Indiana Humanities has launched a two-year major program called INseparable, designed to improve connections and understanding between people in the state’s big cities and those in its smaller cities and rural areas.
This coming week, my wife, Deb, and I will be in four different Indiana cities as part of their INconversation series (in conjunction with New America’s Indianapolis program), to discuss what we’ve learned in other parts of the country and to hear about what is happening in their communities.
Details of these events are on the Indiana Humanities Calendar site, here. In short, we will be in:
At the end of February, Deb Fallows and I were at an event in Pittsburgh at Alphabet City, a bookstore connected to the wonderful City of Asylum, which we wrote about several years ago. While there, we met John W. Miller, a former Wall Street Journal reporter turned filmmaker and local chronicler, who introduced us to a documentary film that takes a fresh and unusual look at a very familiar-seeming topic.
The movie is called Moundsville, produced by Miller and the Pittsburgh filmmaker David Bernabo, and it is about the travails of a West Virginia town that is coping with a usual-sounding range of Appalachian or declining-industrial-area woes:
Big, thriving factories had provided good, steady jobs—and then they closed, one by one, under pressure from automation or foreign competition. Downtown stores had held the town together—and then the big-box mall took the customers away. Young people who had the choice left town, and didn’t come back. The city’s population fell. Those who stayed got older, as the town’s hopes dwindled, and the remaining sources of work were the mall stores themselves, the fracking business, and a hoped-for tourist economy.
That sounds like a story you’ve heard many times. The Moundsville film, by Miller and Bernabo, presents the results in a way different from most other documentaries I’ve seen—but one strongly resonant with the experience Deb and I had in our “Our Towns” interviews across the country these past few years.
You can see the whole film (for $3.99) here, and a trailer is below. (A four-minute “Why Moundsvillle?” video with background on the project is here.)
The film is a little over an hour long, and it builds slowly from its economic-shock premise to an ending that is surprising on many levels. (The end involves the central role of a prison in the city’s economy and culture, but not in a way you would expect.)
What particularly struck Deb and me were three aspects of the film that were consistent with our experience in interviewing and traveling, but different from the standard declining-mill-town report:
a complete absence of any tone of self-pity or victimization among the people Miller and Bernabo interviewed;
a completely clear-eyed understanding, by those same people, of the inevitability of ceaseless economic and technological change—i.e., the absence of any thoughts on the line of, “We’ll be just fine, once the factories and the mines open back up again”;
and a sharp sense of humor and intelligence about their surroundings, the changing times, the aspects of local life that kept them tied to the community and the other aspects whose oddities they recognized. You’ll see what I mean on this last point if you watch to the end, about the current role of the former West Virginia State Penitentiary.
An article by Bill O’Driscoll about the film project on the website of WESA, a Pittsburgh’s NPR news station, has the significant headline, “Documentary Explores West Virginia Town—Without Mentioning Trump.” It quotes John Miller on a point that struck Deb and me again and again: The least interesting question you can ask in a place like Moundsville is the question that visiting journalists are most likely to start with, namely, views about Donald Trump. Or Hillary Clinton, or Robert Mueller, or Nancy Pelosi, or the upcoming elections, or “how terrible it is what’s happening on campuses these days,” or any other staple of a TV panel show. As the story said, with emphasis added:
Miller says that he and Bernabo did ask people in Moundsville what they thought of Trump. The trouble was, the answers were all stuff they’d heard before: “He’s trying to make America great again,” that sort of thing. “It just wasn’t interesting,” says Miller….
He adds, “If you watch the movie, you learn more in a way that helps you challenge a lot of what Trump says about bringing back jobs” – including Moundsville folks who acknowledge heavy-industry jobs aren’t returning.
Instead, Miller said, he and Bernabo asked people about the topics on which their views were interesting: the history of the town, the way its local patterns were connected to big international tech and trading shifts, what particular opportunities their location and history and culture afforded them. On these subjects, people’s views had complexity and depth and contradiction and humor, instead of the predictable range of pro- or anti-Trump views. In a post he wrote after Deb’s and my visit to City of Asylum, Miller said that he chose this approach
mostly because our questions about national politics yielded such predictable, cliché answers. The stories about people’s lives, jobs and families were the ones with depth and heart.
