While Utah is often held up as an example for its relatively positive social and economic outcomes compared to other states, Gov. Spencer Cox cautioned that without strong institutions, the country’s fraying social fabric will continue to tear here, too.

“This upward mobility, this social capital, they still exist here. But they are on the decline,” Cox told the crowd of roughly 150 local officials, students and influencers. “And it’s up to us to decide, as a people, are we going to allow that to happen, or are we going to protect and preserve the things that have made us so unique and so special.”

Cox spoke about family formation and economic growth on Saturday morning at the Pathways to Purpose conference in Provo, organized by state Rep. Tyler Clancy, the state’s youngest lawmaker. Clancy’s goal was ambitious: to expose the disconnection at the root of America’s problems and equip state lawmakers to reverse those trends.

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Despite being forced by a fire alarm to evacuate the building shortly before attendees arrived, the event went off without a hitch, featuring keynote messages from Cox and Utah’s 4th District Rep. Burgess Owens, as well as panel discussions with nationally recognized scholars and community leaders.

Cox has made national headlines in the nearly three years since he entered office because of his willingness to apply conservative principles to meet the modern demands being placed on families.

Utah Gov. Spencer Cox speaks at the Pathways to Purpose conference hosted by state Rep. Tyler Clancy at the Provo Recreation Center in Provo on Saturday, Dec. 2, 2023. | Megan Nielsen, Deseret News

Early in his term, Cox announced the creation of a new state agency, the Office of Families, which was tasked with analyzing and recommending policies to support vulnerable families, bolster the supply of child care, tackle youth mental health and promote family-friendly workplace rules.

Cox has also been recognized for his outspokenness on the role social media plays in exacerbating youth mental illness and stoking political polarization. In the last year, Utah has spearheaded national efforts to regulate social media companies for failing to protect minors on their platforms.

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But the issue runs deeper than a market failure, Cox warns. Per the theme of the event, Cox said problems with social media are actually a symptom of an underlying need not being met.

Quoting Alexis de Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America,” Cox said “the art of associating” — of creating engaged, tight-knit and self-sufficient communities — “must be developed and perfected” or else social stability will crater, and the American family with it, no matter how much money is thrown at government programs.

This message was also articulated in Clancy’s opening remarks, which Cox praised, saying “every word he said is true.”

“Might I suggest that at least equally important as economic growth, social fabric and the ties that bind us are critical,” Clancy said, referencing the conference’s four points of emphasis — addiction, the family, loneliness and meaningful work.

Rep. Tyler Clancy, R-Provo, speaks at the Pathways to Purpose conference hosted by Clancy at the Provo Recreation Center in Provo on Saturday, Dec. 2, 2023. | Megan Nielsen, Deseret News

Upon entering his second legislative term, the Provo lawmaker has already drawn attention for his unorthodox approach to practical, conservative governance. As a full-time police officer, and frequent neighborhood volunteer, Clancy believes Republicans should feel comfortable leading out on discussions of how public policy can support the values of family and hard work that prevent criminality and despair later in life.

If legislators neglect this important factor to strong communities, Clancy said their work will be in vain.

“We can pass the greatest laws in the world, but if we sit by and do nothing while the family unit and the core building blocks of civil society are destroyed, it will all be for nothing,” he said.

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Earlier this year, Clancy formed the bipartisan Blue Collar Caucus to advocate for working families and is currently advancing legislation to expand the state’s apprenticeship programs to facilitate meaningful work for those without college degrees. He is also planning to introduce legislation that would include the so-called “success sequence” in school curricula to teach students the importance of marriage, in addition to education and work, to a happy life.

“We need to have the courage to share and promote the fundamental principles we know to be true,” Clancy said.

The event held at the Provo Recreation Center was the first of what Clancy hopes will become annual gatherings.

Attendees included former Utah House speaker and U.S. Senate candidate Brad Wilson; House Majority Whip Rep. Karianne Lisonbee, R-Clearfield; Provo Mayor Michelle Kaufusi; Utah County Commissioner Amelia Powers Gardner; and Utah GOP Chair Rob Axson, as well as several other state lawmakers and political insiders.

In addition, Eric Teetsel, vice president of government relations at the Heritage Foundation, and Patrick T. Brown, a family policy scholar at Ethics and Public Policy Center and Deseret News contributor, spoke at the event.

Following Clancy and Cox’s remarks and two rounds of panel discussions, the concluding speaker was Owens, who endorsed the conference’s message while emphasizing the importance of focusing efforts at the state level.

“I’m definitely, very much into making sure as much power is pushed to the states as possible,” he said. “That’s where the innovation comes in, that’s where people understand what we really need.”