This is a challenging time to study public policy, given the bitter political divisions in the United States. Competing world views challenge our sense of common national purpose. The electoral shocks of November 8, 2016 have made this a hard time to teach public policymaking skills: data analysis, coalition building and use of legislative precedents. At the public policy school where I work, we need to teach these skills to the next generation of public servants. Students need insights about how to assist communities where voters feel left behind by the forces of globalization and changing job markets.
There are many ways to take the pulse of the country. Supposedly scientific polls have failed us in recent elections—too many have been dead wrong. They miss too many voters. They fail to capture the motives, the hopes and fears behind the choices voters make.
After months of struggling to explain the Trump agenda in my University of Virginia classrooms, I decided that to become a better teacher, I needed to take a road trip. I’ve crisscrossed the country enough times to visit almost every state. Yet, I’ve rarely ventured south of Richmond. So the route was designed to take me through the small towns of southwestern Virginia, eastern Tennessee, clear down to the Alabama River and Selma, then run north through upcountry South Carolina to the Smoky Mountains. Avoiding the interstates, I would loop back and forth to towns from Marion, Virginia to Maplesville, Alabama to Black Mountain, North Carolina. The laptop was left behind and the IPhone turned off. The primary news source for nine days was going to be hard copies of the disappearing local dailies. The Bristol News-Courier and the Asheville Citizen-Times offer insights into community concerns you won’t get from cable news.