Big, Ambitious Plans From Smaller-Town Leaders

Windmills in Texas (LM Otero / AP)
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

In a few days, the May issue of the magazine will arrive for subscribers ( ! ) and appear on newsstands. It includes an article I’ve done as a more analytically explicit companion to Our Towns, the mainly narrative book that I’ve written with my wife, Deb, and that will come out next month.

In the Atlantic article I elaborate on a claim that I’ve been exploring in this space over the past five years of traveling through and reporting about “interior America.” It boils down to this, from the article:

Dysfunction at the national level genuinely is a problem, as the world is reminded every time the federal government shuts down. Some of that pathology has spread to the state level. But for us the American story was of a country that is still capable of functioning far more effectively than national-level paralysis would indicate or than most people unaware of the national patterns we are reporting would assume about the parts of America they’re not in.

The words I most want to emphasize from that passage are the final ones. People generally develop a more-or-less realistic assessment of the communities and institutions they experience first-hand. But more and more, they have come to believe that the world “outside” is full of dystopian horrors they are fighting off at home. The simplest illustration, which I mention and document in the piece: Polls show that by huge majorities, Americans think things are getting worse for the country as a whole. By similarly huge majorities, they believe that conditions in their own communities are getting better, not worse.

What explains this split awareness? It’s complicated. No doubt a significant factor is that politics at the national level have genuinely reached a point of crisis — and it’s tempting for people to base their judgments of local conditions on first-hand knowledge, and assume that the (abysmal) level of national politics is the default assumption about everywhere else. The decades-long fear-and-disaster emphasis of local news and cable news also has an effect. (“We’re not having many car hijackings / tornados / terrorist threats here locally, but they must be widespread because I see them all the time on the news!”)

In the article I also propose a way to test the proposition that America is, at a local level, positive minded. I offer this for the (no doubt substantial) number of readers who might start out skeptical. Further details when the magazine comes out. For the moment, here is a way to sample what it has been like to go city-by-city and ask about the most significant local developments.

While on a long drive yesterday, I listened on the radio to Joshua Johnson’s radio interview, on his 1A program, with Dale Ross, the mayor of Georgetown, Texas. Ross’s story, told last month in this Smithsonian article, is of a conservative-Republican mayor in a Republican-voting town, who has made Georgetown the largest town in America to run entirely on renewable power. Something similar is true of the also-Republican mayor of the also-conservative city of Lancaster, California, which has gone all-out in its transition to solar power.

You can hear Johnson’s interview with Ross here. (He also talks with Johanna Partin of the Carbon Neutral Cities Alliance, and Bill Updike, formerly of the Washington, D.C., government.) If I hadn’t been behind the wheel on the D.C. Beltway, I would have stopped to write down notes at least a dozen times during the interview, because what Ross was saying resembled so closely what we’d heard from his counterparts, Republican and Democratic, across the country.

For example: that the bile and hostility people might bring to national politics could be set aside when they dealt with local issues. And that towns and many states were able to imagine ambitious long-term goals and work toward them, rather than being whipsawed from one short term emergency to another. And that people with different world-views can agree on practical-minded solutions—in this case, Republican voters and leaders in Texas thinking it made good business sense to switch to renewable fuels.

I don’t yet have a transcript of the show, so I’m not calling out specific quotes. (If and when a transcript appears, I’ll do some highlighting.) For now I’m encouraging you to listen to this show. Apart from its specific topic—the business momentum toward renewable power, the role of Texas state policy under Governor Rick Perry (!) in making this possible—it’s the closest thing I’ve come across to the experience of hearing local-level mayors, business people, and civic leaders talk about their ambitions for their towns. Spend a few minutes listening to this broadcast, and you may have a better sense of why we’re making the case that we do.