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The politics of division have no place going forward

Rep. Chris Stewart’s op-ed last week illustrated the very problem he decried.

In this Jan. 24, 2019, file photo, the U.S. Capitol at sunset in Washington.
J. Scott Applewhite, Associated Press

Rep. Chris Stewart recently argued that misinformation is the greatest threat to our country, deploring how “No one knows what is true anymore.”

He went on to write that our strength as a nation depends on trust, before criticizing our media, but also what he believes to be the “politicizations and manipulations” of key American institutions. They include the FBI, CIA, DOJ,and other government agencies, universities, Big Tech and other institutions that are critical to public trust.

While we agree with the central premise Stewart articulates, we were disappointed to read his argument that falls into the same destructive and partisan tropes that entrench the very problem he decries.

In laying out his case, Stewart misses the most fundamental and damaging part of the story. Indeed, he skips the facts: an administration that, over the last long four years, has attacked these same institutions and the professionals in them. A government led by a president who to this day urges voters to discount the results of the Nov. 3 election, which Joe Biden won. Not to mention repeated Trump attacks on journalists who disagree with him, court judges as well as the president’s own former top officials who have resigned. Former Defeense Secretary Jim Mattis’ perspective, someone once in the know and at the highest levels in Washington, is worth re-reading in this regard.

To rebuild any semblance of trust and to reunite a nation as divided as ours, we must call on Rep. Stewart to reject trafficking in the very behavior that has been normalized by Donald Trump.

Both of us decided to run in consecutive elections to represent the people of Utah because we believe that there is more that unites us than divides us. We write as the last two Democratic candidates who sought to represent Utah’s 2nd Congressional District, a politically and geographically diverse area that encompasses almost half of the state, from Farmington to Kanab, the Avenues to Panguitch — a political map of red rock, alfalfa and skyscrapers.

We ran campaigns focused on kitchen-table issues like access to health care and protecting rural post offices. We spent our time with many who would were unlikely to vote for us because we believe in good-faith dialogue, understanding and trust building. We know that doesn’t happen by retweeting false information, as Stewart has, or demonizing “the other side.” There are no sides when people need a government that is accountable to everyday people and working for them.

Too few Utahns feel like someone is fighting for them. We know because we talked to thousands of them. They told us they worried about their families’ health care, living wage jobs, the changing environment with decreased water and increased fires, housing shortages and more.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, these concerns only grew. Many Utahns still look toward Congress and our government to get things done for the common good, not play into the politics of fear and division. One of us recalls an elderly Republican voter in Richfield describing the lack of mental health care in rural Utah, explaining how his wife had a psychiatric emergency but few options in the county. The other recalls a conversation with a farmer in Piute County who worries desperately about his two daughters with preexisting conditions and their future and overall health.

We also write as a former Peace Corps volunteer in Moldova and as a U.S. State Department representative in Iraq and Afghanistan. Our multiyear service to our country required hardship and hard conversations in foreign lands in order to close gaps and find solutions. Given this context, the most corrosive aspect of Mr. Stewart’s line of thinking is how he lumps a big part of America, including us, as somehow intent on treating the other half of the country as “rubes; backward, racists, homophobic, sexist, anti-science, closed-minded religious zealots who are too dumb to know what is good for them.”

Again, with this characterization, Stewart reinforces the very narrative he condemns. We can attest that this is not the kind of argument, nor tone, we had in our campaigns or that Americans need to hear at this moment. Stewart’s narrow and exclusionary definition of patriotism, and what it means to be American, further inflames and divides us from our neighbors. And at a time when we should be seeking more conversations — not finger pointing and castigating each other in an us-versus-them mentality.

Rep. Stewart concluded his commentary piece by urging Utahns to “reject those who manipulate, mislead and malign. Never has this been more important.” That ballot box rejection is exactly what happened on Nov. 3. While Stewart was reelected, Trump was not. The American people spoke in record turnout, nationwide. The final vote tally did not lead to a Democratic sweep of offices, but Americans by the millions did repudiate today’s Divider in Chief.

Both of us conceded our races in 2018 and 2020 to Mr. Stewart, acknowledging the will of Utah voters no matter how gerrymandered Utah’s 2nd Congressional District remains in order to ensure GOP dominance. We ran to the hard places in the district, repeatedly, where Democrats are often not expected to show up. We did not fear being in rooms or at outdoor parks dominated by Republicans, including some vocal Trump supporters, we welcomed it. As Congressional candidates, we worked hard to move our state and country toward a political truce of sorts, so that the business of the people could get done.

The public good — more we and us, not me and mine.

Unfortunately, the politics of division appear to be a bad habit hard to break for some politicians, even in a time of pandemic and ongoing urgent needs for Utah and American families.

Let’s not give in to fear. Each of us can do our part to help ensure that facts and the truth still matter. Respectful conversations in 2021 might lead to more unity and mutual trust, between neighbors, no matter our zip codes. In order to do that, we need to step out of our own digital silos. Spend some time each week with those who might have different political views. Diversify our media consumption. Consider the veracity of Facebook or Twitter posts and, for all our sake, stop sharing political memes. Support local journalism. And follow the “two ears and one mouth” rule — try to listen twice as much as we talk.

Let’s resolve to work toward these goals in the new year. This effort is in all our interest and might help save this country and bring our state back to a healthier political balance.

Shireen Ghorbani is a member of the Salt Lake County Council and the 2018 Democratic candidate for Utah’s 2nd Congressional District. Kael Weston was the 2020 Democratic candidate for Utah’s 2nd Congressional District.