They say that all politics is local, but I’ve been thinking lately that perhaps it’s more than that. Maybe the true beating heart of America can only be truly discerned through the lens of small towns; those off-the-beaten path places where our great experiment of a country plays out day after day, and where communities are continuously tinkering with their reality in response to a world transforming around them.
I say this after learning about a new book written by Atlantic writer James Fallows and his wife Deborah, Our Towns- A 100,000-Mile Journey Into the Heart of America. The book offers a surprisingly upbeat view about what’s going on in our nation outside the cacophonous echo chambers where our country’s political and business elites reside.
The couple spent several years barnstorming the country in their small single-engine plane to chronicle the lives of 25 communities.
They discovered that at the local level, many of the national headline political issues we read about daily in editorials pale in comparison to the urgent task of addressing local issues like jobs, the environment and the reinvention of community to overcome legacy challenges. Like all good journalists, the Fallows unpacked the underlying history that helped defined the communities they visited. They concluded that today’s local citizens are leading a movement of rebirth and reinvention without waiting to be told what to do by Washington.
They reported local level enthusiasm and a willingness to work together to solve collective and long-entrenched problems. It seems that when people come to understand how their personal advocacy and involvement can make a difference in their town, they become more engaged in helping to shape its future and more willing to collaborate in pursuit of a common goal.
As a former superintendent of schools, I learned first-hand that citizens and members of the community are most often willing and eager to participate in collaborative efforts to problem solve on behalf of our schools and communities. I am convinced we are more alike than different, yet, it feels at times as if national news, political parties, and outside agencies work to divide us. So perhaps, Tip O’Neill’s famous comment about politics being local was on the mark after all.
The bottom line is that while Americans may be angrier and more divided than in the past about the direction of our country, they remain optimistic about the future of their local communities. Citizens may doubt their federal governments and institutions but feel hopeful and optimistic about local progress and their own personal situations.
Like each of us, our communities are more alike than different. We all have our own unique story to tell. When we learn and share those stories, we can come to embrace our common humanity and shared destiny as a nation.
© Tyra Manning 2018