As the countdown clock ticked closer toward a government shutdown, and news of Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s death rippled through the nation’s capital, Utah Gov. Spencer Cox took to the main stage on Friday at the Atlantic Festival in Washington, D.C., to make his case for disagreeing better.

“I’m grateful to be the token conservative on the stage,” Cox quipped to Atlantic staff writer McKay Coppins.

“I could just see your bosses saying, ‘oh no, Mitt Romney is retiring, we’ve got to find another Mormon,’” he said to audience laughter. Coppins responded by asking if this meant Cox would be running for Senate to try and replace Romney.

“No, no,” Cox backtracked, adding, “And I should say member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints but it steps on the joke — I’m working on that.”

Against the backdrop of a red stage with a massive stylized A — the magazine’s new symbol— Coppins kicked off the conversation by highlighting statistics from Pew Research Center showing significant majorities of both Democrats (83%) and Republicans (69%) say members of the opposite party are “close-minded.”

Cox responded by encouraging listeners to engage each other in positive ways, warning against the impacts of extreme polarization, which he fears can lead to political violence.

“That should scare all of us,” he said.

When asked if Cox wanted Donald Trump to be the nominee of the Republican Party, Cox pointed to surveys suggesting most Americans don’t want Joe Biden or Trump to run again. But, he said, it’s most likely they will be the party nominees and that’s why efforts to disagree better are important, amid what Cox expects will be a polarized campaign.

Cox suggested most Republicans and Democrats are not so far apart philosophically, but both parties believe they are.

“It’s called the perception gap,” he said. “If you think that the other side is willing to violate democratic norms, if you think the other side is willing to engage in political violence, if you think the other side is willing to do all these crazy things, then you give permission to your side to do the same thing. That’s what’s dangerous — we start trying to one up each other.”

Cox joked every Republican thinks all Democrats are Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and every Democrat thinks all Republicans are Marjorie Taylor Greene.

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Disagree better

Since becoming chair of the National Governors Association this summer, Cox has spoken at the Braver Angels convention at Gettysburg and most recently in New Hampshire with Gov. Chris Sununu, encouraging healthy debate. 

While past chairs of the NGA have led initiatives regarding various policy issues, on Friday, Cox expressed his belief there’s no solving those problems unless politicians and citizens find productive ways to disagree first.

“We can’t solve any of these big problems in our country if we hate each other,” Cox said. “I mean, just look at Congress this week. We can’t keep the government open, how can we solve immigration or health care?”

Gov. Spencer Cox joins McKay Coppins onstage at the Atlantic Festival in Washington, D.C., on Friday, Sept. 29, 2023. | Hal Boyd, Deseret News

Cox said this isn’t just another charge to be nice, though he said we should be nicer to each other.

“This is not that. This is truly about disagreeing. I believe disagreement is critical. Our nation was founded on profound disagreement — our Constitution came together with people who profoundly disagreed. But it’s about disagreeing in healthy ways.”

Disagreeing in productive ways, he said, can lead to better policy.

The Utah Way

Cox drew on several Utah examples during his remarks, beginning with his 2020 ad campaign with his Democratic opponent. “I said, ‘I’m Spencer Cox, a Republican, and I think you should vote for me,’ and he said, ‘I’m Chris Peterson, a Democrat, and I think you should vote for me.’”

“It’s kind of a quintessentially Utah moment. ‘Hey, guys let’s just all calm down,’” Coppins deadpanned to audience laughter.

Cox then explained the commercial, which went viral at the time, stated they’d agree to accept the results of the election and work together.

More recently, Cox filmed a commercial with the vice chair of the National Governors Association, Gov. Jared Polis, a Democrat from Colorado, about how to disagree around the dinner table with family members with different political views.

Cox used the example of Troy Williams, who runs Equality Utah, an LGBTQ advocacy group, as an example of disagreeing better. “Instead of taking the traditional advocacy space … which is, somebody says something, tear them down, fundraise off of it, try to cancel them, he bought a booth at the Republican state convention this year.”

Although some were upset and tried to get him kicked out, Williams engaged kindly with people who visited the booth. He’d say, according to Cox, “‘Tell me more about why you feel so strongly about this.’ And truly wanted to know, ‘why do you feel this way?’”

Because he was willing to listen, Cox said, people opened up.

“This one person who was incredibly angry in the beginning, gave him a hug and apologized.”

Cox then admitted, “I can tell you stories the other way as well.”

The alternative to disagreeing better, Cox said, is disagreeing worse.

He pointed to Utah’s recent bill stopping transgender surgeries for Utah teens and puberty blocker or cross hormone treatments for minors. Though people disagreed with the bill, he said it was important to convene all parties at the governor’s mansion and get to know each other.

While the outcome of the bill didn’t change, some elements did — like adding $1 million in funding for free therapy for transgender youth, he said. The conservative legislature also passed a ban on “conversion therapy” — a fact Cox said got a lot less attention.

Cox also addressed the role of social media in polarization and teen mental health.

“More and more research is showing not just a correlation, but a causal link between an increased use of social media and a degradation in mental health with our young people,” he said. “And that’s what we’re trying to get at. That’s what we’re trying to solve — the most addictive features of the social media companies that they put into place.”

Coppins pointed out Cox is prominent on social media , to which Cox joked that he has deep insights into the harms of social media as “an addict.” He then reminded Coppins, “I don’t know if you’ve heard but it’s called X now.”

Other speakers at the festival included editor-in-chief of Christianity Today, Russell Moore, Harvard professor Arthur Brooks and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, among other writers, thinkers and politicians.

The Atlantic Festival takes place in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 28 and 29. Utah Gov. Spencer Cox made an appearance to make the case for disagreeing better. | Hal Boyd, Deseret News