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.
Americans … are strikingly pessimistic about the national economy yet comparatively upbeat about their own financial circumstances.
Just 42 percent of adults describe the U.S. economy as good, according to a survey released Wednesday by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. But two-thirds say their own households are faring well.
Ongoing theme in this space: the United States faces serious economic, political, and social challenges in this, its Second Gilded Age. But surprisingly large numbers of individuals, families, communities, and institutions feel as if the parts of the country they experience directly are figuring out ways to deal with the challenges, rather than just being crushed. Meanwhile the media and political temper of the times leads many people to assume that their local successes must be fortunate anomalies in a landscape that overall is bleak.
Serious challenges, yes; bleakness, no — this is something people recognize about their own communities, and I think should about the country.
On the value-of-upbeatness front, I’ll take this opportunity to note that today would have been the 91st birthday of my father, Dr. James A. Fallows, known in his boyhood, for good reason, as Sunny Jim.
This afternoon at the annual conference of New America, in Washington, I heard Sen. Elizabeth Warren give a speech about how to deal with the economic dislocations of the “gig economy.”
The text is here (in PDF), and it’s actually worth reading. “Actually” in that it was neither just a bleat/complaint about the injustices of the new tech economy nor a simple assurance that technology and innovation will solve all the problems they create. (Ie, that the long-term arc of creative destruction will always bend toward greater creativity.)
Instead Warren addressed the question I said was on my mind, at the end of my March issue article. That was the Second Gilded Age question: if the dislocations, the inequalities, the injustices, but also the possibilities of this era of high-speed technical change parallel those of 125 years ago, is there any hope or guidance to be drawn from the responses of the Progressive era through the New Deal?
Lots of scholars and writers have taken their cracks as the topic — one obvious example is Paul Starr’s “How Gilded Ages End” — always with proper cautions that history never quite repeats itself. Without belaboring the historiography, Elizabeth Warren made the main, simple point: technology creates new wealth and opportunities, and vibrant economies have always embraced it. But policy shapes how the wealth is shared, and how the inevitable pain and damage of rapid change can be minimized. As she put it:
It’s exciting—and very hip—to talk about Uber and Lyft and Taskrabbit, but the promise and risks of these companies isn’t new. For centuries, technological advances have helped create new wealth and have increased GDP. But it is policy – rules and regulations – that will determine whether workers have a meaningful opportunity to share in that new wealth.
A century ago, the industrial revolution radically altered the American economy. Millions moved from farms to factories. These sweeping changes in our economy generated enormous wealth.
They also wreaked havoc on workers and their families. Workplaces were monstrously unsafe. Wages were paltry and hours were grueling.
America’s response wasn’t to abandon the technological innovations and improvements of the industrial revolution. We didn’t send everyone back to their farms. No. Instead, we came together, and through our government we changed public policies to adapt to a changing economy – to keep the good and get rid of much of the bad.
The list of new laws and regulations was long: A minimum wage. Workplace safety. Workers compensation. Child labor laws. The 40-hour workweek. Social Security. The right to unionize.
But each of these changes made a profound difference. They put guardrails around the ability of giant corporations to exploit workers to generate additional profits at any cost. They helped make sure that part of the increased wealth generated by innovation would be used to build a strong middle class.
Warren’s speech doesn’t answer all these questions, but at least it’s a beginning. It’s worth reading and using as a benchmark for what the U.S. might do, if it wanted to do something to maximize the creativity and minimize the destruction of this era.
Bonus, on why national-level policy would be useful:
Wherever possible, [we should] streamline laws at the federal level so that employers operating across state lines don’t have to jump through a crazy number of hoops when they employ workers from more than one state. A small business owner with workers in several states shouldn’t have to spend her valuable time struggling to master different state regulations.
After Warren, Senator Jeff Flake, of Arizona, also spoke at the conference. I don’t see any version of his speech online any place right now, but if you come across it sometime: please compare his version of a “response” to today’s challenges with Warren’s.
For the record: #1, I’m involved with New America, having been the chairman of its board for its first eight years of existence (and still being on the board). #2, one of my sons is a director at Uber.
