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A Flyby Analysis of Flyover Country

Two Atlantic writers tour America in a tiny plane and manage to miss nearly everything that really matters.

Our Towns: A 100,000-Mile Journey into the Heart of America, by James and Deborah Fallows, Pantheon, 432 pages, $28.95

PantheonPantheonWhen they started planning Our Towns in 2012, it looked like James and Deborah Fallows had found a clever new way to explore the heart and soul of flyover country. For the next four years, with James at the controls of their $600,000 single-engine prop airplane, the married pair of Atlantic writers intermittently dropped in on about 30 small towns and cities, from seaside Eastport, Maine, to James' hometown of Redlands, California.

Sometimes going back once or twice, sometimes staying for a week or even three, the couple explored the civic and socioeconomic health of such disparate American places as metropolitan Columbus, Ohio, and dusty Ajo, Arizona. They sipped local craft beers with the hippest, brightest, most progressive residents to find out how they were resurrecting deindustrialized towns, handling waves of immigrants, or otherwise dealing with national and global changes beyond their control.

Our Towns is the couple's account of their prolonged search for the "heart of America." It bills itself as a "vivid, surprising portrait of the civic and economic reinvention" that's happening under the radar of the national media, in places like Rapid City, Erie, Demopolis, Holland, Bend, Sioux City, Allentown, and Greenville.

With the Fallowses in the cockpit, you'd expect a smart, serious, and enlightening work of high-quality journalism—a 408-page Atlantic cover piece. James has 11 previous books under his belt, and Deborah's writings about women, education, and travel have appeared in The Atlantic, National Geographic, and elsewhere. Yet this collection of small-town snapshots is a plane wreck.

Our Towns sometimes reads like a bunch of travel notes stapled together chronologically. Other times it feels like it was written from 2,500 feet. It's overloaded with chamber-of-commerce details and laden with dull quotes from local politicians and other civic big shots. Repetitive and often stale, it contains no edge, no humor, no hate, not even any photos. It's the worst kind of serious journalism: the boring kind.

The Fallowses, who equitably took turns writing mini-chapters, didn't help things by taking four years to complete their geographically lopsided journey. (About half of the 29 places they cover, including Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and Burlington, Vermont, hosted them in 2013 and 2014—an eon ago.) Their eccentric sampling of towns includes one in Texas, none in Florida, three in Kansas, five in California, and three in Mississippi.

But the chief reason for their book's page-turning tedium is how they reported it. The authors may have aimed to show us the hidden grassroots of America, but their reporting is more top-down than bottom-up.

Typically, they would drop into a town and start interviewing local powerbrokers and the booster class: the mayor, the city planner, the key developers, the important business tycoon, the president of the college, the principal of the most innovative high school, the editor of the dying newspaper, the head librarian, the "outsized" local personality. The authors rarely if ever interviewed regular townspeople about their jobs or asked what they thought of their kids' new Latino classmates. They hung out in rejuvenated public libraries, high-tech incubators, and craft breweries, not sports bars, truck stops, or corner churches. If they bumped into a pissed-off cattle rancher in line at D&M Agricultural Supply in Rapid City or asked some Rust Belt survivors at a Trump rally in Erie why they were wearing those big red MAGA hats, they don't share the experience with readers.

The Fallowses are a sophisticated, elite Beltway couple. Jim went to Harvard and Oxford and in his 20s was President Jimmy Carter's chief speechwriter. Deborah has a Ph.D. from Harvard in theoretical linguistics (and often writes like it). Moderate Hillary Democrats to their bones, they love all the correct liberal things: public schools and libraries, bike paths and public-private partnerships that redevelop dead downtowns with river walks and public art. They hate Walmart, of course.

Whether the town they're visiting is in a red state or a blue one, the authors are pleased and a little surprised to find a gang of progressive, creative, brewpub-loving people like themselves who have chosen to live in Smalltown USA when they could just as easily be in New York, D.C., or Los Angeles. They also "discover" that the towns contain a corps of "local patriots" who love their hometowns, defend them from outside critics, and try their hardest to make them better places to live, work, raise families, and die.

James Fallows says these "stalwart groups," which have existed in North America since Jamestown was a fort, invariably put aside their partisan differences and do the right civic things. For him that usually means the public sector springs into action. Payroll taxes are raised. School bonds are floated. Tax-deferred financing schemes are packaged. Or federal or state subsidies are poured into slick projects like Coca-Cola Park, a $50 million minor-league baseball stadium in Allentown.

