If the decades around World War II were the glory days for big government and big business, the past generation has mostly witnessed their decline. America's largest companies have shown a renewed capacity for innovation and have become global leaders in the digital economy. But despite some admirable exceptions, they are not producing the growing job opportunities, much less the rising living standards, that American workers once considered routine.
The political scene is even darker. More often than not, over the past two decades, Washington has been mired in stalemate. Even against that backdrop of limited accomplishment, all signs indicate that the nation's capital is now careening into an especially dysfunctional period. Congressional Republicans and President Obama are deadlocked on virtually every significant question. The stunning letter from GOP senators this week attempting to undercut Obama's nuclear negotiations with Iran—following the House Republican effort to do the same by enlisting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu—extends partisan conflict directly into diplomacy to an ominous extent. Add in the frenzy over Hillary Clinton's ill-advised but hardly unique decision to use personal email in public office, and all the ingredients are assembled for a Washington meltdown.
It's easy to conclude from the failings at the pinnacle of business and government that America has lost its capacity for self-renewal. But that would be wrong. The United States is still producing dynamic responses to its greatest needs, from creating jobs to reviving troubled neighborhoods.
What has changed is the locus of the action. Although this is often overshadowed by the national stalemate, the United States today is living through a golden age of local initiative. Driven by frustration with the national deadlock, enabled by new communications technology, and inspired by an ethos of direct action, a new generation of grassroots problem-solvers is forging fresh answers to familiar challenges in communities large and small.
For more than a year, the Next Economy project, a joint effort by National Journal and The Atlantic,has been profiling dozens of these activists. Later this year, we will present the best of them with our first annual Renewal Awards. (You can nominate promising programs for the competition at www.RenewalAwards.com.)
The innovators leading this revival include creative and committed young people like Clara Brenner, the cofounder of a business accelerator called Tumml. Her group provides funding and mentoring for start-up companies that want to tackle civic challenges, such as combating homelessness or improving transportation. "You open TechCrunch or The Wall Street Journal, and you read about start-ups changing the world through the next dating app or on-demand butler service," she told me recently. "It's pretty disheartening. We wanted to see more start-ups solving real problems."