Outside Washington, America thriving
June 7th, 2013
07:11 PM ET

Outside Washington, America thriving

By Fareed Zakaria

In the past few weeks, we all watched tornadoes hit Oklahoma. One of them was the widest tornado in U.S. history, ravaging an area longer and wider at points than Manhattan. Now the state is out of the news. But away from the media spotlight, Oklahoma is rebuilding itself in a determined fashion that is characteristic of its spirit.

I got interested in Oklahoma's recent history because, the week before the tornado, I was asked to deliver the commencement address at the University of Oklahoma. And in preparing for it, I was struck by the state's recent revival of fortunes, one that gave me a lot of hope about America.

You see, in recent decades, experts were sure that the Oklahoma – and the states around it that make up the Great Plains – could not compete in a post-industrial age, that the area was becoming a wasteland.

But about ten years ago, the numbers started to show the opposite. In a smart report, the urban development writer Joel Kotkin points out that the Great Plains have outperformed the national average on population increase, on income growth, and in job growth.  We tend to think Americans leave the Great Plains for the coasts. But the data shows that since 2000, there has been a large net migration from southern California to Oklahoma City.

Look closely at Oklahoma's capital. Of the 49 U.S. metropolitan areas with more than a million people, Oklahoma City has the lowest unemployment rate of all. It has grown three times faster than San Francisco in the past decade.

Why is this happening? Well, there's no one answer, but it’s not all about oil and natural gas. In part, the global economy has created new markets for agriculture. Oklahoma is very good at that. New technologies – coupled with smart government regulation – have spurred an energy boom in oil and gas.

And investments in good education programs – state universities for example – have set up a conveyer belt of well-trained managers and workers for manufacturing.

The revival of the Great Plains touches on another hopeful sign in America.

We all believe that America's politics is broken. And it is – if you're looking at Washington. But as the great speaker of the House of Representatives Tip O'Neill liked to say, "all politics is local", and at that local level, there is a revolution brewing.

It is what scholars Jennifer Bradley and Bruce Katz call a "Metropolitan Revolution." Cities and counties across the country are getting over political divides, partnering with the private sector, and revitalizing America. Look at Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s ambitious plans for Applied Sciences in New York, Mayor Rahm Emmanuel's Infrastructure Trust in Chicago, Denver's transit system, or the $7 billion in public and private investments that transformed Oklahoma City.

The Metropolitan Revolution is a much-needed reminder that America often works best from the bottom-up. So when you despair about Washington, turn your gaze at a town or a city or a state in America that's getting it right. And maybe take a look at Oklahoma.

A transcript of my speech at the University of Oklahoma, which I drew on for this report, is available here.


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