And it is in the United States

My own form of American nationalism, intensified both by living outside the country and by travels within it, arises from love of the American idea: inclusion, expansiveness, opportunity, mobility, the open-ended struggle to make the nation a better version of itself. After living in Japan during its amaze-the-world era of the 1980s, I wrote a book arguing that the proper U.S. response was not to try to be more like Japan but instead to be “more like us”—which was the book’s title. (Its subtitle was Making America Great Again. Sigh.)

America is becoming more like itself again. More Americans are trying to make it so, in more places, than most Americans are aware. Even as the country is becoming worse in obvious ways—angrier, more divided, less able to do the basic business of governing itself—it is becoming distinctly better on a range of other indicators that are harder to perceive. The pattern these efforts create also remains hidden. Americans don’t realize how fast the country is moving toward becoming a better version of itself.


In what underpublicized ways is America moving forward locally and regionally, while we read only about chaos and discord nationally? To summarize a few:Civic governance. Even as national politics induces distrust and despair, most polls show rising faith in local governance. For instance, surveys typically find that only a quarter of Americans trust the national government to “do the right thing,” but Gallup polls in 2014 and 2016 found that more than 70 percent trusted their local government to do so. Part of this could be explained by people self-selecting into more-homogeneous communities. But in our experience it was true even in cities with significant racial and economic diversity, from Greenville to Fresno, Los Angeles, and San Bernardino. Mayors serve multiterm stints, launch long-range projects, realize that they’ll encounter in daily life their neighbors who pay the city’s taxes and rely on its services. I could spend the rest of this article describing initiatives that tech companies are launching and refining to improve the quality, responsiveness, and accountability of city services.

Even as arguments about tax cuts or increases have degenerated into religious war at the national level, we saw them discussed in what you could call reasonable terms locally. Dodge City, in western Kansas, is very conservative in national politics. But everyone we met there stressed the importance of its “Why Not Dodge?” sales-tax increase, which citizens had approved in the late 1990s in a referendum. The proceeds had paid for parks, public swimming pools, and other facilities. In the same 2014 election in which West Virginia voters removed the very last Democrat from the state’s congressional delegation, the taxpayers of the capital city, Charleston, voted for a levy to sustain their public libraries. Even as the local and national economy collapsed in 2009, the mayor of Columbus, Ohio, urged his citizens to approve a tax increase rather than curtail city services and lay off employees, and they agreed.

“Across the country, we’re seeing significant growth in local officials’ training for civic engagement, and the appearance of many new online platforms and other tools to connect citizens and their governments,” Pete Peterson, the dean of Pepperdine University’s School of Public Policy, in California, told me. Peterson ran down a list of cities illustrating the effects of a new emphasis on engagement—starting, to my surprise, with the Los Angeles–area city of Bell. In 2010, Bell was the object of an investigative series by the Los Angeles Times showing corruption in the city’s administration top to bottom. (For instance, the city manager of this small, low-income city had engineered pay for himself of well over $1 million a year.) The series was followed by arrests, trials, and prison sentences. “That city has seen nothing less than a civic renaissance, with new leadership and a public much more involved in the future of the city,” Peterson said. “It’s an amazing before-and-after illustration of what happens when people get engaged”—for example, involving citizens in decisions about what had been a notably secretive city-budgeting process.

Immigration. Even as the national discussion grows more hateful, the lived reality of absorbing immigrants and refugees has remained remarkably calm—in the cities where they have actually arrived. Pew, like other polling organizations, periodically asks Americans which national problems concern them most. Through the five years before Donald Trump’s election, immigration rarely made the top five. (The economy usually leads.) A Gallup poll conducted six months after his inauguration found that nearly two-thirds of Americans felt the level of immigration should either stay the same or go up.

During the 2016 “Brexit” campaign, polls indicated that the communities in the United Kingdom most fearful of an immigrant presence were those where the fewest immigrants had ever come. American polls strongly indicate the same pattern. Steve King, a Republican who is the most outspokenly anti-immigrant member of Congress, represents a district in Iowa that is 93 percent white; representatives from districts along the U.S.–Mexico border, Republican and Democrat alike, are more relaxed about the immigrant “threat” and either outright oppose or only tepidly support plans to “build the wall.”

Whereas immigrants congregate in big cities such as Chicago and Los Angeles, many refugees are sent to medium-size communities that have specialized in assimilating them, a process we saw in, for instance, South Dakota, Vermont, Minnesota, and Pennsylvania, among other states. Midwestern industrial cities that have lost some of their home-born population have pushed hard for outsiders to revitalize them. Erie was a magnet for eastern-European and other immigrants during its manufacturing heyday, from the mid-19th through the mid-20th centuries. Now refugees, including recent arrivals from Syria, make up fully 10 percent of its population, and they supply much of its entrepreneurial energy. In 2006 a group called Welcoming Tennessee began celebrating the importance of immigrants and refugees to Nashville’s economy. It has spread to become Welcoming America, supporting immigrant and refugee settlement in more than 50 cities.

Talent dispersal. Even as ambition, money, opportunity, and innovation cram ever more tightly into New York, San Francisco, Seattle, and elsewhere, a discernible “reverse talent migration” is taking place.

In Wichita, Kansas; in Bend, Oregon; in Duluth, Minnesota; in Sioux Falls, South Dakota; in Fresno, we found people who had already worked in the most expensive and “elite” cities or who had been recruited for opportunities there, and decided instead that the overall life balance was better someplace smaller and less expensive. Steve Case, a co-founder of AOL and now the CEO of the technology-investment firm Revolution, has for several years led “Rise of the Rest” tours across the country to promote new tech businesses and support existing ones in places other than the famous tech centers. “For half a century, there’s been a brain drain, as people who grew up in the ‘rest of America’ left their hometowns for better opportunities elsewhere,” Case told me recently. Case himself grew up in Hawaii but built his companies in the Washington, D.C., area. “We’re starting to see less of that brain drain. We’re seeing more graduates stay in place, in cities like Pittsburgh or Columbus, and a boomerang of people returning to where they’re from—for lifestyle reasons, and because they can see that their communities are rising and opportunities are increasing, and they’d like to be part of what’s going on.”

Case points out that venture-capital support for start-ups is still heavily skewed toward the coasts. Nearly half of the total funds in the U.S. are directed to companies in California alone. But he says the balance is shifting, as part of a “third wave” of technology businesses (the first the building of the internet, the second the building of companies using it) based on applying advanced technology to “real” enterprises, from agriculture to health care to manufacturing. “It’s going to be more important to know how doctors work and farmers think and to build strategic partnerships,” he told me, “than just to work on coding and software.” The coding and software centers are in a handful of big cities. These other businesses are dispersed across the country, and start-ups will follow. “We see the ecosystems developing—mayors working with entrepreneurs and university presidents,” Case said. “Things are bubbling in these cities. It’s an untold story.”

“Young people want to live in the city again, and they’re reviving it,” a tech-company founder named Doug Pelletier told us in Allentown, Pennsylvania, explaining why he had moved his headquarters from the suburbs to the long-troubled but improving downtown. It was a story we heard time and again. Igor Ferst, a Millennial engineer who had worked for Google and other famous companies in California, wrote us to describe why he and his wife had decided to move to Columbus. “The biggest improvement to our quality of life is not a lower median house price (though that doesn’t hurt),” he said. “Rather, it is a sense of freedom that comes from finding personal and professional fulfillment in a vibrant and welcoming city, away from the Bay Area’s grinding commutes and careerist, status-obsessed culture.”