Two years ago I quit my job as a financial analyst and took up a few gigs (one as a journalist and another as a market researcher) that allowed me to roam around America. Since 2016, I’ve been to thirty states, spoken with over 200 local politicians, and interviewed nearly 2,000 average citizens. Here’s my take away from my time on the road.
1. Desolation and desperation are universal features
The feeling of social isolation runs deep throughout America. Every area is plagued by high levels of desolation. Even in smaller towns with strong neighborhoods and a vibrant community, people still feel they lack strong connections. Wherever you are in America, there’s a feeling of hopelessness – a belief that one’s economic situation, family life, or health will never ever improve. Whether it was a panel of auto-plant workers in Detroit or high-tech workers making six figures in coastal areas, most Americans I meet are increasingly pessimistic about the future.
2. The gap in opportunity between rural and urban areas will only continue to grow
There was hope that a boon in manufacturing, natural energy, and small business disposable capital would revive rural areas. I don’t see this happening and neither do those who’ve seen their small towns decline over the past thirty years. The only people who believed rural areas will thrive again are people who didn’t live in rural areas. Data also backs this up.
3. Civic leaders lack good ideas
State, local, and municipal lawmakers are terrible at creating policy. Most public policy officials I spoke with propose the same stale economic growth policies: build a downtown with coffee shops, bars, entrepreneurs, and juice shop with a yoga studio. Too many are seduced with corporate tax incentives without thinking of their long-term implications. If I had a shot for every-time someone said public-private-partnership without knowing what it means, my liver would have failed in February. Civic leaders are afraid to think outside the box and provide greater thought in urban planning. Very few are learning from their past mistakes or understanding the true drivers of inequity dogging their community.
4. Tribalism is exaggerated. But there is no solution to our ideological rifts.
Our political silos have become more evident in the past two years. Now more than ever, we are likely to never even meet someone with an opposing ideology. But in my time, alternating between progressive and conservative bastions of America, I fail to see a stark contrast within the quality and values of our fellow citizens. The overall concerns, and even policy desires, are far more similar than we want to believe. Yes, there is an unhealthy level of xenophobia, racism, and intolerance we need to honestly address. But if we tackled issues calmly, and in good faith, we would come to an agreement on most issues.
The problem is tribalism is alluring: it gives one a sense of belonging, a platform for politicians to run on, and an avenue for voters to feel better about themselves. And after speaking with hundreds of people and dozens of organizations working hard to bridge the over-hyped ideological divide, I don’t see a solution.
5. There is an abundance of love and generosity among all cohorts and persuasions.
I found out that most Americans are nice and kind, but that’s not impressive. As Michelle Obama said, “it’s hard to hate up close.” Having a polite demeanor with someone for a brief time isn’t difficult (in fact many neuroscientists says it’s our natural inclination).
What has surprised me is the abundance of love and hospitality I’ve received. As I stroll through cities, so many strangers would volunteer to walk me to my destination (after all this time I am still terrible with directions). Countless individuals would invite me into their home to share their stories. So many would call me after an interview to provide me with a new a lead or second source. One lady walked three miles to her local library, so she could e-mail some details that would help me with an article. I have so many more examples of the endless and enormous warmth I witnessed criss-crossing through America, but here is my favorite one.
One night in small town in West Virginia I was coming back from an interview around midnight. After spending fifteen minutes looking for a place to eat, I decided to give up and head back to my hotel. A lady across the street saw me and said her deli shop closed but invited me in for a sandwich. As she noticed my San Francisco windbreaker, she asked if I had any dietary restrictions given my “commie swag.”
I said, “Maam, what I’m wearing isn’t commie swag…its Marxist chique.”
After devouring a delicious dairy free- veggie sandwich, I shared a few beers with her husband and her. They told me about how they first met on the New Jersey shore forty years ago. How they fell in love during college over notes sent through regular mail and got married on Ronald Reagan’s birthday. They first visited West Virginia on a whitewater rafting trip for their honeymoon. Since then, and five kids later, they’ve called Appalachia home.
Upon returning to New York, I decided to phone the couple to thank them for their generosity. When I called, I was told that I have the wrong number because the families’ sandwich shop closed three years ago. Overhearing this, the lady I met grabbed the phone from her son and said, “Our shop is closed for business and shutdown for good, but our hearts will never be. Please come back to West Virginia for another wonderful conversation. I’ll have that disgusting vegan mayonnaise ready for you.”