America is becoming more like itself again. More Americans are trying to make it so, in more places, than most Americans are aware. Even as the country is becoming worse in obvious ways—angrier, more divided, less able to do the basic business of governing itself—it is becoming distinctly better on a range of other indicators that are harder to perceive. The pattern these efforts create also remains hidden. Americans don’t realize how fast the country is moving toward becoming a better version of itself.
The political and cultural zeitgeist of the last 20 years has centered on the decline of America and the West. Narratives across the political spectrum lament our decline and nearly everything seems to be “proof” of our moral, social, economic, political, and cultural decay. We watch trashy reality television instead of patronizing more high-brow arts! You can replace the Kardashians in a sentence maligning the decline of our culture with nearly any television show of the 1950s and you’ll be recreating the complaints art snobs were making back then. Our music is all about sex and wealth. Americans don’t know much about geography, history, literature, etc. Our power, soft and hard, is eroding internationally. We elected a reality tv president. Anything and everything is a sign of decline.
This is not a new idea– the 1920s and 30s did it earlier and much more aggressively. Of course, the Oswald Spengler’s of the world were viewing Western decline from the vantage point of a culture that had just self-immolated in an orgy of violence and “rational” politics seemingly made worse by our massive gains in science and technology. A clean line was drawn between the nationalism, scientific revolution, capitalist competition, and the industrial revolution and the carnage of the Great War. Spengler was wrong. So too are the contemporary critics of America and Western culture. There has been no decline. Our maligned mass culture may be producing some of the worst shows yet in reality programming, but they are also producing what many critics believe to be a golden age of storytelling over the last decade. Our education institutions are churning out more well-educated students than ever before (our public universities are the best in the world and are overflowing with intelligent, well educated young people who came from our supposedly failing public schools). The institutions are not failing. The kids are alright.
Don’t take my word for it. Go read James Fallows “Reinventing America” in this month’s Atlantic. As an aside, this is what journalism looks like. Fallows did not set out to write a piece on the optimistic reinvention of America because it would suit some political narrative he is pushing or lend credence to some policy he favors. Instead, the story emerged from his travels, conversations, and research. This is the difference between real journalism practiced by folks using the standards and methodology they were taught in schools and operated under as a profession and the “disruptive” hackery we see in most modern online publications. Instead of quick, cheap hits on tribal nonsense by people sitting in their own homes or a local coffee shop, Fallows went out and actually met people. And what he learned was a more complex version of the American story. In particular, Fallows found that while most Americans bemoaned the state of affairs in our country in a general sense (DECLINE!!!!!!), they were optimistic and happy with their own lives.
This is not surprising to me. My work as a historian and my life experience taught me a simple truth– most Americans become much less bellicose and much more reasonable and positive when they actually interact with something they claim to fear or hate. What we see from 30000 feet and what we see five feet from our face is often pretty different.
Fallows section on immigration really drives this point home. As he correctly points out, Americans in communities with the least amount of immigrants are much more fearful of immigrants and desire much stronger “defenses” than people in communities near the border. Steve King, who Fallows calls “the most outspokenly anti-immigrant member of Congress” (I’d call him the most openly racist and loathsome member of Congress) represents a 93 percent white district in Iowa. Why would his constituents be so concerned with immigrants when much more pressing issues exist for their community? Because threats are a lot easier to see and blame when they are simply a theory. The “solutions” to these problems are not sticky when you don’t have real people to tie them to.
While some communities have used immigrants as a crutch to explain their collapse others have been busy finding ways to bring immigrants in to save their community. Fallows points out places like Erie and Nashville that have welcomed refugees and immigrants who bring entrepreneurial energy and optimism to their once sagging towns. This is one of the most consistent stories in American history– the immigrants fleeing poverty or war to come to the land of opportunity. And where people interact with it today the story remains as powerful as ever.
Indeed, Fallows argues, many of the hot-button issues we point to as signs of our collapse are simply not happening in reality. Brain drain, the killer of small towns and fly-over states, appears to be on the reversal. I’ve had several long conversations recently with clients about this. Our schools are so good that the country is literally flooded with talent in nearly every intellectual, technological, and professional industry. Along with the massive gains we have had in communications technology and a desire among younger workers to escape the oppressive costs and limited opportunities of the coasts we’ve started to recreate the pre-industrial economy of home workers who can diffuse costs by creating products or services for less by decentralizing the process. Again, nothing is new under the sun.
Downtowns are coming back (shameless plug for my downtown). New types of manufacturing are emerging. Public libraries are reinventing themselves and becoming more important to our lives (and are real treasures for our communities). Conservation is happening all over the place, and it isn’t just liberal hippies. I’ve meet ranchers, farmers, and a whole host of energy sector folks who are as committed (or more) to saving their land, air, and water as anyone who would chain themselves to a tree. America is not falling apart. It is thriving.
In many ways, the list of successes Fallows lays out are a list of the lessons learned and taught in schools today. Social capital, once a scoffed at leftist academic term, has become accepted as a real thing by educated people across the political spectrum. We have used education to try to close social capital gaps and to create communities that combat them. It has created several generations of civically engaged citizens that are not simply agitating for political change, but going out into communities and making change. They start small breweries that only serve beer fresh on site. They start new businesses that address solar energy in small, affordable, and local ways. They see gaps in existing industries, like home security, wedding photography and video, or marketing for non-retail industries and fill them, creating local jobs, improving local institutions, and making life more sustainable and enjoyable. These are not abstract ideas. These are people I literally know and love. You know people doing things like this too.
There are problems in this country. There always have been. Technological change puts people out of work. As Fallows points out, this is catastrophic to people in middle-age, whose existing familial and financial commitments make it very hard to adapt. Drug abuse is real and significant. We need to inject the same energy and optimism into these communities. They need hope. Likewise, our police state is overly aggressive and disconnected from our communities. Minorities continue to be frozen out of many markets, especially jobs and housing. These members of our community need access and opportunity. These are the real issues of our times and while our national politicians flail about screaming at each other about deficits, relitigating the Clintons, and talking about porn stars and the president local people are working to change things. They are the pastors who care for prostitutes and addicts in poor and downtrodden towns. They are the community garden leaders offering work and food to people in need. They are businesses looking to hire convicts to offer them the hope and chance of a better life. At our best, Americans don’t wait for the government to show the way. We create change and the government catches up (or gets forced into it by our actions and legal challenges).
America is not broken. In fact, it has rarely been stronger. We can and will improve. New challenges will emerge. And we will rise to meet them as well. The ideals of the Enlightenment and the institutions of our democracy are much more resilient and robust than her critics give them credit for. They will not be brought down by our television viewing habits or by our Twitter feeds. It only feels that way. Remember that your social media feeds are not an accurate representation of reality. They are cultivated and personalized anxiety programs meant to pray upon your worst fears or impulses. Our country and the world are much more beautiful, complex, and engaging spaces. Go out and live in them.