Utah Gov. Spencer Cox is continuing his campaign to try to convince Americans to “Disagree Better” with a series of bipartisan events in New Hampshire this week.
Cox, a Republican and chair of the National Governors Association, and New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, also a Republican, invited their fellow governors, along with students and experts, to talk about toxic polarization in the U.S.
At a press conference Tuesday, Cox said in previous generations politicians did a better job of working together, and he hoped to help bring that attitude back.
Can we ‘disagree better’ on immigration?
Cox wants to walk the talk, too. As chair of the National Governors Association, he had to choose an issue that governors could work on together, and he picked a tricky one: immigration.
A bipartisan subcommittee with eight governors met for the first time and got into the weeds of the issue, he said.
“Immigration is a federal issue — the Constitution makes that very clear — but states play an important role,” he said. “We think that we can give some cover to Congress as they start to work on this because there are things that people agree on.”
For example, he said, most Democrats believe the country should have a secure border and most Republicans believe the immigration system needs reform.
“You won’t hear that from the politicians because they love to fundraise and divide us on this one,” he said.
Maine Gov. Janet Mills, a Democrat, said it wasn’t about “demonizing the person with whom you disagree.”
Asking smart questions — like how can we help the migrants get jobs so that they can contribute to their families and the economy — can be more useful, she said.
Cox criticized Congress and the executive branch, under both President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump, for focusing on “showmanship,” where “if you’re extreme, you get the clicks, you get the media attention, you get the quotes on the cable news.”
“This is not about agreeing on everything,” he said. “It’s about disagreeing the right way and we can do that.”
Is America polarized?
In a press release announcing the New Hampshire events, Cox said, “Americans are tired of the nasty and endless bickering that characterizes our politics and gets in the way of solving our biggest problems.”
“Republican or Democrat, liberal or conservative, we all love this country, and it is critical that we find common ground and constructive ways to work together to solve our challenges. We can debate ideas without attacking each other,” he said.
Cox started the yearlong “Disagree Better” initiative in July to help Americans deal with conflict in a healthy way, according to his website.
Americans across the political spectrum share policy preferences while often the politicians who represent them are very ideologically polarized, explained Rachel Kleinfeld, a senior fellow at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s democracy, conflict and governance program.
“When polarization becomes a winning political strategy, democracy fails,” Kleinfeld, a keynote speaker at the event, said.
Instead of being fueled by ideology, Americans are polarized emotionally, where they harbor dislike for members of the other party, and allow those feelings to “interact with voting systems, candidate incentives, and personal relationships,” according to her study.
The “Disagree Better” events planned for this week include panel discussions, a debate facilitated by Braver Angels, a nonprofit dedicated to political depolarization, and a service project led by the first lady of Utah, Abby Cox.
“Politicization is hitting our classrooms in the worst possible ways. We need our educators to feel supported so that they can continue to inspire the leaders and the thinkers,” Abby Cox said, directing attendees to write a note to a teacher in their life.
Examples of bipartisanship from earlier politicians
During a panel discussion Tuesday, Robert M. Gates, the former U.S. Secretary of Defense appointed by former President George W. Bush and retained by former President Barack Obama, gave a keynote address and answered questions.
Gates pointed to the unlikely friendship that the conservative Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch and the liberal Massachusetts Sen. Edward “Ted” Kennedy shared.
Not only were they great friends, they were colleagues who worked together, he said.
Chairing the Labor and Human Resources Committee, the two “rose above partisanship and worked together” on important legislation, like the Americans With Disabilities Act, said Gates.
Cox also spoke about bringing back bipartisanship that existed decades ago at the press conference. He recalled Gates’ example about the respectful relationship shared by two other political opposites — former President Ronald Reagan and Speaker of the House of Representatives Thomas “Tip” O’Neill, Jr.
“Where are the Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neills today?” Cox asked. “Well, here they are. They’re boring governors who are doing this work mostly in obscurity.”
The Utah governor said politicians and the media are responsible for the rise in polarization, which he said he hopes to help undo.
Gov. Cox gives advice on disagreeing better
The Utah governor gave advice to those who want to be more open to engaging with others they disagree with.
“One of the problems we have today is that we’ve started defining ourselves by our political backgrounds,” he said.
“I don’t know when that happened, but that certainly was not the case when I was growing up. It wasn’t even the case 10 years ago,” Cox said. “You would define yourself first as a Utahn or an American, first, as a Utah Jazz fan or a New England Patriots fan. Your politics was way down the list.”
But the fact that it’s topping the list now is “incredibly dangerous,” he said. Still, two people who might disagree can choose to listen to each other and ask questions, Cox said. And this is a great starting point.
“Don’t just mute everybody who disagrees with you, either in real life or on social media,” he concluded. “And actually spend time with people who are different than you.”