Listening to cable news, talk radio, and our heated election campaigns, you might quickly conclude that the US is going to hell, that the best days of America are behind us and that the country is unraveling right in front of our eyes. To a greater or lesser extent, these sentiment are to be expected in a presidential-election year, when the out-of-power party always argues that things are bad and getting worse. But for the last several years, the apocalyptic sentiments are coming not only from most on the right but from many on the left as well.
Beltway Washington is going through a particularly polarized, volatile phase, as has sometimes been the case through the country’s history. Moreover, the amplifying effects of social networks and 24/7 information channels make it even harder to find common ground and get anything done.
But, what’s going on beyond the beltway, - in cities and towns across America? Beyond the surreal world of Washington politics, is the country truly falling apart? How are Americans faring, despite the hard times so many have been going through? What’s going on in the real America, where real people live and work and where the proverbial rubber meets the road?
There’s a long tradition of road trips as a means of discovering the real America, going back to French historian Alexis de Tocqueville, who in 1831 spent 9 months traveling through the young country. He later published his famous book, Democracy in America, an insightful analysis of why representative democracy had succeeded in the US while failing in so many other places.
Fallows received over 1,000 responses to his request, and in 2013, he and his wife Deb embarked on a 3 year trip across America in their small, single-engine propeller plane. They spent 10-14 days in two dozen cities and towns across the country, and had shorter visits in two dozen more. The resulting chronicle of his travels, How America is Putting Itself Back Together, was recently published in The Atlantic.
Fallows grew up in Redlands, California, next-door to San Bernardino, a town we’ve all now heard of because of last December’s terrorist attack. He spent time in San Bernardino before the shootings, and found it to be “a poor, troubled town that sadly managed to combine nearly every destructive economic, political, and social trend of the country as a whole. San Bernardino went into bankruptcy in 2012 and was only beginning to emerge at the time of the shootings. Crime is high, household income is low, the downtown is nearly abandoned in the daytime and dangerous at night, and unemployment and welfare rates are persistently the worst in the state.”
“But that was not the only thing, or even the most interesting thing, that we saw during our time there. If news is what you didn’t know before you went to look, the news of San Bernardino, from our perspective, was not the unraveling but the reverse. The familiar background was the long decline. The surprise was how wide a range of people, of different generations and races and political outlooks, believed that the city was on the upswing, and that their own efforts could help speed that trend… From a distance, the San Bernardino story is of wall-to-wall failure. From the inside, the story includes rapidly progressing civic and individual reinvention…”
The Fallows found similar reinvention stories just about everywhere they went, - from Duluth, Minnesota to northeastern Mississippi. “What Americans have heard and read about the country since Deb and I started our travels is the familiar chronicle of stagnation and strain. The kinds of things we have seen make us believe that the real news includes a process of revival and reinvention that has largely if understandably been overlooked in the political and media concentration on the strains of this Second Gilded Age.”
The Gilded Age is the name given to the era of rapid economic and population growth following the Civil War, from the 1870s to about 1900. It was a time of major industrial and technological advances, including railroads, steel and factories of all sorts. The telephone, electricity and automobiles were invented and initially deployed during this period.
“Explanations for our current political volatility abound: toxic partisanship, the ever more fragmented and strident news media, high unemployment, economic upheaval and the clamorous upwelling of inchoate populist angst,” he wrote. “But the political instability of our own time pales when compared with the late 19th century. In the Gilded Age the American ship of state pitched and yawed on a howling sea of electoral turbulence. For decades on end, divided government was the norm. In only 12 of the 30 years after 1870 did the same party control the House, the Senate and the White House.”
The country was then going through serious challenging times. Foremost among them was navigating the transition from an agricultural to an industrial economy, and from a rural to an urban society; managing the labor unrest in this new industrialized, urban economy, as workers worried about their jobs, pay and working conditions; absorbing millions of immigrants; and recovering from the wounds of the Civil War.
Some of the major challenges we face today are similar, some are new. We’re once more navigating an economic transition, this time to an information-based digital economy; dealing with the employment challenges caused by this historical transition; and trying to come up with a reasonable immigration policy. Other challenges are more unique to our times, such as increased global competition; high healthcare costs; and energy, sustainability and climate issues.
