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What Two Writers Found When They Bought a Plane and Touched Down on Main Street, U.S.A.

Their travels began in 2012, just before Obama’s re-election, and continued until early 2017, when “Make America Great Again” had caught on in at least parts of the country. The most surprising aspect of their exploration, which they first chronicled in The Atlantic, where James Fallows is a longtime national correspondent, is how seldom they got a chance to talk about the issues we think of as being at the top of the national agenda. The more bustling a town, the less likely that national politics came up in conversation. That seems quaint, given the bitter partisanship that seems to have cleaved the country in 2018, big city and small town alike.

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What did come up were local challenges, as described by the entrepreneurs, factory workers, refugees and civic leaders they met. By focusing on the local, and not shading everyplace they went in bright hues of red and blue, James and Deborah (who alternate writing chapters) help us see similarities between places like Burlington, Vt., a liberal enclave, and Greenville, S.C., solidly Republican. Each has a waterfront that anchors a lively downtown. Downtowns, it turns out, are one of the indicators as to whether a once-struggling place is coming back to life. “Downtown ambitions of any sort are a positive sign, and occupied second- and third-floor apartments and condos over restaurants and stores suggest that the downtown has crossed a decisive threshold and will survive,” they write. Public-private partnerships — which they discuss excitedly in town after town — are another thing that helps communities get into a groove.

There is an unpredictability to flying, they show, even if one is not leaving the piloting to United or JetBlue. During their travels, their radio crackled with reports of crop dusters, dangerous flocks of birds, sky divers, drones and even Air Force One carrying the previous president. But once they landed, they explored with such a deliberate approach — hitting the same local institutions no matter where they went — that one can’t help wondering whether there were fascinations, and insights, that escaped them.

The first stop was invariably the local newspaper, where they debriefed the editor on people to meet. Who am I, a newspaper editor, to quibble with that approach? But they spent considerable time chatting up the economic development czars, meaning they were spun on the grandness of wherever they happened to be, sometimes with cheesy mottoes like the one they came across in Fresno: “It’s Fres-yes!”

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