It was not out of character for the Fallowses to gloss over Coca-Cola Park's obscene cost or the fallacious economic arguments and straight-up political corruption used to get it built. Wherever the duo landed, they walked the sunny liberal side of Main Street. They didn't give government officials and politicians the scrutiny or grief they probably deserved, and they never brought up testy local subjects like high taxes, eminent domain abuse, or failing public schools.

The authors were smart not to waste time polling baristas in Lewiston, Idaho, to find out what they thought the United States should do in Syria. They avoided deliberately discussing national politics and divisive issues like fracking, gun control, policing, race relations, and opioid abuse. They were determined to keep their focus local, local, local—to a fault. On the upside, this allowed them to realize, as James wrote in The Atlantic, that America's future is "full of possibilities that the bleak trench warfare of national politics inevitably obscures." On the downside, this meant they ignored a national earthquake happening under their wingtips: the election of Donald Trump.

The authors paid close attention to the election, but for the book, which was finished in early 2017, they skipped the historic Trump-Clinton race entirely. Trump's name is mentioned in passing two or three times, and that's it. It's a huge, conspicuous, and ironic hole in a project whose purpose was to explore the ignored heartland of America.

The Fallowses' aerial exploration was a good idea gone bad. Their flyby journalism turns 29 unique American places into a slow blur of progressive politicians, reclaimed Main Streets, and dry sagas of economic decline and renewal.

But it has its pluses. Individually, many of its stories are informative. The authors' optimism is refreshing. So is the absence of any snooty contempt for flyover country. And it probably wasn't intentional, but the book does make an indirect case for federalism. It doesn't extol federalism's virtues explicitly, and it certainly doesn't complain that the $4.4 trillion federal government has usurped too much power and money from the states, but its upbeat civic portraits clearly testify to the value of what's left of America's decentralized system of governance.

Our Towns is packed with examples of the social and economic benefits of leaving local people in local control; it shows that even the smallest communities in Arizona and Alabama can govern themselves with little if any supervision or interference from the central government. Whether or not they intended it, two elite liberals from inside the Beltway have made a strong case that Washington should leave the rest of the country alone.

Photo Credit: Pantheon

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  • Sometimes a Great Notion||

    I like my journey's to the heart of america more savage.

  • This Machine Chips Fascists||

    + 1 bottle of ether and/or bat repellant

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    It sounds like this book was mostly put together before November 2016, when progressive journalists and talking heads briefly flirted with the idea that maybe they should have been listening to Middle America speak instead of spending all their time speaking at it. That's a shame. The Fallowses could have been on the ground floor of understanding what happened, instead of taking their bubble on the road with them.

  • Overt||

    My company's news division sent a bunch of reporters on a bus tour of Middle America to understand why Trump won. When they came back and presented at one of our town halls, it was a farce. They went to all these red counties and found a single mother trying to pay the bills, the only transgender in the deep south, and various other liberal tropes. They never once tried to understand why Red states disagreed with them, instead insisting that those states obviously have the same issues.

    This is why they continue to just yell louder. They really think that the majority of people in red counties will come to their side if they hear the liberal message.

  • NoVaNick||

    People see and hear what they want to see and hear. Yes, there are craft breweries, espresso bars, and Democrats in Small Town America, so of course these two journalists will seek out there own kind, rather than go to a dive bar or Walmart.

  • ||

    Which company is this?

  • Rockabilly||

    Fuck them and their fancy fucking friends in their fancy fucking fake loft with fake aged shit.

    Fuck off democrat progressive communist fucking losers.

  • This Machine Chips Fascists||

    So, 5 or 6 years of flying vacations written off their taxes as research? Uncle Sam has a sad...then prints more cash for the things we do together.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    More goober Lefties trying to act like they understand the part of America they dont want to know about.

    Its like going to California and visiting Pelosi but not the rest of the state or visiting D.C. and avoiding the Jefferson memorial but seeing the more popular Lincoln memorial.

    Lefties hate that they live in a Constitutional Democratic Republic.

  • Juggernaut||

    You're too stupid to realize that not all country people are dipshit Republicans. Go fuck yourself.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    You poor fuck-o, I never said that interior America residents were all Republicans.

    You Lefties are really going to hate Trump getting reelected, Kavanaugh being confirmed, and RBG being replaced by Trump.

  • Juggernaut||

    Trump's yankee liberal dick is so far up your ass.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    There would be no room.

    Tony, Buttplugger, and you have your heads up my ass looking for answers.

    There is no room in YOUR ass since Hillary already has her herpes infected two inch dick jammed up there working you like a mannequin.

