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February 7, 2018

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James Fallows on Optimism In America

April 25, 2018

 "Even as the national government induces distrust and despair," James Fallows writes in the Atlantic, "most polls show rising faith in local governance."

 

This resonates as a key message out of A Search for America. In interview after interview, while I generally heard a sense of frustration with national politics -- money, hyperpartisanship, the decline of discourse -- there was a much stronger belief in both our capacity to work together ("We're in this together") and in agency ("I can effect change").

 

In short, it seems to me that democracy remains relational at the local level, where by an large we have seen it become transactional at the national level.

 

This distinction becomes more clear with a helpful cheat sheet put together by the leadership educator Mark Sanborn; he notes nine key differences between transactional systems and relational systems:

Perhaps part of our democratic work is for institutions, which have necessarily evolved to overcome the challenges of scale and scope, to harness new governance tools that bring these relational qualities back into the democratic process.

 

Filled with anecdotes about the ways democratic engagement is working at the local level, in cities large and small across the country, Fallows paints a picture of a hopeful America at a "quickening" to borrow a term from Frances Moore Lappe and Paul DuBois. "Even as arguments about tax cuts or increases have degenerated into religious war at the national level, Fallows writes, "we saw them discussed in what you could call reasonable terms locally."

 

Civic governance, immigration, talent dispersal, schools, libraries, manufacturing, downtowns, conservation. These are the areas where Fallows seem hope across the country. Whether or not this is a principally urban movement of optimism or one that can be shared as rural success appears to be an open question.

 

With fewer than 20 percent of Americans occupying rural areas, perhaps our future as a nation is urban -- and with that both a fabled metropolitan optimism and an erosion of that "heartland" outlook that has defined so much that is iconic about the United States. 

 

In his epic roadtrip through American icons and ideas Neil Gaiman wrote, "Gods die. And when they truly die they are unmourned and unremembered. Ideas are more difficult to kill than people, but they can be killed, in the end.”

 

Perhaps we are living through that moment at which technology, time and demographics are driving profound changes to how we think -- and in this way we're all catching up with each other. We are living through the collective killing of the idea of America. And we're going to come out of it, improbably, both profoundly different and more American than ever.

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