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.)