Stories of American renewal

James and Deborah Fallows’ book Our Towns, and James’ Atlantic article on the same subject, are getting a bunch of attention. I haven’t read the book but recommend the article. Fallows writes:

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 basis for this is (largely) years spent traveling and reporting across the country. Which raises the question:

Were we mistaking anecdotes and episodes for provable trends? This is the occupational hazard of journalism, and everyone in the business struggles toward the right balance of observation and data. But the logic of reporting is that something additional comes from traveling, asking, listening, seeing. This is particularly true in detecting a sense of changed course. A political movement, a new technological or business possibility—I have learned through the decades that enthusiasm in any of these realms does not guarantee world-changing success, but it’s an important marker… And enthusiasm is what we have seen.

It’s easy to finish the article and find yourself wondering if you believe it. Could the Fallows’ story of American renewal possibly be right? Since reading the article I’ve come to think it is best paired with another recent one, by Walter Russell Mead at Foreign Affairs. He is also taking stock of the current moment in America, but where the Fallows report from the ground, Mead takes the 30,000 foot view. He begins by listing America’s difficulties during the industrial revolution. Mead continues:

The United States is passing through something similar today. The information revolution is disrupting the country’s social and economic order as profoundly as the Industrial Revolution did. The ideologies and policies that fit American society a generation ago are becoming steadily less applicable to the problems it faces today. The United States’ political parties and most of its political leaders lack the vision and ideas that could solve its most urgent problems. Intellectual and policy elites, for the most part, are too wedded to paradigms that no longer work, but the populists who seek to replace them don’t have real answers, either. It is, in many ways, a stressful and anxious time to be alive. And that anxiety has prompted a pervasive sense of despair about American democracy—a fear that it has reached a point of dysfunction and decay from which it will never recover.

The effects of rapid change are often unwelcome, but the process of transformation is one of growth and development, not of decline and fall. Indeed, the ability to cope with change remains one of the United States’ greatest sources of strength. In the nineteenth century, people often compared the United States unfavorably with the orderly Prussian-led German empire. Today, the contrast often drawn is with
China’s efficient modernization. Yet there is resilience and flexibility in the creative disorder of a free society. There are reasons to believe that, once again, the United States can find a path to an open and humane society that capitalizes on the riches that the new economy will produce.

Mead’s is the sort of article so sweeping as to inevitably raise some objections. But I have found myself thinking of his and the Fallows’ arguments as stronger when considered as part of a whole. The optimistic case for America need not hinge on whether American towns are on the way up or down — whether or not they are, on net, undergoing something that can be described as renewal. The optimistic case simply requires that they possess that potential. We’re going through a period of tremendous disruption, but if the Fallows are right then Mead is: we may have what it takes to make it through, stronger and more prosperous.

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