In a note he sent me recently, Miller said that he’d learned from this experience that
you get the most wisdom and insight out of engaging people at *their* best. And that's never going to happen if you're in a hurry and/or you ask about stuff they don't really know about (through no fault of their own.)
There is a lot more to the Moundsville saga than I will take the time to lay out here. Miller first became interested in the city back in 2013, when doing a Wall Street Journal feature about its weirdo (and now very successful) Museum of the Paranormal. Before moving to Pittsburgh in 2011, Miller had been based in Brussels and doing Journal reports on trade policy, often from the top-down, EU-and-WTO level. He was fascinated to find a place that had been shaped from earliest times by large-scale trading trends—the native tribes that built the city’s eponymous burial mound 2,200 years ago exchanged goods with other tribes located from the Gulf Coast to the Great Lakes—and that was again being shaped by modern globalization. And so the reporting and the film project began. (A recent article by Miller in America magazine is here.)
After I told Miller that one of Deb’s and my policies for learning about a town was never to go into a diner and start asking people, “So what do you think about _______ [name your polarizing topic]?” he said that he was perversely delighted that one of his film’s opening shots was of a middle-aged white guy in a diner. What he loved, Miller said, was that the interviewee, a retired teacher, “totally flipped the script with super-wise observations,” including a Pogo-style “We have met the enemy, and he is us,” maxim about the contradictions of modern capitalism. (People grumbled about the loss of cozy, locally-owned downtown retailers—and those same people flocked to the WalMart, when it opened, because the prices were lower. It’s an old story, but it has a different edge when told by a city resident and not an economics professor.)
The film is worth watching, and the updates from Miller and Bernabo on their site are valuable as well. Check them out.
This makes it all the more important to notice, to connect, and to learn from the dispersed examples of local-level renewal, progress, and reinvention around the country. That is the intended theme of this ongoing thread.
With minimal elaboration, here are a few recent installments and bits of evidence toward this end:
1. Progressive federalism: My friends Lenny Mendonca and Laura Tyson have written extensively on this phenomenon, and how exactly cities, states, and regions and work most effectively in a time of national dysfunction. (Lenny Mendonca is the former head of CalForward and recently announced chief economic adviser to new California Governor Gavin Newsom. Laura Tyson was head of Bill Clinton’s National Economic Council and is a professor at UC Berkeley.)
In an article “America’s New Democracy Movement,” they detail a theme discussed here over the months, and evident in the 2018 mid-term results: moves toward structural improvements in the machinery of governance, at the local and state level. The state-level moves in the opposite direction, notably in North Carolina and Wisconsin, are well known. Mendonca and Tyson say there is an opposing and more positive trend:
But the story of the 2018 midterms is about more than Trump and the future of his presidency. It is about an American electorate yearning for democratic reforms. Like in the Progressive era of the early twentieth century, when citizens and states spearheaded a wave of measures to improve democratic governance, voters from both parties used the election to signal their support for democracy….
With the federal government mired in dysfunction and now in its third shutdown since January 2018, voters are taking charge. Come 2020, there is every reason to expect that “progressive federalism” will usher in democratic reforms on a scale not seen since the heyday of the original Progressive movement.
2. Also in California, the governor-once-removed Arnold Schwarzenegger is continuing his drive for progressive democratic reform, notably through anti-gerrymandering measures. On January 10 his institute at USC had a big “Fair Maps Incubator” conference about a new approach to districting. I look forward to seeing the results.
3. Also in California, our friend Joe Mathews reports in the San Francisco Chronicle on the Salinas Valley town of Gonzales, many of whose residents are farm workers and where the median income is only $17,000 a year, that has found an ambitious way to give its young people a much better chance. As he writes:
Against the odds, Gonzales has assembled such a rich suite of services for children—27 programs—that it spends more on youth than on its Fire Department. Gonzales residents are poor, but they still voted for a half-cent sales tax that helps fund youth services. And while leaders in this Monterey County town don’t have much power, that didn’t stop them from sharing power with their own children, who help make decisions on spending and policy.
Gonzales, for all its challenges, has real strengths. It has developed an industrial park and agriculture-related businesses that produce steady tax revenue. And it has stable and thoughtful local leadership….