  • perlchpr||

    Hrm. Logical implication of insult: "Juggernaut has a tiny, tiny asshole", since it's supposedly completely full from a described as miniscule diseased penis. That's... a pretty weird insult, ultimately.

    Or is that "two inches" referring to thickness?

    Is it more insulting to Clinton to declare that she has a penis, but it's tiny, or to declare that she has a penis, and moreover, she's hung like a rhinocerous? :D

  • loveconstitution1789||

    I could have gone the Hillary big dong schtick but we all know that hHillary's penis has to be long enough to fuck Bill and America but not long enough for everyone to like it.

    As to Juggernaut's rectum, I hardly knew him.

  • perlchpr||

    More goober Lefties trying to act like they understand the part of America they dont want to know about.

    "don't want to know about". That's a damned good way of putting it. It's like what I'm trying to talk about below about Wal-Mart. There are democrats in these areas, but... they're the sort of democrats who also shop at Wal-Mart, and so these people don't understand them either. Don't want to understand them.

  • JFree||

    The Fallowses' aerial exploration was a good idea gone bad.

    Of course it was. Studs Terkel died and he was the last guy who could channel deToqueville and make something important out of everyday Joe/Jane

  • Shirley Knott||

    A much better picture of America can be had in John Water's Carsick — at least, the non-fiction third.
    John is nobody's idea of a 'standard white male' but he finds much to celebrate in the perfectly ordinary people he encounters as a hitchhiker.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    If you want to know what most of America thinks, ask them.

    Trump was elected as president by them via their electors. Trump is a symbol of their thoughts, opinions, and political positions.

  • Juggernaut||

    Fly over country couldn't do shit without the help of the other states. Fuck your fly over country. You people pushing this idea of some noble heartland are the fucking snobs.

  • JFree||

    The doctrine of regulation and legislation by "master minds," in whose judgment and will all the people may gladly and quietly acquiesce, has been too glaringly apparent at Washington during these last ten years. Were it possible to find "master minds" so unselfish, so willing to decide unhesitatingly against their own personal interests or private prejudices, men almost god-like in their ability to hold the scales of Justice with an even hand, such a government might be to the interest of the country, but there are none such on our political horizon, and we cannot expect a complete reversal of all the teachings of history.

    Now, to bring about government by oligarchy masquerading as democracy, it is fundamentally essential that practically all authority and control be centralized in our National Government. The individual sovereignty of our States must first be destroyed, except in mere minor matters of legislation. We are safe from the danger of any such departure from the principles on which this country was founded just so long as the individual home rule of the States is scrupulously preserved and fought for whenever it seems in danger. - FDR 1930

  • Juggernaut||

    Very interesting perspective from FDR before the Great Depression and WW2 but it doesn't address my point that the snobbery goes both way.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    You Lefties are not snobs.

    You Lefties hate non-Lefties. YOU HATE THEM!

    You cannot believe that anyone would not want to be Socialist.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    Being a snob, implies that you are better than some other group.

    Lefties are not better than non-Lefties.

    Americans are not snobs. They know how great the USA could be and is. They want that.

    Conservative Americans are also aware of other viewpoints but have mostly come to grips with Lefties trying to intern or murder them and are fighting back.

  • JFree||

    I don't give a fuck about addressing your idiotic notion that those without power are the source of any problems whatsoever. You wanna see the problem? Look in the fucking mirror.

  • Scarecrow Repair & Chippering||

    The Great Depression was begun by the October 1929 stock market crash.

  • JFree||

    That speech (and FDR's Portland speech in 1932 by when he reversed himself) are the perfect counterpoints to either leftist revisionists who say that circumstances alone made the 'Brain Trust' happen/necessary or rightist revisionists who say this was all part of some prog-era plan from 30 years previous.

    I interpret that change by FDR as proof of Acton's 'power corrupts'. Which also occurs with every natl-aspirations Rep who spouts on about federalism when convenient.

  • Shirley Knott||

    You have that exactly backwards. The coasts are dependent on 'fly over country' for food, power, water, and much of the infrastructure of civilization.
    Iowa, can get by a lot longer without New York than New York can get by without Iowa.

  • perlchpr||

    This.

    If it ever does come to left vs: right civil war in this country, teams with .50 BMG or better rifles sitting outside San Diego, Los Angeles, the Bay Area, Seattle, Chicago, Boston, New York City, Baltimore, Washington, etc., putting holes in tractor trailer engine blocks will very swiftly halt the flow of food to lefty strongholds. I predict surrender in about a week.

  • lap83||

    If flyover country didn't have the coasts, who would provide us with condescending awards show lectures via satellite?!!

