Can Philadelphia Launch A Second American Revolution?

Some 225 years after the birth of our country, times are tougher than ever. But if history is any guide—and it is—a rebirth of America is coming. In fact, it may have already begun, right here in Philly

IF THERE IS A FACE TO SMALL-BUT-MEANINGFUL TRANSFORMATION HERE, it’s Al Schmidt’s—a pretty good-looking face, framed with a subtle swoosh of dark hair and nerdy tortoise-shell glasses.

I’m sitting at Starbucks with Al and his face and his pumpkin spice latte about a week before he’ll win one of three spots in the election for the office of city commissioner. It’s not really a sexy post, but in the wonky world of city politics, Schmidt, a Republican, has gotten to be sort of a big deal. Aside from collecting endorsements from everyone from Rendell to the Ironworkers to the Pentecostal clergy, he and his Democratic counterpart, Stephanie Singer, both newcomers, ran separately as reform candidates for an office characterized by waste, ineffectiveness and lack of transparency—especially problematic qualities when that same office is responsible for educating voters.

Schmidt, who has a doctorate in history, says it was another Philadelphia reformer—Richardson Dilworth—who inspired his run.

If you’re a Philadelphian, you know the story of Dilworth, the wealthy and hyper-educated WWII vet who came home from the war high on victory, only to find that his corrupt and contented city was that much more corrupt and contented, run by an entitled Republican machine that had enjoyed a hundred-year rule. Dilworth ran for mayor in 1956 and proceeded to usher in the greatest era of Philadelphia change since Billy Penn, overhauling everything from trash collection to public transportation to the patronage system.

“There was another era of progress, too,” Schmidt tells me while sipping his coffee. “Rendell came after it had been so dismal in the ’70s and ’80s, and there was another period of unthinkable change.” It’s why Schmidt wants to help create something better—because he thinks he can, even as a Republican in a town where the Democrats control everything. “The thing about Philly is that nothing seems to happen for a long time,” he says. “And then it happens in a big way.”

The post of city commissioner is easy to miss or even dismiss. But by controlling the city commission, Schmidt and Singer will help engage voters and ensure that our elections are honest—not so small, really, in a city where elections aren’t always shining beacons of democracy. Small but meaningful is how big and meaningful gets rolling.

Schmidt is a leader. We obviously can’t all be leaders, as a movement by definition involves followers, too. I once YouTubed a TED talk in which the speaker made the profound point that a leader is only a leader when the first brave follower steps up to transform the “lone nut” into something more. Other people join once the first follower arrives. We all must have the courage, the speaker said, to follow when we see promise in the lone nut.

This strikes me as the hardest part of the New Progressive Movement—choosing­ which of the lone nuts to follow, at a time when the sea of voices both locally and nationally is loud and messy and big. The good news is Putnam’s premise that such movements are broad and variegated, which would mean that my brother-in-law can petition for the 28th Amendment (I’ll sign!), and Jeffrey Sachs can encourage his three-pronged national­ plan, and Andrew Dalzell can continue invigorating a neighborhood. They are all one movement, which has begun here (or, more precisely, has begun here again) and which will continue to grow throughout the country.

It is, after all, the American way.