With Congress on what appears to be a permanent hold, the search for a workable political model now shifts increasingly to states and localities. Today America’s divergent geographies resemble separate planets, with policy agendas from immigration and climate change that vary wildly from place to place.

The greatest divide lies between the deep blue states, notably California, and progressive America’s network of large urban centers and the generally less dense, more suburban-dominated red states. Their policy prescriptions may vary, but, if allowed to continue, the differing jurisdictions could end up serving as what Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis called “laboratories of democracy.”

So, the critical question remains what policies work best. The answers may not be as simple as ideologues on the left and right might claim, but instead suggest, as President Bill Clinton once did, that our stunning diversity cannot easily follow a single political script.

California and the blue state model

Democrats may be at a historic low in terms of control of states and local jurisdictions, but they boast almost total domination in many of the richest, most influential and powerful locales. New York, California, Connecticut, Illinois and New Jersey are all tilting left with policies driven by powerful public employees, greens, urban real estate speculators as well as ethnic and gender activists.

To be sure, kowtowing to these interests has landed these states among the worst fiscal situations in the nation. Yet some blue regions also have grown economically well above the national average since 2010, largely driven by asset inflation, particularly real estate and stocks, and technology. California’s robust growth, although now slowing, and its world-dominating tech sector has made it a creditable role model for similarly minded states.

But what has been good in the aggregate has not worked so well for most Californians. Despite all the constant complaining about inequality and racial injustice, California, notes progressive economist James Galbraith, has also become among the most economically unequal parts of the country, topped only by Connecticut, New York and New Jersey. Particularly damaged have been the prospects for the young and minorities, particularly in terms of achieving homeownership.

Texas and the red state alternative

Texas, California’s only real rival for national power and influence over the past 20 years, has out-performed its golden rival almost two to one in job growth, including in many high and middle-income sectors. It has also still managed to produce more jobsper capita since 2010. The Texas model is now being tested by the oil bust, and the controversy over Hurricane Harvey, both of which have intensified criticism of its development model.

Yet for all its warts and inclement weather, Texas continues to attract people, including educated millennials and especially young families from elsewhere — since 2000 the Los Angeles region has sent over 140,000 net migrants to the big Texas cities. Dallas this year passed the Bay Area as the nation’s best place for jobs and has emerged as the number one market as well for new homes. San Antonio and Austin have left the rest of California, including the Southland, in the dust.

Like all diverse, immigrant-rich regions, Texas struggles, although less so than California, to slow the growth in inequality. Its education system remains largely mediocre and only slightly ahead of California. Yet in terms of such markers of upward mobility as homeownership and middle class jobs, particularly for minorities, Texas’ urban regions have done far better than the progressive redoubts on either coast.

A third way: The Utah model

Both California and Texas have much to brag about, but we may want to consider yet another model for addressing the fundamental issues facing our society, notably inequality, poverty and social breakdown. Indeed, the two behemoths, and the rest of the country, could learn much from a far smaller and decidedly idiosyncratic Utah.

The Beehive State stands out, according to a recent intensive study, as the most egalitarian in the nation. It has achieved rapid economic growth but without the kind of extreme inequality that plagues California and, to a lesser extent, Texas. Utah may be passionately as pro-business as the Lone Star State, but has sought to address both social equity and poverty as state policy.

In Utah, the poor are neither demonized or celebrated as victims. Instead, notes Natalie Gochnour, who runs the Gardner Institute in Salt Lake, where I am also a fellow, those who are struggling are encouraged to follow the Mormon precept that “work is the source of happiness, self-esteem and prosperity.” In this spirit, the state has developed a sophisticated program to help poor and struggling families find jobs and develop skills. This state effort is bolstered by grassroots volunteer activism.

Utah, suggests columnist Megan McArdle, functions “a bit like Sweden … if it were run by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.” Conservative in its values, but communitarian in its spirit, Utah offers a third option between the elitist progressivism of California and the robust individualism of Texas. Utah’s emphasis on both individual responsibility and community effort may represent the best hope for restoring the social sustainability of our society.

Originally published in the Orange County Register

Cross-posted at New Geography.