Utah’s former governor and former congressman voiced their hope Friday that for the future of American democracy amid the tumultuous political divisiveness that is gripping the country.
Former Gov. Gary Herbert, who left office after more than a decade at Utah’s helm, and former Rep. Ben McAdams, a Democrat who was ousted after one term by Republican Rep. Burgess Owens, talked about the threat of the nation’s political divide and their ideas on overcoming it during a Zoom conference hosted by the Appomattox Project through UVU’s Center for the Study of Ethics.
Utah Valley University President Astrid Tuminez moderated the panel, titled “Partisanship and the Public Good,” where Herbert and McAdams discussed the current political climate and possible solutions for politicians and the public.
“I think too often … that we view each other as ‘us’ and ‘them,’ not recognizing that we’re on the same team,” said Herbert.
McAdams said the mutual understanding between opposing political parties that everyone is working toward bettering society has been lost.
He called the political engagement between today’s politicians superficial, saying they only engage on split screens on cable news shows.
“I think that has degraded the level of our discourse around difficult issues,” said McAdams.
Herbert said the degradation of the political conversation could have come from two things: political ambition and public tolerance for the outcomes of that political ambition.
“I think also, another part of the problem, is the public tolerance of that kind of an approach. People use negative campaigning and negativity in their relationships, because it works. Now, I think one of the most divisive things we have today in the public square is cable television, particularly the political channels,” he said.
Cable News promotes partisanship
McAdams agreed cable news is part of the problem.
“It is creating a feedback loop where representatives are figuring out that they can act in a way that gets them on that cable news show, that helps them to raise money, that helps to raise their profile, so you’re getting a self-reinforcing feedback loop that’s troubling,” he said.
Cautioning against lumping all media together as fake news, he said, “I think we need to learn to recognize that we need to have a source where we can get common facts, and the understanding of what’s happening in the world.”
McAdams expressed his worry that cable news is basically infotainment. Whether it’s MSNBC on the left or Fox News or Newsmax on the far right, cable news is only reaffirming existing biases, he said.
“They don’t challenge your view of the world so you never feel that dysphoria, that discomfort of having your view challenged,” said McAdams.
Herbert said cable news channels and the political news shows are especially polarizing because people tune in to their ideologically-similar news station to have their biases reinforced.
“That’s not a healthy thing. I would rather have (to) hear both sides of an issue. … I think it helps me understand the different points of view and helps me solidify my own position and where I think maybe the truth or the moderation would come together we get some practical outcomes,” said Herbert.
McAdams added, “Let’s start getting comfortable with discomfort again. … I think we need institutions that challenge our worldview, from the left and the right, that helps us to think critically and allow more space for debate for disagreement.”
He said the public should allow politicians to change their minds and grow, as well as use common sense to find common values and interests when it comes to problem solving.
“If they cast a vote that you think is awful, allow them the dignity of having a different opinion. And it’s not because they are corrupt, or because they don’t care, they’re hard-hearted or cold-hearted,” said McAdams.
Herbert emphasized active and informed voting and urged the public to uphold their elected officials.
“If we don’t want corruption, the people ought not to be corrupt. We come from the ranks,” said Herbert.
What politicians should do
McAdams said his now-former colleagues in Washington, to the left and right of the aisle, say 2021 is worse than 2020, politically. He went on to share some advice from his law school professor, a former elected official, which shaped his way of removing divisiveness while he was in office.
“He said, ‘Look, there are two types of public servants. You can be a thermometer; a thermometer is a tool that will tell you what the temperature is in the room. Or you can be a thermostat; the thermostat will change the temperature in the room.”
McAdams said there are more thermometers than thermostats in today’s politics. Politicians who act as thermometers will look around an upset room and reflect back what the negative room is feeling because they think that’s going to be good for them politically, he said.
“We have a lot of elected officials like that,” said McAdams. “We need more thermostats.”
He also condemned party politics. McAdams said the political thinking that leads to ‘I have to be loyal to the party’ is thermometer thinking versus thermostat thinking.
“And I think that’s garbage,” McAdams said.
Herbert said politicians need to become aligners not dividers. He said politicians might campaign on a partisan label, but once elected they must get past petty differences and concentrate on a practical approach.
Herbert discussed the success of what he calls “the Utah way,” recalling a visit he had at the White House during former President Barack Obama’s administration.
“(Former) Vice President Joe Biden came over to me and kind of grabbed me in his Joe Biden way by the shoulder and said, ‘Gary, things are going so well in Utah. What is your secret? What is going so well?’ And I said, ‘Well it’s the Utah way,’” Herbert said, complimenting the dialogue between both political parties.
“It continues to this day,” said Herbert. “Going forward, we are, in fact, positioned coming out of the pandemic and we have the lowest unemployment rate and the highest job growth creation of any state in America today, and the lowest mortality rate coming out of the pandemic. That is an example of the Utah way giving us the right outcomes.”
Despite worries of American democracy’s fragility when Americans lash out with violence and vandalism, McAdams said he believes there is a resilience to America’s democracy as well.
“I think we will come through this, but I am sad about the period we’re in. And sad about what the next few years probably hold for us. I would contrast that to say I’m very optimistic about Utah, and the position we’re in, and that we have the right people at the table and the right approach to move forward and to prosper,” said McAdams.
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