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The 50 Governments That Hold the Answer to American Division

State governments can best lead and govern distinct and diverse communities. The founders knew that the only way to build a new nation was to avoid taking too much autonomy from them.

Everyone knows America is hopelessly divided on politics. An August Economist/YouGov poll says that two in five Americans believe another civil war is likely in the next decade. Two-thirds of voters say the country has become more politically divided since the beginning of 2021, and similar numbers see it getting worse. A CBS News/YouGov poll found that 64 percent believe there will be an increase in political violence in the next few years. If you aren’t a numbers person, there are pictures worth thousands of words from outside the Supreme Court after the Dobbs decision, along with nonstop opinion coverage from cable news networks on both sides of the political aisle.

But most of the attention paid to the divided nature of the American public is based on political ideas and policy emanating from Washington, not the underlying values that bond us together. Even with common values, there are distinctive regional characteristics and strengths that make states, and by extension their local governments, uniquely able to address the needs of the people.

On these values, Americans are unified, despite the narrative our media portrays. The Siena College Research Institute finds that traditional American values still resonate with the majority of voters, with little to no difference between Biden and Trump supporters — values like “all people are equal regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, physical appearance or any other personal characteristic”; “no one, not even the government, should be able to restrict another’s pursuit of happiness”; “each of us is free to follow our own unique path in life”; and “tomorrow always holds the possibility of being a better day.” Even voters divided politically agree on the essence of what it means to be American: equality, individualism, freedom from overbearing government, and that unique brand of American optimism.

Can an America united on values but bitterly divided on political issues survive? It already has, and many times over. George Washington’s transition out of power sparked the nation’s first formal divide in the country with the formation of political parties, much to his displeasure. A terrible civil war seriously tested the bonds of our shared values, but even then the nation was able to come back together under a common core belief system. Franklin Roosevelt and his New Deal brought criticism from both the right and left for doing too much and not enough, respectively, much like the landscape President Biden faces today. The decision to get involved in conflicts in Vietnam, Kuwait, Iraq and Afghanistan became defining political issues, with harsh divisions, from the 1960s forward.

Much of the internal division America deals with today can be traced back to the establishment of our original colonies and territories, as Colin Woodard lays out in his book American Nations. Ancestry, tradition, religious beliefs and regional economic strengths from hundreds of years ago shape the unique perspectives Americans from different communities have on modern-day issues.

America’s founders did not succeed in forging a union of independent colonies in spite of these differences. Instead, the success of the American experiment came about because our system of government was designed to support and encourage these independent governments, each with their own priorities, procedures and values. Sheer necessity, more than anything else, drove the founders to design a structure that gave most power to individual states. New England’s Puritan craftsmen and merchants, the Southern plantation owners and the Middle Colonies’ diverse economy and people would not cede their culture and way of life to their neighbors. The only way to forge the new nation was to find a way to coalesce without taking too much autonomy from the states. Indeed, the main concern of Americans opposed to ratifying the Constitution was that it gave the centralized federal government too much power. The current power and reach of the federal government would shock and likely horrify America’s 18th-century leaders.

Those who believe America cannot continue in its current state of divisiveness make a valid point. However, it is not that one or another viewpoint, ideology or policy agenda must prevail. Instead, our path forward is to return to using our government as it was intended, with strong state governments that can best lead and govern distinct and diverse local communities, while a broader union addresses national defense, trade, monetary policy and fundamental civil rights.

As the 2022 midterms approach, most pundits predict some degree of divided government in Washington and even less ability to get things done inside the Beltway. What a perfect time to rediscover the compromise that brought our nation together in the first place.

Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing's editors or management.
Erin Norman is the Lee Family Fellow and senior messaging strategist at the State Policy Network.
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