'The Reinvention of America': Two Views from the Prairie

Shannon Stapleton / Reuters
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

The new issue of The Atlantic has a long piece by me called “The Reinvention of America.” It’s different from, but tied to, the publication in two weeks of a book by my wife, Deb, and me called Our Towns: A 100,000-Mile Journey into the Heart of America.

The main contention of the Atlantic piece is that at a time of genuinely serious problems for the country, from economic polarization to the opioid disaster, and of near-historic crisis in national-level government (“near” historic because this is still not 1861-1865), city-by-city across the country many Americans feel as if the direction of personal, economic, and public life is positive rather than negative.

A flood of response has come in, which I’ll begin sampling from over the next few days. To start off, here are two related notes, from the Great Plains states. The first is from a man I also quoted last year, about locally based efforts at land conservation (at a time when national policy is headed in the opposite direction). He is William Whitney, of the Prairie Plains Resource Institute in Aurora, Nebraska. Aurora is a small town in south central Nebraska, about 20 miles east of the Grand Island. Deb and I were in Grand Island several times during our travels; we’ve not yet been to Aurora, but hope to go soon.

William Whitney writes:

I can attest to what you say in your article on localization in America.

It is happening in Aurora, Nebraska, my home town to which my wife and I returned 40 years ago. And across the Great Plains in various ways.

I think the so-called millennials have an energizing effect. Life is still hard for people, and improvising is a critical ingredient, but the rural Nebraska towns and small cities, such as Aurora (pop. 4,500) or Kearney (pop. 35,000), have life.

Regarding conservation, we recently attended a very good conference in Kearney related to ecotourism on the Plains. There is a refreshing view that there is something neat about the whole region, which many people are discovering for the first time in this culture. People outside are looking in with interest.

He continues:

There are also undercurrents in agriculture in the region, which run against the grain of globalism and industrialized commodity production and marketing. These are still very much a minority, but something to watch. They harken to the agrarian populism which began decades ago, and even include some defiant tones against corporatization and economic exploitation.

The Prairie Plains logo (Prairie Plains Resource Institute)

I understand your issues of trying to make sense of very subtle changes, but agree that the deep-text approach in talking to people is worthwhile.

Rural places have been left out of the national media narrative except as odd or quaint places (conservation stories are sometimes put in this category) with backwards folks. However, in Nebraska and much of the Plains, people are far from backwards; they are well-educated as a whole and retain the strong agrarian values and character of their ancestors. They are stayers. Historically, when they have incorporated as their own some new ideas, from within or from other places, they often created stable and adaptable institutions to survive.

* * *

The mayor of another small town in a Plains state wrote about his mixed reactions in reading the piece. I know who this mayor is; he is from a state and county that went very strongly for Trump; and he asks to have his identity protected precisely so he can keep destructive national politics from undermining constructive efforts in his home town.

In my piece I wrote, “The hardest question is whether something has changed since the last presidential campaign and election to make any optimism about local-level realities outdated, and to suggest that the poison of national politics has seeped all the way down.” The mayor writes about this potential seepage:

I’ve been thinking a lot about your piece on optimism.

My affinity for your themes stems from corresponding things happening here. I work to be sure our government is non-partisan and task oriented. Schools are outstanding and getting better (K-University), immigration is helping us resolve many labor shortage issues and dragging folks into diversity understanding, value-added ag is booming, and there is plenty of optimism. One can go all day without hearing the “T” word mentioned, even though our state’s voters overwhelmingly chose him.

So, I would say [my town] exemplifies your perception.

My concern, however, is dealing with the policy headwinds these good things are fighting.

When speaking, I often ask audiences “What is life like in [our town] for those on the first step of the economic ladder?” Acknowledging that we will always have thousands living on minimum wage. How is their housing, healthcare, daycare, nutrition, transportation, legal assistance, opportunities to advance, inclusion in society, access to those in power? How are poor minorities treated? Do they have hope?

Some will always be at the starting line and we all live among those occupying that demographic—and rely on them to make things work.

Meanwhile, there are daily actions working against them. Cutting SNAP, raising housing costs, cutting heating assistance, limiting access to courts, harassing immigrants and energizing haters, dumping people off health insurance, allowing infrastructure to degrade low-cost transportation, eliminating access to family planning and abortions, degrading consumer protections, degrading environmental protections, subverting public education, degrading enforcement of rights, on and on and on … not a day goes by without another seemingly malevolent action.

(Not even touching on the lunacy of a trade war’s effect on the poor)

* * *

Ideologically motivated incompetence combined with unjustified arrogance is leading our federal government rapidly toward system-wide malfunction.

These things, if not reversed, will unavoidably worsen things for our entry-level households and make my city less livable for all.

If city Department heads [here] were of comparable quality and qualifications to those now in DC, that would turn this city into a disaster in a matter of months. It won’t happen as fast on fed level, but it will happen. Michael Lewis’ articles on the operations of the departments of energy and agricultural were frightening, but not surprising.

This was an important article from you. Shows what’s at stake, what we can see being attacked intentionally, yet is waiting to work if those intentionally trying to sabotage it are stopped.

Thanks to these correspondents and others who have written in. I’ll quote more, day by day.