What did we learn from 2021? Polarization, misinformation is literally killing people, Utah governor says

After a year at Utah’s helm, Gov. Spencer Cox says his call for ‘civic charity’ weighs even more on his shoulders

It was the eve of Gov. Spencer Cox’s inauguration ceremony, almost exactly a year ago.

It was just a few days before Jan. 6, when a scene of chaos erupted at the U.S. Capitol, broadcast on live television for the world to see. An angry mob of supporters for former President Donald Trump stormed the Capitol. Politicians from both sides of the political aisle condemned it as a disturbing threat to democracy. Utah Sen. Mitt Romney called it an “insurrection.” Eventually, there was a peaceful transfer of power on Jan. 20. But those scenes have remained burned in the country’s collective memory.

In Utah, something else happened before that day that many likely know nothing about.

It was a Sunday night. A small crowd that included Cox and his wife sat silently in the pews of the St. George Tabernacle. The governor’s voice and the voice of a former federal judge sounded from the speakers, which broadcast a prerecorded conversation between the two men.

Former federal Judge Thomas Griffith made a chilling assertion: The U.S. Constitution is in grave danger amid the U.S.’s polarized political environment.

“The Constitution is built for vigorous disagreement,” he said. “But it cannot withstand contempt. ... And that’s the problem that has seeped into our system right now. The contempt.”

Can Utah’s ‘civic charity’ help the nation overcome the siege of contempt?

Griffith pointed to surveys that have shown “Republicans and Democrats think so ill of each other that they don’t trust each other at all, and the level of distrust is at the same level that Israelis have for Palestinians.”

“The Constitution won’t survive with this level of contempt,” he said. “It has to be addressed and has to be rooted out.”

Utah Gov. Spencer Cox takes his inaugural oath with his wife Abby and children surrounding him during an event at Tuacahn Center for the Arts in Ivins, Washington County, near St. George on Monday, Jan. 4, 2021. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
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The next day, Cox focused his inaugural address on a call to action for Utahns, asking them to rise to the challenge and collectively address Griffith’s fears for the Constitution and the nation.

“Hateful rhetoric dominates our political discourse,” Cox said. “We are facing a crisis of empathy; a scourge of contempt. Very little feels ‘united’ about the United States today.”

“Let me be clear,” Cox said. “Conflict and passionate debate around ideas can be healthy, but contempt and contention will rot the souls of our nation and her people. And this division isn’t just ugly or unfortunate. It’s dangerous.”

Cox quoted New York University professor Jonathan Haidt, who warned there “is a very good chance that in the next 30 years we will have a catastrophic failure of our democracy.”

“The reason? ‘We just don’t know what a democracy looks like when you drain all the trust out of the system,’” Cox quoted from Haidt.

Cox quoted Griffith and urged Utahns to practice “civic charity,” by seeking to “understand one another, to treat each other not as enemies, but as friends, and to secure justice for all without demonizing and ostracizing those with whom we disagree.”

It’s been a year since Cox issued that call to action.

Has anything changed?

Did Utahns rise to that challenge — or is that division as deep and polarized as ever?

Cox mulled that question in a recent interview with the Deseret News at the Governor’s Mansion in Salt Lake City.

He sat in the brightly lit, yellow and gold living room, decorated for Christmas. The room exuded cheer — perhaps too much cheer for the conversation. But Cox did his best to balance his optimism for the future with the grim realities at hand.

Gov. Spencer Cox talks about his first year as governor during an interview at the Governor’s Mansion in Salt Lake City on Monday, Dec. 20, 2021. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

“The division is still there, for sure,” Cox said. “I wouldn’t say it’s definitely getting better. But I don’t know that it’s gotten worse ... but we still have a long ways to go.”

Throughout 2021, Cox said Utah has “unfortunately” seen “hateful rhetoric” rear its head.

It’s “certainly” happened in relation to the pandemic, which has become hyperpoliticized, he said. Cox continues to be called a “tyrant” by some of his harshest critics from the far right who don’t think he’s done enough to stand up against mask requirements or the federal vaccine workplace mandate (even though the governor has opposed President Joe Biden’s vaccine workplace requirements and has signed all the bills the Utah Legislature has sent his way regarding the end of COVID-19 restrictions). And he has critics from the other side that accuse him of not doing enough to enact policies to limit the spread and save lives.

Ugly rhetoric has also surrounded “racial issues,” Cox said. Most recently, Utah schools have been confronting racism issues, especially in Davis County where a Department of Justice investigation found “serious and widespread racial harassment” in Davis School District. In that same district, 10-year-old Isabella “Izzy” Tichenor died by suicide after she was bullied over her race and autism spectrum disorder, her family said.

DOJ investigation reveals ‘serious and widespread racial harassment’ in this Utah school district

And in the same vein as what happened Jan. 6, Utah has seen its fair share of issues related to elections — even though Utah has long been lauded as a model state for its voting systems and security with a long history of voting by mail.

Trump won handily in Utah in 2020, and yet a Utah lawmaker (who later resigned) spearheaded an effort to call for an Arizona-style “forensic” audit of Utah’s election system. That lawmaker, former Rep. Steve Christiansen, rallied his supporters on Utah’s Capitol Hill, where lawmakers held a committee hearing fraught with misinformation. While lawmakers haven’t moved forward with a “forensic” audit, they have ordered a legislative audit similar to one that was already conducted in 2019.