“What’s instructive to us now is the similarity between the Gilded Age’s combination of extraordinary social and economic dynamism and abject political paralysis,” added Kennedy. “In the face of all those challenges, like our Gilded Age forebears, we have a political system that manages to be both volatile and gridlocked - indeed, it may be gridlocked not least because it is so volatile. And, like their 19th-century forebears, today’s politicians have great difficulty gaining traction on any of those challenges. Now as then, it’s hard to lead citizens who are so eager to ‘throw the bums out’ at every opportunity.”
Yet, the country kept moving on and making progress, including the major advances in what is often referred to as the Second Industrial Revolution, as well as the development of the world’s most comprehensive public education system. By the beginning of the 20th century, the US emerged as an increasingly prosperous country, one of the world’s industrial and economic powers.
It was a tale of two Americas, as is the case today. In March, 2013, The Economist published a special report on US competitiveness, - The America that Works. “Luckily, dysfunction in Washington is only one side of America’s story,” noted the report in its overview article.
Inside-the-Beltway America deals primarily with issues concerning the federal government, the many lobbyists and contractors surrounding it, and the 24/7 media that covers it. “Its debt is rising, its population is ageing in a budget-threatening way, its schools are mediocre by international standards, its infrastructure rickety, its regulations dense, its tax code byzantine, its immigration system hare-brained - and it has fallen from first position in the World Economic Forum’s competitiveness rankings to seventh in just four years…”
“Yet there is also another America, where things work. One hint comes from what those bosses like to call the real economy. Recent numbers from the jobs market and the housing sector have been quite healthy. Consumer balance-sheets are being repaired. The stockmarket has just hit a record high. Some of this is cyclical: the private sector is rebounding from the crunch. But it also reflects the fact that, beyond the District of Columbia, the rest of the country is starting to tackle some of its deeper competitive problems. Businesses and politicians are not waiting for the federal government to ride to their rescue. Instead,… they are getting to grips with the failings Congress is ignoring.”
What about immigration, - an issue that’s quite personal for me? Along with my family, I came to the US in 1960 as a 15 year old refugee from Cuba. I’ve always felt welcome, as have the many millions of immigrants that have long been coming to our country. But listening to the current immigration debates, you might conclude that it’s time to retire the Statue of Liberty, or at least to replace Emma Lazarus’ iconic words, - “Give me your tired, your poor/Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” - with something closer to “Go Away.”
But, that’s not what Fallows found in his travels across the country. Far from it. “Almost every place we went, the changes in America’s ethnic makeup were obvious. Almost no place did this come up as an economic, cultural, or political emergency, or even as the most pressing local issue. Based on everything we could see, the problems of immigration that presidential candidates have seized on for political advantage were largely another rest of America problem… If you hadn’t heard the speeches and read the stories about an immigration-driven crisis in America, you might conclude city by city that the American assimilation machine was still functioning.”
He found such a spirit, for example, in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, a city that’s nearly 90% white. But walking the streets of Sioux Falls, he came across a substantial number of people from Somalia, Sudan, Nepal, Burma and other sites of recent turmoil. “Sioux Falls, despite being relatively nondiverse and remote, is a city with one of the best records of absorbing refugees (Burlington, Vermont, is another). The civic and business leaders of Sioux Falls we spoke with, most of them white, seemed proud rather than beleaguered about their city’s new role as a melting pot.”
Let me conclude with these words by James Fallows that truly lifted my spirits.
“As a whole, the country may seem to be going to hell. That jeremiad view is a great constant through American history… But here is what I now know about America that I didn’t know when we started these travels, and that I think almost no one would infer from the normal diet of news coverage and political discourse… Many people are discouraged by what they hear and read about America, but the closer they are to the action at home, the better they like what they see…”
“After our current Gilded Age, the national mood will change again. When it does, a new set of ideas and plans will be at hand. We’ve seen them being tested in places we never would have suspected, by people who would never join forces in the national capital. But their projects, the progress they have made, and their goals are more congruent than even they would ever imagine. Until the country’s mood does change, the people who have been reweaving the national fabric will be more effective if they realize how many other people are working toward the same end.”