I recognize that the social-intellectual ecology of blogging is different from what it was even three or four years ago. Back then—ah, the lost Golden Age of the Blog!—it was easy to assume, or imagine, an ongoing, incremental process of working out concepts in public and exploring evidence as it emerged. This was the era and the mood that Andrew Sullivan captured in his "Why I Blog" cover story for The Atlantic in November, 2008.
The autumn of 2008 is "only" six years in the past, but it seems a different universe. George W. Bush was still the president. At least for supporters, Barack Obama was most strongly identified with the word Hope. The world economy, rather than being "troubled" as it is now, was in full-fledged panic. (Worth remembering for perspective on today's "volatile" stock markets: The Dow Jones average went from the 14,000s to the 6,000s within a little more than a year.)
Twitter was just a glimmer; Facebook had barely one-tenth as many users as it does today. And online discourse, because of the relative "calm" of that era, seems in retrospect something from the days of Emerson and Melville, of Addison and Steele. Our magazine, The Atlantic, had Andrew Sullivan and a handful of other online "Voices." Collectively we put up a relative handful of items per day.
It's the age of superabundance now in all things digital: opinions, outlets, connections, sources of insight and misinformation and distraction. That makes the thinking-in-public process more complex than it seemed six years ago, since it's harder to assume that any reader has had the time to follow a discussion. There's a greater risk that a single comment will be taken out of context—and a vastly greater likelihood that it won't be seen at all. On the other hand, this may return the thinking-out-loud process to something like its normal, pre-Golden-Age-of-Blogs condition, in which you think mainly to yourself and with a small group of onlookers and every so often try to get broader attention for the results.
I mention all this as set up to the letter below, from reader John Kilian of North Carolina. It's part of thinking-in-public in that it's a response to the "American Futures" reports from America that Deb Fallows, John Tierney, and I have been writing over the past year. In particular, it's a response to this recent note of mine, in which I talk about how much more engaged, practical-minded, and active-rather-than-passive "America" seems when viewed city-by-city rather than in most state-of-the-union overviews. My item ended this way:
The projects, ambitions, connections, and solutions we've seen time and again have shockingly little to do with what's covered in the talk shows or hammered home in political stump speeches ...
The variety, the creativity, the local texture—of a math-and-science school in Mississippi, a refugee-resettlement center in South Dakota (or Vermont), a convict-hiring program in Michigan, a tidal-energy vision in Maine—these reflect something more than just the quaint regionalisms of the country or the crude red state/blue state division.
Both in politics and the media, we often discuss the country as if it is mainly the object of big trends—global, technological, political, informational, cultural. America in the passive mode. These two latest reports illustrate the active-mode country we keep encountering.
John Kilian says that I am struggling to avoid facing the real meaning of the evidence that I am turning up and eagerly sharing with readers. I give the floor to him—and, in an exception to my general policy, I have left in the complimentary parts of his note because they're important in setting up his criticism:
First, thank you for your road trip to rediscover America. I read all the installments that show up in your blog, via Feedly.
We need more reporters who actually report. By this point in your career you have earned the right to sit in TV studios and opine, and yet you report. Bless you. [JF note: The major satisfaction in being a reporter is having the chance to see things. I view the other parts of the process, including the sitting-in-the-studio portions, as the price to be paid in exchange for the privilege of being on the road.]
I write to needle you a little bit. What you are discovering on your road trip is the genius of conservatism. A smart conservative could use your title, “national problems, local solutions” as a title for a fine book or lecture. Laboratories of democracy, etc. People know what is best for their own community, and they know best how to deal with local issues.
Even Governor Brown’s big train project is a local solution. It is a perfect example of how hard things are to do. The people in charge of this project intimately know the details of the situation, and even for them, it is hard work to come up with a plan that will work.
And yet the Democratic Party, and most liberals, are wedded to the notion of top-down, big national projects that we vote for and pursue because we want to get it done. Democrats might endorse high-speed rail all across America, but Brown is having a hard time making it work on one rail line.
My position is obvious. I think that you have mentioned that these positive developments that you are reporting are happening in a vacuum caused by the lack of federal action. My question is, after more than a year of seeing these little laboratories of democracy at work, has this changed your thinking in any way?
I don’t mean something stupid like will you now bow down to the Republicans and listen to Rush Limbaugh.
You have seen how local people can tailor a solution to the local conditions can bring about positive results.
Based on what you have seen, has your thinking on how progress works, on how government is most effective, changed?
Can any federal program work with understanding of the local conditions in every town in the country?
I’ll go away now, but you could be a fine conservative.
I could answer in flip mode by saying: Hey, I've already been a fine conservative! Like many teenaged boys, I read Ayn Rand. Like Hillary Clinton, I grew up in a Barry Goldwater-favorable environment (he carried my town against LBJ in 1964); and like her, I was sorry to see Barry lose.
I could, and will another time, answer more seriously in trying to see how the local vitality that has been so evident, and encouraging, in our travels matches up with the current political grid. In short, what we've seen underscores the importance of certain national efforts along with local and state ones.
The only point I'll make for now, apart from thanking Mr. Kilian for his note, is that local sensibility has historically found both supporters and backers independent of party alignment. One illustration comes from the photo above: Jane Jacobs's book The Death and Life of Great American Cities is all about local vitality but is not "conservative" in conventional terms. So too with the man shown in another picture, E.F. Schumacher of Small is Beautiful. Or, below, my friend Stewart Brand, a localist/futurist/conservative/liberal.
I've just about given up hope of any alternative to two-party dominance in American politics. It's been 160 years—fully two-thirds of the nation's existence—since a new party emerged to win a national election. Our most recent third-party experience is Ralph Nader's fateful run as a Green in 2000. So the hope is for self-correction within the parties, and collaboration between them. And emphasis on the local might offer an opening.