. To my mother-in law who grew up in a town in Illinois and worked to organize its sister city events, food festivals, girl scout troops and more while being a public administrator despite her national politics being different to my own. Thank you for writing about a country doing its civic work together.
I know one focus of your article so far is how people operate outside of national politics, what life looks like for ordinary people who have to live in places instead of speculate about them. However, in the context of national politics, I've actually been thinking about the framing of campaigns and speeches.
I think one thing that is lost now in discussions of the 2008 campaign is how much of the then Senator from Illinois' focus, in speeches, was on the audience. That is, 'this is the moment we've been waiting for', 'yes, we can' and 'I can't do it alone.' The prominent theme of sustained civic responsibility appeared also again in 2012 in 'you didn't build that' which was a fractured point but meant to address community bonds, that we do not all fail or succeed all on our own. That we have the capacity to foster each other's success, that we can be culprits in each other's failure and especially in the material conditions of the vulnerable, that our individual success does not automatically translate to a success in our moral obligation to others in a society.
Looking at 2016, I've read more than a few speeches. I think as people search for why, for example, a Jewish Socialist from Vermont is successful, I don't think it boils down to a message of hope or a promise of material returns.
I think it boils down to being a campaign that as it has developed, is in its structure not framed around a candidate, but around civic engagement. That is, from the "#votetogether", the use of "we" in place of "I" or "me", the "not me, us" or "not him, us" and the calls for "political revolution."
When you look at the populism of the Republican side as currently represented by Trump, it is very much "I", in the sense of 'our country needs a truly great leader.' Beyond that, it's populism is framed much more like that of an army than a civic society.
The 2010 and 2012 campaigns had a lot of "we're going to take this country back" which is not the same thing as working "together." It's very much 'be a member of my army.' Whereas, with the Sanders campaign, when the candidate describes material conditions, it is very much almost like it doesn't have to be him there saying it. What he asks, what he emphasizes, where power is centered in the language of the campaign, is with supporters. So they're not asked to find a solution in "Bernie Sanders" they're asked to find a solution in themselves.
To the extent people are being asked to hope, they are being asked to hope for themselves. I think that appeals to people and lends also to a personal nature of a primary in terms of insults or hurt, because people then are not defending candidates, but themselves.
This is framed differently in the Clinton campaign. The sense of civic responsibility and duty, the societal frame, is still there. The sense of obligation to each other. But the weight of power in the language of the campaign is in a different place. During the concession speech in New Hampshire, Senator Clinton had the following exchange:
“What is the best way to change people’s lives so we can all grow together?” she said. “Who is the best change-maker?”
“You are!” people in the audience shouted.
I think, more than anything, the current divide in the framing of the Democratic campaigns and something people do not appreciate in the nature of the pitch. The Clinton campaign, in its core framing, is about the competence of Secretary Clinton, about the record of Secretary Clinton, about the political capacity of Secretary Clinton as being the best possible person, the strongest candidate, to deliver outcomes in the current political climate.
In the Obama 2008 campaign and in the Sanders campaign, the "you are" would be said by the candidate to the audience. That's the piece of the message they share. That's how they address the core of power, responsibility and leadership, by leaving it not with the candidate, but with the people supporting them, letting them just not the candidate's fitness, but their own. I have many, many friends who are supporters of Secretary Clinton and the friends that are supporters of Senator Sanders would still vote happily for Secretary Clinton.
What I've found though is in my friends that support Secretary Clinton, they often are disappointed by the metrics of competence given to the Sanders campaign, and they focus on Sanders the candidate, the ways in which they are lacking and they wonder why other people can't see it, why people assume he'll be able to maneuver around an obstructionist congress. And I think a big thing they miss is the extent to which the Sanders campaign is not framed the same way as the Clinton campaign, not framed as Senator Sanders achieving these things or giving these things to people, but people delivering these results for themselves. It's framed so the question is not 'do you believe in Bernie' but much like the Obama campaign, 'do you believe in us?'
So it's not the candidate, not how they measure up, but how the individuals, these members of the public that share the same concern, how they square up and whether they believe they can participate in the civic experiment of collective action, of democracy, of these changes that are happening in the lives of people all around the country who are building something for themselves and for each other.
I think the biggest thing the Democratic Party will have to reconcile, as it pursues not only the general election, but frankly, the idea of sustained engagement, regardless of the nominee, is these two messages and whether they can be made to co-exist. Everyone in the party ostensibly agrees about our obligation to one another, our desire to build a civic society together. What's happening in this primary is that two things that are not in opposition to each other, leadership and the power and capacity of the public, are artificially placed against each other because of the framing of two respective campaigns in competition. But the Democratic Party cannot do without either, without either the frame of leadership or the frame of public action and engagement….
I also read the wonderful poems and prose Deborah Fallows shared from the high schoolers in Mississippi. Those kids are wonderful and reminded me of my own great experiences and that of my friends in public school programs with teachers who cared deeply for us and had more ambitions for us than we knew to have for ourselves.