As much as possible, Gonzales employs the city’s own children as part-time workers or interns in its programs. Students as young as ninth-graders are asked to interview and fill out applications — giving them experience. The city also gives part-time work to college students from Gonzales to keep them connected to the town.
The whole story is worth reading.
4. Not in California, but from a state resident (and former San Jose Mercury reporter): Dan Gillmor writes about experiments in re-connecting local journalism with its civic audience, and with a potential economic base. This one is in Kansas City, to give local residents a view inside the news room.
Our work with newsrooms, including Kansas City, has been about collaboration in every respect. At The Star, for example, the collaboration with the public library has been astoundingly productive. The organizations teamed up on “Java with Journalists” meetings at branch libraries — a project soon to be expanded to other public library systems in the Kansas City metro area — and, of course, the “What’s Your KCQ” project. The latter has another partner: Hearken, a Chicago-based specialist in what it calls “public powered journalism” in which the public is integral to the reporting….
Speaking personally, some lessons are already clear. Among them: Each newsroom and community is different, so the engagement/transparency projects need to be tailored to fit the people and place; the principles don’t change but the specific tactics may.
Samantha Max, of the Telegraph in Macon, Georgia, has a related report, which like Gillmor’s is carried at Arizona State University’s NewsCo/Lab site.
5. From a very different perspective, drawing from the works of Friedrich Hayek and the doctrine of “subsidiarity” with a heavily Catholic emphasis, Andy Smarick of the libertarian R Street Institute talks about conservatives’ obligation to work out the practicalities of a local-centric approach. His essay in National Affairs is called “Toward a Real Decentralization,” and it says:
Conservative leaders who embrace [the localist] view should be comfortable even with formations that adopt initiatives they may not like. By recognizing our own limitations and the authority of others, we can see that the American unum requires a pluribus.
There are many instances in which leaders on the right seem to miss this point. For example, after the city of Charlotte passed an ordinance in 2016 permitting transgender people to use the bathrooms they prefer, state lawmakers in North Carolina hastily passed a bill overriding this policy….
Similarly, as political-science professor Jay Aiyer pointed out in a paper on localism in Texas, "Texas is a conservative state with growing liberal urban centers. However … the leadership in Texas has chosen to centralize authority through the legislative process, undermining local control on a myriad of issues." In other words, to prevent liberal policies from taking effect, or what Texas governor Greg Abbott often refers to as "the Californization of Texas," conservative leaders at times proudly subvert local authorities.
The essay is a useful complement to the progressive-minded examinations of the likes of Tyson and Mendonca.
Despite the chaos in and around the White House and the fog of stagnation it creates, emanating from a man who could care less for this country, and despite the cultural changes shrewdly observed by my friend, there must and will be a return to sanity and to a brighter day for the country we love. We are optimists because we are Americans.
As Reverend Jesse Jackson used to say about himself, God is not done with us yet.
Details on what God may have in mind for the people of the United States, and what Earthlings may do about it, ahead.
Back in the days before all data was stored everywhere, forever, never to disappear even if you try, writers and composers shared the experience of waking up at 3am, in cold-sweat terrors because of the “lost manuscript” nightmare.
This fear was based on hoary stories about some novelist or historian who got into a cab with a bag containing a 1,000-page manuscript representing years of work — and got out of the cab leaving the bag behind, impossible to retrieve. Or, in a variant, the only copy of the manuscript was sitting in the house, when the house burned down—or aboard a boat, when the boat sank.
Apparently real-life writers have actually suffered this misfortune. You can read an account covering authors from Milton to Hemingway to Edna St. Vincent Millay here, and others here and here.
I’ve personally seen a real-life version of this nightmare. As described here, the very first story I ever wrote for my college newspaper was about a fire that destroyed the university economics department. On the sidewalk outside, I encountered a man sobbing as he watched the blaze: the only extant copy of the book he’d been working on for years was inside, and was reduced to ashes. (As I confessed: “The moment had a career-changing effect on me. As the first question I asked, for the first story I wrote, I turned to this unfortunate and said: Well, Dr. Swami, how does it feel to see your life's work vanish? I was becoming a journalist.”)
