At the old Hotel Utah, 75 years ago this fall, a group of business and civic leaders gathered to form a new organization. They came from various professional and political backgrounds. But they were united by a vision to create an organization that would serve as an independent voice to help Utah address its problems. The organization was not to be beholden to any political party or ideology; rather, it was to follow the facts wherever they may lead.
Utah Foundation was born.
Like the present moment, the fall of 1945 was a time that brought significant challenges and opportunities. Just weeks earlier, World War II ended with the Japanese surrender. Utah faced the challenges of post-war demobilization and returning soldiers. But it also faced the opportunities of a new era in history. And the state was seeing its share of political contention.
In those days, both political parties were strongly competitive at the statewide level. In 1945, the governor was a Democrat, Herbert Maw. Maw had become known as a friend of the blue-collar worker and a hard-liner on maintaining alcohol restrictions. A year earlier, by the very narrowest of margins, Maw had defeated the maverick anti-tax Republican, J. Bracken Lee. Out of about 250,000 votes cast, the winning margin was just one thousand votes — four-tenths of one percent. In 1948, Lee came back for a rematch, accusing Maw of corruption, while Maw accused Lee of loose morals. In the end, Lee defeated Maw in what was considered one of the nastiest governor’s races in Utah history. The two men, on meeting 40 years later, still couldn’t look each other in the eye and shake hands.
We tend to think of the lack of civility in our time as the sign of civilizational decline, and it very well may be. Utah Foundation’s 2020 Utah Priorities survey recently found that partisanship and division was one of the top 10 concerns of Utahns. But let’s contrast the Maw-Lee melee with the current race between Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox and University of Utah law professor Chris Peterson. Both joined Utah Foundation in September for our 75th anniversary celebration. Each spoke of the other in conciliatory terms, referring to the fact that they like one another personally. Cox mentioned that Peterson’s running mate had sent his running mate flowers when she contracted the coronavirus.
OK, let’s not be Pollyanna. There is the matter of today’s D.C. politics and the national media’s fevered coverage of the partisan drama du jour. But this, also, is not completely new. George Washington warned in his farewell address against the poison of partisanship. He had good reason to know of its deleterious effects, since his cabinet was roiled by the ideological tensions among Jefferson, Adams and Hamilton. The Adams vs. Jefferson elections were marked by rumor-mongering, low-blow insults and partisan press-driven nastiness. Jefferson’s vice president even killed Hamilton in a duel.
Getting back to today, can things get worse? Any casual student of history knows they can. But whether they do depends heavily on us. Do we leave the field to ideologues who trade in group identity, abstract theories or divisive narratives? Do we repeat the talking points of political animals driven by a lust for power and obsessed with running up the score on their opponents? Do we consume at the trough of a hyperbolic national media whose profit model is built on widening cultural fault lines as a perverse form of entertainment?
Or do we discard their blurry lenses and use clear information to address real problems? Do we build our society on facts, giving our attention to reliable sources of information? In short, do we build our society on truth? That, as its highest aspiration, was why Utah Foundation was founded.
When voters are done wandering through a contentious presidential election season (and, by comparison, a quaint gubernatorial race), each will still have the responsibility to make a choice. We can march to the drums of political tribalism. Or we can determine to make each day an opportunity to serve our families, our fellow citizens — and the truth.
Peter Reichard is president of Utah Foundation, a nonpartisan, nonprofit public policy organization. Reach him at email@example.com.