“Despair is not an option. Despair guarantees that the darkest forces will prevail.”
Five years ago, James Fallows and his wife Deborah set out on a journey to discover America. The result became their book “Our Towns: A 100,000-Mile Journey into the Heart of America.” And they came away with a view of our nation that is more hopeful than the tenor and tone our national politics would allow. On this day, when Americans are going to the polls to have a say in their democracy, I wanted to give you something other than exit polls and election results to obsess over. What the Fallowses discovered was a nation splitting in two between national politics and local politics. The former is dysfunctional, while the latter is filled with positive action.
“National politics is in really difficult shape,” James Fallows, a longtime writer for the Atlantic, told me in the latest episode of “Cape Up.” “But local-level politics at just this stage in American history seems to be in many places renewing itself, having people find reasonable compromises, and figuring out solutions to a lot of these problems that people are so aware of.” Among the problems he cited were opioid addiction, economic dislocation and racial injustice.
“What seems to me really strange about this particular moment,” said Deborah Fallows, a linguist and also author of “Dreaming in Chinese,” “is how … what we hear in the national conversation and the vocabulary that is coming onto the airwaves and assaulting all of us is so different from what we have seen and heard over the last five years that we’ve been traveling around the country.” She continued, “Town by town, community by community, the vibe has been much more positive. Collegial words like ‘collaborate’ [and] ‘cooperate’ dominate the local conversations.”
The Fallowses talked about the role of civic engagement, and how it has had an impact on charter schools in Fresno, Calif., or on the decision to have an artist in residence in the planning department of St. Paul, Minn. They talked about something called talent dispersal. “Through history, there’s always been a pull to big cities,” said James.
But both he and Deborah said they were “dumbfounded” and “surprised” that “in almost every city we could find somebody who had lived in the biggest places, who could have lived in the biggest places, and thought ‘It is better here.’
“Just my own hometown of Redlands, California, a small town, was transformed by somebody who decided to build his technology company, not in Cambridge, Mass., not in Palo Alto, but back in Redlands, where he was from, and he wanted to change the town,” James shared.
“Another woman from Erie, Pennsylvania, had a food truck,” Deborah said. “She was a Korean-American, and she was very exploratory and experimental with her food. She said she’d been in San Diego and the Californians didn’t appreciate the kind of food that she was making. So she wanted to come back to Erie, Pennsylvania.”
Listen to the podcast to get a more hopeful vision of your country — one that is not mired in discussions about walls and caravans and hateful rhetoric. That’s not to say that such talk doesn’t have an impact on everyday lives, but it doesn’t mean that it is dragging the nation down at the local level. That’s why James advised that we not give in to despair if the election doesn’t go the way we want it (because at least half the nation will be).
Deborah was more direct.
“Go out your front door and talk to your neighbors nicely, and try to use good language, and have a heart that you yourself as an individual can make a difference, whether you think things have gone well or gone badly right now, and to feel like you have agency to act with passion … and can have an impact on the lives of your family, your friends, your neighbors, your schools, your communities,” she said.
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