Thinking back on the note I sent and the work you're doing, it did make me consider the extent to which President Carter had work to reconcile the two elements of leadership and broad civic engagement. The stories in the malaise speech feel in some ways like before pictures to the stories of recoveries you're writing about now. This is the sort of work it feels like President Carter was speaking to and envisioning, the sort of engine operating outside of and beyond the nightmares that tend to be conjured up in our national politic.
Even more than usual, the non-football aspects of The Big Game, from Lady Gaga’s great national anthem through the choice of ads, were more interesting than the defense-and-turnover-dominated struggle on the field. Still, great defense, Broncos!
I have to mention in this space an ad that caught my eye. It was one of the Doritos series, and I’ll bet anything that it was shot in a grocery store I mentioned last fall. That store would be Gerrard’s Market, at the corner of Center Street and Cypress Avenue in Redlands, a small town in inland Southern California and one of our American Futures stops.
Gerrard’s is notable for having the most overwhelming (ie, “best”) selection of craft beer I have seen in any grocery store anywhere. Take that, Whole Foods! Take that, any upscale place! The beers are housed in a large new section of the store called The Cave, which you can read about here. I got a glimpse of The Cave in the background a few seconds into this ad.
I feel pretty sure about this guess, on 30 seconds’ evidence, because Gerrard’s was the neighborhood grocery when I was growing up (alas, before The Cave). Thus I recognize the placement of the palm trees you briefly glimpse, from having walked past them a million times. In local life in D.C. you frequently run into politicians. In local life in SoCal, you have a higher-than-average chance of seeing neighborhood buildings in B-roll for TV shows or ads. An episode of Perry Mason was shot at the University of Redlands when I was a kid. Talk about glamor!
A tectonic demographic shift is under way. Can the country hold together?
Democracy depends on the consent of the losers. For most of the 20th century, parties and candidates in the United States have competed in elections with the understanding that electoral defeats are neither permanent nor intolerable. The losers could accept the result, adjust their ideas and coalitions, and move on to fight in the next election. Ideas and policies would be contested, sometimes viciously, but however heated the rhetoric got, defeat was not generally equated with political annihilation. The stakes could feel high, but rarely existential. In recent years, however, beginning before the election of Donald Trump and accelerating since, that has changed.
At least one human life has already been lost as a direct result of the widespread obsession with turning the sex of one’s unborn child into an explosive (often literally) spectacle. In October, an Iowa woman was killed when her family inadvertently built a pipe bomb as part of their gender-reveal party—a gathering at which expectant parents dramatically and colorfully announce the sex of their baby.
The methods for doing so seem to have started out as benign, if stereotypical—cutting into a cake to reveal either blue or pink frosting, say. But in the past couple of years, some kind of communal madness has taken hold, and many of these feats of gender performance have gotten more elaborate, more public, and more dangerous—putting lives and entire ecosystems at risk. Last year, a father-to-be started a 47,000-acre wildfire in Arizona when he shot a rifle at an explosive target full of blue powder (It’s a boy!), causing $8.2 million of damage, according to the Arizona Daily Star. The latest instance of a gender reveal gone wildly wrong, as The New York Times reported on Friday, involved a plane that stalled and crashed while crop-dusting a Texas field with 350 gallons of pink water in honor of an unborn female child. No one was killed in either incident, but someone easily could have been. Othergender-reveal-relatedexplosions, and one reveal involving an alligator, have also placed people in harm’s way.
Suppose that the biblical story of Creation were true: God created the universe in six days, including all the laws of physics and all the physical constants that apply throughout the universe. Now imagine that one day, in the early 21st century, God became bored and, just for fun, doubled the gravitational constant. What would it be like to live through such a change? We’d all be pulled toward the floor; many buildings would collapse; birds would fall from the sky; the Earth would move closer to the sun, reestablishing orbit in a far hotter zone.
Let’s rerun this thought experiment in the social and political world, rather than the physical one. The U.S. Constitution was an exercise in intelligent design. The Founding Fathers knew that most previous democracies had been unstable and short-lived. But they were excellent psychologists, and they strove to create institutions and procedures that would work with human nature to resist the forces that had torn apart so many other attempts at self-governance.
Why we need to face the best arguments from the other side
Images above: A protestor holding a sign that reads “Abortion Is Freedom” and protestors holding anti-abortion signs
In 1956, twoAmerican physicians, J. A. Presley and W. E. Brown, colleagues at the University of Arkansas School of Medicine, decided that four recent admissions to their hospital were significant enough to warrant a published report. “Lysol-Induced Criminal Abortion” appeared in the journal Obstetrics & Gynecology. It describes four women who were admitted to the hospital in extreme distress, all of them having had “criminal abortions” with what the doctors believed to be an unusual agent: Lysol. The powerful cleaner had been pumped into their wombs. Three of them survived, and one of them died.
HONG KONG—For months now, I’ve been told that Hong Kong’s protests would end soon. They’ll end when school starts, I heard during the summer. School did start, but the protests wore on, only now I saw high-school students in crisp school uniforms joining the protesters’ ranks. Next, the mask ban of early October was supposed to slow protesters down, but the very first day after that ban, I watched streams of protesters in masks and helmets make their way to their usual haunts on Hong Kong Island.
