Daniel Russell has no patience for people who consider the federal government the root of all evil. A 32-year-old IT technician at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, he's fond of citing the many examples of government-funded basic scientific research—such as the project that laid the foundation for the Internet—that later led to big commercial breakthroughs. "Some of the time, the things the government thinks up are passed on to corporations … and the corporations get all the credit for it," he says. "People say, 'Aw, man, the government hasn't done anything for us.' I'm like, 'Look at your shoes, look at your car.'"
And yet, Russell understands why people get frustrated with how long it takes for Washington to do just about anything. He sees how red tape and bureaucracy can stifle new thinking for so long that by the time it moves forward, it "might not be relevant" anymore. It's easier, he agrees, to make change closer to home, through more direct action, such as the conservation efforts he joined as a teenager or the voting-participation drives he helped lead in college. "The lower number of humans something impacts," Russell says, "the easier the change is."
But just because it's easier to influence local institutions, Russell says, that doesn't mean Americans should abandon the hope of reforming the bigger ones that shape so much of national life, such as the federal government or major corporations. "The truth is that nobody has a great track record. An institution may fail, but the true measure of failure is, do you get back up and try to fix it?" he says. "If you have a level of mistrust in something, then take it on yourself to find out why and fix it."