Across a long career in writing and journalism, Jim Fallows has devoted deep and searching reflection to the viability of the American experiment. He is a national correspondent for The Atlantic, a former editor of US News & World Report, and was President Jimmy Carter’s chief speechwriter for two years. He is also the author of eleven books including, most recently, Our Towns: A 100,000-Mile Journey into the Heart of America, which was the subject of a 2021 HBO documentary series.
On this episode of the Vital Center, Jim Fallows describes his travels across the country in his Cirrus SR-22 propellor plane with his wife and co-author, Deborah Fallows. He contemplates why politics so often works better at the local level, even in some places hard hit by economic decline and political polarization. Jim describes finding “a whole archipelago of invention and surprise and interestingness and opportunity” in many mid-sized towns in the American heartland, places that typically are covered only by reporters intent on learning why voters at the local diner supported Donald Trump.
Jim and podcast host Geoff Kabaservice also discuss Jim’s early writings as one of Ralph Nader’s “raiders,” his analysis of the class dimensions of the Vietnam War and the shortcomings of meritocracy, lessons from Jim and Deborah’s many years of living in Asia, and thoughts on the sustainability of America’s ideals and advantages, particularly with regard to immigration and education. And Jim gently needles Geoff’s dislike of flying, contending that “Anybody with a historical or literary or creative imagination would love flying in little planes,” a physical and journalist vantage point on “the beautiful American continent [which] is full of those moments when you think, ‘Oh, this is how it looks. This is how it works.’”
Jim Fallows: When I see the latest story about some reporter going for two days to Kentucky or Indiana and going into a diner and asking people about Trump… If you ask people about a polarizing topic, you’ll get a polarizing answer, and people will not sound interesting. If you ask them about their lives, they will sound interesting.
Geoff Kabaservice: Hello! I’m Geoff Kabaservice for the Niskanen Center. Welcome to the Vital Center Podcast, where we try to sort through the problems of the muddled, moderate majority of Americans, drawing upon history, biography, and current events.
Geoff Kabaservice: And I’m truly delighted to be joined today by James Fallows, who has too many and too varied occupations and accomplishments for me to be able to sum him up in a neat description. He is a writer and journalist, he was President Jimmy Carter’s chief speechwriter, he has been a visiting professor at universities around the world, and he has written books on a wide range of topics. His most recent book, co-written with his wife Deborah Fallows, is the bestseller Our Towns: A 10,000-Mile Journey into the Heart of America, which was also made into an HBO film last year. Welcome, Jim!
Jim Fallows: Geoff, thank you so much. It’s a real pleasure to join you. You know that we have had, from our varied starting points in thinking about American politics, I think we’ve had lots of… Our views have been in in sync, you know, towards the end you’re describing of trying to have the reasonable people in the U.S. find some point of traction.
Geoff Kabaservice: I couldn’t agree more. I suppose I should actually say welcome back, Jim, since you just returned to the East Coast earlier this morning from out West.
Jim Fallows: Yes. Over the last ten or eleven days, my wife — my life partner, wife, and co-author Deb and I were out for three or four very interesting days in Provo, Utah, doing some events at BYU. We are not ourselves members of the LDS Church, but we’ve had a lot of exposure to their members around the world over the decades as we’ve seen missionaries. And so we were talking with them about the concept of community as it is seen in their church and how that might extend to the country. Then we were in southern California, my original homeland, seeing some friends at USC and doing a project with the Ten Across movement — which is based at Arizona State and which I can tell you more about — and then for the inauguration of the first woman president of the University of Redlands, in my hometown of Redlands, who is Krista Newkirk.
Geoff Kabaservice: Redlands, if I’m not mistaken, is also the hometown of Joan Baz and my former professor, Johnny Mack Faragher.
Jim Fallows: Yes, Johnny Mack Faragher lived next door to me. His little sister Pammy was the best friend of my little sister Katie. His little brother Jimmy was my classmate. Their intermediate brother, Danny, was a member of a band with Jimmy. So yes, the Faraghers… Joan Baez, her father was a professor at the U of R. Joan I never knew because she was enough ahead of me in school that I didn’t know her. But it’s a storied town.
Geoff Kabaservice: Tell me about Ten Across.
Jim Fallows: Ten Across is…. A man named Wellington “Duke” Reiter of Arizona State has had the concept of trying to think of different lenses through which to view the United States. And the lens that he has come up with is Ten Across, meaning what we now call “the 10” in California, Interstate 10, which goes from… On the western extreme it starts in Santa Monica, on the eastern extreme it reaches Jacksonville, and in between are the cities of Los Angeles and San Bernardino and Redlands and Phoenix and El Paso and San Antonio and Houston and New Orleans, and it goes on to Jacksonville. And so I think the idea is, the premise of this project, is you can see a lot about America’s future — ecological and demographic and political and economic — by seeing the cities along this route. And it contains the three most populous states in the U.S.: California, Florida, and Texas, et cetera. So this was a session I did with George Sanchez, a professor at USC, about his recent book on Boyle Heights, and taking Boyle Heights of Los Angeles as — he presented it as a microcosm of American democracy for this moment. And so he and I and Duke Reiter were having a conversation on the future of democracy.
Geoff Kabaservice: You’ve had deep interests in a lot of different subjects, among them aviation (obviously), the military, technology, Asia… If I were to try to fit a lot of your focus into a Procrustean bed of some kind, I would say that you’ve tried to look at America from different perspectives, whether that be from living abroad in Asia or from ten thousand feet in your plane.
Jim Fallows: Well, thank you for finally giving some coherence to this random Brownian motion of my life over the years. One time a couple of years ago I tried to say: What’s the through-line of various things that that I’ve written and tried to learn about? And I said then, which I still think, it’s the question of: Is America going to make it? I was in college in the late 1960s, studying American history and literature and reading about all the strains of the U.S. through its past. And from that turbulent time of the ‘60s and through about a dozen years now, Deb and I have lived in Asia mainly, and in Africa, and sometimes in Europe, just trying to say: Where is this American experiment going? What are the things that are like previous strains we’ve had and what are unusual? And so yes, the different perspectives on this American experiment, that’s been my interest.
Geoff Kabaservice: So to go back biographically… You were at Harvard in the late ‘60s, and you became a Rhodes scholar. And you started working for Ralph Nader as one of his raiders, I believe, even while you were in school — is that correct?