Cox and Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson have both expressed their concerns about the dangers of questioning — without evidence — the safety and security of Utah’s elections. Cox has said those conspiracy theorists are “playing a very dangerous game” by undermining the “bedrock of our republic.” Henderson has asserted it’s part of a larger effort to ultimately restrict access to the ballot.

Claims sowing ‘seeds of doubt’ in Utah’s election integrity ‘destructive,’ top election official says

Misinformation is ‘definitely killing people,’ Cox says

What Cox considers the “low point” of 2021 is the “continuous fights” over the pandemic as well as how many Utahns have died from COVID-19 when a vaccine would have saved their lives.

“To me it’s just heartbreaking. It’s just sad, because I understand that for some people, at least, it’s the result of the polarization and ... the lack of faith in each other, and the lack of faith in government, in particular, and the misinformation that is out there” Cox said.

What makes it such a “tragedy,” he said, is “these are things that didn’t have to happen. And that makes it even harder to swallow.”

So would he go so far as to say current politics and misinformation are literally killing people?

“Yeah. ” Cox answered. “I mean, that’s verifiably accurate. I don’t think that’s hyperbole. There’s proof that there are certain individuals out there ... who believe things that I know aren’t true, that I can verify aren’t true and because of that they made a decision that then ultimately left them unprotected from this terrible virus.”

So, yes, Cox said, “misinformation is definitely killing people. And that’s sad.”

That’s why Cox said his call to action in his inaugural address is weighing on him even more, now a year later. And it’s why he said one of his biggest focuses continues to be restoring trust in government.

“We’re trying to hold ourselves above reproach. When bad things happen, when we make mistakes, we admit them quickly,” Cox said, pointing to one example of when his administration prematurely announced Utah had hit 70% vaccination of adults. “By showing some incompetence where we failed, by admitting it upfront and owning it we gained trust on the other side of that equation, and that is on the ethical side.”

Have we hit ‘rock bottom’?

Cox said he’s still “very troubled by Jan. 6” as well as the “lack of response to that.” He acknowledged so much outside of Utah is outside of his control, “but I do feel very positive about the direction that most people, including elected officials, are going and the way the public is responding.”

However, one thought, in particular, has been weighing on Cox’s mind, he said, and that is an increasing “tribalism,” not just in politics but in almost all other areas of life.

“Just the last couple of days I’ve really been struggling with this concept that we’ve given up on trying to change hearts and minds, on both sides, all sides,” Cox said. “What I mean by that is, once you give up on trying to convince the other side and only care about messaging to your tribe ... then that becomes very dangerous because that’s where we lose engagement and we’re only talking to the people who are just like us.”

Cox said he’s also worried about “loneliness” and the “troubling signs that we’re seeing when it comes to marriage rates and fertility rates and all of those type of bedrock institutions in our country, things that made America America for so long.”

That includes “media institutions, our institutions of higher learning, our family institutions, our church institutions,” Cox said. “All the needles are kind of pointed down when it comes to those things that help define us. ... And if we kind of lose faith in those institutions and lose faith in each other, then man becomes brutish and selfish and very tribal in a really concerning way.”

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Why Gov. Cox still has hope

Despite “all the cynicism” and all the problems facing the state and nation, Cox said he’s more encouraged by the “little moments” — moments not seen in headlines or on social media. Whether it’s the people who have told him “their families prayed for rain” amid the drought, and those that boasted about letting their lawns brown to conserve water.

That’s what he considers the “high point” of 2021 — when Utahns actually changed their behaviors to respond to the drought and the wildfire danger this summer.

“I do see people trying,” Cox said, noting some have told him they’ve answered his calls to get off Facebook or Twitter and flip the channel away from cable news. “They are looking for ways to heal and to improve.”

Cox said he has “hope” for 2022 — hope that Utah might be able to finally turn the page on the COVID-19 pandemic that’s been so politicized “and there will be more healing and more coming together.”

“Of course I would love to snap my fingers and change things,” Cox said, acknowledging it’s an issue that can’t be addressed even over the course of a year. “But it took us a long time to get here. I mean, you can see seeds of this trace back to the ’90s. So I don’t think you can change 25 years or 30 years of something overnight. It’s definitely going to take more time.”

More people every day are “trying to make a difference” and “really see this as an existential crisis and a crisis of morality, a crisis of humanity,” Cox said. “As more people start to recognize it and start helping to pull together, then I think we will see change.”

Sometimes, “you have to hit rock bottom” to get better, he said. “I kind of hope we’ve done that. Maybe not, but we’re certainly close.”

Asked if his time as governor has made him more or less cynical about the state of the nation’s discourse, Cox said there are “certainly parts of it that have made me more cynical.”

But on the other hand, Cox said he’s “naturally an optimistic person.”

“Look, I wouldn’t do this if I thought it was hopeless,” Cox said. “I didn’t need to be governor. There are lots of really talented people out there who could do this job, but you have to believe in something, and I believe in the American experiment. I believe in the American dream. I still believe, at its core, this is the greatest experiment in the history of mankind and in the history of governing.”

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Though the U.S. has had its low moments, Cox said “we still have something very important to offer the world, and I believe that our better angels exist and they will come through at the end and there is healing ahead of us.”

That “is what gets me up every day,” he said.

“So while some of the shine has certainly been knocked off the position, it still burns really deep inside me, this faith in us.”

Correction: An earlier version incorrectly stated Gov. Spencer Cox’s inauguration happened after the Jan. 6 violence at the U.S. Capitol. The governor was sworn in Jan. 4, two days before Jan. 6.

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