A few weeks ago, the New York Times ran an article telling the stories of two families—the Nobles and the Huckinses—who moved to different states on account of their state’s politics. One family fled Iowa for Minnesota; the other moved to Missouri from Oregon. Both families say they’re happier now.

The reporters say these families’ stories illustrate the fracturing of America: “Americans are increasingly fracturing as a people, so some are taking the extraordinary step of moving to escape a political or social climate they abhor.”

While I agree that many of our socio-political problems, as Yuval Levin once put it, “are the troubles of a fractured republic,” I don’t believe a family’s ability—much less decision—to move from one state to another should be interpreted as a sign of dangerous division but as a signal of national health. Let me explain what I mean.

To the historically inclined, it’s an open secret that political communities are prone to separate. Ours is no exception. From the failings of the Articles of Confederation to the outbreak of the war Lincoln described as a formidable attempt to disrupt federal union, our nation has been an object lesson on political separation. And yet we have remained intact, not for the sake of American unanimity but, to paraphrase Polybius, “to preserve liberty through stability.”

Although our Union endures for now, mark my words: the only way the United States will continue to thrive is for individual states to flourish. And central to the states’ flourishing is the authority to operate as the “laboratories of democracy” the Framers envisioned.

Oklahoma is proof of concept. Because of the leadership of governing conservatives like Governor J. Kevin Stitt, we’re years into a turnaround that’s led to record investment in public education; given rise to the state’s largest savings account; and made Oklahoma a regional leader in net domestic migration. In other words, people don’t just like what’s happening in Oklahoma, they’re moving here to become part of it.

As an Oklahoman, it’s not lost on me that Oklahoma’s turnaround would’ve been next to impossible in most nations, where one set of rules are imposed on the masses, usually from afar. Notwithstanding concerted efforts to centralize American political power in the hands of Congress and the president, American power is still divided. And that’s a good thing. Because although it may seem counterintuitive, freedom is actually enhanced, not curtailed, when states have the right to experiment, subject to important federal constitutional limitations, with social and economic polices till they do right by their citizens.

It’s for that reason—doing right by people—that efforts are underway to modernize Oklahoma’s criminal justice system; to empower parents to take control of their children’s education; and to restrict transgender transition and therapy for minors. And it’s also what’s motivating Oklahoma to diversify its economy and to refuse to go along with politically motivated ESG investment criteria. In a word, present-day Oklahoma’s got a healthy dose of what Will Rogers prescribed for America’s ills one hundred years ago: dirty fingernails and clean minds.

You may think we’re bonkers, but that’s just my point. In Oklahoma, our sleeves are rolled up. Hands are in the red dirt. Hearts and minds aimed, albeit imperfectly, at this basic vision of a good community. To put it another way, in Oklahoma we’re building a place that families are proud to call home and where folks can work and worship as they see fit—where, in a word, families are free to flourish. If that’s not you, no worries: there’s forty-nine other states to choose from. I’m sure one of them would have you.

One more thing. I am the father of three children, so I get what’s implied when the Nobles and the Huckinses describe the decision to move from one state to another as “extraordinary.” Some mornings it feels extraordinary just to get my kids out the door—much less on time—for school or church.

That said, I don’t mean to make light of what’s entailed in a decision to move across state lines. I’ve watched friends and family make cross-country moves. Sorrow and complexity seem like they’re baked into the process, no matter how prepared the family is. Anyone that’s seen Inside Out, the 2015 film that follows a preteen struggling to adapt to her family’s relocation from Minnesota to San Francisco, knows that leaving behind everyone you’ve known or loved can be fairly traumatic—not just for kids but also for parents. And that’s to say nothing of the trauma inflicted upon the neighbors, churches, and places the movers leave behind.

That’s not to say moving isn’t ever worth it; but as I’ve alluded to elsewhere, those moving on from places they’ve lived, worked, or worshipped ought to pause and consider the repercussions of what Wendell Berry calls transferring membership from one community to another. Because—to riff off Berry’s words in Jayber Crow—imperfect and irresolute though they may be, communities are the only repositories of the bonds of affection.

That said, if the only collateral damage for protecting a state’s right to experiment with policies designed to help citizens flourish in free and stable states is a slight uptick in the trauma experienced and inflicted by families electing to move from one place to another, sign me up. Of course, it should be said that this kind of migration isn’t all roses; the negative consequences of the so-called big sort are real. But if we’re going to have homogenous or semi-homogenous communities, better to see them housed at the state and local, as opposed to the national, level.

Image credit: “Scene at the Signing of the Constitution of the United States” via Wikimedia Commons

Local Culture
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1 COMMENT

  1. I struggle with this one. I’m all for devolving power to the local level, particularly in a nation as expansive and diverse as the United States. The priorities of Alaskans are presumably quite different in many key respects from those of residents of my home state of Florida.

    That said, “if you don’t like it, move” doesn’t strike me as a practical (much less desirable) check on the exercise of power at the local level. The author acknowledges the psychic costs of such dislocation. How about the financial ones? Looking at the survey data on the percentage of Americans unable to come up with $1,000 in the face of an unexpected emergency, it seems clear that the ability to pull up stakes in search of a more hospitable political climate is not something everyone shares.

    Do we really want local officials thinking “if you don’t like what’s happening in Oklahoma (or California or New York), there are 49 other states for you to choose from?” Or would it be better if they asked themselves “why don’t you like what’s happening in Oklahoma (or California or New York) and is there something I can do about that while remaining true to my vision of what’s in the best interest of the state and all of its residents?”

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