Reader Monte Peterson, a seminarian in Ohio with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, writes to ask whether I am familiar with the theological resonances of this phrase. (Answer: No. I spent my youth hearing the cadences of Thomas Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer repeated roughly one zillion times and still feel they are my main guide to the proper shape and pacing of a sentence. But this particular phrase was not part of my mental or moral formation.)
Ms. Peterson writes:
“America already becoming great again.’ Are you familiar with the theological idea of ‘already and not yet’? [As above: No.]
Over and over, ‘articles in this series’ have reminded me of that idea--the “already but not yet” of the Kingdom of God. Now, this idea get interpreted in lots of ways, some troubling. But still, I find it a helpful description of the world as I understand it.
“The Kingdom” so often gets reduced to some cultural fantasy of heaven, with cherubs and clouds or “pie in the sky after we die”--when really it's something already here, among us, around us, in this life. And yet clearly it's not here yet--there is still so much pain and death and war and anxiety. So in the meantime, we wait with hope and we actively join in the work of bringing the kingdom to fruition--making the world a place where all God's children are fed, are cared for, are known.
We are called to become what we already are, as the Rev. Kevin Strickland recently said. The reports you have shared of small cities, businesses and schools that work well are part of this--and maybe even the citrus IPA's, of which I am a fan!
I realize this is more “God” talk than I've ever read in your columns, and could well be more than you're comfortable with. Nevertheless, I still think that theological ideas have something to contribute to our civic conversation, so I'm offering this up.
To which I say, Thanks, and I will reflect upon this.
My wife Deb Fallows has a new post up to kick off the next season of our American Futures series, on a surprising implication of a quasi-familiar urban development.
That development is the “locavore” / local-food movement. If your first thought is Portlandia, Deb offers a second thought, which is the public-health, economic, and cultural importance of the movement in a remote desert community with very serious nutrition-related health problems.
That community is Ajo, Arizona, which we’ve written about before. The regional population includes large numbers of Mexican-Americans and other Latinos, plus members of the Tohono O’odham nation — groups with disproportionate rates of diabetes and related problems. As the story points out:
The U.S. Department of Agriculture, in a report about Ajo, a grant recipient of its “Local Foods, Local Places” effort, describes in sobering terms: “The health of Ajo residents is a major concern for the community: high rates of diabetes, heart disease and obesity are present, and food insecurity—especially among children and the elderly—is prevalent.”
More details in Deb’s story, and more reports about to begin.
A few weeks ago I mentioned a new collaboration between the filmmaker Ken Burns and the creators of the American Prairie Reserve in Montana. They’re working together on a prize in Burns’s name, to recognize artists, historians, or other cultural and civic leaders who have advanced modern awareness of the American idea. “The American Idea” is the Atlantic’s favorite term for this concept, that being part of our magazine’s founding charter; the Prairie Reserve people use the term “American spirit,” but we’re talking about the same thing.
In that item and other reports on the APR, I’ve mentioned their non-traditional, market-minded approach to protecting plant and animal life and recreating, across millions of acres, something like the pre-Lewis & Clark plains bioscape. In response, reader W.B. sent in a lead to a Library of Economic Liberty podcast last fall, in which Peter Geddes of the APR talks with economist Russ Roberts about the economic logic of the undertaking. The podcast is an hour long, and a transcription accompanies it. I found it interesting and recommend it to anyone interested in the long-term economics of sustainability. (Which was also the theme of my Al Gore piece last fall.)
Two samples. One, about the proper scale of the Reserve:
Roberts: Is it enough? I mean, it's big, but is it big enough?
Geddes: It is. What the conservation biologists have told us we need is a minimum size, and then all this of course is overlaid with what you can actually do practically. There are places in the country where conservation at this kind of scale is just frankly impossible. So, you've been out to the Bozeman area and know how popular and how fast-growing it is. The cost of getting the land is just too great.
So, again, Northeastern Montana is a place that has had fewer people today than when Frederick Jackson Turner wrote “The Closing of the American Frontier” back in 1876. Way fewer than, less than 1 person per square mile. So you've got to pick places for conservation where: a). you have the right habitat conditions; b). you have the right sociology, the right demographics, I guess, so that it's not a place that is getting an influx of people but rather an outflux of people; and c). where you can actually afford to buy the land.
