The Reinvention of America
Americans don’t realize how fast the country is moving toward becoming a better version of itself.
By James Fallows
May 2018 Issue
I have seen the future, and it is in the United States.
After a several-year immersion in parts of the country that make the news mainly after a natural disaster or a shooting, or for follow-up stories on how the Donald Trump voters of 2016 now feel about Trump, I have a journalistic impulse similar to the one that dominated my years of living in China. That is the desire to tell people how much more is going on, in places they had barely thought about or even heard of, than they might have imagined.
In the case of China, that impulse matched the mood of the times. In the years before and after the world financial crisis of 2008, everyone knew that China was on the way up; reporters like me were just filling in the details. In the case of the modern United States, I am well aware that this message runs so counter to prevailing emotions and ideas as to seem preposterous. Everyone knows how genuinely troubled the United States is at the level of national politics and governance. It is natural to assume that these disorders must reflect a deeper rot across the country. And indeed, you can’t travel extensively through today’s America, as my wife, Deb, and I have been doing in recent years, without being exposed to signs of rot, from opioid addiction to calcifying class barriers.
At the time Deb and I were traveling, sociologists like Robert Putnam were documenting rips in the social fabric. We went to places where family stories matched the famous recent study by the economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton of Princeton, showing rising mortality among middle-aged whites without a college degree for reasons that include chronic disease, addiction, and suicide. In some of the same cities where we interviewed forward-moving students, civic leaders, and entrepreneurs, the photographer Chris Arnade was portraying people the economy and society had entirely left behind. The cities we visited faced ethnic and racial tensions, and were struggling to protect local businesses against chain stores and to keep their most promising young people from moving away. The great majority of the states and counties we spent time in ended up voting for Donald Trump.
What we learned from traveling was not that the hardest American challenges of this era are illusory. They’re very real, and divisions about national politics are intense. So we made a point of never asking, early on, “How’s Obama doing?,” or later, “Do you trust Hillary?” and “What about Trump?” The answers to questions like those won’t take you beyond what you’ve already heard ad nauseam on TV.
Instead we asked people about their own lives and their own communities. Reporting is the process of learning what you didn’t know before you showed up. And by showing up in Mississippi and Kansas and South Dakota and inland California and Rust Belt Pennsylvania, we saw repeated examples of what is happening in America’s here and now that have important and underappreciated implications for America’s future.
Serious as the era’s problems are, more people, in more places, told us they felt hopeful about their ability to move circumstances the right way than you would ever guess from national news coverage of most political discourse. Pollsters have reported this disparity for a long time. For instance, a national poll that The Atlanticcommissioned with the Aspen Institute at the start of the 2016 primaries found that only 36 percent of Americans thought the country as a whole was headed in the right direction. But in the same poll, two-thirds of Americans said they were satisfied with their own financial situation, and 85 percent said they were very or somewhat satisfied with their general position in life and their ability to pursue the American dream. Other polls in the past half-dozen years have found that most Americans believe the country to be on the wrong course—but that their own communities are improving.
What explains the gulf between most Americans’ hopeful outlook on areas and institutions they know directly and their despair about the country they know only through the news? Would it make any difference if more people understood that the local progress they see was not an isolated anomaly but part of a trend?
I make no pretense that our proposed answers to those questions are precise or scientific. We traveled as broadly as we could. We listened; we learned. We were looking for civic success stories, and we found them. But we also ended up in places where well-intentioned efforts had failed. So we steadily adjusted our conclusions. We ended up convinced that the national prospect is more promising than we’d felt before we started—full of possibilities that the bleak trench warfare of national politics inevitably obscures.
My own form of American nationalism, intensified both by living outside the country and by travels within it, arises from love of the American idea: inclusion, expansiveness, opportunity, mobility, the open-ended struggle to make the nation a better version of itself. After living in Japan during its amaze-the-world era of the 1980s, I wrote a book arguing that the proper U.S. response was not to try to be more like Japan but instead to be “more like us”—which was the book’s title. (Its subtitle was Making America Great Again. Sigh.)
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.
How can this be? Let me explain.
Six years ago, as part of The Atlantic’s 2012 election-year coverage, Deb and I went to central Pennsylvania to watch Mitt Romney try to swing the state against Barack Obama. Romney did what he could. Obviously he fell short, but what stayed with us was the landscape he passed through.
Romney rode from one forlorn coal or manufacturing community to another in a big chartered bus that had iconic small-town scenes painted on its sides, along with the slogans “Believe in America” and “Every town counts.” In an old battered metal-casting shop in Weatherly, in Carbon County, he talked to a nearly all-white crowd about the region’s loss of factory jobs and the need to bring them back. “This is about saving America!” he said.