GETTYSBURG, Pa. — A week before becoming chair of the National Governors Association, Utah Gov. Spencer Cox provided a preview of what he hopes to accomplish during his one-year term: improve how Americans disagree.

“I don’t want to scoop my own announcement,” Cox said to a supportive crowd on the closing day of the Braver Angels National Convention Saturday. “I won’t get into details here, but the initiative will feature governors modeling healthy conflict and helping to amplify the good work you are doing.”

The governor drew on quotes from the Founding Fathers during his remarks, emphasizing the sacrifice and service required to preserve a healthy American democracy. He cited a letter from John Adams to his wife, Abigail, underscoring the “toil and blood and treasure” necessary to establish the United States.

“Two hundred and forty-seven years later, I think John Adams would be proud to see the Independence Day festivities. … I think John would be excited to know we’ve gotten so much better at blowing stuff up,” he said to laughter. “I think we’ve pretty much nailed the celebration part.” 

“But I’m less sure that Adams and Washington and Hamilton and Franklin would be as proud of our country when it comes to the blood and treasure part — the real work of preserving our republic. The founders understood that true patriotism wasn’t just pomp and circumstance.”

Keeping the republic strong will require “so much more sacrifice and selflessness,” he said. 

Gov. Spencer Cox speaks at the Braver Angels National Convention at Gettysburg College in Gettysburg, Pa., on Saturday, July 8, 2023. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

“The alternative of continuing down our current path is unthinkable. But perhaps not — because we’re here on the site where the unthinkable actually happened.”

He continued: “We can never solve any of the other challenges … if we hate each other and continue to fill state houses and halls of congress with performers and people who destroy institutions.”

“He’s brave to be engaged in this work,” said Bob Mitchell, the founder of Bipartisan Leadership, an organization that trains future political leaders in Michigan, after the governor’s speech, stating that depolarization can sometimes be politically risky. 

The speech, which received two standing ovations and extended applause, came in the closing portion of the three-day Braver Angels conference, which had a notable presence from Utah’s own Braver Angels chapter and other local organizations. 

The convention included dozens of presentations, considering various strategies, techniques and approaches to improve political disagreements in America. A nonprofit, the organization was founded in 2016 and attempts to ameliorate political polarization. The group brought together 700 people — evenly divided between left- and right-leaning Americans — for three days at Gettysburg College located in close proximity to historic Civil War sites located throughout Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.

Paul Edwards, executive director of BYU’s Wheatley Institute, and Troy Williams, Equality Utah executive director, talk about the “Utah Way” during a breakout session at the Braver Angels National Convention at Gettysburg College in Gettysburg, Pa., on Friday, July 7, 2023. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Legislation, not litigation

Troy Williams and Paul Edwards, who lead Equality Utah and Brigham Young University’s Wheatley Institute, respectively, made a joint presentation about their experience working together on the “Utah Compromise” around marriage and religious liberty, widely hailed as a legislative success.

Williams applauded The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and others for saying “come to the table — let’s work through these issues.” He described how the experience influenced his desire to engage across partisan lines, noting his organization’s recent decision to host a booth at the Utah Republican Party’s convention. 

Recollecting meetings with key stakeholders over breakfast during the time leading up to the Utah Compromise, Edwards suggested there was “something about eggs and hollandaise sauce” that can do wonders to facilitate softer hearts in conversation. 

It may look kumbaya, Williams said, but he emphasized the hard work required to truly bridge divides. He recalled moments when those involved thought “there’s no way we can pull this off.”  Eventually, however, “the third path opens up and another way appears.”

Hélène Biandudi Hofer, broadcast journalist and Good Conflict co-founder, speaks on a panel called “Can Media Go From the Problem to the Solution?” at the Braver Angels National Convention at Gettysburg College in Gettysburg on Friday, July 7, 2023. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

The role of media

The challenges of popular discourse in America today was a common topic at the conference. In a panel called “Can Media Go From the Problem to the Solution?” Farah Stockman of The New York Times joked that “media being the problem” was one thing “red and blue sides can agree on” — with laughter from the audience.

Hélène Biandudi Hofer of Good Conflict, and a journalist, said she got involved in the work of depolarization after “I realized I was part of the problem,” pointing to the Solutions Journal Network as a positive resource for journalists to do work focused on solving problems through reporting. 

Christa Case Bryant, writer for The Christian Science Monitor, suggested that the U.S. may have entered a new “era of yellow journalism,” noting that The Monitor was established in 1908 with a kind of “golden rule of journalism” — namely, “to injure no man, but to bless all mankind” after religious leader Mary Baker Eddy was subject to persecution. 

Hal Boyd, editor of the Deseret News, noted the power journalists can have in showing the humanity of their subjects.

Answers to the question “Why are we here?” are posted at the Braver Angels National Convention at Gettysburg College in Gettysburg, Pa., on Friday, July 7, 2023. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Gathering across divides

On a wall at the conference, cards noted why people attended the event. One person wrote, “I am exhausted by the lack of space to have honest, respectful debate.” Another described losing a close family relationship to political conflict, and feeling “hopeless and helpless” as their talks “quickly degraded from curiosity towards anger, defensiveness and resentment.”

One young participant who recently became old enough to participate in the elections wrote, “Politics are a pretty scary thing to me because I see them as a thing that tears friendships apart and causes tension.” The person expressed interest in learning ways to talk about important things with people with different views.

Urgent steps forward

Utah’s governor carved out a reputation for a less contentious approach to politics after he joined his Democratic opponent in 2020, Chris Peterson, in an unusual political advertisement. The ad showed the two candidates side by side, saying they can disagree without hating each other or smearing each other’s character.

“I believe the very security of the world lies in the balance, as ravenous and power hungry dictators thrive while the most important and powerful nation in the world spends its time fighting on Twitter about stupid things that don’t matter.”

Cox quoted Tim Shriver, stating, “There is nothing more un-American than hating our fellow Americans.” 

He added, “It’s not hyperbole to say that this is the greatest challenge of our time.”

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