Commentary: Is there a ‘big gear’ to get our country back on track?

Clay S. Jenkinson, noted historian, humanities scholar and editor-at-large at Governing magazine, recently penned a provocative article that asks an important question: Is there a ‘lever’ that could change the country for the better? 

Jenkinson, the author of 13 books, listed many of problems facing the nation: “America seems to be disintegrating. Our national political system seems to be paralyzed. There is a great deal of anger and distrust awash in the land. Each of the two main tribes (the Right and the Left) declares that the other one is a clear and present danger to the future of civilization. Some tens of millions of people continue to argue, and perhaps believe, that the 2020 election was stolen. We cannot even agree on basic public health measures in the face of the worst global pandemic in more than 100 years.”

To those problems he added the deficiencies of education in America, the enormous concentration of wealth in the hands of the super-rich, the challenges of climate change, the deterioration of race relations, the urgency of police reform, the growth and power of the military industrial complex, near-universal incivility, and the radical secularization and the deterioration of social standards in American civilization. To those I would add the rapid expansion of the federal government and the unfathomable national debt.

Wow, that’s a lot of problems. But Jenkinson also noted:  “The Greek scientist Archimedes (287-212 BCE) said, ‘show me where to put the lever and I will move the world.’ I regard that as one of the greatest insights in the history of western civilization. The question is, where to put the lever? Where to start?”

Many years ago, when I worked for Gov. Mike Leavitt, he put it another way. He liked to tell a story about an old grandfather clock in the governor’s mansion being repaired. The old craftsman who repaired the clock showed Leavitt the many gears, large and small, in the clock and said, “If you get the big gear to spin correctly, all the smaller gears will operate properly, and the clock will tell the right time.”

Thus, in running state government and solving Utah’s problems, Leavitt always looked for the “big gear” that would make a real difference. 

Obviously, there isn’t just one “big gear,” or just one spot to place Archimedes “lever,” that would transform America. But there are certainly some big gears that would make a big difference.

Jenkinson suggested one lever: He said he “might argue that what America needs most is a spiritual renaissance. The radical secularization of American (and first world) civilization in the last century has left us all feeling empty. The nearly universal vulgarization of American life gives the soul almost no matrix in which to find expression. It’s hard to think of a single social standard that has not effectively collapsed in the last half century, and whatever has been gained by that cannot balance a kind of creeping sordidness in the national character. Apparently nobody’s mouth is washed out with soap anymore, not physically, not metaphorically. The result is nearly universal incivility, the shallowing of our cultural inheritance, the breakdown of even a modest commitment to grammar and precise diction, the ubiquity of the s-word, the f-word, and increasingly the c-word, an orgy of popular culture violence, the nuclear winter of pornography on the internet, the total collapse of what used to be called the dress code, and what amounts to a license to be our worst selves whenever it suits us.”

I agree with that assessment. But that spiritual reawakening must be bottom-up, from the influence and service of parents, extended family, churches, and community. While this is the most important work any of us can do, and it can make an enormous difference in many lives, I think it unlikely that a broad-based, nationwide spiritual renaissance will occur to solve our problems. 

Which brings me to another big gear that I believe could be effective in producing good governance and problem-solving: A return to balanced federalism as envisioned by the Founding Fathers. A big reason for dysfunction, enormous deficits, noxious partisanship and vicious incivility in politics and government is simply that the federal government is trying to take care of every American from cradle to grave, and it can’t possibly succeed at that task.

Forcing uniform and very costly policies and programs on highly diverse and independent states and citizens will never work in America. Moving more decision-making, programs – and funding – to state and local levels would allow blue states to do as they wish, and red states to do as they wish. Everyone would be happier. The level of dysfunction and rancor in Congress would decline dramatically because many of the things they currently fight about would be handled elsewhere.

The federal government could concentrate on its constitutional duties, and deal with them far more effectively.

We’ll never have political and social nirvana, but balanced federalism is certainly a “big gear” that could produce much better governance.