“‘Tain’t what a man don’t know that hurts him; it’s what he knows that just ain’t so.”
There is a consistent and perhaps sincerely felt argument in favor of the Utah Republican Party choosing our elected leaders for us — which, in a one-party state, is generally what they do — partly through the caucus and convention system. It is the idea that the infinitesimally small percentage of the electorate that actually participates in that process deserves to make those decisions for the rest of us because they have devoted the time and energy to learning the issues and examining the candidates.
The state has added the petition route to each party’s primary ballot. But the caucus/convention system still carries a lot of weight in the process.
But as the choices made by Republican county conventions held so far have again skewed sharply to the right, it is fair to question whether those making those selections are really wiser, or just more sure of themselves.
Real wisdom, after all, involves a significant dose of humility. The idea that the smartest one in the room is the one who doesn’t claim to know everything goes back at least to Socrates.
But political activism is not a realm where indecisiveness and hesitation are selected for. People who go to the effort to attend the neighborhood caucuses, get themselves elected as delegates to county and state conventions and endure those conventions long enough to vote on all the candidates are not there to learn. They are there to act.
These are the true believers. Which, among Republicans in 2022, means they believe that a 6-week-old fetus has a heartbeat, that they know more about pandemics than people who have devoted their lives to studying infectious diseases, that critical race theory is being inculcated in the minds of innocent kindergarteners, that any fool packing heat makes for a safer community, that a nation of immigrants is weakened by more immigrants, that climate change is a hoax cooked up by Elon Musk to sell more Teslas, that the federal government is secretly run by child-molesting lizard people, that Vladimir Putin is a genius and, most incredible of all, that Donald Trump really won the 2020 presidential election.
That’s how the Utah Republican Party’s delegates are so unrepresentative of voters in any democratic society. Most folks don’t give that much thought to even the most divisive political issues, certainly not enough to cause them to draw a line in the sand and give no ground.
That doesn’t mean normal folks don’t have principles, beliefs, standards. It just means that, when they look for someone to vote for, they generally are less attracted to someone who scares them and more interested in someone who seems reasonable, at least a little bit open-minded and worthy of being handed, temporarily, the power to reach compromise and sand off the rough edges of governing.
But Utah voters are not always given that choice. What comes out of the Republican crucible is often the candidate who best appeals to the tribe of far-right ideologues. And, because so many Utahns vote Republican out of sheer habit or social pressure, they wind up voting into the House people they wouldn’t have in their homes.
That’s how we got former Rep. Jason Chaffetz and current Reps. (and Jan. 6 election deniers) Burgess Owens and Chris Stewart. How we lost Sen. Bob Bennett and are likely to remain stuck with Sen. Mike Lee. And, as my colleague Robert Gehrke pointed out recently, how moderate Republican Rep. John Curtis is in danger of being voted out this year.
American political thought, at its best, is much more accommodating of doubt.
The key passage of the Declaration of Independence begins “We hold these truths to be self-evident.” The “We hold” part being an admission that it’s what we think, not what we know, but still enough to build a revolution on.
Abraham Lincoln, sure enough of himself to prosecute a Civil War, hoped for “firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right,” allowing for the possibility that that vision had not yet been given, and might never be.
Mathematician and philosopher Bertrand Russell is quoted as saying, “The fundamental cause of the trouble is that in the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt.”
It might be unfair to call people who are absolutely certain “stupid.” But, sadly, they are often more likely to win elections.
*George Pyle, opinion editor of The Salt Lake Tribune, is honor-bound to admit that the origin of the opening epigram of this commentary has been called into doubt by quote-hunting experts.