Next, they talk about not just coexisting but cooperating with the cattle ranchers who are now are the major economic and cultural figures in the area. Geddes explains the “Wild Sky” branding program, which offers a higher price-per-pound to ranchers who abide by certain wildlife-friendly practices:
Geddes: The key thing to growing wildlife numbers, and this is not unique to our project, in fact happens all around the world, is to minimize human conflict. And in most places, people view wildlife as a cost rather than an economic benefit.
Six or seven years ago members of our team were over in Africa and they were travelling around to various camps, and they came to one in Namibia where the wildlife park, their parks over there, game parks, had figured out a way to live with cheetahs, and make the local communities, the beneficiaries of having cheetahs on their land rather than the enemies of that. There are all sorts of work that's been done in Africa for the last 20 years to try to flip this dynamic.
So, we imported those ideas back to the American Prairie Reserve; and we bought a beef company. Some of our critics think we are anti-cows, but we actually own a cattle company. And the idea is: Neighboring ranchers who want to participate in our Wild Sky Beef program, in exchange for operating their livestock in a more wildlife-friendly way.. we've paid them a premium for their cattle when we buy them in fall or in the spring.
And it's kind of like a frequent flier program at Delta or United. You can be silver, gold, diamond, platinum, medallion, whatever it is. And as you move up that frequent-flier status, that means you are more tolerant of wildlife. So that the top of the food chain is you agree to have grizzly bears on your property. And the amount of money that you get for going ever higher in your frequent flier status increases over time.
And again, this is an attempt to--first, it recognizes that we are going to have holdouts in the American Prairie Reserve, for a very long time. We are going to have people on the periphery who are going to be cattle ranchers. Indeed, we are going to be surrounded by about a half million head of cows when we are completely finished.
We've got to make things go well for those people. So we need to figure out a way where we don't compromise on the biodiversity values that we want; and again, so that people see our wildlife, our wildlife that's spilling over from the reserve onto their land, as a benefit rather than a cost….
Instead of selling soap or shampoo or coffee, we've tried to--we've picked a business that fits with the local culture, that recognizes that these are people who love being cowboys and cowgirls, and they will for a very, very long time. So, trying to figure out a way to make, saying, 'Stick with the local culture.' And for these ranchers to see economic benefit.
There’s a lot more in the discussion, which explains many of the ambitions and challenges of the project — and offers a specimen of how usually-opposing interests might be reconciled.
Over the past two years my wife Deb and I have reported frequently on the remarkable Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science, in the eastern Mississippi town of Columbus. You can read two of Deb’s original posts here and here; one by me here; and a collection of all reports from the region here.
MSMS, as it’s known, is a two-year, public, residential high school for talented students from across the state, based on the campus of the Mississippi University for Women, known as “the W.” The students are drawn from Mississippi’s full racial, economic, and geographic range.
As Deb said in an early report, “The 228 students at MSMS this year, all juniors and seniors, come from all over the state to spend their last two years of high school studying accelerated sciences, math, and computer courses, as well as a rich selection of arts and humanities.” Nearly all of them go off to college. During last fall’s selection of Rhodes Scholars, Ericka Wheeler became the first-ever African-American woman to be chosen from Mississippi. She is an MSMS alum.
This week Bracey Harris of the Clarion-Ledger in Jackson reported that MSMS has been steadily cutting its enrollment. The reason is not a lack of applicants — on the contrary — but rather cutbacks in funding from the state Department of Education. Sample:
The last time MSMS was near its full capacity of 275-300 students was five years ago.
Wade Leonard, a spokesman for MSMS, said enrollment has been scaled back by 12 percent from 271 students during the 2011-12 school year to 238 students for the 2016-17 school year.
If more funding is not received, the school’s class size is expected to drop to 220 by the 2017-18 year, an all-time low….
As a statewide special school, MSMS can’t draw on normal local school-tax revenues and depends on grants from the Department of Education and private donors. I found one other part of the Clarion-Ledger story impressive, and touching, in explaining the one-donor-at-a-time, handful-of-students-at-a-time nature of the school’s private fund-raising:
The upcoming class of 2017 would have been trimmed by four students if not for donations from Chad Edmonson, a 1999 graduate, and the MSMS Foundation. [More about him here.]
