A New Glass Ceiling

Ideological disagreements in Washington are blocking creative solutions to many of the country’s problems.

PHOENIX, AZ - OCTOBER 20: Volunteers working during The Home Depot Foundation & The Mission Continues Partner To Renovate Phoenix facility of U.S.VETS on October 20, 2011 in Phoenix, Arizona. 
Ronald Brownstein
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Ronald Brownstein
May 9, 2014, 1 a.m.

Po­lar­iz­a­tion and para­lys­is in Wash­ing­ton are trans­form­ing the no­tion of the glass ceil­ing.

Tra­di­tion­ally, the glass ceil­ing has re­ferred to the in­vis­ible bar­ri­ers that al­low wo­men and minor­it­ies to rise to a cer­tain level in ma­jor in­sti­tu­tions, but no fur­ther.

The new glass ceil­ing blocks the rise of in­nov­at­ive grass­roots solu­tions to the coun­try’s biggest chal­lenges, such as edu­ca­tion or in­equal­ity. Cre­at­ive think­ing is flour­ish­ing in loc­al gov­ern­ments, com­munity non­profit or­gan­iz­a­tions, and pub­lic-private part­ner­ships. But al­most none of these new ap­proaches are pen­et­rat­ing the frozen de­bate between the parties in Wash­ing­ton. The new think­ing stalls against the cal­ci­fied ideo­lo­gic­al dis­agree­ments that form the cap­it­al’s glass ceil­ing.

As the latest All­state/Na­tion­al Journ­al Heart­land Mon­it­or Poll re­leased Fri­day showed, few Amer­ic­ans are look­ing to the pin­nacle of either gov­ern­ment or busi­ness for solu­tions. When asked wheth­er an ar­ray of large in­sti­tu­tions are mostly help­ing or mostly hurt­ing the coun­try as it tries to ad­dress its ma­jor chal­lenges, more people said that large cor­por­a­tions, the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment, polit­ic­al parties, and cor­por­ate CEOs were hurt­ing rather than help­ing.

This col­lapse of con­fid­ence in so­ci­ety’s lead­er­ship class has con­trib­uted to the volat­il­ity that has pre­ven­ted either party from es­tab­lish­ing a dur­able elect­or­al ad­vant­age since the 1990s. But the dis­il­lu­sion­ment with those at the top is also fuel­ing a more pos­it­ive dy­nam­ic: It is en­cour­aging more in­di­vidu­als and in­sti­tu­tions to con­front at a loc­al level prob­lems that earli­er gen­er­a­tions might have waited for na­tion­al lead­er­ship to tackle.

That tend­ency is mani­fest in the in­creas­ingly ag­gress­ive — and di­ver­gent — state agen­das of Re­pub­lic­an and Demo­crat­ic gov­ernors. This trend has some un­deni­able costs. State cap­it­als that once op­er­ated with great­er con­sensus have grown more po­lar­ized. And states are sep­ar­at­ing on is­sues, such as gay mar­riage and im­mig­ra­tion, to an ex­tent that threatens equal pro­tec­tion un­der the law. But in oth­er ways, this state di­ver­gence is fuel­ing a peri­od of pro­duct­ive ex­per­i­ment­a­tion. Blue states like Cali­for­nia and Mary­land, and red ones like Texas and Ok­lahoma, are pro­du­cing very dif­fer­ent mod­els for a good life.

Mu­ni­cip­al in­nov­a­tion is thriv­ing, too. This leans more uni­formly left, as cit­ies be­come more re­li­ably Demo­crat­ic, largely be­cause the coun­try’s in­creas­ing di­versity is clustered in urb­an cen­ters. As journ­al­ist Har­old Mey­er­son noted in a widely dis­cussed Amer­ic­an Pro­spect art­icle re­cently , may­ors in cit­ies as dif­fer­ent as New York, Seattle, Pitt­s­burgh, Bo­ston, and Phoenix are all pur­su­ing agen­das that in­clude such ideas as ex­pand­ing ac­cess to preschool and in­creas­ing the min­im­um wage.

This re­viv­al of urb­an lib­er­al­ism has its lim­its: As vet­er­an journ­al­ist Tom Ed­sall noted in a re­sponse to Mey­er­son’s piece, may­ors presid­ing over less de­sir­able real es­tate than New York or Seattle are un­likely to press as ag­gress­ively to im­pose ob­lig­a­tions on loc­al em­ploy­ers who can re­lo­cate down the road. But there’s no ques­tion that many big cit­ies are pres­sure-test­ing the agenda that will in­creas­ingly define the Demo­crat­ic Party through Pres­id­ent Obama’s re­main­ing years and bey­ond. “What’s hap­pen­ing in cit­ies,” Mey­er­son wrote, “can be de­scribed as Obama’s agenda trick­ling down to the jur­is­dic­tions where it has enough polit­ic­al sup­port to be en­acted.”

The most en­cour­aging ex­ample of new forces filling the va­cu­um cre­ated by Wash­ing­ton’s im­mob­il­iz­a­tion is neither left nor right. It’s found in the pro­lif­er­a­tion of non­profit or­gan­iz­a­tions and pub­lic-private part­ner­ships sprout­ing in com­munit­ies across the coun­try.

So­cial en­tre­pren­eurs blend­ing busi­ness savvy with pub­lic mis­sion are craft­ing new means to meet old goals. These in­nov­at­ors range from the Mis­sion Con­tin­ues (which helps vet­er­ans reenter so­ci­ety through ser­vice), to the Mis­sion As­set Fund’s “lend­ing circles,” which are help­ing im­mig­rants as­sim­il­ate in the San Fran­cisco Bay Area, to the hy­brid high school/com­munity col­lege/vo­ca­tion­al train­ing that is boost­ing a mostly minor­ity stu­dent body at San Ant­o­nio’s Alamo Academies. (You can find more of these in­nov­a­tions on Na­tion­al Journ­al‘s on­line Solu­tions Bank.)

These ef­forts are ex­pand­ing partly be­cause ad­vances in in­form­a­tion tech­no­logy are mak­ing it easi­er for so­cial en­tre­pren­eurs to raise money, or­gan­ize sup­port­ers, and de­liv­er ser­vices. But this golden age of grass­roots dir­ect ac­tion also draws on the spread­ing sense that com­munit­ies can’t wait for dis­tant lead­ers to solve prob­lems. In the new Heart­land Mon­it­or Poll, a ma­jor­ity iden­ti­fied only two in­sti­tu­tions as do­ing more to help than hurt on the coun­try’s biggest prob­lems, and each was loc­ally rooted: com­munity groups and small busi­ness.

In the same poll, most Amer­ic­ans were quick to con­clude that loc­al solu­tions and dir­ect ac­tion through vol­un­tar­ism, while valu­able, were not enough. Ul­ti­mately, most re­spond­ents said, the coun­try can’t solve its prob­lems without na­tion­al-scale solu­tions.

That’s the right judg­ment. But the path through that conun­drum could be for Wash­ing­ton to play the role of cata­lyst: Through match­ing grants or more res­ults-based com­pet­i­tions for fed­er­al dol­lars, such as Pres­id­ent Obama’s Race to the Top, it could pro­mote wider ad­op­tion of fresh ap­proaches now demon­strat­ing prom­ise in a few com­munit­ies. The en­ergy crack­ling in loc­al in­nov­a­tion shows that a flow of tal­ent and new ideas is ready when Wash­ing­ton fi­nally lifts the glass ceil­ing.

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