Jim Fallows: Yes, the summers after my junior and senior years in college. So, again, I came from small-town southern California and went East to college at Harvard. That was an entirely different world to me; I had not seen snow except for as an oddity going up to Santa’s Village in the mountains. And so there were two summer projects I had working for Ralph Nader. One was based in D.C., looking at the historic role of the Department of Agriculture in patterns, essentially, of racism in the American South. And I worked with a man named Julian Houston doing what became part of a book about that. Then in the summer of 1970, after I had just graduated but before I was going to England, I worked with a team including my soon-to-be wife and my (still) sister and several others in Savannah, Georgia, looking at the way one big industry in Georgia — the pulp and paper industry — had shaped a town and a whole region. And I wrote a book from that called The Water Lords, which came out in 1971. I saw the first copy of it when we were in Ghana, but that’s a whole different story. And then I worked with Nader again a couple of years after that.
Geoff Kabaservice: And one of the books that I’ve had a longstanding interest in that you produced was the 1972 work Who Runs Congress?, which you co-authored along with Mark Green and David Zwick for the Nader Congress Project. Can you tell me something about that?
Jim Fallows: Yes. So I had been in England… I’ll give you just, you know, thirty seconds of background and then the book itself. So when Deb and I were in England… We got married in the summer of ’71, and we went to Africa. We were coming back to England for more studies, and Deb was working in a research lab. And Ralph Nader then was trying to have a gathering of the troops, anybody who had ever been part of one of his projects. He thought, “You need to come back and have this giant Congress Project we’re doing.” So through the summer of 1972 there were hundreds of people all based in D.C., including us — we came back from England. Ralph said, “You know, if you care about your country, don’t waste any more of this time with these fancy academics. Come back and join this project.” Most of the work was people doing profiles of individual representatives and senators, and I forget what happened to all those.
Jim Fallows: But then Mark Green, who was later known for becoming Public Advocate in New York City and was running against Mike Bloomberg for the mayoral election that was canceled because of 9/11, and he’s been a friend since then… And David Zwick, who had a long career as an environmentalist after that, who died, sadly, a year or two ago. The three of us were locked in a basement and given a stipend that for me was $500 — I think that Mark and David each got $700 — to just go through all these reports that other researchers were finding and try to do a popular book. It was published by Bantam. It was, you know, 300 pages or so in paperback, essentially trying to give a — you could say not quite a muckraking, but something of a call-to-arms message of “Here is what is wrong with the functioning of American democracy.” It was not tremendously well received by the critical reviewing press, but it sold very strongly. I think over the years different editions of this book sold millions of copies in paperback; I think there were seven or eight more editions. My entire earnings remain $500 from this book. I think the rest went to be part of the patrimony for Nader’s ongoing projects.
Geoff Kabaservice: You know, I am very fond of that book and that project too. When I would be doing research in members of Congress’ archives, I would often come across those profiles that the Nader Congress Project produced. Because even though I am sure almost all of you were in some way or other on the left, those were very straightforward assessments. And they pointed out something that I think is often forgotten in politics, which is that even some of the most conservative representatives and senators often were really good at constituent service, and you couldn’t ignore that dimension of their work. I think that’s completely different now that people like Madison Cawthorn just hire comms people to do their ridiculous thing. But someone like Walter Jones, for example, though he might have been kind of nutty as a member of Congress ideologically, was among the best at constituent service. And I really picked that up from the Congress Project’s work.
Jim Fallows: You’re really nice to have noticed that. And remember that that was something that… I had not ever had any direct exposure to legislative politics before that, so that was enlightening to me also to read from the reports that were coming in. A lot of people…. I believe that David Ignatius, who has since then been a well-known columnist for the Washington Post, he was one of the people on that team. Michael Kinsley was doing some of these profiles. A number of other people who went on to journalism and politics were involved in doing some of that work that you’re referring to.
Geoff Kabaservice: And you know, as critical as you were of the operations of Congress back in the early ‘70s, it would get a lot worse, shall we say.
Jim Fallows: Yes, and let’s not even talk about what I thought was a dystopian view of the media 25 years ago, in what now seems this pastoral ideal. Yes, it is true. And I guess I don’t remember well enough — and maybe you do and can tell me… My impression is that three things have made it worse in the 50 years since the Congress Project to now. One is of course more effective gerrymandering; more effective money politics — dark money and untraceable money; and the more systematically polarized parties, especially one of them. And the three of these things together have made it a worse scene. Some things are better, especially on sort of formalized segregation compared to that era. But many things are worse.
Geoff Kabaservice: I think you’ve pinpointed those three exactly. I would add, though, that something which seems different about then and now is that a lot of your focus was on the working class and their interest in policy that would serve their interests. And that seems to have gone, at least on the Republican side.
Jim Fallows: Yes, and that is something I wish I had better traction on to explain. I’ll give you my partial hypothesis and maybe you can clarify this for me. My experience as a reporter over the decades — and especially in the last ten years when Deb and I have been going around the country —confirmed something I wrote about in this book Breaking the News 25 years ago, which is that while most reporters are interested in politics — and I am a reporter, I’m interested in politics, I like knowing how things work — most people have some interest in politics but actually they care about governance. And they may not call it that, but they care about whether the schools are working, and whether the hospital system is working, and what kind of healthcare they have, and are there more jobs available or fewer jobs available? And they may not describe it as policy. But if you ask people: “What’s good in your life, what’s bad in your life?” — they’re more likely to talk about those things.
Jim Fallows: There is a part of the human personality that has always been there, and that people have found ways to appeal to over the millennium, that seems to have been ramped up to level five zillion in the last generation by the Republican Party of having people forget about the things they volunteer if you ask them what’s good and bad in their own lives, and instead concentrate on: “Who do you hate?” And revving up the “who do you hate” and “us and them” part of life has been effective minority politics for the Republican Party over the last 25 years, and really a problem for the country.
Geoff Kabaservice: I agree. You know, the first book of yours that I came across was when I was in grad school, and it was More Like Us, which I think came out in the late ‘80s. I was amused to see, in retrospect, that the subtitle was Making America Great Again. You were ahead of your time there.