And I’ve recently encountered a minor-league real-world version. On a long-haul flight on the morning after this past week’s election, I ground out a “meaning of it all” dispatch for our web site. But for oddball logistics reasons, that couldn’t get posted right away — and ever-changing news headlines made what I’d originally written seem oddly framed.
So this post, kicking off a new Thread, has two points. One is to summarize the post-election wrap-up I had laid out, in lost-manuscript form. The other is to give some illustrations of what I argue is the fundamentally promising post-election theme.
First, what happened this past week? My long-form argument was that many Democrats felt emotionally gut-punched on Election Night, mainly because of three very high-profile losses in long-shot but closely run races. These involved, of course: Beto O’Rourke in Texas, Stacey Abrams in Georgia, and Andrew Gillum in Florida.
Whatever may eventually turn out in the Georgia and Florida recounts, as of last Tuesday night they were all heartbreaking disappointments for the Democrats. And while those (apparent) losses were offset by some emotionally important surprises and successes, principally the defeats of Kris Kobach in the governor’s race in Kansas and of Scott Walker in Wisconsin, they were accompanied by a range of other defeats, from Joe Donnelly’s and Heidi Heitkamp’s in the Senate to Amy McGrath’s and M.J. Hegar’s and Richard Ojeda’s in the House.
But — the “pivot” argument in my day-after piece — I said that the long-term fundamentals of the election would be more favorable to Democrats than the emotion of that first night suggested, in several ways.
The most obvious was simply the shift in control of the House. That the Democrats would gain at least the requisite 23 votes was clear by very late on Tuesday night. And as close races have kept being called since then — notably in California and Arizona, with their long-established pattern of early returns skewing Republican and the Democratic share edging up as the count wore on—the scale of an extremely sizable victory has begun to sink in.
As I write this update, it looks as if the Democrats will pick up 35 or more seats and carry the popular vote for the House by 7 to 8 per cent, results that would have been reported as “a wave” if they’d been foreseen or recognized on election night. It is on track to be a bigger percentage-point margin than the Republicans scored in the Tea Party elections of 2010, when gerrymandering allowed them to flip sixty-plus seats. (Here’s a fascinating Atlantic graphic categorizing the traits of districts that flipped this time.)
Beyond the intangible effects of House results that will be larger than they initially seemed, there is the hugely important practical consequence of the House being again empowered as a check on presidential excesses. With Adam Schiff as (presumptive) chairman of the Intelligence Committee — and Adam Smith at Armed Services, and John Yarmuth at Budget, and Maxine Waters at Financial Services, and Nita Lowey at Appropriations — hearings, subpoenas, and investigations will mean something very different in the next two years of Donald Trump’s term than they have in the past two.
At the state-legislature level, it appears that in this one election Democrats will have won back well over one-third of the seats they lost during eight years under Barack Obama. The balance of the Obama years — emotional satisfaction at the top of the ticket, losses lower down — was at least partially reversed. And the anti-gerrymandering and voting-expansion initiatives passed in a large number of states, while presumably useful to the Democrats in the short term, are more important longer-term as repairs to the working mechanisms of democracy.
And so, I would have argued in my phantom piece, the 2018 elections were indeed likely to be the opposite of the Obama years. Emotionally, for Democrats November, 2018 felt much less satisfying than November, 2012 or (especially) November, 2008. But the practical advances were more sizable than initial coverage implied.
Now, for a little more on this last point: the ways in which this election might be seen as a hinge point on repairing the mechanics of democracy. This is of course a trend I’ve been talking about for a long time, and on which the historian Geoffrey Kabaservice wrote today in the Washington Post, citing arguments Deb Fallows and I have made (emphasis added):
While many red states will continue to be tough battlegrounds for Democrats, even in growing metropolitan areas, an increasing number of Republicans in those states may move toward Cornett-style [Mick Cornett, former Republican mayor of Oklahoma City], get-it-done moderation and away from tea party conservatism.
James and Deborah Fallows, authors of the recent book “Our Towns,” traveled extensively around smaller urban areas in heartland America in the course of their research. They discovered that, in contrast to the hyper-partisanship and gridlock at the federal level, local politics retains a penchant for collaboration, reasonable compromise and long-term vision.
If there’s any hope for our collective political future, it’s that such pragmatism will percolate up from our local politics to our national politics. And the 2018 midterm results suggest that green shoots of moderation are breaking out, even in the states that many East Coast liberals think are hopelessly addicted to Trump’s brand of divisive cultural warfare.
