In the era of President Trump, politics is reduced to a fatuous, debilitating spectacle. We screech, we weep, we laugh bitterly. We don’t seem to think much.
Yet there is an underground. I speak not of some political resistance movement but of quiet, intellectually serious debates taking place around the country that relate neither to Trump nor to our political parties. Although you can take a side in these discussions if you wish, their virtue is that they encourage us all toward nuanced views and genuine dialogue.
To make the case that we have not entirely lost our ability to use our minds, I offer the examples of three lively arguments that shed light on how we might move forward as a nation.
Local vs. national: As Washington politics becomes increasingly rancid, a disheartened nation turns toward the many good things happening at the grass roots. In cities and towns across the country, civic and political leaders are — honest and true! — solving problems and finding new missions for old places. Words like “rebuilding,” “reclaiming” and “renewing” are the stuff of local life.
This is a perspective that David Brooks has been advancing in his New York Times column, and it is reflected in James and Deborah Fallows’s engaging account of their journey across the United States, “Our Towns: A 100,000-Mile Journey Into the Heart of America ,” published this year.
As Deborah Fallows told Slate’s Isaac Chotiner, the conversations she and her husband had during their travels were “heavily weighted towards in my neighborhood, at my schools, on our main street, what people need here, what people want from my town.
“I don’t know if people had just given up on the national scene,” she added, “or they didn’t want to talk about it anymore.”
It’s striking that those working to better their patch of ground are rarely ideological about whether to rely on government, businesses or not-for-profits. They know all three have to pull together to make a place work. You can put this another way: These community-builders have common sense.
My vote is to celebrate all this while remembering, as many localists do, that some problems require national action. We’re better off having a federal Social Security and Medicare program, and it will take a comparable effort to get health insurance to everyone. It’s also true that a nationwide economic market needs more than patchwork regulation, and that wealthy places can better maneuver through their difficulties than poorer localities. The country’s hardest hit places can use outside assistance to turn the corner. And we can never forget that it took federal power to enforce civil rights across the land.
But the new localism should make us think harder about how national policy can encourage local innovation and initiative.
Social mobility vs. economic equality : The basic question is whether we are primarily interested in a society that provides expansive opportunities for people to rise, even if we maintain large disparities in income and wealth, or if instead we see the priority as closing those wealth and income gaps and offering better pay to those in poorly compensated lines of work.
I’d argue that this is a false choice. As former Federal Reserve Chair Janet L. Yellen has pointed out, high levels of inequality are associated with lower rates of social mobility — and “economic mobility in the United States has not changed much in the last several decades.” If you care about mobility, you have to care about inequality, too.
Nonetheless, this is a productive controversy because it requires us to be more precise and more candid about what we mean when we talk about “the American Dream.”
Guaranteed jobs vs. guaranteed income : The growing concentration of wealth and the threat posed to work by technological change has heightened interest in establishing a universal basic income (UBI), the subject of Annie Lowrey’s recent book “Give People Money.”
Although UBI is, broadly speaking, a progressive idea, some conservative thinkers such as Charles Murray have embraced versions of it. Critics of the UBI from the right just don’t like redistributive income guarantees. On the left is a fear that, as economist Jared Bernstein has argued, the UBI would be used to rationalize dismantling all manner of other social programs. I am partial to using aspects of the UBI in tandem with guarantees of well-paid work that focus on parts of the country with substantial unemployment.
Okay, we can now return to the president’s latest tweet. But please don’t believe anyone who tells you that we are no longer a thinking people.