There’s ample evidence of the nation’s deep divisions.

“This is the situation we find ourselves in: People screaming at one another. People are wondering, ‘How is it that we got to this place?’ We’ve been experiencing a pretty long period of being able to get along, in the moderate middle really calling the shots. When that sort of goes away, then you start worrying about things even as deep down as civil war,” said Washington State University Regents and Emeritus Professor Nicholas P. Lovrich.

Lovrich, a panelist on a University of Utah’s Hinckley Institute of Politics forum titled “To Respectfully Disagree: Civility in Government,” said the nation has gone through long periods of bad conduct in the past.

“We’ve had a duel. We’ve had a caning on the floor of the Senate. We’ve had periods of time when we were so divided in (our) politics that it led to a lot of violence in the streets,” Lovrich said on Wednesday.

Historians remind us that American history “is not a moderate middle all the time,” he said.

“That’s actually a rarity. We’ve had more periods of extended conflict, partisan conflict, deep division. We’re in one of those periods now,” Lovrich said.

By some measures, the state of Utah stands out for its high civility. Lovrich pointed to the 2020 television advertisement by Utah’s gubernatorial candidates Democrat Chris Peterson and Republican Gov. Spencer Cox that aired prior to the election.

“We can debate issues without degrading each other’s character,” said Peterson.

“We can disagree without hating each other,” said Cox.

“And win or lose, in Utah we work together,” said Peterson.

“So let’s show the country there’s a better way,” said Cox.

He also lifted up the Dignity Index efforts underway among the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute, the David Eccles School of Business, and the Hinckley Institute. A team of 22 students from politically and ideologically diverse backgrounds coded passages in Utah political campaigns.

The Gardner Institute noted two key takeaways: people of differing political backgrounds could code passages with consistency. Also, the pilot highlighted that the Dignity Index “could prompt personal reflection and behavioral change and increase awareness of actions that can be taken against division.”

The work is ongoing.

William D. Schreckhise, professor and chair of the University of Arkansas Department of Political Science, speaks during the “To Respectfully Disagree: Civility in Government” presentation at the University of Utah’s Hinckley Institute in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Sept. 27, 2023. | Laura Seitz, Deseret News

If the nation’s history suggests there have been other periods of discord, what difference does it make?

William D. Schreckhise, professor and chairman of the University of Arkansas Department of Political Science, said his and others’ research about state legislatures suggests urban states with less income inequality tend to be more civil.

“They also tend to lack term limits or otherwise have less turnover states with term limits for their state legislature. State legislators tend to have more turnover in the first place, but even states without term limits that have a lot of turnover, tend to be less civil as well,” Schreckhise said.

Lawmaker compensation also appears to play a role in enhanced civility but there are some indications that better staff support for the legislators may reduce civility “maybe because their staff are doing the work that needs to get done and the legislators more have more time to squabble among themselves,” he said.

Civility and polarization impact legislative bodies’ ability to get their work done, Schreckhise said.

“When you’re looking at the probability of passing a budget on time, we found that the level of civility in a state can actually compensate for the level of polarization in a state. The more polarized the state is, the less likely it is to pass a budget on time. But that is less true for more civil states,” he said.

Can we disagree better? Utah’s governor wants to give it a shot and it starts today

The remarks come as Congress is laboring to avert a government shutdown over political divisions over how to fund federal agencies for fiscal year 2024.

Americans are also bracing for another presidential campaign some observers say could be as contentious as the last.

Cox, as the newly installed chairman of the National Governors Association, has launched an initiative intended to help address the nation’s toxic polarization.

“Americans are tired of the nasty and endless bickering that characterizes our politics and gets in the way of solving our biggest problems,” Cox said in a press release.

“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.”

Lovrich said Washington state’s former Secretary of State Sam Reed challenged him to get to the bottom of the nation’s discord because it was having such a dramatic impact on how secretaries of states were able to carry out their duties overseeing fair elections.

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Reed told him, “Our state is falling apart. Our ability to do work is falling apart. My ability as secretary of state was to bring together leadership from both parties when we had to really make a tough decision and figure out what the best place to be and get everybody to follow along.”

But something changed and those discussions weren’t happening any more, Lovrich said.

“Something’s going wrong, and we need to get to the bottom of it,” Reed said.

The research is ongoing, Lovrich said.

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