As will come as no surprise, I agree with Kabaservice’s emphasis on engagement and practical-mindedness “percolating up” from the still-functional level of American politics. And here are a few other indications of this trend underway:
“Let the People Vote,” by David Leonhardt in the New York Times. The subtitle tells it all: “America finally has a pro-democracy movement — and it did very well at the polls last week.”
The ongoing theme in this space will be where and why practical-minded functionality is percolating up from the local level, and what circumstances might hasten and favor that process. It’s been a good beginning this past week.
In an exclusive interview, the presidential candidate reveals the clients he worked with, what he did for them, and how the experience shaped the way he solves problems.
Last month, a source emailed a colleague of mine with a complicated theory that, the source claimed, proved Pete Buttigieg had been in the CIA. “The American people have the right to know if he was ever an agent or officer,” the person wrote, with the kind of baseless confidence that lives on the internet.
By then, Buttigieg’s critics on the left had started to focus more on what the South Bend, Indiana, mayor could have been doing at McKinsey, a company that seems to look worse with each passing week. Progressives, and in particular the Elizabeth Warren campaign, pounced: What was Buttigieg doing at McKinsey for two and a half years? How many people had lost their jobs because of him? How shady was the work conveniently hidden behind a standard McKinsey nondisclosure agreement?
George Zimmerman’s lawsuit is part of a much broader pattern: Gun-rights advocates have recast perpetrators of violence as the real victims.
In the latest turn in a long, ugly saga, George Zimmerman, the volunteer neighborhood watchman who was acquitted of second-degree murder after shooting Trayvon Martin in Florida in 2012, recently filed a lawsuit in which he presents himself as the victim of injustice and seeks recompense for his losses. The killing of Trayvon, who was 17, led to a national outpouring of anger—over Florida’s “stand your ground” law, which offers legal protections to those who use lethal force instead of retreating from confrontations, and over a broader pattern in which African Americans die at the hands of shooters who claim to have feared for their own lives.
Zimmerman’s lawsuit reflects a different kind of indignation. Six years after his trial, he is now accusing Trayvon’s parents; their attorney, Benjamin Crump; the state of Florida; and others of colluding in what the suit portrays as an unfair prosecution. His lawsuit seeks an eye-popping $100 million in damages for the personal losses he claims to have sustained. “Plaintiff Zimmerman,” his complaint says, “has suffered severe loss of reputation, goodwill, and past, present, and future loss of income, earning, and other financial damage.”
Americans like me ignored—or scorned—protesters who warned of an endless quagmire in Afghanistan. Next time, we should listen to the critics.
The 80 percent of Americans who supported the war in Afghanistan back in 2001 were wrong. And the tiny anti-war faction that opposed the conflict was correct in warning that an invasion and occupation would turn into a bloody quagmire.
That was my thought as I read the long-suppressed war documents that The Washington Post published yesterday after a three-year fight to make them public. Officials under Presidents George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Donald Trump “failed to tell the truth about the war in Afghanistan throughout the 18-year campaign,” the Post showed, “making rosy pronouncements they knew to be false and hiding unmistakable evidence the war had become unwinnable.”
Observers will differ on whether U.S. officials could have been more effective or honest, or whether their failures were foreordained by perverse incentives and hard choices. A shorter war that struck al-Qaeda members but eschewed occupation can be imagined.
Trump’s defenders suggest that White House aides could exculpate the president—but the evidence suggests otherwise.
Speaking with George Stephanopoulos on ABC this weekend, Representative Matt Gaetz—one of President Donald Trump’s most relentlessly enthusiastic congressional supporters—had an unexpected suggestion for how the president should proceed in the impeachment inquiry. Mick Mulvaney, the director of the Office of Management and Budget and acting White House chief of staff, should testify before Congress, Gaetz argued—along with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and perhaps even the president’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani. All three men have so far refused to cooperate with House requests for information. But, said Gaetz, “I think it would inure to the president’s advantage to have people testify who could exculpate him.”
Democratic Chairman Jerry Nadler virtually lost control of today’s House Judiciary Committee hearing.
