In many ways, America is on a roll. Our economy remains on solid footing, stocks sit near record highs, housing prices have recovered from last decade’s bust, and unemployment rates are near all-time lows.
Yet, most Americans aren’t feeling terribly smug.
There remains a massive opioid addiction and a political divisiveness so severe that many need to tune out politics just to get through their day. There also seems to be a murky sense that America is slouching towards an inevitable decline as world leader, grudgingly preparing to cede its role to China.
With that gloomy backdrop, I was ready—OK, desperate—for something uplifting as I read James Fallows’ piece in the Atlantic, optimistically titled The Reinvention of America. I hoped Fallows would convince me that we are on the right track, and make me believe that our children will benefit from the same opportunities that have been afforded to so many generations before them.
I might have been a bit too hopeful, but Fallows does offer encouraging, albeit anecdotal evidence that our coming decline has been greatly exaggerated. While acknowledging our current angry, nearly tribal state, he argues that “America is becoming more like itself again. More Americans are trying to make it so, in more places, than most Americans are aware.”
Fallows posits that this is happening on a local, rather than national level, in small towns and regional centers between the coasts—places that were largely passed by in the economic recovery. He cites recent polls finding that 70 percent of people trust their local government to “do the right thing,” compared to 25 percent who trust the national government.
The local governance angle made me think of Amazon’s call last year for a second headquarters. Many relatively small cities had the gumption to toss their hats into the ring. Today, with the field narrowed, Midwestern low-tech cities like Nashville, Columbus, and Indianapolis remain in the running, boldly asking, “Why not us?”
Fallows suggests that towns with sluggish economies are doing remarkable things to reinvent themselves, rather than fade away like the rust belts of earlier decades. He points to innovations in schools, public libraries, and factories that are germinating in places you would least expect.
That is all good to read. With so much divisive national news grabbing our attention, it’s inspiring to learn that a wave of quiet grassroots efforts is leading to much-needed reinvigoration, if not reinvention.