Edmonson’s gift of roughly $60,000 allowed MSMS to accept three more students, while an additional $36,000 raised by the foundation made it possible for a fourth student to attend the school….
Active in the MSMS Foundation, Edmonson recalled how his jaw dropped when he learned of the decrease in enrollment.
“It was shocking because it was more on the side of 280-290 students when I was in school. That’s such a dramatic drop in that it was a directional change. (I started thinking) about the school not being open anymore. After the board meeting, I agreed to make a donation.”
Here’s another statement about what the school means, from India Yarborough, a recent alum (and daughter of an MSMS teacher, Chuck Yarborough), writing in the Commercial Dispatch in Columbus:
By offering advanced courses in all subjects, this beacon of excellence attracts Mississippi's best students and provides them an environment where they can flourish. This in a state where academic excellence is often not expected and too seldom found.
Without essential support, MSMS will flounder in its efforts to elevate the student from the Delta who dreams of pursuing medicine, or lift the poverty-stricken student from the Pine Belt who hopes for a brighter future through education.
We’ve reported on positive developments around the country, and also on setbacks and challenges. This is another challenge, for a state and students with a lot of them.
Over the years my wife Deb and I have frequently mentioned the remarkable Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science. You can read about some of its successes in posts collected here, and about its recent funding challenges here.
A reader who grew up in Columbus, Mississippi, where the school is based, and graduated from MSMS writes about why its survival matters:
I cannot pass up the opportunity to thank you for the coverage you have granted my little hometown, and particularly my alma mater, the Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science -- or as I like to describe it, the last, best hope for public STEM education in Mississippi.
The faculty, staff, alumni, and students know how desperately the services of such a center of educational excellence is needed statewide, but with the resources available, it's hard to even keep the core of the school operational.
One comment with an eye to the future: I'm glad you find the "one-donor-at-a-time, handful-of-students-at-a-time nature of the school's private fundraising" touching. However, one of my dreams is that someday the Foundation can move to a large-budget, literally industrial-scale donation model. Only with a larger budget can the true needs be met for the deserving students hailing from some of the most underperforming districts in the nation.
Despite the negative press frequently generated by the state government, I live in hope that such coverage as you provide accelerates the process of acquiring the attention of those with the means to make a difference. Under the day-to-day inanities, there is struggle and value and hope amongst the sleepy towns, like flowers struggling to grow through the cracks; and I hope they get their chance -- as I did.
One of my favorite features of our American Futures project is the occasional serendipity of crossing the path of some surprising, remarkable person. Like Jerrie Mock, the Columbus, Ohio, housewife who was the first woman to fly solo around the world in 1964, in her Cessna 180. Or abolitionist and suffragist Eliza Tibbets, who started the navel orange industry in Riverside, California, from two small seedlings that she nurtured from her dishpan water. Or Joe Max Higgins, the tougher-than-nails sheriff’s son from Arkansas, who brought $5 billion of new heavy industry to the Golden Triangle of Northeast Mississippi.
Now there is Bobby Q. Narcho, a Tohono O’odham tribal member, who grew up on the reservation, colloquially called “the res,” in Sells, Arizona, in the middle of the Sonoran Desert. Bobby took naturally to taking pictures and making music and spent a lot of his youth doing that. In what he calls his “breakout project” at the Tohono O’odham Community Action (TOCA), a group dedicated to the sustainability of the health and culture of the Tohono O’odham Nation, Bobby caught the eye of his teacher, a professional photographer. He was able to earn a few paychecks through his talent, and invested it in an iPhone.
With that iPhone, still his only tool, Bobby started making videos for Facebook and Instagram. “Back in the day,” this 24-year-old says, straight-faced, he would share his 15-second videos on Instagram.
