National politics are divisive, depressing and grim. To hear politicians tell it, failure is rampant, everything is in decline, someone’s always losing, and someone’s always complaining. The collusive national media play along, loving the theme of decline and division.
Meanwhile, back in America, things are pretty good and improving. That’s the finding of James Fallows, who traveled America’s small towns, many of them unknown to – yet disdained by – the politicians and journalists of the Washington-New York corridor.
In fact, Fallows sees enough positive developments to state, “I have seen the future, and it is in the United States.”
All the improvements in this vision are local. No brilliant central planners are involved. No federally elected politicians have their fingers in the pie. Here are a few of the examples Fallows cites:
Innovative local schools: Perhaps the greatest destruction perpetrated by centralized government is the federalization of education. Our children are being taught the wrong things by the wrong people. In his small-town travels, James Fallows found many locals who were proud of their innovations in education. Some were public boarding schools, some were joint ventures with local employers to train students for decent-paying jobs in culinary, architectural, mechanical, agricultural and other fields. Community colleges provide what Fallows calls “connective tissue” in local and regional economies, often in collaboration with the specific needs of employers (like Boeing and Airbus aviation research and aviation engineering projects in Wichita).
Libraries: People across the country are sharing ideas about how to make local libraries centers of learning, training, knowledge sharing, job searching, activities and community. They even provide desk space for young entrepreneurs.
Downtown reinvention: The bi-coastal media set may portray small town America as decrepit and decaying, but, in fact, Fallows on his travels found over 1000 downtown revitalization projects under way, combining residences, shopping, dining and entertainment. He contrasted them favorably to the homogenized and faceless big malls favored by suburbanites.
Small high-tech advanced manufacturing: The national media paint the pcture of abandoned factories, but Fallows found smaller advanced technology manufacturing workplaces in almost every town he went to, including over 1000 successful manufacturing start-ups, and several manufacturing incubators. This is coincident with a significant talent re-migration back to smaller towns, with rising communities. Venture capital for start-ups is following, countering the current over-concentration of venture capital firms on the coasts. Steve Case, a co-founder of AOL and now the CEO of technology-investment form Revolution calls this shift the “third wave” of technology businesses (after the internet and then the companies that built businesses on the internet).
Conservation: Politicians want to handcuff the entire nation to the hubristic promises of the Paris Treaty and similar grandiose but ridiculously impractical global schemes. Meanwhile, Fallows found many localities and private donors setting aside land for conservations at a fast and increasing pace. We don’t need the Paris Treaty when individuals dedicate themselves and their private property to local conservation in their home towns.
Immigrant assimilation: Small and medium-sized communities do well at assimilating migrants because they stay away from the national political issues and associated hate campaigns. They focus on jobs, neighborhoods, new services, and civic engagement. Many of these small communities have been welcoming immigrants for decades, and that’s why they’re good at it today. When they experience an outflow of their home-born population as a result of industrial and technological change, they welcome newcomers from outside to participate in the revitalization process.
Competent, popular and integrated civic governance: Fallows writes, “Even as national politics induces trust and despair, most polls show rising faith in local governance.” Mayors serve multi-year terms, and realize that they’ll encounter their neighbors – the people who pay the city’s taxes and rely on its services – in daily life. Accountability is face-to-face. Many communities are working with supportive tech companies to improve the quality and responsiveness of local services. And citizens have proved willing to raise local taxes for projects they believe in, such as parks, swimming pools and libraries. Fallows also points out that there is significant training for local officials to co-develop projects with their citizens. Imaging that: trained and responsive politicians.
What are the common threads behind these local trends, which are so favorable in comparison to the horrors of a and state level authoritarian bureaucratic government? Fallows suggests three:
At the local level, people and organizations are working towards common goals, using online platforms and other tools to connect citizens and their governments. With the public much more involved in the future of their local communities and much more connected to officials, much more involved in decisions, participating much more in school innovation, and sharing information with the companies that support them, a civic renaissance can occur.
Moreover, there is a second level of interconnectedness. The local communities themselves are connected with other communities across America. They share ideas, about schools, art projects, conservation and civic-tech, including both examples of success and learnings about what doesn’t work. Emerging civic networks make locals recognize they are part of something bigger, a shared revitalization and a common path.
“If you want to create a great community, you move someplace that needs your help.” This means, says Fallows, taking responsibility for the world outside one’s front door – for the reinvention and sustenance of the community where you live. Don’t leave it to politicians. Engagement could include attending PTA meetings or joining a group that addresses some local problem. Many great transformational movements start from local roots, because that’s where engagement takes place.
The perceptions of decline with which we contend are often the products of national media and national commentators – a distorted picture of events beyond the actual experience of the reporters. And local media are strained to survive economically today, so they often just regurgitate national reporting. It is important to nurture local media – including local newspapers – who not only report the truth about local conditions, but also encourage the engagement of the local population in civics by acting as a catalyst and a central point of knowledge-sharing. The specific knowledge of local time and place, as Hayek described in The Use Of Knowledge In Society, can be utilized to generate a special kind of innovation and betterment.
Interconnectedness, engagement and local information. We can all promote these practices in our local communities to revive our home towns.