  • BestUsedCarSales||

    Nashville?

  • Enjoy Every Sandwich||

    I grew up in flyover country and still have family and friends there. It's fair to say there are hard feelings toward the progs who think of themselves as the elite and believe they are entitled to meddle in the everyday affairs of those they style as "rubes". People who want nothing more than to be left alone aren't being left alone, and they don't like it.

  • Conchfritters||

    Because you can't stomp us out and you can't make us run, cause we're them old boys raised on shotguns -
    We say grace, and we say ma'am, if you ain't into that we don't give a damn!

  • loveconstitution1789||

    +1

  • perlchpr||

    Love that song.

  • Echospinner||

    Stay where you are Juggernaut

    You would not survive here.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    Lefties always have such a Sad.

  • Enjoy Every Sandwich||

    So is the absence of any snooty contempt for flyover country.

    I find this sentence puzzling, since the reviewer mentions more than once that the authors went out of their way to only talk to their own kind of people. It's like trying to get the pulse of a majority black city by only talking to white people and then patting yourself on the back for your open-mindedness.

  • Scarecrow Repair & Chippering||

    Crap! Foiled again!

  • Scarecrow Repair & Chippering||

    How's Lucy?

  • Scarecrow Repair & Chippering||

    So is the absence of any snooty contempt for flyover country.

    The whole book seems like a snooty contempt for flyover country, if the only people they talk to are the snooty progressives.

  • perlchpr||

    Reading this article it struck me that there are two basic kinds of people who hate Wal-Mart. There are the people who hate Wal-Mart because they shop there, (i.e.: People who are familiar with the place) and people who just hate Wal-Mart for ideological reasons. And the latter kind are not the kind of people who can really connect with lower class folks, because they seem to always be Whole Foods class people who just don't get that some times, you just need something to be functional once, and to not cost too much goddamn money.

  • Scarecrow Repair & Chippering||

    Mu distaste for Wal-Mart is a holdover from the days of narrow aisles and too few cashiers. My distaste for Whole Foods is seeing ORGANIC splashed on seemingly every product and sign.

  • perlchpr||

    Yep. I mostly hate going there because there aren't ever enough checkout folks. Although they've gone heavy into the self-service stands, and that helped a lot the last time I went. But... I've been to Wal-Mart twice this month. Sometimes it's just the place to go.

  • I'm Not Sure||

    "people who just hate Wal-Mart for ideological reasons."

    Progressive virtue signalling. If you don't like a business for whatever reason, you just don't go there. If they have crappy service, it's not like you're forced to do business with them. You know, the way you are with the DMV.

  • crookedbill||

    I'd say there's a third category that hates Walmart. I'm ambivalent about Walmart because I live in a major east coast city and don't have one nearby, but my dad lives in small town MI and, despite being a hard R, he still hates 'em. Doesn't like the fact that all the small family-owned shops on main street he grew up with shut down and the only place to shop now is Walmart, with their abundance of cheap Chinese made crap, 20 minutes farther away.

    Suffice it to say, he's not a free trade guy. Sees the export of jobs and the driving down of cost, and arguably the quality, of goods as a blight on small town America. Yeah, a $25 pair of jeans is better than a $50 pair of jeans, but that doesn't mean shit when your job's been exported and now that $25 pair is still way too expensive.

    But wait, maybe Walmart is hiring minimum wage cashiers.

  • BigChiefWahoo||

    I would love to be able to buy American made goods from a local family owned store whose inventory offered a lot of choice at low cost and was open 24 hours a day. Walmart has a lot to criticize, but it's open when I need stuff and they usually have something more or less along the lines of what it is I need.

  • I'm Not Sure||

    "two elite liberals from inside the Beltway have made a strong case that Washington should leave the rest of the country alone."

    Elite liberals don't go to Washington in order to leave the rest of the country alone.

  • DrT||

    "Whether or not they intended it, two elite liberals from inside the Beltway have made a strong case that Washington should leave the rest of the country alone."

    Well, of course they didn't intend that. One of the commenters is right: people don't go to the Beltway to leave everyone else alone. But you hammered a couple of the key issues Bill. Really well done. It took two years of living part-time, roughly five months a year, in a small country town before locals would really express what they thought to me. Just a little at first. I did a lot of listening and not a whole lot of talking. They don't need more people talking at them. They hear every day on the news and talk shows stupid, mean-spirited and backward they are. What I've learned is that the ones who really are stupid, mean-spirited and backward are the same ones doing most of the name-calling.

