Citizens, It's Down to You

Stephen Voss for Newsweek

Americans are, by nature, self-reliant. They’ve always been that way, and most would prefer to stay that way. But there are limits. “Yes, we are rugged individualists,” President Barack Obama told a joint session of Congress last week in his Big Jobs Speech. “But there’s always been another thread running throughout our history—a belief that we’re all connected, and that there are some things we can only do together, as a nation.”

OK, fair enough. But what happens when the government that is supposed to bring people together instead helps to drive them apart? Or simply ceases to function in any reasonable fashion? That is what we’ve seen in the last few months, and the problem is only likely to grow worse in the months to come. As that happens, rugged individualists may have to grow more rugged than ever before.

There are some issues that only government can address successfully. As Michael Tomasky points out in the following pages, America’s crumbling infrastructure can be fixed, but “we have to fix Washington first.” The country’s hard-pressed cities, big and small, are where the vast majority of Americans live and where they demand the most immediate services, from garbage collection to public transport. “If it’s broke, fix it,” read signs put up in the subways by New York City’s transit authority, explaining why it’s patching up the stations piecemeal rather than opting for full-scale renovations that are badly needed.

Elsewhere, Americans have gotten tired of waiting for the federal and state governments to solve their problems. They’ve looked at the major issues affecting their communities—unemployment, environmental degradation, crime, aging populations—and they’ve decided to fix what they can with whatever resources they can find right now. If Washington can help, that’s great. If it can’t or won’t or just doesn’t, then corporate sponsors can sometimes be found to fill the gap. Indeed, CEOs at several dynamic corporations are offering ideas, expertise, and in some cases substantial funding. Add to that grassroots volunteers. Lots of volunteers.

Some of these creative fixers are in local government. Some have founded nongovernmental organizations. Others have developed whole new business models. A few are old-school revolutionaries. One of the things that’s striking about most of these people in this, the age of the Tea Party, is that they’re not hostile to government. Just disappointed. They’d like Washington to learn from what they’ve done and help to spread the word and the expertise to other parts of the country. They’d like to make their hometowns models for Main Streets all over America. But they don’t share the fantasy that good government would be no government, which some Washington politicians seem to favor and which is one reason the government we’ve got is able to do so little. So while gridlock settles in on Capitol Hill, they just keep on keeping on in their own way, in the places and among the friends and neighbors they know best.

“The town is only going to tolerate what the people are willing to tolerate,” says Frank DeBartolo, the police chief of little Braddock, Pa., which is finally making some slow progress after years of devastating neglect. “But I don’t care what town you are in, whether it’s Braddock or towns or cities across the country,” says DeBartolo, “if people want to change the quality of life in their town, they have the power to do it.”

Photos: American's 20 Can-Do Capitals Walter Bibikow / JAI-Corbis

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