Today’s impeachment hearing was supposed to be a check-the-box session for House Democrats—a formality, really: Its purpose was to televise the evidence against President Donald Trump that party lawmakers presented in a voluminous written report released last week.
What it turned into, however, was the weirdest, most chaotic hearing of the entire impeachment saga so far.
The witnesses were not exactly household names: two staff lawyers for Democratic House committees, Barry Berke and Daniel Goldman, and one serving Republicans, Stephen Castor. They were there to discuss the findings of the House Intelligence Committee, a necessary but decidedly anticlimactic step ahead of the introduction of official articles of impeachment. Democrats could unveil those charges by the end of the week, and the full House could vote on them before Christmas.
The new book by the president’s son should be far more interesting than it actually is.
When Donald Trump Jr.’s book, Triggered, leapt to the top of TheNew York Times’ best-seller list a few weeks ago, alert observers noticed something odd—odder even than the thought of Donald Trump Jr. writing a book. Next to the listed title was the image of a dagger. What it signified was unclear. Was it a sly commentary by the Times’ obsessively Trumpophobic editorial staff? I had read the book already and had a guess: A dagger was the first thing readers would reach for when they finished Triggered—something sharp and lethal that could be used to slit throats, our own or someone else’s, to obliterate the experience of having read the whole thing.
Weirdly, I was wrong. The Times explained that the dagger serves as a kind of asterisk. It warns readers that some portion of a book’s sales came in the form of bulk orders by institutions rather than through individual purchases by ordinary, humble book buyers such as ourselves. The implication is to question the book’s status as a boffo smash. In the case of Triggered, thousands of copies were bought by the Republican National Committee and then passed along as premiums to donors. A pro-Trump youth group called Turning Point USA and several Republican congressional candidates did the same, the Times reported in a news story.
Instead of settling on charges that relate to statutory crimes, with clear, concrete criteria, the Democrats have instead released two articles of impeachment in which the misconduct exists largely in the eye of the beholder.
Today the House Judiciary Committee announced two articles of impeachment. The first article alleges that President Donald Trump abused his power by asking Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to publicly announce investigations into one of his political opponents, Joe Biden, and into a “discredited theory” that Ukraine, not Russia, had interfered in the most recent presidential election. The second article charges that President Trump obstructed Congress by refusing to comply with impeachment-related subpoenas. In opting for these two offenses—and in excluding three others that had all been plausible—House Democrats have narrowed their charges to the allegations that are the easiest to see, if you see the world, and this presidency, as they do.
The United States is a fortress of gerontocracy besieged by a youth rebellion. America’s leaders are old—very old. The average age in Congress has never been higher, and our national leaders are all approaching 80. Nancy Pelosi was born in 1940, Mitch McConnell came along in 1942, and Donald Trump, the baby of this power trio, followed in 1946, making him several weeks older than his predecessors Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. The two leading candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination, Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders, are 77 and 78 years old, respectively. Every individual in this paragraph came into the world before the International Monetary Fund and the CIA; before the invention of the transistor and the Polaroid camera; before the Roswell UFO incident and the independence of India.
The articles of impeachment focus on Ukraine, but the GOP must pass judgment on the president’s broader willingness to bend U.S. foreign policy toward his own ends.
As the House of Representatives nears a vote on two articles of impeachment, very few people think President Donald Trump’s conduct was “perfect,” as he claims it was. The partisan divide revolves around whether his wrongdoing rises to the level of an impeachable offense. Democrats believe it does, but Republicans overwhelmingly think it does not. Yes, Trump’s behavior may have been “inappropriate and misguided,” argued Will Hurd, a retiring House member from Texas, but “an impeachable offense should be compelling, overwhelmingly clear, and unambiguous.” For the GOP, this standard has not been met.
If this is the question, then the trial in the Senate must move beyond Ukraine. It should put Trump’s foreign policy on trial. The president’s effort to pressure the Ukrainian government is part of a larger pattern of bending American foreign policy to reflect his own personal beliefs and interests. Left unchecked, it could lead to a permanent upending of America’s global role, including the end of the alliance system. A Senate trial is the Republicans’ last, best chance to avert this scenario—because if Trump remains in office once the trial is over, they will be fully committed to ensuring his reelection, no matter what he’s done.