An Impulse Becoming a Movement

Amid the national stalemate, a golden age of local innovation has begun.

The sun begins to rise behind the dome of the US Capitol that is covered in scafollding for repairs, November 4, 2014 in Washington, DC. Today Americans will head to the polls to cast their vote in the mid-term elections leaving the control of the US Senate in question. (National Journal)

Not many ideas draw agreement anymore from solid majorities of Democrats, Republicans, and independents. But here's one: Across party lines, most Americans believe that progress on the biggest challenges facing the country is more likely to come from local rather than national institutions.

(Mark Wilson/Getty Images)In the latest Allstate/National Journal Heartland Monitor Poll, released this week, we asked Americans whether they believed "new ideas and solutions" for responding to "the biggest economic and social challenges facing America" were more likely to emerge from "state and local institutions" like "government, businesses, and volunteer or community organizations," or from "national institutions like the federal government, national businesses, and major nonprofit organizations."

Almost four-fifths of Republicans and nearly three-fourths of independents picked local institutions. Not surprisingly, with their party holding the White House, Democrats were somewhat more inclined to look to national institutions for answers; but, even so, a solid 56 percent of them expected local institutions to produce the best new thinking.

Public perception doesn't always match reality. But these opinions track a potentially transformative shift.

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

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."

Some innovators are operating from big companies: Stanley Litow, the president of the IBM Foundation, has pioneered the rapidly expanding P-TECH program, which links high school, community college, and on-the-job training from employers to provide young people with marketable skills. Others work from nonprofit organizations such as Cure Violence, which recruits former convicts to mediate local disputes and to help break the cycle of violence in inner-city neighborhoods.

These programs differ in their scale, structure, and areas of emphasis. But they all reflect Americans' growing willingness to directly confront problems that earlier generations might have waited for Washington to address. Most of these civic entrepreneurs recognize that the federal government is often the best lever to expand the scale of good ideas. Yet they aren't expecting much near-term assistance from a capital paralyzed by partisan conflict. "We are on our own—that's the way we look at it," Peter Kenney, cofounder of the Colorado group Civic Results, told me at an event I moderated on local innovation this week. The ongoing resurgence of grassroots initiative is an impulse that does not yet know it is a movement. But community by community, often block by block, it is already revitalizing America.