People who read this column know my political ideology: I’m a Whig. If progressives generally believe in expanding government to enhance equality, and libertarians try to reduce government to expand freedom, Whigs seek to use limited but energetic government to enhance social mobility.
Back in the 19th century, during their heyday, Whigs promoted infrastructure projects, public education, public-private investments and character-building programs to create dynamic, capitalist communities in which poor boys and girls could rise and succeed.
Whigs admired people and places that are enterprising, emotionally balanced and spiritually ardent. They had a great historic run – inspired by Alexander Hamilton, led by Henry Clay and Daniel Webster, embodied most brilliantly in the minds of Abraham Lincoln and the early Theodore Roosevelt.
And then the Whig tendency disappeared from American life.
There’s a promising effort called the Modern Whig Party trying to revive the movement, but until last week I was under the impression that there were basically only 24 of us left.
And then I read James and Deborah Fallows’ book, “Our Towns.” Now I realize that Whigs are the most important political force in America today. It’s just that the people who are Whigs don’t call themselves Whigs and they are all on the local level.
Over the past five years, the Fallowses piloted their own small plane to dozens of cities, from Eastport, Maine, to Redlands, California. They found that as the national political climate has deteriorated, small cities have revived. As the national scene has polarized, people in local communities are working effectively to get things done.
Their book is a group portrait of 42 of these success stories. To anybody with a Whig mindset, the tales have a familiar ring.
Most of the cities tell a redemption story about themselves. They had a booming industry; it collapsed; now they are rebuilding with new industries and new wealth.
Many of the cities began their recovery with infrastructure projects that revived the downtown core. In Greenville, South Carolina, an ugly highway bridge was removed and replaced with a gorgeous walk along the Reedy River, which is now home to parks and cafes. In Fresno, California, the misbegotten pedestrian mall that crushed downtown development was bulldozed, and now there are human-size streets that encourage visits and activity.
A second common thread for these cities was that they were often led by business leaders who were both entrepreneurial and civically minded. In these places if you become successful, it is expected that you will become active in town life.
Mike Gallo went to San Bernardino, California, as a junior officer in the Air Force. He left to work for a company pioneering new missile technology. Then he helped found an aerospace technology company. When the firm succeeded, he set up an education nonprofit called Technical Employment Training. Then he ran for the school board and became its chairman.
Third, these places tend to have strong vocational schools and community colleges, teaching modern workplace skills in partnership with local businesses. Raj Shaunak and his family went to Columbus, Mississippi, and founded a manufacturing firm. After they sold it, Shaunak went to work at East Mississippi Community College, where students learn on real versions or scaled-down models of the same machines that operate at the local manufacturing plants.
Fourth, these places tend to have a lot of social capital and entrepreneurial civic institutions. In Allentown, Pennsylvania, a couple needed a foam pit for their new gymnastics center. So the local Mack Trucks factory donated leftover padding used in the airplane seats it manufactured, it delivered the padding in a fleet of trucks and 200 town volunteers showed up with electric kitchen knives to carve it into pieces.
In many of the cities the local library serves as an all-purpose community center. In Bend, Oregon, the library has a few dozen local partnerships – AARP volunteers help people do their taxes in the library; Goodwill workers teach résumé writing. In Charleston, West Virginia, and Columbus, Ohio, the libraries zero in on programs for infants to 3-year-olds, so children enter school ready to learn.
Finally, the cities have strong civic stories and clear narratives about where they’ve been, where they are going and what makes them distinctive. The mayors in these places almost never have national ambitions. This is their town, and this is their highest office.
Today, in this era of local renaissance and national apocalypse, I hear people wondering if maybe America can be like Italy – dysfunctional on the national level but with strong localities and a lovely lifestyle.
I don’t think so. Local improvement can go only so far when national politics is a meat grinder. The good news is the solutions to our civic problems already exist; it’s just that, as the Fallowses write, these stories are lonely and disconnected.
We just need to take these civic programs and this governing philosophy and nationalize them. We need to transform these local stories into a coherent national story and a bottom-up coalition, which will look a lot like a 21st-century descendant of the 19th-century Whigs.