Jim Fallows: Ah yes, those were the days. Scholars will note that Ronald Reagan had used that phrase in some of his speeches in the early ‘80s, so it’s obviously not original to me or to Ronald Reagan, but certainly not to the creators of the current hats. But yes, that was that was the subtitle.
Geoff Kabaservice: What I found striking about the book was your very deep and consistent opposition to meritocracy. Now, this was not entirely clear to me in grad school, but meritocracy is a word with two distinct meanings, one of which is testing to try to isolate people of talent and be able to compare them to each other, and the other is the class that is produced as a result of this kind of testing. But you at that point were very consistently opposed to both of these meanings of meritocracy.
Jim Fallows: So, thank you for noting that book and for noting this part of it. And for the 99% of the U.S. population or even the audience of this august podcast who will not have heard of this work, the backstory is that Deb and I had been living with our then little children in Japan and Malaysia for the previous four years. This book came out, I believe, in 1989, and I’d been in Japan for about a year, then Malaysia and southeast Asia for two years, and back in Japan for another year. And this was the era when Japan was nearing the most rapid ascent point of its manufacturing excellence and its financial excellence around the world, which we can talk about more later. But I think what I was addressing was particularly the idea that the way to cope with Japan, from America’s perspective, was to be more like them — more like the Japanese. And there are limited parts of “more like the Japanese” that I would endorse: for example, raising the floor on elementary education for everybody and thinking that the worst educated people you need to pay a lot of attention to.
Jim Fallows: But the main contrast I wanted to make is that the essence of the Japanese way was order, and the essence of the American genius, I think, is disorder and embrace of mobility. And the way this comes back comes back to the meritocracy is that the testing and entitlement and credentials part of the meritocracy is based on the idea that the earlier you can identify somebody as having “innate talent,” the earlier you can hive them off, hive people off into different ranks in life. And I was arguing that was bad for the country, bad for humanity, bad as science. In fact, what the U.S. needed to do was, in the cliched phrase, recognize that it needed to be a home for ordinary people doing extraordinary things. That was the way the U.S. had distinguished itself and it needed to embrace that, in my view.
Geoff Kabaservice: And you also felt that a testing regime was basically Confucian rather than American in the best sense of our disorganized society.
Jim Fallows: Yes indeed, and I think it wasn’t until we had seen some of the intensity of that East Asian testing model, when we were living in Japan and our kids went for a year to Japanese public school, which was enlightening in many ways, including… I once did an NPR commentary saying that every white American should have to live for a year in some remote part of Japan just to have the sense of what it feels like to have your race be an identity you can never forget about for any moment of the day. You know, white people in the U.S. can say, “Oh, well, I don’t think about race,” and we know all the ramifications of that. As a white person in Japan, you think about race every second. When I when I took my two sons to the public baths in our neighborhood in a suburb of Tokyo, other people there would get out of the bath when we got in. It was just… It was enlightening.
Jim Fallows: But then when we were in China from 2006 to about 2011, we knew lots of young Chinese people, and the testing regime in China really was the all-or-nothing qualification. It had a perverse reverse-whammy compared to American testing, which is… Of course the big cities in China — Beijing, Shanghai, etc. — are light years different from the provinces in terms of all kinds of advantages. But if you’re a kid in the provinces, you need to get a higher score on their nationwide standardized test than somebody from Beijing to make it into the big universities, which are then the qualification for privilege in later life. So yes, the more that that testing reinforces early advantage, the more damage it does to the U.S. model, in my view.
Geoff Kabaservice: I came to agree with much of your point. But it also became clear to me when I was reading that book that yours was a very Californian perspective somehow. I was I was reminded of Paul Fussell, the great writer on literature, who had preceded you by several decades in going from southern California to Harvard — and hated it. And his comment was that if America had been settled west to east instead of east to west, New England would be an uninhabited wasteland.
Jim Fallows: There is a case for that. There is a sort of weather theory of migration that people, yes… I had not actually come across that line, but I’ll give you one counterpart to it. So at this inauguration two days ago in February of the new president of the University of Redlands in small-town southern California, there was a video tribute from the Redlands native who’s now the congressman from there named Pete Aguilar. And he was saying, you know, he was glad for this. And since the new president had come from South Carolina, he was saying, he hoped that she would soon understand the principle that the West Coast was the best coast.
Geoff Kabaservice: I like that. But, you know, I’ve also come to take a lot of your point that California is the land of the second chance. Meritocracy has to be leavened with multiple second chances. And, further, that the kind of rigid class distinctions that you see in the East are less present in the West, and that’s one of the best parts of America as well, particularly as it enters a more multiracial, multi-ethnic era.
Jim Fallows: I think the second chance is… We know all the things that prevent second chances in American life, from debt burden to family obligations to disease to the million things that make that happen. I think the American ideal — again, worth reinforcing — is in principle we should allow for second chances. Those are our hopes. And going back to the Abraham Lincoln origin story of the many things he had failed at, or name your person who showed the virtues of pluck… That can be overstated, and it can discourage people who feel that, “Well, somehow I’m not going to measure up.” But empowering it, whether it’s things like community colleges, making them more accessible, or portable healthcare benefits, which is something that holds people in place… So yes, again, I can’t say how grateful I am for your resonance on this point.
Geoff Kabaservice: That book, More Like Us, also included one of your earlier essays: 1975’s “What Did You Do in the Class War, Daddy?” And, you know, we could talk all day about that. But in some ways what that essay is — which is about the Vietnam war and who went and who didn’t — is a reflection on what the meritocracy owes to the working class. And that seems to be, again, a fairly constant theme in a lot of your writing.
Jim Fallows: Yes, and thank you again. The backstory here is… I was in college during a lot of the worst times of the Vietnam war. I started in the fall of 1966, coming from a very conservative family and community background in California; my town went for Barry Goldwater in 1964 and everybody I knew was voting for Barry Goldwater. Through that time, from 1966 to 1970, was when many of the worst strains on the U.S. of the Vietnam war were, including all the horrors of 1968: the assassinations and the riots and that traumatic election campaign where George Wallace carried five states, I believe, during the 1968 election. So by the end of that time, I was very much against the Vietnam war.