  • I'm Not Sure||

    I moved from California to a state with a much smaller population about 30 years ago. At first, people here were somewhat reserved but once they realized I didn't want to see this place turned into the cesspool that is SoCal, I got along just fine.

  • Qsl||

    Hard to see any survey of middle America that didn't include churches (you know, the other half of God and Country). It might have been an even greater shock to find parishioners have many of the same concerns as those on the coasts (help for the poor, revitalization for economically depressed areas, improving access to education, etc.).

    Except...

    They are also acutely aware that any government programs will never touch their towns. That any discussion of the disadvantaged somehow excludes them. They are expendable. A rounding error in any policy negotiation.

    And even in a quest to discover the heartland, they still remain invisible.

  • FreeRadical||

    Yes. Absence of churches is all you need to know to tell you the authors haven't even scratched the surface. And they aren't even aware of it.

  • Eric L||

    'They hung out in rejuvenated public libraries, high-tech incubators, and craft breweries, not sports bars, truck stops, or corner churches.' Nor the American Legion on a Friday night or a VFW hall.

  • Unicorn Abattoir||

    Hey, we wanted to experience middle America, but we weren't about to associate with those people.

  • NoVaNick||

    So I bet I could travel to most of the major deep-blue cities in the US and find residents of every race, gender, ethnicity, and gender identity who have had enough of being over-taxed, over-regulated, and controlled by corrupt single party rule, then write a book about it.

  • Unicorn Abattoir||

    With the Fallowses in the cockpit, you'd expect a smart, serious, and enlightening work of high-quality journalism—a 408-page Atlantic cover piece.

    I'd expect smug, coastal elitist claptrap that looks down on the middle of the country. So yes, a 408-page Atlantic cover piece.

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    Bill Steigerwald

    Does this mean we can talk about Lucy?

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    They sipped local craft beers with the hippest, brightest, most progressive residents

    Huh, so they missed nearly all of America. Kay... reading on...

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    this meant they ignored a national earthquake happening under their wingtips

    Excellent turn of phrase. I like this Steigerwald kid, Reason should bring him on full time.

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    So is the absence of any snooty contempt for flyover country.

    I would argue that their top-down approach (very well described by Steigerwald above) IS the snooty contempt for flyover country.

    Their aggressive choice to walk on the sunny progressive side of Main street and hang with the hip kids at the brew pub proves that they're utterly uninterested in the dirty working class. They need not make disparaging comments about them, they simply walked past them standing at the service entrance and went in the front door where they had a limo waiting and a gilded invitation.

  • FreeRadical||

    This is exactly correct.

  • JoeBlow123||

    Lots of invisible people. They need to be helped... but not really heard.

  • FreeRadical||

    Huh. I grew up in Sioux City, Iowa. So I'm one of those exotic "others" that these two will never understand.

    Of course their narrative is top down. These people think that civilization itself comes from government and that everything good and interesting about a place can be found there.

    And even though it shouldn't bother me, I still bristle at the epitaph "fly-over country". Just about nothing better captures the arrogant isolation of coastal elites as that. They are far more isolated than the people they look down upon.

    I now live in Texas. Is that fly over country?

  • FreeRadical||

    I have always loved U2's song Heartland.

    See the sun rise over her skin
    Don't change it
    See the sun rise over her skin
    Dawn changes everything
    Everything
    And the delta sun
    Burns bright and violet
    Mississippi and the cotton wool heat
    Sixty six a highway speaks
    Of deserts dry
    Of cool green valleys
    Gold and silver veins
    Of the shining cities
    In this heartland
    In this heartland soil
    In this heartland
    Heaven knows this is a heartland
    Heartland, heartland
    See the sun rise over her skin
    She feels like water in my hand
    Freeway like a river cuts through this land
    Into the side of love
    Like a burning spear
    And the poison rain
    Brings a flood of fear
    Through the ghost ranch hills
    Death valley waters
    In the towers of steel
    Belief goes on and on
    In this heartland
    In this heartland soil
    In this heartland
    Heaven knows this is a heartland
    Heartland, heaven knows this is a heartland
    Heartland, heartland
    Heartland, heaven's day here in the heartland

  • buybuydandavis||

    "Flyover Safari"

  • Echospinner||

    Just keep flyin' over.

    And U2? What does that poser Irish band know?

    Babe, it's goin' to be rainin' outdoors
    Wintertime's comin', it's gon' be slow
    You can't make the winter, babe, that's dry, long, so
    You better come on in my kitchen, 'cause it's goin' to be rainin' outdoors

    Robert Johnson

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