Washington, D.C. (February 9, 2016)—Most Americans believe the country is going to hell. The Atlantic's James Fallows is here to tell you why they're wrong. In a refresh of the classic American road trip—channeling Lewis and Clark, Toqueville, and Steinbeck—Fallows piloted a three-year, 54,000 mile journey crisscrossing the country by single-engine plane to find out whether it's really all doom and gloom below the clouds. In The Atlantic's March cover story, "How America Is Putting Itself Back Together," Fallows reports on the findings of his journey: ingenuity, innovation, resolve (and, dare we say, a reason for optimism) in the places you might least expect. It turns out that the closer people are to the action, the better they like what they see.
Plus: ProPublica's Abrahm Lustgarten investigates the wild world of water rights in the American West and how one maverick investor wants to change the whole game; Peter Beinart argues that politicians, once again, are selling war on the cheap; and Peg Tyre covers the little-known math revolution among American teens.
The March issue of The Atlantic is now available online—with key pieces summarized below:
Cover Story and Features:
"How America Is Putting Itself Back Together": Having spent the better part of the past three years in America's small cities and towns, James Fallows reports on the unexpected ingenuity and resolve reshaping communities across the U.S., from Duluth, Minnesota, and Sioux Falls, South Dakota, to Redlands, California, and Columbus, Mississippi. In town after town, Fallows and his wife, Deborah, found tech centers, innovative schools, flourishing public-private partnerships, bustling downtowns, and other visible measures of reinvention exactly where you wouldn't expect to find them. He writes: "Where you wouldn't expect, that is, except we have seen so much of this nearly every place we've gone. America thinks of itself as having a few distinct islands of tech creativity; I now see it as an archipelago of start-ups and reinventions."
Sidebar: "Eleven Signs a City Will Succeed": As they traveled, the Fallowses developed an informal checklist of the traits that distinguished places where things seem to work. Among them: a distant concern for national politics, real public-private partnerships, an openness to immigrants, unusual schools and a community college, and big plans for the future. Oh, and craft breweries.
"Liquid Assets": That the American West had a limited supply of water was known from the start, but the allure of the land was just too irresistible to pass up. Now an allotment policy that came about more than a century ago, when water was plentiful and people were scarce, is responsible for crippling shortages, and a long drought is severely compounding the problem. America consumes more water per capita than just about any other country, and people in the driest states use the most. With Western cities only expected to grow, something has to give, and soon. Enter Disque Deane, the maverick investor who believes that capitalism is the ultimate solution. If water is allowed to be bought and sold more freely, he says, its value will begin to match its importance, waste will become expensive, and the West's problems will begin to solve themselves. As with any radical change to the status quo, the idea for water markets comes with harsh opposition, leaving critics to wonder whether water sales that today appear logical and efficient could one day come to seem shortsighted. In this feature, a partnership with ProPublica, Abrahm Lustgartendelves into the wild West of water and how the hedge-fund manager's push to capitalize the commodity could dramatically reshape an increasingly dire situation.
"The Math Revolution": You wouldn't see it in most classrooms, or know it by looking at slumping national test-score averages, but a cadre of American teenagers are reaching world-class heights in math—more of them, more regularly, than ever before. A new pedagogical ecosystem, one that's almost entirely extracurricular, has developed online and in the country's upper echelons, churning out young, world-class mathematicians. And it's beginning to reach students without the same privilege, too, with programs aimed at identifying promising students and developing their skills. But for a subject that has been around almost as long as civilization itself, there remains plenty of contention about how to best teach math. Peg Tyre explores the changing world of math in the U.S., and what's behind the surge in the numbers.
Foreign Policy: "The Terror Trap": Presidential candidates claim that attacking ISIS will make Americans safer. Peter Beinart argues that the opposite is true, suggesting that "the more America intensifies its war against ISIS, the more ISIS will try to strike Americans." While there are strong cases, chief among them humanitarian, for attacking ISIS, Beinart writes, military action isn't being sold on these grounds. Politicians are once again selling war on the cheap. He asserts: "Wars, even necessary ones, are usually costly for both sides. If the men and women running for president won't admit that, they shouldn't be demanding war at all."
Study of Studies: "Face Value": Don't judge a book by its cover. People should heed this adage, because it turns out that we're terrible at reading faces without contextual clues—and yet quick to judge them. In one study, computers were better at determining whether a person was smiling out of mild frustration rather than genuine delight; in two others, people were unable to distinguish between faces experiencing pain or sexual pleasure, or real pain versus fake pain.
Business: "What China Could Learn From Richard Nixon": China's abrupt economic slowdown brings to mind another superpower in the not so distant past: the United States of the Nixon era. Sebastian Mallaby writes that, much like the U.S. in the 1970s, China is an anxious superpower confounded by a troubled economy and a deceleration of its once-enviable growth. The comparison leads to lessons China can learn from American mistakes, chief among them denying the inevitability of the slowdown. Nixon, writes Mallaby, caused inflation by forcing growth above its natural level, refused to be bold with financial reform, and created a currency-devaluation disaster. China's slowdown may be especially tumultuous because its society is under acute stress, and so Mallaby offers this warning: "If China's leaders follow Nixon in resisting an inevitable slowdown, the penalty will show up elsewhere."
Sketch: "Can This Man Save U.S. Soccer?": More than 4 million kids in the U.S. are now enrolled in youth-soccer leagues—more than any other country—yet America has never produced a Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo. Now, in order to reverse the waning public interest in soccer, U.S. Soccer officials are turning to Doug Lemov, a teaching expert with no professional expertise in the sport, for help. Amanda Ripley explores how Lemov is working to rescue soccer from mediocrity, one coach at a time.
From the Culture File:
Books: "Critic Without a Cause": Criticism can be fun, A. O. Scott promises, genially evading serious cultural debate. Leon Wieseltier reviews the New York Times critic's new book, Better Living Through Criticism. Though its focus is on the nature of criticism, Wieseltier writes, "the interest of Scott's book lies not in its contribution to the solution of the problems it treats, but in its exemplification of our moment in American culture ... It is an accurate document of the discourse of 'takes.'"
Omnivore: "Why We Still Miss Jon Stewart": Stewart's Daily Show replacement, Trevor Noah, is smooth and charming, but he has yet to find an edge that's equal to the political moment. James Parker opines: "It took time, don't forget, for Jon Stewart to build his persona and his audience on The Daily Show ... Trevor Noah, currently a very able lightweight, needs time too. But he won't get any. As a culture, we're not about to nurture this talent, to give it room to grow. Our patience was exhausted long ago, by some other guy. We're going to pass judgment and move on."
Books: "The Leftist Origins of the Rabid Right": A paradox of 20th-century American politics is that its most sustained ideological movement, modern conservatism, was the brainchild of ex-Communists who had been disillusioned by the Soviet revolution. A new book by Daniel Oppenheimer updates the history of political defectors, from ex-Communists Whittaker Chambers and James Burnham, to renouncers of liberalism Ronald Reagan and Norman Podhoretz, to David Horowitz and Christopher Hitchens, casualties of the '60s and '70s radical left. Sam Tanenhaus has the review.
This month's Big Question asks: "Who is the greatest supporting player of all time?"