Jim Fallows: In the spring of 1970, I was a senior at Harvard. I had recently won a Rhodes scholarship and was planning to head off to Oxford. But then Nixon had his draft lottery, and my number was very high up in the queue, and so I was likely to be drafted. And the lottery itself was fairly cynical, by Nixon, in trying to peel off two-thirds of the Americans who would be directly affected by the war. The advent of the volunteer army a few years later was much more cynical, trying to reduce a connection between the cost of international military operations and most of the populace.
Jim Fallows: So I was thinking, “What is going to happen to me?” Almost everybody I knew, the people who were anti-war as I was in university life in that time of American history, were thinking: “Does one formally resist induction? Does one evade? Does one enlist and try to find some billet that is not exposed to combat?” — that’s not sort of carrying out the war, you’re in some place in Germany or something, but is legally defensible. The most honorable thing to have done, I think, would have been to formally refuse induction, as a couple of people I know did. There was the conscientious objector line which was not plausible for many people.
Jim Fallows: But I did not formally refuse. I had an out. I was very thin then, and with relatively minor effort I could be too skinny for the draft physical. And I had friends who went the other way and became too fat, or they had asthma, they had trick knees, etc. And the crystallizing moment for me was not long after Nixon’s entry into Cambodia in May of 1970, it was the draft physical day at the Boston Navy Yard. And so I went to the bus at Cambridge City Hall to be taken to the Boston Navy Yard. And at the Boston Navy Yard, they did all the physicals alphabetically by draft board. So the Cambridge board was where I was, and it was 99% people from Harvard or MIT. And of those, 99% or 98% had some excuse: they were too skinny, they were too fat, they had a cold, they had whatever, they had mental disorders. They had a doctor’s note. And one after another, including me, they got the 1-Y classification of “not fit.”
Jim Fallows: Then after us came the Chelsea draft board, which was the white working class of Boston, and 99% of them were not from Harvard or MIT. And 95% of them had no doctor’s trick order or whatever. And they went through and a great majority of them were classified 1-A, and a certain number of them, I’m sure, were killed in Vietnam, and a lot of them were drafted. And I think that was the… I wrote this piece a couple of years later essentially saying that was the truth of the Vietnam era that everybody recognized and almost nobody would express: of how this really was the class war, and that if there had been no college deferments draft from the beginning, there would not have been the same kind of war.
Jim Fallows: And I think we’ve seen that since then in the way that the U.S. has been more or less at war in the long decade since then, but most of America has not been at war. Only one percent of the U.S. population served at any time in either Iraq or Afghanistan, one percent total of the whole U.S. population. So I was just telling that story to try to say this was a divide and an inequity — again, universally recognized but not expressed, or avoided. And I’m surprised it wasn’t more clearly confronted by, you know… Edward Kennedy to some extent addressed this during the war years, and Martin Luther King, largely in racial justice terms. But that to me was sort of the starkness of the American class divide, which I’d been allowed not to think about while growing up in a more or less middle-class-conscious community in Southern California
Geoff Kabaservice: And it’s one of the interesting aspects of what you’ve been doing in the last several years that you have actually spent time in the parts of the country that do continue to send people into the military, unlike the vast majority of people with whom you went to college or the educated middle classes generally.
Jim Fallows: What has been delightful for Deb and me on this project that we started now almost nine years ago when we moved back from China… And the connection to China is that when living in China, we tried to spend as much of our time as possible on the road, in Guangzhou province or way out in western Sichaun or whatever, and not in the big cities, just because it was so different there. So with the device and literal and metaphorical vehicle of a little propeller airplane which we’d had for a long time — and we knew how much of America you could see that way — we started going out to places “out there,” with “out there” being defined as something that’s not in the news unless something bad happens, and asking people just what it was like.
Jim Fallows: What was happening, for example, in Sioux Falls, South Dakota that was better for the community and worse for the community? And what was the vision of the place ten years from now, what made Sioux Falls unique? And we did that in some of the small manufacturing towns in Michigan, and went to Burlington, Vermont, and some coastal but non-tourist places in Maine. And over time, we ended up thinking several things. The first was: Why didn’t we know any of this? Why was there so little public information about just the sort of whole archipelago of invention and surprise and interestingness and opportunity that existed through the U.S. landmass? We also thought that there was an important part of America’s sense of itself that was being misunderstood, that everybody very clearly recognized the things that were problems for the U.S. but hardly anybody knew about this offsetting force, and that that had distorting effects on people’s views of the country.
Jim Fallows: Also there was a particular press angle here. If I had a physical newspaper in front of me, and if it were an appropriate day, you would hear me yell when I see the latest story about some reporter going for two days to Kentucky or Indiana and going into a diner and asking people about Trump. If you ask people about a polarizing topic, you’ll get a polarizing answer, and people will not sound interesting. If you ask them about their lives, they will sound interesting, and you’ll hear all these sagas of lives: the pluses, the minuses, the dreams. And so that’s what’s been really fun for us.Geoff Kabaservice
I should point out here that this plane on which you’re getting around is a Cirrus SR-22 single-engine, four-seat, parachute-for-the-whole-airplane propeller plane. And I took that description, by the way, from your Breaking the News substack, and more specifically your entry “They Promised Us Flying Cars” which appeared last November.
Jim Fallows: Sorry, I’m interrupting…
Geoff Kabaservice: I hate flying myself, so my hat is off to you for actually undertaking most of this at the maximum level of turbulence. But you certainly have seen an awful lot of the country in the world doing this. Out of idle curiosity, where haven’t you been that you would really like to go?
Jim Fallows: So around the world, the places I know least about are Russia… My brother is a big Russia scholar, but I’ve only been there for like three days in my life, and I’d like to know more about Russia. And I know very little about the landmass of South America, although I’ve been down to Patagonia. The U.S., I feel like I’ve been to pretty much of the U.S. I’ve landed our plane over the last 25 years in 48 states — you can guess what the two missing states are when you think this is a little single…
Jim Fallows: So the entire continental United States I have covered. And I do feel as if there’s an endless list of places I would like to go and learn more about, but I have images of almost every state. I can tell you something vivid there and surprising. Maybe North Dakota less than some of them; I’ve been to Bismarck. And Idaho, I’ve only been to a couple of places, although we’re going to Boise soon. So I’ll say one other thing about the plane… So do you hate flying or do you hate flying on the airlines?
Geoff Kabaservice: I’ve only gone on airlines, so I guess that answers the question.
