There are many reasons to feel disconcerted by recent events in America: Covid runs unabated, Afghanistan devolved into chaos, inflation fails to be transitory, important supply lines are disrupting, authoritarian power grabs are on the rise, and long held rights are in retreat.
But the news is not all dark. Sincere and intelligent voices are now entering the public square in growing numbers, determined to speak up on behalf of timeless human yearnings, like free speech, universal justice, objective public analysis, and the right to make one’s own choices.
This new band of activists has gravitated recently toward Substack. But its writers, including Glenn Greenwald, Michael Tracey, and John McWhorter, stand on the shoulders of an often-unacknowledged previous group. The Substackerati and their allies should really be characterized as a “second wave” of thinkers whose message is emerging in a post-Trump political era.
They follow in the wake of a “first wave” of writer/activists, some of whose messages were crafted in the pre-Obama era. This earlier clan includes prescient voices like James Howard Kunstler, Chris Martenson, and Charles Hugh Smith.
Both groups produce effective, insightful analysis today. Their common perspectives place them in the lower quadrants of the political circle ……
The two “generations” give similar answers to a fundamental question about power: each member addresses the rights and responsibilities of citizens, and is skeptical about the controls now being asserted by top-down institutions. But despite these commonalities, the two groups differ in one important aspect.
The pattern exhibited by the more recently emerged pundits is to comment on national events and on mainstream initiatives. Thus, you see Bari Weiss, Matt Taibbi, and others writing about Washington DC policies, the military-industrial complex, flawed major media narratives, and corporate woke initiatives. This indicates an orientation toward – and a criticism of – those who hold positions of centralized power. In other words, the newer generation of writers attempts to hold its diametric opponents, the top-down institutions, accountable.
In contrast, observers like Kunstler and Martenson emphasize the impact of centralized policies on the decisions that individuals and local communities must make about their own lives. While the first wave’s political position is in proximity to the second wave’s, their focus points in a different direction. The first wave thinkers speak less about what’s wrong at “the top”, and more about what can be made right at “the bottom”.
One American figure is playing a crucial role within this dynamic. Charles Marohn, author of the deeply insightful new book Confessions of a Recovering Engineer, is aligned with the earlier wave of more locally-oriented thinkers, many of whom he has close ties with. But Marohn differs from the bulk of first and second wave activists because his influence has never been restricted solely to commentary. While he does excel there, Marohn is an instigator of effective action, in addition to being a person of letters.
This combination has created synergies. For example, his commentary has always been notably disciplined in its focus on pragmatic, grassroots, incremental, and local solutions. He only makes brief, strategic, high-level forays into commentary on national issues. When he does, the clear emphasis is on analysis over opinion …… an emphasis that resonates with readers and listeners who previously associated with the traditional left and the traditional right.
Marohn has also charted a route that no other prominent contemporary figure is pursuing. Over the past decade, in concert with like-minded thinkers, he has built a grassroots, nationwide organization. This broad network – Strong Towns – serves as an excellent example of how citizens can organize horizontally and non-hierarchically to address issues they’ve observed in their local communities.
The work Marohn has undertaken is not easy. Local politics are just as dysfunctional as national politics …… if not more so. This has caused progress during the early stages of the Strong Towns movement to be necessarily slow: defeats must, by definition, outpace victories. Throughout this long initial phase, Chuck has remained both respectful and resolute. He seems to understand that turbulence must be expected in an emergent, self-organizing process.
But the important work of building a viable organization has been undertaken. A band of equals has been formed. This large and growing movement will be ready to influence outcomes as local jurisdictions are forced to address the difficult new problems of an unexpected future.
Commentators are valuable, including those who hold powerful institutions to account. But a flexible organization that’s effective on the ground is indispensable. Marohn has been instrumental in providing both at a very high quality.