NEW YORK – So I’ve been doing a lot of driving lately. First I drove from New York to the San Francisco suburb of Lafayette, California (where I grew up and where my dad still lives), via New Jersey, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, South Dakota, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, Washington and Oregon. Then I drove back by way of Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Missouri, Illinois (for about 10 minutes this time, nine of them spent walking around Fort Defiance State Park, where the Ohio River meets the Mississippi), Kentucky, West Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Got back home to Manhattan on Saturday night. And yes, taking the subway to work Monday morning was a nice change of pace!
This meandering voyage was not an attempt to divine the American mood in the run-up to the 2018 midterm elections. More than enough journalists and pollsters are doing that already; plus, it’s really not my thing. I was mainly just looking to get out of the office and encounter ideas for columns that wouldn’t occur to me from behind a desk in Manhattan. I’ve already written several — on ubiquitous hipster coffeehouses; traffic roundabouts; dairy farms leaving California; the Permian Basin oil boom; the unlikely growth of Sioux Falls, South Dakota; and Ohio’s fitful economic comeback — and there are many more still to come.
Now that I’m back home, though, I do have something to say about the mood I experienced while traveling, although I’m not sure it was so much America’s mood as mine. Harvard University economist and former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers reported recently after a similar if more small-town-focused road trip with his wife that:
“We were … struck by how remote the concerns of the coasts seemed. Televisions in bars and restaurants were rarely turned to news channels. No one seemed terribly concerned with the controversy over then-Supreme Court nominee Brett M. Kavanaugh.”
I too was struck by how remote national politics felt during my road trip. But, while I wouldn’t be shocked if the percentage of politically obsessed people is higher in New York or Cambridge, Massachusetts, than in Sioux Falls or Tulsa, the seeming remoteness of national issues was attributable at least as much to what I was doing as to where I was.
Televisions in bars and restaurants, where I spent a lot more time during my road trip than I usually do, are seldom turned to news channels no matter where you are. They usually show sports — although at Bar Ona in Lexington, Kentucky, on Friday evening, the featured viewing was the 1983 slasher movie “Sleepaway Camp.”
In the car, meanwhile, one has to choose, by listening to news/talk radio or political podcasts, to make current affairs a part of the journey. I chose instead to listen to audiobooks, historical podcasts and Spotify playlists. When I spent a day in Bloomberg’s San Francisco bureau after 10 days on the road and live audio of the Kavanaugh hearing was playing in the bathroom, I missed that freedom of choice.
My trip also involved lots of conversations with people about their communities or areas of expertise. Such conversations tend not to focus on national politics — unless of course the community is Washington or the area of expertise national politics (and it is understandably those kinds of people whose views get the most attention in the national media).
Finally, when you’re on a long road trip and are the only driver, there’s not much time for social media. I posted some travel photos on Instagram and lots of pictures of artfully swirled caffe lattes on Twitter, but that was about it.
Now that I’m back in New York and my media diet is back to more or less normal, the sense of calm, remove and, yes, optimism that pervaded my long days of driving has begun to dissipate. Maybe this just means I’m returning to the real world after an escapist journey. But I also wonder if it’s an indication that my normal media diet — even though it’s mostly free of such known toxins as Facebook and cable TV news, and heavy on old books — is driving me a little nuts.
A couple of years ago, I wrote a column puzzling over the rise in political polarization in the U.S. despite the absence of “a single great ideological divide” like slavery in the 19th century, and asked readers what they thought was driving it. The majority of the responses fingered the media in some form or another. That seems about right. How people get their news has changed dramatically over the past few decades — starting with the rise of conservative talk radio starting in the late 1980s and continuing through the founding of Facebook, YouTube, Reddit, Twitter and other new platforms. The results have included more attention to previously obscure topics, which is great, and more openness to ideas outside the prevailing mainstream, which isn’t necessarily bad, but also includes a lot more tendentiousness and untruth. The reaction of the mainstream media to the loss of its information monopoly has often exacerbated the divisions and distrust. And U.S. President Donald Trump, who seems intuitively to understand this new media landscape better than anyone, has chosen to use it mainly to foment further division and anger.
If one exits this roiling media landscape to spend a few weeks interacting with the actual (and often spectacular) American landscape, and talking to people about things not directly related to Trump, this country can actually feel like a pretty calm, friendly, well-functioning place. Maybe it is! But until its citizens find better ways to talk to each other about national issues, it will also probably keep feeling like a country on the brink of something awful.
Justin Fox is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering business and the author of “The Myth of the Rational Market.”