Urging Utahns to “disagree better” is a misguided attempt to resolve the ripples of an issue long-embedded in the state’s identity: partisanship.
We all recognize that this is a time of unprecedented contention among parties and ideologies, but the cause of this lack of cohesion is not as rudimentary as many politicians, namely Utah Gov. Spencer Cox, seem to believe it is.
Following his recent election as chair of the National Governors Association, Cox inaugurated his term with the launch of his “Disagree Better” initiative, intended to foster and model behaviors of healthy debate among politicians in the interest of seeking bipartisan solutions through civil discourse. The initiative doesn’t call for agreement across party lines, in fact the opposite, emphasizing the necessity for a dose of “healthy conflict.”
There’s an underlying hypocrisy and irony within this initiative; Cox is both revered and loathed for supporting legislation that almost exclusively satiates the conservative appetite, already having enacted radical bans on gender-affirming care for trans youth and abortion clinics across the state in the past year alone. The launch of this initiative also came mere days before Cox hosted Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis at the Utah Capitol for a press conference, an act of camaraderie I, as I’m sure many others, viewed with disdain.
Aside from being an anesthetic for extremists and their supporters, fundamentally, the “Disagree Better” initiative is a surface-level vanity project and still does not address Utah’s struggle to appease both ends of the political spectrum. In his appearance on NPR, Cox declared that “75% of Americans are tired of the polarization.”
Politics are divisive by nature, but here’s some food for thought: Debate would not be so contentious if an inherent bias did not already exist.
Utah is a hyper-partisan state characterized by its perpetual Republican majority, but its fate as a haven for the right-wing is not sealed. The state, or more directly its lawmakers, has a chance to reflect the political interests of its evolving population by promoting systemic bipartisanship and opening up avenues for true public forum and equitable discourse.
Many believed this would come from the work of initiatives such as the Better Boundaries organization and the creation of the Utah Independent Redistricting Commission to draw new congressional maps to curb partisan gerrymandering. However, legislators’ passage of SB 200 in 2020 allowed for the creation of a new congressional map that cracked the sole Democratic-leaning block of Salt Lake County into four separate districts, ensuring a Republican majority for the next decade, cemented by the governor’s signature.
I, like many others, abhorred this violation of both the Utah Constitution and democracy as a whole, primarily because in barely over a month’s time, I’ll be eligible to cast my own ballot. But how can I be incentivized to do so if I believe my vote is inconsequential amid a cracked county?
I thought about this question while attending the oral hearings for the gerrymandering case at the Utah Supreme Court last month and only became more frustrated after seeing just how little the Utah Legislature prioritizes equitable discourse and listening to the complaints of people.
After all, if Cox wants a fair debate, he needs to allow for some breathing room for competition.
Asking Utahns to “disagree better” under the example of politicians who use their influence to commandeer electoral processes isn’t just an act of incompetence, it’s intended to distract from the real issue. In Berkeley, political scientist David E. Broockman’s August 2022 paper “Does Affective Polarization Undermine Democratic Norms or Accountability? Maybe Not,” he and his co-authors evaluated the reduction of political polarization in five sectors: “electoral accountability, adopting one’s party’s policy positions, support for legislative bipartisanship, support for democratic norms and perceptions of objective conditions.”
We need to preserve the voices of Democratic and Independent voters, we need to uphold citizen efforts for reform and we need to actively work against acts of gerrymandering and manipulation, all before we can even begin a dialogue.
As the 2024 election approaches, instead of leaving people to their own devices as they “agree to disagree,” why don’t we acknowledge the true problems promoting a hostile political climate: the allocation of power, influence and, ultimately, greed.
Gabriella Miranda is a high school student at Rowland Hall and an intern for Alliance for a Better Utah.