Bobby moved to Ajo, about 70 miles from Sells, to be near his cousin, Victor Garcia, who is also an artist. Now, Bobby has five different jobs and seems to be connected with almost everything going on in Ajo, which isn’t that hard in a town of only 2,300 folks. One connection, Lily Williams at the Desert Senita Health Center, who oversees Bobby’s work at the Edible Ajo Schoolyard project (EASY), encouraged Bobby to join a digital storytelling workshop sponsored by the Center’s Plan4Health grant. The theme was biking, a popular new focus in Ajo, and health. Before I tell you the rest of the story, please—please!—watch Bobby’s three-minute video:
Bobby’s idea was to make a one-shoot short film about his personal story of health and biking, and one that is grounded in his Tohono O’odham traditions. The story of health, as he describes in the video, comes from the “signs of sickness in his people,” meaning diabetes, and from seeing signs of sickness in himself. (The 28,000 member Tohono O’odham tribe has the highest rate of adult-onset diabetes in the world: about 50 percent.)
The story of biking is Bobby’s decision to take his health into his own hands and start exercising. It’s grounded in the Tohono tradition of starting the day in a healthy and meaningful way, as his forefathers did, by “running east, toward the sunrise” (or in Bobby’s case, biking) and by burning sage as an offering of thanks to his creator.
Bobby used only his iPhone, as his wifi connections were too unstable to support the workshop’s video software. Bobby and his cousin Victor set out on their bikes; Victor shot the middle scenes of Bobby biking, and Bobby shot the slow scenes. Bobby also composed and produced all the music with GarageBand for the iPhone.
And how is Bobby’s healthy new focus for his life going so far? Fine, he said, until he got a flat tire. Now Bobby needs a new tube and tire. Until then, he told me, he’s getting by with walking, and healthy eating, and doing some home exercises.
Bobby managed to produce this video and music, from self-taught beginnings, with only an iPhone and a cousin. I am confident he can manage to get a new bike tire and get back on track to his health. Watch for this name: Bobby Q. Narcho.
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!
Similarly on the rivers-from-above theme, here is the mighty Mississippi, looking toward to the north yesterday out the right window. This bend is near the corner where Kentucky, Tennessee, and Missouri come together, with Arkansas not far to the south and the southern tip of Illinois at Cairo just to the north:
And looking south toward the Red River. The area on the near side of the river is Oklahoma; on the other side, Texas.
While I’m at it, a non-riverine view of Arkansas farm land, south of Jonesboro.
That is all. This is in preparation for upcoming reports from Texas and Kansas.
(America by Air archive here. Submission guidelines here.)
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.*
* … which makes an uplifting way to observe our wedding anniversary!
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.
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.
For previous items on this theme, please see this thread.
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- andstate-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.
In France, where I live, the virus is under control. I can hardly believe the news coming out of the United States.
I returned to Paris with my family three months after President Emmanuel Macron had ordered one of the world’s most aggressive national quarantines, and one month after France had begun to ease itself out of it. When we exited the Gare Montparnasse into the late-spring glare, after a season tucked away in a rural village with more cows than people as neighbors, it was jarring to be thrust back into the world as we’d previously known it, to see those café terraces overflowing again with smiling faces.
My first reaction was one of confused frustration as we drove north across the river to our apartment. The city had been culled of its tourists, though it was bustling with inhabitants basking in their reclaimed freedom. Half at most wore masks; the other half evinced indifference. We were in the midst of a crisis, I complained to my wife. Why were so many people unable to maintain even minimal discipline?
The writer and activist has the painful, powerful words for this political moment. America just needs to heed them.
“There are days—this is one of them—when you wonder what your role is in this country and what your future is in it. How, precisely, are you going to reconcile yourself to your situation here and how you are going to communicate to the vast, heedless, unthinking, cruel white majority that you are here. I’m terrified at the moral apathy, the death of the heart, which is happening in my country. These people have deluded themselves for so long that they really don’t think I’m human. And I base this on their conduct, not on what they say. And this means that they have become in themselves moral monsters.”
James Baldwin made this somber observation more than 50 years ago. I included these words in my film I Am Not Your Negro, which explored Baldwin’s searing assessment of American society through the lens of the assassination of three of his friends: Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King Jr., and Malcolm X. It is a film that cruelly shortens time and space between acts of police brutality in Birmingham in 1963 and images of the 2014 protests in Ferguson, Missouri, after the killing of Michael Brown; recent images of protests over the death of George Floyd extend that tragic connection to the present-day.
Sixteen states have reported record caseloads since Sunday.