Jim Fallows: I contend that anybody with a historical or literary or creative imagination would love flying in little planes. Because number one, you can’t imagine the difference in view looking forward, so you’re sort of driving through the sky as opposed to looking sideways as if you’re in a bus and just looking out the little tiny windows. And going at two thousand feet, which is high enough that you have this sort of top-of-the-skyscraper, god’s-eye view, but low enough that, unlike an airliner in which you can’t see anything, you can see all the little details of life. And you can see the coherence of a town. You can see what a town is hiding that way. For example, you can see the prisons that are on the remote edge of town, with a little road going to them that nobody has to pass. So I contend that if you were in the front seat of a little plane, you would enjoy it.
Geoff Kabaservice : Although you point out that sometimes it’s hard to tell the prisons at that height from the high schools.
Jim Fallows: Yes, that is certainly true.
Geoff Kabaservice: I think I had a sort of Jim Fallows-like experience about two weeks ago, because I was flying into Melbourne, Florida, where I don’t typically fly into, and we were coming in low at about two thousand feet. And we happened that day to fly right over Cape Canaveral. And I saw the cape from an angle I’d never seen before, which was high up. And you can see these old abandoned rocket gantries, which at that height look like the sort of stelae and ceremonial towers of forgotten religions, surrounded by these mysterious concentric circles and Nazca Line connections, all against this absolutely virgin beach. And it was just a gorgeous, gorgeous sight. So I do see that.
Jim Fallows: So we need to sign you up for flying lessons, because I know exactly the view you’re describing and it is just wonderful. And the beautiful American continent is full of those moments when you think, “Oh, this is how it looks. This is how it works.”
Geoff Kabaservice: So you’ve had this experience of flying into these places and staying there for weeks and months on end and figuring out how they work. And your book is wonderful. It’s optimistic in the way that very few books about America or politics are nowadays. And I think that’s because in some sense it touches the erogenous zones of the left and the right. The left loves to see this view of Americans working together, even across racial and political lines, to get things done, sometimes involving government — which still works at the local level. And the right likes the fact that you’re not hammering on the deficiencies of Trump voters, but also that you’re paying attention to the special localness of these places and what makes them distinctive even in this homogenous American culture. And I do appreciate that too.
Jim Fallows: So thank you very much for that. And I’m quick to note that while I am happy to be in the optimistic class of humanity, with a caveat of conditional optimism: things can get better, as opposed to things automatically will get better, as you know. And optimistic in the sense that many, many things are bad in the United States right now, and many of our darkest forces are being ramped up and encouraged, as they have been in other times in our history. But that is not the entirety of the U.S. story. And just trying to have some view of the overall “correlation of forces,” as the Soviet military strategists used to talk about it, of what are these strengths and weaknesses, of recognizing how much of the resilient fiber and potential is still there, including among the very people who can get ramped-up on other issues.
And a model that was coming to me recently is: it’s as if you were describing disease or an injury to the human body, and talking about only the injury but not the healing process, or not the antibodies, or not the ways in which it could recover. And so I think that we are trying to walk the line, and I appreciate your recognizing this, between noticing things that were promising without being Pollyannaish about them or thinking that they got rid of all the other local-level problems, national-level poisons, etc.
Geoff Kabaservice: I also like visiting places, let’s say, that aren’t visited by the vast majority of Americans or tourists, and I always come back full of good things to say about these places. And one of my friends justifiably accused me of, in effect, treating even my geese as swans. And, you know, in your book you’re going to places that people have told you, “You should come here, there’s neat things going on here.” So that’s maybe a somewhat partial view. But, you know, there’s also this dynamic that we’ve heard a lot about where the vast majority of the country is getting left behind; that after the 2007-08 financial crisis, almost all of the recovery was concentrated in a very few number of metropolitan areas. And further that our politics now is bifurcated not just along political lines but economic as well, because Joe Biden won, I want to say, something like 70%… the counties that produce 70% of America’s GNP. So to what extent are you maybe inadvertently overlooking this phenomenon of despair in these left-behind areas?
Jim Fallows: So I’m sensitive to this. And I think the longer our travels went on, the more we tried to accommodate: How do things look where overall prospects are bleak? I mean, when we initially started, we were looking for places that were not in the news, where something interesting we had been told was happening: Sioux Falls, South Dakota, for example, which has become the capital of the prairies, in a sense. We went to look at it for that reason. We didn’t know at that point how huge a refugee component there was in the population of this historically white and Native American conurbation, and how many Somalis and Bangladeshis and others were part of the Sioux Falls community. We had heard of Holland, Michigan as a place which had a sort of concentration of small, successful entrepreneurs, etc.
As time went on, we started going, if you will, downmarket. We’re going into Mississippi and we’re going to West Virginia, going back to San Bernardino, which is next to my hometown of Redlands and is the West Virginia of southern California and the Central Valley. And Fresno, of course. And so I’m going ask you, Geoff, where did you grow up?
Geoff Kabaservice: I was born in New Haven, Connecticut, and I spent about half my life there. But when I was young, we moved around to particularly I would say Virginia (in Blacksburg), to California (in Glendale and Pasadena in the vicinity of Los Angeles), to Massachusetts (on the outskirts of Lowell, a sort of decaying mill town), and then to Florida on the East Coast, where I went to high school and where I am now.
Jim Fallows: Ah, well, so you’ve seen a range of cities that have been… For example, New Haven minus its main university would be in these categories. And so we tried to… I’ll give two answers — three answers, actually. I’ll start with the last of them, the movie that we made with HBO with the brilliant filmmakers Steve Ascher and Jeanne Jordan, who are a husband-and-wife couple, more or less our contemporaries. They made sure that a lot of this movie was based in San Bernardino, in Charleston, West Virginia, on the reservations outside Sioux Falls, etc. And, very consciously, Bend, Oregon was added at the end as saying, What does it look like if everything works and you have the problems of gentrification and all the rest? So we tried in the movie to be explicit in looking at places that had opioid challenges and deindustrialization and all the rest. That’s answer number three.
