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Sen. Mike Lee: The union and the Constitution forever

Illustration by Pierce Thiot

Editor’s note: This essay is part of Deseret Magazine’s cover story “How to heal America’s partisan divide.”

Illustration by Kyle Hilton

To actually heal America’s political divisions, we first have to remember that disagreement is not a disease. It is a natural, universal and healthy human reality. The tone of political discourse can certainly become toxic, and that is a problem. But political division itself is something prudent societies try to channel or harness, not eradicate.

For the root cause of America’s divisions is a core fact about our nation that we tend to think of as a strength, not a weakness: our diversity.

The reason politicians disagree in Congress is the same reason citizens disagree in the voting booth. The United States is a huge country – third most populous on Earth and fourth largest by area. Of course 330 million people stretched across a continent (and an ocean!), of every race, ethnicity, religion and culture are going to have sharply divergent ideas of the good life, and the government policies that lead to it.

We would not want it any other way. America’s ability to make our diversity a strength is part of what makes us the greatest nation on earth. Our job is to make sure our diversity pulls us together instead of pulling us apart.

The good news is, we already have a proven way to achieve this goal. The United States has always been diverse. Our Constitutional framework was specifically written for a regionally, culturally, economically and religiously diverse nation. The Constitution’s checks and balances and separated powers simultaneously empower political majorities while protecting political minorities and, most of all, individual rights.

Given America’s wide diversity, political issues decided at the federal level are by their nature going to be the most divisive. People in the East and the West, on the coasts and in the interior, in rural and urban areas — to say nothing of “red” and “blue” states — are always going to see the world differently.

Allowing 51% of such a diverse society to impose their values and priorities on the other 49% is a recipe for resentment and distrust. That’s why the U.S. Senate requires a super-majority of 60 votes to end debate and pass legislation — to discourage one-sided legislating and encourage consensus and compromise.

Today, with the parties so closely divided, it’s hard to get 60 votes on partisan legislation. You need bipartisan compromise, which on many issues is simply hard to come by. The media sees inaction on controversial issues as a failure. But it’s really just a signal that the country is still making up its mind.

The thing we have to remember is that under our Constitution, this is OK.

If states as different as Rhode Island and New Mexico and Alaska have different political preferences, they don’t need to resolve them in a zero-sum war in Washington. Congress can simply devolve decision-making on more contentious issues to the states, where the more homogeneous Rhode Islanders, New Mexicans and Alaskans can experiment with approaches that work best for them.

This isn’t about the size of the federal government — the federal government is going to remain huge for a long time to come. Rather, it’s about the need for national consensus to validate federal policy. 51%-49% issues are controversial, by their nature. Some issues — like national security or immigration — by their nature must be decided at the federal level, no matter how controversial they are. But most issues — from education to welfare to health care to housing to infrastructure — really can be decided at lower, less divided, levels of government.

Blue states can be as blue as they want; red and purple states can go their way too. And all Americans — across the country and across the political spectrum — would be happier not to be in a constant zero-sum battle against the other party on every single issue under the sun. The founders called this approach “federalism.” Philosophers call it “subsidiarity.”

To me, it’s the only realistic way to restore trust in our public institutions, detoxify our national discourse and heal some of the wounds of our current divisions.

Sen. Mike Lee has represented Utah in the U.S. Senate since 2011. He has published four books since his election to the Senate, including “Written Out of History: The Forgotten Founders Who Fought Big Government.”

This story appears in the January/February issue of Deseret Magazine. Learn more about how to subscribe.