David Burns: Utahns must unite to stop Republicans’ anti-democratic trends

Members of all parties should united behind Evan McMullins’ independent campaign to unseat Sen. Mike Lee.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Evan McMullin speaks on the Capitol steps as hundreds of protesters gather for a Gerrymandering protest, on Wednesday, Nov. 10, 2021.

The Utah Republican-approved redistricting maps are nakedly anti-democratic — designed to deprive non-Republicans of representation in the U.S. House and Utah Legislature. No one should be surprised. The same shifting demographic trends that have turned the neighboring states of New Mexico, Colorado and Nevada from red to blue, and Arizona and Montana from red to purple, have also been at work in Utah.

A booming economy and an influx of transplants have made Utah the fastest growing state over the past decade. Utah Millennials and Gen-Zs typically poll less conservative than their parents. And sometime after mid-century, an estimated one in four Utahns will be Hispanic. In Colorado, the emergence of these trends put politics on a glide path to a blue future.

But in Utah, we instead got supermajority rule by Republicans, and a political conversation that is limited to the Legislature and Governor from the same party. What accounts for the difference?

Like other Western states, Utah reacted to the postwar rights upheavals — civil rights, sexual revolution, free speech, abortion, the ERA, and later, marriage equality — by pushing back against federal government intrusions, but even more so. Although Utah’s Latter-day Saints had voted for both Democrats and Republicans after statehood, by the 1970s they were nearly all Republicans.

The impact on Utah Democrats from this concentration of political power was overwhelming. No Utah Democrat has been elected U.S. senator since 1970 or governor since 1980. No Democrat has won statewide office since Jan Graham was elected attorney general in 1996.

Utah has had one-party rule — Republican control of the legislative and executive branches — since 1984, which is the longest stretch of any state in the modern era. Currently, Republicans hold a supermajority in both the Utah House and Senate, allowing them to do the people’s business away from the people, in secret caucus meetings.

With the indifference that comes naturally to an unaccountable supermajority, Republicans in the Utah Legislature have long ignored calls for change, preferring a business as usual of tax breaks and incentives meted out from a sinecure that includes low-rent corruption The Tribune cartoonist Pat Bagley has dubbed the “buddy-ocracy.”

But a growing number of Utah voters want more from their government than business as usual, as shown by passage of the 2018 ballot initiatives and forced repeal of the 2019 tax reform package. Their silence can no longer be bought with business-friendly policies.

The signal in the noise of Utah politics is that an emerging majority of Utahns want a less laissez faire, less conservative, more democratic government. They want to be more like their neighbor states that have progressed to at last purple, and are optimistic about the future. The gerrymandered redistricting maps are Utah Republicans’ reaction to that signal.

The redistricting law tells us Republicans are afraid of a more diverse future, and will resort to anti-democratic measures to stay in power. This is useful information that should at least disabuse those Democrats who still insist on taking a pocketknife to a gunfight. There is no Utah Way, and the Republicans in Utah are potentially just as anti-democratic as the Republicans in Texas.

So, what, if anything, are non-Republicans willing to do to push back against this Republican power grab? Because the only certain outcome — less democracy in Utah — is the one that follows from no response.

Bobby Kennedy, a University of Utah graduate student, earned my respect with his reaction to the release of the maps. He laid down in front of the doors to the state Capitol. “I figured if I can’t make them [legislators] take me seriously,” he told The Tribune, “at least I can make them walk around me.”

Great. Direct action.

But what’s also needed is voting power. All non-Republicans in Utah must set aside their differences and unite around single candidates. The Republican threat to our democracy is that serious. Democrats, independents, United Utah Party members and others who refuse to vote for the candidates of a neofascist Utah Republican Party must join together around consensus candidates.

We can start by supporting Evan McMullin’s campaign to unseat Sen. Mike Lee. The Democratic and United Parties should decline to run candidates under their separate banners and instead throw their full support behind McMullin’s run as an independent. The goal is to obviate the Republican strategy of divide and conquer, which affords them supermajority control of Utah government even though they command only about 55% of the electorate.

Recent reports of the death of American democracy are greatly exaggerated. But that same democracy is under unusual assault, and must therefore be defended by unusual means. Action is required by everyone who loves this country and its promise. Like the patriots of 1776, we should oppose the tyranny of those who, in bad faith, deny our natural rights to a say in how we are governed. Time is of the essence.

David Burns

David Burns has degrees in history and law. He lives in Salt Lake City.