Answer number two is that in the travels Deb and I did, even after the book came out, we have intentionally gone to Indiana, to Muncie and to Angola and to Fort Wayne, and have been looking for places that are dealing with exactly the divides that have been so much in the news. Leading me to answer number one, which is that that our experience in most of these places is that — and I’m thinking now of Kentucky, we’ve been at Tulsa, Oklahoma, we have spent some time recently in San Antonio, going back to Merced and Chico in the California Central Valley — that people are very well aware of the injustices and barriers and inequities in American life. They’re probably not fully aware of how much the upper one-tenth of one percent has just zoomed into the stratosphere of wealth, but they’re aware of the things that make it hard in their own lives.
And most of the time, they are thinking about locally accessible solutions to that. For example, South Dakota has the best community college system in the United States, and the ways that it is equipping people for these very high-wage, much-in-demand jobs — $80-$90,000-a-year jobs — and skilled technical work is really something. San Bernardino, California has come up with really innovative career technical high schools that, again, are training people from non-college (often immigrant) backgrounds for new possibilities.
If we assume that this is the second Gilded Age of extraordinary fortunes that need to be reined in in some way, as was the case in the first Gilded Age — and I think antitrust is a part of that, the estate tax needs to be recognized as an estate tax rather than a death tax, etc. — my impression is that if you didn’t start asking people “Are you mad at the Democrats? Are you mad at this or that person?” that that didn’t come up in the conversation. It was other things that were more within the narrative of their own lives that people thought they could do something about.
Geoff Kabaservice: Your book in that sense has an overlap with the book by Robert Putnam and Shaylyn Romney Garrett, The Upswing, which also starts from the presumption that we’re basically back in a second Gilded Age, but offers a certain sense of hope because the Gilded Age was followed by the Progressive era, in which all sorts of things happened that eventually made America a place with greater social trust, more effective institutions, and the rest of it. And, you know, I like that way of thinking. And there again is some hope in the vision you present, because you have people around the country doing things at the local level to work together to create institutions, to solve problems. And yet they’re often not aware of what’s going on in other parts of the country. So your book, in that sense, is moving us toward a Progressive era, perhaps, by connecting some of these disparate efforts.
Jim Fallows: That is very much our intention, and again I thank you for noticing that. I think that in the end of the book I have a little spiel to the same effect, that out of the chaos of the era, out of the strains and injustices of the first Gilded Age, there were all these movements that eventually cohered. I have a quote from Philip Zelikow of the University of Virginia about the difference it makes if isolated voices can think they are part of a chorus. And Deb and I have started this little foundation called the Our Towns Civic Foundation whose mission is explicitly that: to try, number one, to make the stories of reinvention and creation a larger part of current American awareness of what the United States is (going from like zero percent of American awareness to more than zero percent), and number two to connect people so they can learn from one another, and that people in Fresno can realize they’re doing something similar to people in Greenville, South Carolina or whatever else. And there are people we know in Pensacola, on the other side of Florida from you, who have really fascinating civic-reinvention things going on in Pensacola. You know their congressional representative now…
Geoff Kabaservice: I do, yes — Matt Gaetz.
Jim Fallows: …but people in Pensacola are completely on the other track and are doing lots of things that are like those happening in Vermont or other places. So connecting them is part of our mission now.
Geoff Kabaservice: Your book does conclude with “10½ Signs of Civic Success,” the half-sign being the presence of a craft-beer brewery. But one of those ten is the presence of a community college. And you point out that community colleges really are the exception to the overall trends in America of a more unequal and polarized existence.
Jim Fallows: My emphasis on this may reflect a discovery by Deb and me, correcting our own relative lack or ignorance from our time outside the U.S. We had come to view the big, behemoth research universities in the U.S. as the critical U.S. assets, and of course they are the crown jewels: MIT and Caltech and the UC system and Michigan and all the rest. These things are indispensable to American success in many ways, and we know that the world is focused on the handful of hyper-selective elite private colleges that define the American pecking order. But we ended up thinking that community colleges really are, for this moment in American history, the crucial engines of success, or engines of equality, or engines of opportunity, for this time.
Jim Fallows: I was a part of the dreaded Boomer generation. So when I was in public elementary and high school, the vocational education track was something that was for people who were not going to make it, who were not going to college, who were going to be sort of consigned to a lower-wage path. And I just hadn’t paid attention to vocational education or trade school since then. But some of the most interesting things happening in American education right now, I think, are both in community colleges, which are lower-cost, generally open-access, and they are attuned to matching people to the opportunities of this moment — which are real.
Jim Fallows: You know, they are not out to become a billionaire, but they’re there to get a living wage of the $80-$100-$110,000 variety, which is not available in the service sector but generally is available in skilled trades and skilled technical jobs. There’s a huge market right now for people who can maintain aircraft engines, and that’s a really skilled job. It pays very well. Community colleges are training those people, and working in lots of other technical fields — in technical agriculture, etc. So I think community colleges need to be… There’s a motto that Fresno has which is “Unapologetically Fresno,” and I think that community colleges need to be unapologetically community colleges: of the community and part of the American community, in the best sense.
Geoff Kabaservice: Do you think that Joe Biden, when he became president, should have put a higher priority on the progressive desire to make community colleges free across the country?
Jim Fallows: I don’t know enough of the details of the specific “free” proposal to have an informed view on that. I think emphasizing community colleges and just saying, “This is America, these are America’s schools, this is America’s future” — I would be in favor of even more stress on that. You would think that with First Lady Jill Biden being a community college teacher over these many years, there’s that built-in credibility that he has. So I hope that if there is ever any more bandwidth for Biden and his administration, they will push again on this point, because it should have appeal across any other regional or class or racial or political lines. It’s a good thing for America.
Geoff Kabaservice: To go back to another one of your earlier pieces of writing, I remember a piece that you wrote in Washington Monthly that was entitled “Sheepskins Are for Sheep,” which was your diatribe against the feeling that everybody has to go to college. But it seems to me that actually community colleges sort of square the circle, in a way. Because often you do find that the curriculum is very closely tailored to the needs of the area, and that they’re performing a function which is both educational and vocational at the same time.
