Who am I to lead a cultural movement extolling the virtues of building a transcendent political culture in Utah? My career highlights have been drenched in the political blood of contentious culture wars. I cut my professional teeth back in Congress 30 years ago when first assigned to try to expel Barney Frank and, since then, have sliced my way through opponents on issues ranging from same-sex marriage to immigration.
My political sins, if you will, have been on full display for decades. Through the pages of my career’s open book, I have been anything but transcendent – although not for a lack of trying. By the time I arrived in Utah 18 years ago, I was determined to lead differently. In time, I created the Transcend Series at Sutherland Institute to help elected officials and community leaders overcome politics as usual. I often reached across the philosophical aisle in an attempt to raise civil dialogue.
But, in many glaring respects, I failed. I own it. The fault is mine. I often failed to be my better self even as I was asking others to do the same. I am a public witness that there is no other factor — no cause, no idea, no master, no amount of money — that can justify not being your better self in caring for and governing a state or a nation.
Always introspective, scarily self-aware and tired of failing, I, joined by several influential Utahns, created a public policy group to lead in building a transcendent political culture, Next Generation Freedom Fund.
Seeking to raise an island of civilization inhabited by a community of influence here in Utah requires a few key civic attributes. First, we need to see people as people. Yes, even the worst of them. As long as we see people as objects — to fight against, control, run over, end around, etc. — we fail to see them as equals. If not inherently equal, law and culture will reflect biased and artificial social and legal constructs – which we can see all around us today.
Second, we need to forgive one another. How many long-standing friendships have dissolved over money, power and ego? How many constructive community alliances could be achieved if we simply set aside personal insult or offense. In 18 years inside Utah politics, I have lost four dear friends to avoidable disagreements. Happily, I have reclaimed two of them, but still need to work on the other two. In both reunions forgiveness was the key – one of us asking for it and the other granting it.
Third, the common good is always more important than any special interest. Far beyond culture wars, the quest for money has destroyed more relationships, created worse public policies, and damaged the public trust more than any other politically destabilizing factor. We must abandon transactional politics, in all of its hues and tones, or, if it must exist naturally, in resisting it, at least call it what it is: greedy, self-serving, partisan and ideological.
Fourth, a healthy society requires that we consistently strive to be our better selves. It means practicing kindness, virtue, charity, patience and persuasion in our board rooms, back rooms and legislative bodies. It means cutting people some slack when they let us down. Being our better selves can overcome nearly any disagreement or contention.
Lastly, to achieve a transcendent political culture in Utah, we must focus on becoming one. Transcendence requires redemption. Something we do as citizens must save us to unite us. Natural disasters seem to bring out the best in us. Must we wait for and suffer through natural disasters to set aside our differences and find our common humanity?
One struggle is always with us: our neighbors in need. Helping our poor and needy neighbors is a redemptive act – for us personally and for society. Serving the poor erases pride and reminds us that nobody is better than anyone else. Material assistance helps but it alone is not redemptive. You cannot mail in your faceless compassion. We actually must see those in need, those disadvantaged and disenfranchised people among us, invisible to us behind the din of our growing prosperity.
Transcendence gets tricky on the ground. In terms of public policy, it means agreeing on a responsible and effective safety net. It means addressing obvious inequities regarding our “dreamer kids and equal pay for and the dignified treatment of women. It means seeing struggling, low-income, rural and minority students as our own and going the extra mile to help them achieve. And, perhaps more than anything, it means matching our public policies to our commensurate values.
Do you want a better Utah, a shining city on a hill? We must become our better selves, act redemptively, and envision a welcoming state built for all people to achieve and prosper.
Paul Mero is president and CEO of Next Generation Freedom Fund. (www.nextgenfreedomfund.org)