The government shut down many of the subway lines that day, a practice that has become a de facto curfew, because Hong Kong’s über-efficient subway system is the way most people get around. No matter; the protesters ended up walking, sometimes a lot, and I walked with them, asking some of the same questions I had asked for months: Do you think you will continue protesting? What would it take for you to stop?
The gravest danger to American democracy isn’t an excess of vitriol—it’s the false promise of civility.
Joe Biden has fond memories of negotiating with James Eastland, the senator from Mississippi who once declared, “I am of the opinion that we should have segregation in all the States of the United States by law. What the people of this country must realize is that the white race is a superior race, and the Negro race is an inferior race.”
Recalling in June his debates with segregationists like Eastland, Biden lamented, “At least there was some civility,” compared with today. “We got things done. We didn’t agree on much of anything. We got things done. We got it finished. But today, you look at the other side and you’re the enemy. Not the opposition; the enemy. We don’t talk to each other anymore.”
Things were getting bad even before the 2016 election, but somehow, within just a few years, they have gotten worse. In an environment of intense partisan warfare, each side believes it has a claim to lead the nation based on its own set of values. Each side understands that it has more to gain from aggrievement than achievement, and each side beholds the other with contempt. Meanwhile, the republic seems to be unraveling. A culture of anxiety and depression has spread far and wide as people face health crises without access to affordable care. An opioid epidemic ensnares ever larger numbers of the alienated and desperate; among certain groups, life spans are actually shortening. Some of those who aren’t harming themselves are harming others in mass shootings; many of the killers are infected with an ideology of white supremacy. Also, the prisons are full. The economy, at least, seems to be in decent shape for now, but income inequality continues to widen. Jobs are plentiful, which is good, because it often takes more than one to support a family. But the economic energy of a rich country has not eased the strains on our political institutions—money flowing to politicians has only hardened the gridlock. Congress still can’t get anything done. Tax cuts have left the country short of money to address national problems. The gulf between needs and capacities is glaring. Everyday scenes sometimes resemble New Yorker covers designed by Pravda: In Manhattan, the Harvard Club’s elegant dining room backs onto West 45th Street, where men and women sleep beneath damp cardboard in the warm glow of the club’s windows.
Unmet hype created a viral clash between Drake and the audience at Camp Flog Gnaw Carnival, but it might just work in his favor.
Editorial writers, assemble—there’s been another demonstration that civility in America is dead! Drake, the Canadian rapper, actor, singer, and, as of last week, marijuana entrepreneur, took to the stage last night at the Camp Flog Gnaw Carnival, a music festival in Los Angeles. He played a few songs. The crowd grumbled so much that he left. To summarize, the biggest rapper in the world was booed off stage at a big rap concert—a telling story about toxic buzz storms, the vagaries of coolness, and Drake’s special relationship with the phenomenon of public shaming.
The footage of Drake’s exit feels like a scene in a biopic—a scene you’d watch through your fingers so as to avoid the protagonist’s nightmare from replaying in your own dreams. He’s performing the final lines of his song “Wu-Tang Forever,” but they sound lonely and weak, rapped by inertia. Faint woos and scattered claps reply. Drake walks in a tight circle. He addresses the crowd with the pre-confrontation politenessthat a boss might use to broach the subject of Juuling in the office: “You know, I’mma tell you, like I said …”
Our grasp on what it takes to sustain a democracy is slipping.
In 1838, Abraham Lincoln gave a speech to the Young Men’s Lyceum in Springfield, Illinois. The subject was citizenship and the preservation of America’s political institutions. The backdrop was the threat posed to those institutions by the evil of slavery. Lincoln warned that the greatest danger to the nation came from within. All the armies of the world could not crush us, he maintained, but we could still “die by suicide.”
And now, today, we look around. Our politics are paralyzing the country. We practice suspicion or contempt where trust is needed, imposing a sentence of anger and loneliness on others and ourselves. We scorch our opponents with language that precludes compromise.
The three leading GOP defenses of the president contradict one another.
Give Mac Thornberry this much: Unlike some of his Republican colleagues, he was at least trying.
On Sunday the Texas Republican appeared on ABC’s This Week, where he tentatively offered a message on the impeachment inquiry, which enters its public phase with hearings this Wednesday and Friday. Thornberry sought a middle course.
“I believe that it is inappropriate for a president to ask a foreign leader to investigate a political rival,” he said. “I believe it was inappropriate. I do not believe it was impeachable.”
Debatable, but coherent. But from there, things went off the rails. First, Thornberry inadvertently compared President Donald Trump to a rapist or murderer while critiquing the procedure House Democrats have used (though perhaps he is not far off). He then offered the defense that Trump couldn’t be impeached because the abuse of power in the Ukraine scandal is his standard operating procedure. “There’s not anything that the president said in that phone call that’s different than he says in public all the time,” he said.