The American pandemic is careening out of control. Yesterday, the United States reported more than 52,000 new cases of the coronavirus, setting a new all-time daily record, according to the COVID Tracking Project at The Atlantic. The surge has put the country’s supply of coronavirus tests under strain, especially in some of the worst-hit states, such as Arizona, Texas, Florida, and California. But unlike in past weeks or months, the outbreak is no longer limited to a handful of states or cities. Many places across the country are seeing caseloads spike.
To the degree that the U.S. ever built an infrastructure to contain and suppress the coronavirus, it frayed this week.
Along the way, nearly every previous landmark for measuring the pandemic has been overwhelmed. The country reported about 300,000 new COVID-19 cases in the past week, more than in any previous week of the pandemic so far. This shattered the old record of more than 215,000 new cases, which was set last week. On June 16, Vice President Mike Pence bragged that the U.S. was seeing an average of 20,000 new infections a day, a decline from the April high of about 30,000 new daily cases. Since Pence’s boast, the U.S. has recorded more than 30,000 new cases on every day but four. Six days ago, the country reported more than 40,000 daily cases for the first time. Now it has smashed through the 50,000 mark.
Imagine if the National Transportation Safety Board investigated America’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.
Coping with a pandemic is one of the most complex challenges a society can face. To minimize death and damage, leaders and citizens must orchestrate a huge array of different resources and tools. Scientists must explore the most advanced frontiers of research while citizens attend to the least glamorous tasks of personal hygiene. Physical supplies matter—test kits, protective gear—but so do intangibles, such as “flattening the curve” and public trust in official statements. The response must be global, because the virus can spread anywhere, but an effective response also depends heavily on national policies, plus implementation at the state and community level. Businesses must work with governments, and epidemiologists with economists and educators. Saving lives demands minute-by-minute attention from health-care workers and emergency crews, but it also depends on advance preparation for threats that might not reveal themselves for many years. I have heard military and intelligence officials describe some threats as requiring a “whole of nation” response, rather than being manageable with any one element of “hard” or “soft” power or even a “whole of government” approach. Saving lives during a pandemic is a challenge of this nature and magnitude.
Moving in with your parents is often seen as a mark of irresponsibility. The pandemic might show the country that it shouldn’t be.
Photography by Caroline Tompkins
Image above: Marielle Brenner, age 25, in the living room of her parents’ house in Melville, New York, in June. She moved back in with them after the economic fallout from the pandemic made her rent in Chicago unaffordable.
For the most part, the pandemic has restricted motion in America. But one exception has been a large-scale nationwide reshuffling of humans between homes. Before the coronavirus came to the United States, many of the country’s young adults were working, studying, and building lives on their own. Now a great deal of them are back to living with their parents.
The number of American adults who have returned to living at home is enormous. A recent analysis of government data by the real-estate website Zillow indicated that about 2.9 million adults moved in with a parent or grandparent in March, April, and May, if college students were included; most of them were 25 or younger. Their sudden dispersal into their parents’ homes is, for some, the result of the suspension of spring classes on college campuses and, for others, the result of miserable economic conditions. A survey from the Pew Research Center in March found that the younger an American adult is, the more likely that the pandemic has deprived them or someone in their household of work or earnings. Rent and other expenses got harder to cover, or simply to justify, for a large group of young people, so they moved home.
In the beach towns south of Melbourne, everyone, it seems, knows someone who’s been attacked.
About a week after Steven Mikac began taking antibiotics for the strange spot on his leg, the flesh around his ankle started to tighten and swell. The moist orifice of a wound opened up and took the form of a small bullet hole. A plug of tissue had gone missing—dissolved into pus and slime. Walking was excruciating. Working, unbearable. In early October of last year, Mikac showed his ankle to a colleague at the hospital where he works in Melbourne, in the Australian state of Victoria. She suggested that it might be Buruli ulcer—a disease caused by a strain of flesh-eating bacteria.
Though Mikac had seen local television reports about an outbreak of this tropical disease in Victoria, it sounded so freakish, so unlikely, that he hardly considered it a possibility. But like hundreds of Australians before him, he was about to become all too familiar with Buruli, a slow-moving horror show that has proved, in many ways, even more baffling to infectious-disease researchers than the novel coronavirus. After decades of research, scientists still aren’t certain who, or what, is spreading this strange malady around the world.
