A New Glass Ceiling

Ideological disagreements in Washington are blocking creative solutions to many of the country's problems.

PHOENIX, AZ - OCTOBER 20: Volunteers working during The Home Depot Foundation & The Mission Continues Partner To Renovate Phoenix facility of U.S.VETS on October 20, 2011 in Phoenix, Arizona.  (WireImage)

Polarization and paralysis in Washington are transforming the notion of the glass ceiling.

Traditionally, the glass ceiling has referred to the invisible barriers that allow women and minorities to rise to a certain level in major institutions, but no further.

The new glass ceiling blocks the rise of innovative grassroots solutions to the country's biggest challenges, such as education or inequality. Creative thinking is flourishing in local governments, community nonprofit organizations, and public-private partnerships. But almost none of these new approaches are penetrating the frozen debate between the parties in Washington. The new thinking stalls against the calcified ideological disagreements that form the capital's glass ceiling.

As the latest Allstate/National Journal Heartland Monitor Poll released Friday showed, few Americans are looking to the pinnacle of either government or business for solutions. When asked whether an array of large institutions are mostly helping or mostly hurting the country as it tries to address its major challenges, more people said that large corporations, the federal government, political parties, and corporate CEOs were hurting rather than helping.

This collapse of confidence in society's leadership class has contributed to the volatility that has prevented either party from establishing a durable electoral advantage since the 1990s. But the disillusionment with those at the top is also fueling a more positive dynamic: It is encouraging more individuals and institutions to confront at a local level problems that earlier generations might have waited for national leadership to tackle.

That tendency is manifest in the increasingly aggressive — and divergent — state agendas of Republican and Democratic governors. This trend has some undeniable costs. State capitals that once operated with greater consensus have grown more polarized. And states are separating on issues, such as gay marriage and immigration, to an extent that threatens equal protection under the law. But in other ways, this state divergence is fueling a period of productive experimentation. Blue states like California and Maryland, and red ones like Texas and Oklahoma, are producing very different models for a good life.

Municipal innovation is thriving, too. This leans more uniformly left, as cities become more reliably Democratic, largely because the country's increasing diversity is clustered in urban centers. As journalist Harold Meyerson noted in a widely discussed American Prospect article recently , mayors in cities as different as New York, Seattle, Pittsburgh, Boston, and Phoenix are all pursuing agendas that include such ideas as expanding access to preschool and increasing the minimum wage.

This revival of urban liberalism has its limits: As veteran journalist Tom Edsall noted in a response to Meyerson's piece, mayors presiding over less desirable real estate than New York or Seattle are unlikely to press as aggressively to impose obligations on local employers who can relocate down the road. But there's no question that many big cities are pressure-testing the agenda that will increasingly define the Democratic Party through President Obama's remaining years and beyond. "What's happening in cities," Meyerson wrote, "can be described as Obama's agenda trickling down to the jurisdictions where it has enough political support to be enacted."

The most encouraging example of new forces filling the vacuum created by Washington's immobilization is neither left nor right. It's found in the proliferation of nonprofit organizations and public-private partnerships sprouting in communities across the country.

Social entrepreneurs blending business savvy with public mission are crafting new means to meet old goals. These innovators range from the Mission Continues (which helps veterans reenter society through service), to the Mission Asset Fund's "lending circles," which are helping immigrants assimilate in the San Francisco Bay Area, to the hybrid high school/community college/vocational training that is boosting a mostly minority student body at San Antonio's Alamo Academies. (You can find more of these innovations on National Journal's online Solutions Bank.)

These efforts are expanding partly because advances in information technology are making it easier for social entrepreneurs to raise money, organize supporters, and deliver services. But this golden age of grassroots direct action also draws on the spreading sense that communities can't wait for distant leaders to solve problems. In the new Heartland Monitor Poll, a majority identified only two institutions as doing more to help than hurt on the country's biggest problems, and each was locally rooted: community groups and small business.

In the same poll, most Americans were quick to conclude that local solutions and direct action through voluntarism, while valuable, were not enough. Ultimately, most respondents said, the country can't solve its problems without national-scale solutions.

That's the right judgment. But the path through that conundrum could be for Washington to play the role of catalyst: Through matching grants or more results-based competitions for federal dollars, such as President Obama's Race to the Top, it could promote wider adoption of fresh approaches now demonstrating promise in a few communities. The energy crackling in local innovation shows that a flow of talent and new ideas is ready when Washington finally lifts the glass ceiling.