The country is at a crossroads. Problems stemming from the pandemic persist, racial unrest lingers unabated and unresolved. Roiling, white-hot political rhetoric distracts from vital issues facing the nation. Uncertain sounds from America’s leaders create confusion and division, while failing families and crumbling communities are the result of degrading social undercurrents that undermine civil society.

On Wednesday, the nation will watch a vice presidential debate held in Salt Lake City. It might well be the most significant vice presidential debate in American history. Both the presidential candidates are over the age of 73, President Donald Trump has contracted COVID-19 and a raucous and irreverent first debate left Americans wanting something different. The No. 2s on the respective political tickets matter more than ever. 

The VP candidates particularly matter to both the undecided voters and the “moveable middle.” Moveable middles are different from independents in that they are actually registered Democrats or Republicans, spanning the center-left to center-right, but have disconnected from politics because they are exhausted by the divisive rhetoric from the extremes of both parties. Many in this group won’t vote at all unless candidates begin to speak to them in a way that matters and has meaning in their lives. These voters, which could ultimately determine the election, want to hear policies and solutions centered in community, compassion, self-reliance and upward mobility. No one is talking that language. The VP debate would be the perfect forum.

Kamala Harris: Faith values bind us together. Joe Biden will restore them in our public life
Expect ‘more reality, less rhetoric’ from VP debate in Utah

America, a country clearly at the crossroad, might do well to look to the crossroads of Utah for insight this week. Far from perfect, Utah has long been a leading laboratory of democracy where individuals and communities thrive and succeed. The pistons driving this engine include a strong free-market economy and robust institutions of civil society. 

On the economic front, low unemployment, upward economic mobility, an educated workforce, an international business focus and a growing technology corridor are producing extraordinary results. Global humanitarian reach and vast language skills stemming from Utah being home to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints extends a world-wide vision for the state. Lower taxes and fewer regulations accelerate business expansion and fire an entrepreneurial spirit that has Utah positioned to have impact nationally and internationally. 

Civil society is harder to calculate but is manifest in strong families, neighborhoods, volunteer organizations, faith groups and businesses all engaged and giving back to the communities they call home. Community-driven problem solving, outside of big government, connects and strengthens and serves all.

Utah also has modeled how to embrace and lift refugees, balance LGBTQ rights and religious liberty, and prove that the rule of law and compassion are compatible principles in crafting immigration policy. The conservative state has also shown that it can conduct secure elections through mail-in voting.

It appears that both Vice President Mike Pence and Sen. Kamala Harris have at least recognized what the country could learn from what works in the Beehive State. 

Over the weekend, Harris visited This is the Place Heritage Park, where Brigham Young declared almost 175 years ago that the mountain valley was the right place for the fleeing pioneers to build a community. 

Harris commented, “When you think about the spirit of America, including the pioneers here, that is so much of the fabric of this nation. They were essentially immigrants. They were fleeing persecution. They were fighting for religious freedom.” She continued, “Part of the spirit was shoulder to the wheel, which is really about everything that I think we’re talking about right now in America. Let’s put our shoulders to the wheel. Let’s do the work that is necessary and continue to fight for our ideals and our values and in this case what they fought for so many years ago, which was for freedom and to hold our country accountable for the values we say we hold dear.”

“We’ve been taking the ideas that have worked and created jobs here in Utah and we’re taking them across the country ...” — Vice President Mike Pence

On a previous visit to Utah, Vice President Pence called the region, “One of the most dynamic, growing, family-friendly states.” He continued, “America knows that Utah knows how to grow jobs … I know Utah’s influence spans the nation.” Pence concluded, “We’ve been taking the ideas that have worked and created jobs here in Utah and we’re taking them across the country, with less taxes, less regulation, more American energy and free and fair trade deals, and the economy is booming.”

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Utah’s influence continues to expand and many see it as uniquely positioned to lead a post-pandemic international economy while extending its thriving civil society. Utah has a long-held place as the crossroads of the West. That may sound like colloquial self-aggrandizement and an easy applause line in a visiting dignitary’s political speech. But if Pence and Harris do their homework and debate prep properly, they will discover that Utah is poised not just to be the crossroad of the West but the crossroads to the world. 

Skeptics will snicker, and they wouldn’t be the first. When pioneers first entered the Salt Lake Valley, they made bold and audacious declarations about the future of the area that have proven prophetic. At the driving of the golden spike connecting the nation by rail, such sentiments were shared — and scoffed at by some.

Today, similar cynics and skeptics will challenge a vision of Utah as a crossroad to the world. The reality is Utah has been quietly working, patiently paving and firmly forming the foundation of that crossroads for years. 

The vice presidential candidates should catch the vision of Utah. On Wednesday, they can tap into what undecided and “moveable middle” voters are looking for by pointing to the principles and policies that drive Utah’s strong free-market economy and robust institutions of civil society. For a country at a crossroads, candidates and citizens can gain insight from the crossroads of the West — and increasingly a critical crossroad to the world.

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