Tribune editorial: Utah democracy is threatened by those who spread suspicion and lies

Snitch lines, book bans and election fraud fictions can only undermine our faith in one another and our institutions.

”...You cannot trust your neighbor or even next of kin

If mommie is a commie then you gotta turn her in...”

— “The John Birch Society,” a 1962 song by Michael Brown, recorded by The Chad Mitchell Trio.

The fellowship and mutual respect that have long served as cornerstones of democracy in Utah, and in America, are slowly but surely being destroyed by candidates and activists who are sowing mistrust among us.

Utahns are being officially encouraged to rat one another out through one or both of two online hotlines created by order of the Legislature. One to receive reports of people using the wrong public restroom and the other to accept whispers of any state or local public agency using forbidden words that begin with “D” “E” or “I.”

State and local education officials have been tasked by that same Legislature with compiling lists of books that are to be forbidden in schools statewide because they were ruled offensive by a handful of school boards.

And too many candidates for public office are not even waiting for the votes to be cast before they start making up reasons to mistrust the whole electoral system that has served us so well for more than two centuries.

As Abraham Lincoln warned us, a house divided against itself cannot stand. A democracy where people don’t trust their government, their civic institutions or each other cannot survive.

Last summer’s Gallup Survey showed another year of decline in public confidence in American institutions, especially the presidency, the courts and, at the bottom of the heap, Congress.

Those promoting faith-destroying messages may not have concocted a grand plot against American democracy. But the effect may be the same.

The goal, if there is a goal, is not for the people to trust those who are spreading all this discord. The goal is for us to not trust anyone at all, with the destroyers hoping that they may, for a time, be able to rule over the rubble.

No one is saying that government doesn’t require checks, balances and oversight. It does. That’s why we divide power among three branches of government and among federal, state and local jurisdictions, and have a free press to keep a watch on it all.

As Ronald Reagan advised us, we should trust, but verify. [In Russian, “doveryay, no proveryay.”] And our system of verification, tested over the decades, has mostly held up.

Until now.

Utah State Auditor John Dougall was bravely correct to take to social media to lampoon one of the websites he was mandated to create. The one for reporting violations of the state’s new law limiting transgender persons to the public restrooms conforming to their assigned gender at birth.

He rightly resented being appointed chief of the state’s potty police and was not happy that his staff was swamped by 12,000 complaints — 11,995 of which were hoaxes or pranks.

So it is disappointing that Dougall supports the other snitch line his office is launching. The one for people to complain that any state or local government office in Utah may still be trying to better open their doors to people of ethnic backgrounds that have historically been underrepresented.

Such efforts, once widely supported, came under the heading of “diversity, equality and inclusion.” A worthy goal for a nation trying to live down 400 years of institutionalized racism.

Dougall rightly said that DEI began with good intentions and, as with any bureaucratic or academic trend, may have gone off the rails in places. But the rush to ban public DEI efforts with little in the way of public input amounted to an Alice in Wonderland approach of verdict first, trial afterwards.

Our Legislature has also taught us that none of our locally elected school boards can be trusted to decide for themselves which books belong in their classrooms or libraries.

A new law requires certain books to be removed from every Utah public school if as few as three school districts, or two school districts and five charter schools, find them objectionable.

This is a horrid idea that can only encourage bad blood among neighbors and educators, distracting everyone from real concerns, as a few overly empowered grown-ups scour books, yellow highlighters in hand, searching out dirty words.

But the greatest threat to our democracy is the number of Utah Republican candidates who have already planted their sour grapes by doubting, in advance, the official results of the coming elections.

In recent debates, state Rep. Phil Lyman, who is running for governor, as well as a handful of hopefuls for Utah seats in Congress, have passed on opportunities to confirm that they will accept the outcome of the coming elections.

Unless, of course, they win.

Credit belongs to Gov. Spencer Cox, standing for a second term, and Rep. John Curtis, running for the Senate. Both have made clear that they will not raise doubts about the election outcome, with Cox rightly raising concerns that Lyman’s unfounded accusations of tabulation “anomalies” undermine faith in the system and discourage people from voting.

U.S. Rep. Celeste Maloy, seeking reelection in Utah’s 2nd District, supports the return of Donald Trump to the White House. But, in contrast to primary challenger Colby Jenkins, she clearly doesn’t buy Trumpist theories of 2020 election fraud and stands by the conservative principal of supporting the states against any suggestion that Congress can overrule their election results.

Utah’s election system is well-supervised and intensely watched. Hints and allegations that it is in any way corrupt or fixed are without merit.

Utah’s efficient, popular and secure system of voting by mail greatly increases voter participation. Voters have more time to consider issues and candidates, and have the ability to track their ballots online. That’s why Utah’s process has been properly defended by the lieutenant governors who manage it — current Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson, Cox before her and Gary Herbert before him.

Democratic government requires trust. Trust requires oversight, but is destroyed by unwarranted suspicions and lies. Utahns must not let that happen.