Jim Fallows: Yes indeed. And I think that there’s a variety of credentialism and sheepskins that I am now in favor of, which is credentials or certificates in the literal sense. If you can go to East Mississippi Community College, for example (we spent a lot of time there in Mississippi), or Central Oregon Community College (which was the main educational institution of central Oregon), or San Bernardino Valley College (outside where I lived), or Crafton Hills College (where one of my sisters went), and you can get a certificate there that you are an aircraft mechanic or that you are a network engineer or whatever else are the jobs in demand now, and you can then show that in Florida or you can show it in North Carolina — that would be a hugely valuable thing. Because usually those trade certifications are balkanized these days, and they could have national validity — as a pilot’s license does. You know, the people who fly airplanes have a national and even international FAA certification. The people who repair the airplanes, they should be able to show their certificate of training from North Dakota or South Dakota and take it to Florida and have careers there.
Geoff Kabaservice: State licensing agreements really are a thing that conservatives should get behind abolishing as well as those on the left, I think.
Jim Fallows: Yes, we have a sense of the new, practical-minded party.
Geoff Kabaservice: One of the things that you saw clearly by spending weeks and months at a time in these smaller towns around the country is the extent to which recent immigrants have become a major part even of somewhat isolated, often very rural areas. And in some ways this actually struck me as an occasion where I would have liked to hear more about the politics of some of the people you were talking to. Because I have a funny feeling that even people who are helping immigrants assimilate in Dodge City, Kansas, where the schools at the elementary level are like 80% nonwhite, I think that even as they’re doing those very practical things to integrate these families into the community, they are voting for politicians who are saying terrible things about immigrants and how “We need to stop this infestation.”
Jim Fallows: Thank you for mentioning Dodge City, and thank you for raising this. I think it is one of these many cognitive-dissonance moments in American politics. This was the famous What’s the Matter with Kansas? book by Tom Frank a decade ago or so. I’ll use Dodge City as an example, surprisingly, on the other side of this ledger. And the story here in brief is… Dodge City, people of the Boomer vintage would remember as the locale for Gunsmoke TV series. It’s a traditionally white area, but in the last generation it has become a very significant Latino population because of the meatpacking industry. And now the population pyramid is the older people are white, middle-aged people are mixed, younger people are mainly Latino. What’s fascinating there is that the white leadership of Dodge City has actually put its money where its mouth is, in the sense of “This is our new community.”
Something that happened after our book came out — I believe it was after our book came out… There was a midterm election in Kansas, and the then conservative secretary of state, Kris Kobach in Kansas, ordered the polling place in Dodge City moved way out of town, away from the Latino districts. And there was a story in the New York Times about this. So I called our friends in Dodge City and said, “What the hell?” And some of the white people I talked with said that the next day after this, the white-dominated city council passed a measure giving free transportation to the polls for every person in Dodge City. And they put out that announcement in English and in Spanish and they said, “We recognize that all members of Dodge City are part of our future, etc.” So that is an example on one side.
Of course, we see examples on the other side. I think that the population along the Rio Grande Valley, which is very heavily Latino, has become more politically conservative and often having a sort of pulling-up-the-ladder mentality: “We’re here, we don’t need more people.” But yes, there is this cognitive dissonance of people being separated in their national politics from the way they are behaving locally. And my only sort of “So what?” implication for that is: Let’s find ways at least to give this local perspective more voice, more traction in the national arguments about what should be the national policy.
Geoff Kabaservice: About a dozen years ago, you wrote a piece for the Atlantic called “How America Can Rise Again.” And this was a time when you had just come back from spending years in China and were looking at America with new eyes, in a way, and you were resisting a lot of the jeremiads about American decline. You acknowledged there were problems, for example, with imperfect cell phone coverage — now we are falling behind in 5G — and our electronic medical records not being up to world standards. But you pointed out that America was still “the truly universal nation,” and that two of its main strengths were its openness to immigration and its concentration of universities that people around the world wanted to attend. So without taking a complete inventory of America now as compared to twelve years ago, do you still think those two pillars are intact?
Jim Fallows: I think the openness of the American idea and ideal still have some traction. I think they were badly damaged during the Trump era and could be damaged further. Because of course, as you well know, the American openness has always been a partial thing. It’s always been in waves of moving forward and becoming more open and becoming less open. And of course from World War I for almost twenty years, there was very, very little immigration into the U.S. So I think the idea is still there and is reparable. The university establishment has its travails, and I’ll ask you in a second how you would assess them. It still seems to me stronger than the alternatives, and still to have the potential that it is more diverse, it is more accomplished in multiple realms, it is more politically independent than most other places are, despite the politics that is now affecting it.
And my current over/under assessment of the U.S. is that the real problem we have… There’s a structural and an episodic problem. The structural problem is that our national political organization is almost 250 years old and is out of date. The Senate was designed in really different times from current America. The episodic situation is that many of the worst impulses of human nature in the American character are being ramped up rather than damped down at this moment. And so dealing with a long-term structural issue and correcting the short-term episodic darkness seem to me the two that I would stress now. Let me ask you on universities: how would you assess them versus twelve years ago?
Geoff Kabaservice: You know, I think when we’re talking about America’s top universities, this is in large part a kind of symbolic discussion, because the vast majority of the population does not go to these universities. In that sense, the discussion around community colleges is much more important. Having said that, I think America’s universities have a real problem in terms of being viewpoint non-diverse, shall we say, and a serious chilling of free thought happening at these universities in ways that can only be inimical to research and teaching.
I think they have to address that. And I think the top universities have to address that because they need to see themselves more consciously as being in competition with other universities around the world. When you were writing a dozen years ago, America’s top universities dominated the list of academic rankings that comes from Shanghai’s Jiao Tong University — I mean just absolutely dominated. And even now, you know, in the last 2021 rankings, America’s got 16 of the top 20. But below that, you actually see universities coming up: from Switzerland, Canada, Japan, Denmark, Australia, England, France… At the time you were writing, which was just a dozen years ago, you said there were no Chinese universities in the top 100. But now, Tsinghua is in the top 30. And China is trying to create a dozen Harvards and may well succeed.
Jim Fallows: Sorry, proceed and then I will note my one caveat.
Geoff Kabaservice: Well, you know, we’re also talking at a moment which is not even 36 hours into Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and it seems that we may be in a second Cold War. And while this will be bad, for the most part, it may make us more serious as a nation, and maybe have a better handle on the fact that we’re actually in competition with other nations and that there’s some things that we need to do such as invest in research and development that we haven’t done in a long time, and I think give a higher priority to merit, perhaps, at certain levels of the educational process that we also were falling away from. Let me stop there and hand it to you.
