I wrote a couple of weeks ago about how cities like Billings seem to be islands of optimism and innovation in a sea of political dysfunction and pessimism.
Recently—better late than never—I finally got around to reading a similar argument, made by James Fallows in the March issue of The Atlantic. It was similar only in terms of some of Fallows’ conclusions. His lengthy piece, unlike my column, involved a good number of case studies, actual statistics and lots of good reporting.
It was part of a long reporting project that Fallows and his wife, Deb, have been engaged in since 2013, flying around the country in a single-engine airplane to find out what’s really going on, as opposed to what media and political elites on both coasts would like us to believe is going on.
I have previously mentioned their one stop in Montana, which involved a visit to Philip Aaberg up in Chester.
Fallows’ main point is that despite what you hear from talking heads and one presidential candidate in particular, the United States is not going to hell.
Its political system is definitely broken, and there are gross inequalities of wealth that make this the second Gilded Age. But in towns and cities across the country, Fallows found, there is a sense of optimism, a belief that individuals and small groups of people can bring about change where it matters most, in the places where they live.
He writes of San Bernardino, Calif., the scene of a horrific terror attack last year, in a city that already seemed virtually hopeless. When the terror struck, the city was still coming out of a bankruptcy declared in 2012, incomes were low, crime rampant, the downtown decaying.
But Fallows had been there the previous spring and found a city fighting to come back. A group of 20- and 30-year-olds had organized park cleanup days, picking up trash and planting trees and grass.
An Air Force veteran and aerospace engineer named Mike Gallo ran for the local school board, eventually became board president and was leading efforts to overhaul a failing school system. He also teamed up with Bill Clarke, a former trainer and manager for General Dynamics, to open a nonprofit technical school for unskilled locals.
In three years, the school had graduated more than 400 students, who had gone straight into “the high-tech manufacturing world.” The school’s machine shop had a banner that read, “We Are Making America Great in Manufacturing Again”—much different from Donald Trump’s empty, pompous slogan, “Make American Great Again!”
Fallows also reported on Sioux Falls, S.D.—the same city visited by a group of Billings community leaders in 2014, looking for lessons from a seemingly successful city. One thing Fallows reported, which I did not see in any of the coverage of the Billings expedition, was that Sioux Falls had one of the best records in the country for absorbing refugees, including people from Somalia, Sudan, Nepal and Burma.
Civic and business leaders interviewed by Fallows were proud of their city’s status as a modern-day melting pot. All those immigrants helped make Sioux Falls the growing city it is, as immigrants have been doing in this country for hundreds of years.
In the same vein, belying the orchestrated fear-mongering evident in the election campaign, Fallows cited a nationwide Gallup poll from 2014, which found that immigration was ninth on a list of 15 challenges facing the nation. And in 2015, “Gallup found that 65 percent of Americans thought levels of immigration should stay the same—or go up. In California, the state most dramatically affected by immigration, a 2015 poll reported that 59 percent of voters viewed immigration as a ‘positive force.’”
That notion is something Montana cities ought to keep in mind. Other cities visited by Fallows used the arts to rejuvenate themselves—Billings Artspace project, anyone?—or relied on their own resources to make themselves into tech industry hubs or manufacturing centers.
One sidelight that ought to encourage Billings residents: Fallows says that for cities fighting back from slumps, “perhaps the most reliable” sign of success is the presence of small breweries and distilleries. He expands on that idea here.
We seem to be on the cusp of a new era, Fallows says, and many of the ideas animating that era will percolate up from below. The great shame is that our national political leaders have reached a state of nearly complete uselessness.
They appear to be incapable of meeting the challenges of the new era, incapable, for instance, of expanding health-care coverage for an economy of part-time and non-corporate workers.
I am not saying (and Fallows definitely was not) that we should ignore national politics. If you want to preserve civilization, you are obliged at a minimum to aid in the defeat of Trump.
But let’s not get so wrapped up in the circus of national politics that we forget how much work needs to be done—and how much can be done by committed individuals—right here at home.
If we can make it work way down here, in the real world that Washington pays lip service to but fundamentally does not understand, we can do great things. Maybe we can even create a society in which a Trump candidacy is unthinkable.