The president’s mindless nationalism has come to this: Americans are not welcome in Europe or Mexico.
There is a lot of learned material written about nationalism—scholarly books and papers, histories of it, theories of it—but most of us understand that nationalism, at its heart, at its very deepest roots, is about a feeling of superiority: We are better than you. Our country is better than your country. Or even—and apologies, but this is the precise language deployed by the president of the United States: Your country is a shithole country. Ours isn’t.
In this sense, nationalism is not patriotism, which is the desire to work on behalf of your fellow citizens, to defend common values, to build something positive. Nationalism is not community spirit either, which seeks to pull people together. Nationalism has nothing to do with democratic values: Authoritarians can be nationalists; indeed, most are. Nationalism has nothing to do with the rule of law, justice, or opportunity. At its core, nationalism is rather a competition, an ugly and negative competition. There’s a reason nationalists build walls, denigrate foreigners, and denounce immigrants: Because our people are better than those people. There’s a reason nationalism has so often become violent in the past. For if we—our nation—are better, then what right do others have to live beside us? Or to occupy land that we covet? Or even, maybe, to live at all?
Theresa Greenfield’s strategy to defeat Joni Ernst could show Democrats how to swing rural America away from the GOP.
Theresa Greenfield was 24 years old and four months pregnant with her second child when a priest rang her doorbell with terrible news: Her husband, Rod, a lineman at the local power company, had been killed in an accident at work. Greenfield, a Democrat who is challenging Senator Joni Ernst in Iowa this year, tells the story at every virtual campaign event she holds, but she generally leaves out the smaller details: how, just hours before, she’d packed a Snickers bar in Rod’s lunch box as a treat. How the clergyman sat with her on the sofa and held her hands as he explained that Rod had been electrocuted. The way that the panic, in those first few days, consumed her: As a single parent with no income, how would she survive?
Disney+’s filmed version of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hit musical feels dated, timeless, and vital all at once.
In an ideal world, I’d expect a Disney+ edition of Hamilton to have some real Broadway flavor. Perhaps there’d be a filmed rendering of waiting in line to have your ticket ripped at the Richard Rodgers Theatre, or a re-creation of buying an overpriced drink before taking your seat. But the stage recording of the hit musical, which starts streaming today, offers no such thing. It begins instead with a Skype clip in which the show’s writer and star, Lin-Manuel Miranda, acknowledges the sad circumstances of Hamilton’s online release: The musical wasn’t supposed to arrive on Disney+ until October 2021, but it dropped early to help distract audiences from the ongoing pandemic.
Watching the show from my couch in 2020, four years after I saw it on Broadway, was a strange throwback in more ways than one. I was reminded of the cruel reality that Broadway’s theaters will remain closed for the rest of the year because of COVID-19, a blow for an industry that relies on packed houses. Revisiting the show during another election year, it was hard not to think about how Hamilton was indelibly shaped by the more hopeful times of Barack Obama’s presidency.
Intentional voter suppression and unintentional suppression of the vote will collide in November.
Updated at 7:50 p.m. ET on June 30, 2020
On June 9, primary day, hundreds of people surrounded Park Tavern, a sprawling brewery and restaurant in Atlanta’s Piedmont Park. They queued in six-foot increments, and the line wrapped around the parking lot. Two nearby polling locations were closed, so this was where 16,000 Atlantans were slated to cast their ballots. Across the metro area, more than 80 voting locations had been closed or consolidated over concerns about the coronavirus. What’s worse: The new state-ordered voting machines had stopped working.
Some people waited for more than three hours to vote; others left before casting their ballots. Georgia’s meltdown was not an anomaly. The 2020 primary began with a malfunctioning app in the Iowa caucus, rendering the first-in-the-nation contest moot. One month later, on Super Tuesday, voters met hours-long waits in Los Angeles, Houston, Dallas, and Sacramento. Another month passed, thousands of Americans were dying of the coronavirus, and state officials began canceling primaries. Wisconsin’s state legislature forced its April primary through anyway. Milwaukee voters stood masked in a hailstorm, waiting to vote at one of just five polling places. Any other year would have seen 180 voting locations.