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Want to celebrate diversity? Try federalism

“Diversity” is a term I grew up hearing frequently. Whether it was scholarships, affinity groups or university programs, I’ve had a variety of opportunities presented to me on the basis of the “diversity” I brought to the table. As the son of immigrants, this is unsurprising — I certainly appear diverse in the popular sense of the term, with my darker complexion and Farsi first name. But when you go beyond optics, it seems that celebrating true diversity is a more elusive endeavor. After a tumultuous and divisive election year, understanding just how diverse our nation is has never been more important. Yet we continue to sell ourselves short by thinking of “diversity” only in racial or ethnic terms.

According to a Pew Research report released this past summer, the American electorate is the most partisan it has been in nearly a quarter century.  In popular culture, it seems like nothing is without controversy anymore. This too, is unsurprising when you consider the major demographic and technological changes that have occurred in the last 25 years.  Demographic shifts have increased racial and ethnic diversity, but it’s the technological advances that have driven true diversity, amplifying just about every difference among us and allowing millions of mini-echo chambers or “bubbles” to exist, indeed thrive. At the same time, we’ve seen a weakening of the institutions that once served as gatekeepers to ideas in public discourse. Said another way, America is divided precisely because of its incredible diversity and the ability to express that diversity with unprecedented ease.

{mosads}Soaring rhetoric about coming together may be in vogue, but broad consensus on a wide range of issues seems very unlikely. All signs point to more, not less diversity in our future.

So does this mean a constant state of fever-pitch and self-destructing politics is the new normal?

Not if we Make Federalism Great Again.  Perhaps we could break this cycle if we approached government as the bottom-up, grassroots project among citizens it was intended to be, as opposed to viewing it as a power-center that imposes one-size-fits-all policy solutions.  Embracing this more expansive understanding of diversity through the federalism our founders incorporated into our government seems far more likely to produce political outcomes that actually reflect attitudes of the people, lest we forget, local elected officials are far more accessible to the public than bureaucrats inside the Beltway.

In the same way we encourage rather than dismiss varied perspectives based on race or ethnicity, maybe we ought to do the same when it comes to governance. In case folks haven’t noticed, simply telling people they’re wrong about something isn’t a terribly effective method of persuasion. A Michigan study from several years ago found that presenting voters with facts contrary to their views often backfires, with misinformed voters actually becoming more attached to their beliefs in some cases. By adopting the “laboratories of democracy” approach, programs and policies can be measured on the basis of their actual, demonstrable successes (or discarded because of their abject failures), not on the basis of popular opinion informed by political rhetoric and media spin.

Before the Information Age, the Federal government had more success getting things done, in part, because elites had considerably more power and opposing views rarely had a platform to meaningfully dissent. But that’s clearly no longer the case.  We all now have the ability to express differences loudly and proudly. So why would we expect more consensus? The growing concentration of power in Washington has resulted in a situation where small shifts in public sentiment from election to election lead to a “sudden shift of power from one faction to another,” as renowned law professor Richard Epstein has put it. This, in turn, causes significant backlash from the pluralities and minorities of Americans who fall on the losing side of national elections — look no further than the public outcry in the aftermath of the election of our past two Presidents.

Of course, there’s plenty that must be uniform or at least consistent across the country, like the protection of each and every person’s constitutional rights and national defense, among other things.  Even so, there’s plenty that need not be — and ignoring that reality risks ignoring the voices of significant groups of Americans, something 2016 proved can have significant electoral and social consequences.  

Diversity is something we should celebrate. It’s just time we invited everyone to the party.

Khurram Dara is an attorney and author.

The views expressed by authors are their own and not the views of The Hill.


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