Jim Fallows: Yes, so on this last point I entirely agree with you. And as you and I have corresponded about over the years, this brings us back to William James: “the moral equivalent of war.” It would be great if the U.S. had some substitute to warfare, hot or cold, as an organizing principle, but that seems to be the only thing that gets people’s attention for some worthy projects in the U.S. So we’ll see. No one knows how this horror in Ukraine is going to play out, but perhaps it will have a concentrating effect in the U.S.
I also entirely agree about the worldwide flowering of other academic models over the last decade-plus. The only caveat I was going to answer is I am a bear on Chinese universities and their potential because of the political environment they work in. I don’t spend any time in U.S. universities so I don’t know what the current climate is like. I hear from many friends about the sort of political constraints; I don’t know them myself. In China, that is a hundred times more. You have to be a member of the party. It just is. So I think that to the extent universities. require diversity of people and of thought and of people rocking the boat, that China has made that much, much worse for itself in the last ten years than was the case. So I think China is descending in its university prospects despite their money. And the U.S., we will see, and I will turn to experts like you to advise me.
Geoff Kabaservice: I hate, in a way, to give people political bets… But you’ve spent a lot of time in China. We’ve now seen Russia go into Ukraine. How likely do you think this makes it that China will make a move on Taiwan?
Jim Fallows: I think, like almost everything important about China, it is unknowable. And here is why I say that. You can imagine a scenario… So it was not rational for Putin to go into Ukraine. It’s going to be terrible for Russia, terrible for Ukraine obviously, and may even be terrible for Putin himself. So it was not rational, and he did it anyway. It is not rational for the Chinese leadership to see any analogy whatsoever in Putin going into Ukraine. It’s just an entirely different situation with Taiwan, with the U.S. Seventh Fleet around there. That is different from the neighboring armies in Ukraine, and they’re just different. It wouldn’t be rational for them to think this is a go-ahead. So far, very early on, it doesn’t look like this is paying off for Russia, and so the Chinese might also get that lesson.
And also, in contrast to Putin and Ukraine, everybody involved in the China-Taiwan situation recognizes that they’re all better off with a “don’t ask, don’t tell” situation. Yes, in principle the PRC wants to take over Taiwan, but it doesn’t have to happen today, and maybe not tomorrow, and not next month, and so on. Everybody is better off just with the status quo. So rationally this should not embolden them, but anything is possible. And the most sobering lesson I took from the time in China is that there are a zillion people there who know much, much more than I do about China, and the more they know the less certain they are about anything. Just as you can imagine Xi Jinping being there ten years from now, you can imagine him being gone in a year. You can see each of those scenarios. And I think the hardest thing in dealing with China is allowing for that unknowability.
Geoff Kabaservice: Russia’s invasion of Ukraine raises the possibility that this will break the postwar order that has prevailed for almost eighty years, and we will be back in an era of great power competition in which the strong do what they will and the weak suffer what they must. And I was actually talking about this, at about the same time, with my Niskanen colleague Sam Hammond, and he mentioned a piece you’d written back I think in the ‘90s called “How the World Works,” which was an investigation into the thought of the nineteenth-century German political economist Friedrich Liszt, who was much more influential in Asia than he has ever been in the Anglo-American world. Do you recall this long-ago piece on Liszt or should I refresh your memory?
Jim Fallows: No, I do remember. I remember so clearly the moment when I found his book in some secondhand bookstore out near Hitotsubashi University outside Tokyo, and had to pay like all of my money to buy it. But yes, in brief he was the theorist of the idea that national economy led to national strength and was a tool of national strength, and that consumer welfare was not the ultimate goal of national economy, that producer welfare in a way was. And I contended that it was sort of an Alexander Hamilton-era watchword in the U.S too, and that the Japanese and Koreans and southeast Asians had studied this carefully as well, and people should at least be aware of Friedrich Liszt and his works.
Geoff Kabaservice: And I think what interested both Sam and me about this essay of yours is that the Liszt view of the way national economics do work and should work is, in a way, that it actually could be adopted by the National Conservatives who are active on the Trumpian side of Republican intellectual politics. That is to say, this is a view of commerce as a zero-sum competition among nations, which obviously fits well with their antagonism to free trade, but it also puts producers over consumers. It puts the interests of the nation and the community as a whole over that of individuals. And in this sense it represents a real challenge to the kind of Reaganite vision of individualism and the free markets that has prevailed for most of our lifetimes.
Jim Fallows: I agree entirely, and there are all these possibilities for trans-, small-p progressive approaches for the U.S. that would mix up the party lines or the partisan lines of this moment. And if there were some way to have the positive community and national aspects of these right-wingers without the negative aspects of being against other people… I think there are things the U.S. should do whether or not China existed for the community welfare of the U.S. So if there were a way to have the positive aspects without the spleen and bile, we would be better off.
Geoff Kabaservice: So I suppose that leads to a final question. You’ve painted a portrait in Our Towns of specific communities like Columbus, Ohio, where you really do have this genuine collaboration of elites with people at the grassroots, of business interests with community groups and colleges and universities coming together to solve problems to boost the town as a whole — real civic patriots who can be on both the left and the right. To what extent are you optimistic that some of that vision can be transposed from the local level to the state and maybe even the national level?
Jim Fallows: I am optimistic that some of it can be transposed, that our national politics could be more community-minded and national-welfare-minded and seeing the entire country as “us” rather than “us and them.” I think that is the purpose of this next stage of my life and work, to try to increase the possibility that some of that could be more present in our national life. You see I’m using non-absolutes in every part of this. So I think it is possible we can move the needle in that direction. So a change in the needle is what Deb and I and our friends and the diaspora of people you know working toward similar goals have in mind, including all the work you’ve been doing.
Geoff Kabaservice: Well, thank you, and I wish you all the best. And thank you so much for joining me today.
Jim Fallows: This has been a genuine honor. Thank you so much, Geoff.
Geoff Kabaservice: And thank you all for listening to the Vital Center podcast. Please subscribe and rate us on your preferred podcasting platform. And if you have any questions, comments, or other responses, please include them along with your rating or send us an email at email@example.com. Thanks as always to our technical director Kristie Eshelman, our sound engineer Ray Ingegneri, and the Niskanen Center in Washington, D.C.
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