Maybe it’s just me.
But everywhere I go these days, I’m running into people — individual Americans — seeking local solutions to the anxieties of our era.
How wonderfully old school.
In the last few weeks I’ve been in Atlanta, Virginia, Washington, New Hampshire and in upstate and downstate New York listening to the same basic conversation: What can we do — what can I do — to get the America we knew back on track right here in my neighborhood? I’ve heard it in meetings, on a lunch line at a summer camp parent weekend, at an airport lounge, in a coffee shop, on a subway car . . . Often it comes from complete strangers.
These conversations mercifully aren’t about President Donald Trump or Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and her “squad” or former special counsel Robert Mueller. They are only about politics in the sense that U.S. politics and Washington politicians are no longer considered dependable vehicles to get things done by those doing the talking and listening.
Mostly it’s about the pressing sociological shifts bearing down on all of us — social isolation, economic terror fueled by professional displacement, a lost sense of community and the fragility of American culture in a fast-changing world. The questions are raw and fear-based: Have I damaged my children by giving them free access to social media? How can I survive when my industry is being erased? Why do I feel alone in a world so interconnected? There is much nostalgia, too: When I was a kid . . .
In recent decades, we’ve turned to government for solutions to practically everything, increasingly at the federal level. If we could put a man on the moon, many of us thought, surely we can cure poverty, racism, drug addiction and achievement gaps. But the results are in and they’re lousy. We have the same basic problems after spending billions of dollars, plus new ones like epidemic suicides and school shootings. And the starry-eyed programs we nobly tried were implemented when politicians in Washington actually got along. Today, little makes it through polarized Washington.
It’s no surprise that Americans have lost trust in the federal government, but the extent to which we have is startling. In 1958, three-quarters of Americans trusted the federal government to do the right thing almost always or most of the time, according to the Pew Research Center. Today, that figure stands at around 17 percent. Sixty-nine percent of Americans believe that the federal government intentionally withholds important information from the public, according to a Pew survey released last week.
The people I’m talking to aren’t waiting for Washington to come to the rescue this time. They are shutting off cable news that covers almost nothing but the beltway and starting not-for-profits, volunteering locally or reaching out to neighbors for strength and practical ideas. These efforts are often spurred by tragedies — overdoses, suicides especially. Sometimes they are about helping neighbors get through rough patches with group sharing or funding. What’s most heartening is that there’s nothing Republican or Democratic about any of these efforts. They’re just about people.
There may be another realization emerging, though I don’t hear it mentioned enough. With $22 trillion in federal debt and counting, we know in our heart of hearts that Washington isn’t going to be there for many of us down the road. It simply can’t be. That’s especially true for millennials, 80 percent of whom worry that Social Security won’t be available to them, according to a study by the Transamerica Center for Retirement Services. So we begin to make other plans.
It’s frightening to think that the country we once knew is never coming back. But American resiliency isn’t going anywhere. I’m seeing it everywhere, and that’s good news.
William F.B. O’Reilly is a consultant for Republicans.