Recently, I attended a speech given to local high school students and community members by Gov. Spencer Cox as part of his Connecting Utah Tour. I am drawn to these kinds of events, both by my personal interest in all things government and by my desire to be an informed citizen. During his address, I noted two things: First, there is power in Cox’s relatable optimism — through his message, he managed to transform fear into hope. And second, by speaking with civility and positive energy, he demonstrated how to work in politics while respecting the dignity of others. 

He began his speech by talking about growing up in the ’80s and some of the things that worried him back then. The governor and I are close in age, so these worrisome things were very familiar to me. One example he shared was the hole in the ozone layer and how frightening we found that. But, he pointed out, we never hear about it anymore. Why? Because the scientific community educated us on what was causing the hole (chlorofluorocarbons in aerosols), and we addressed it. Through international agreements, government regulations and adjustments in production, chlorofluorocarbons were phased out of use, and the ozone layer no longer weighs heavily on our minds.

Today’s teenagers have many concerns, and some of those were expressed by students during the assembly. But the governor believes we can address and fix those, too. He helped the students understand that there are good reasons to look forward to the future. He acknowledged the deep divides that exist between people and in communities and said that although the average citizen only hears about a few controversial bills, the government does many positive things. The government’s quieter accomplishments are evidence of the work of bridge building and compromise. Throughout the speech, Cox spoke about his colleagues with civility and respect.

I was especially interested in Cox’s perspective because of my own work. For the last year and a half, I have been the director of nonpartisanship for Mormon Women for Ethical Government. Contrary to popular impression, nonpartisanship does not mean being neutral. For us, it means choosing principles over party and avoiding a dogmatic approach to political issues. Because I am constantly thinking about what it means to be a principled citizen and how to decrease the outrage that seems to possess even the most good-hearted of us, I found Cox’s topic and approach inspiring.

He told the students that Americans don’t need to disagree less — we need to disagree better. It seems the governor and I both appreciate the sentiments of Arthur Brooks, who has spoken and written about reducing contempt in politics. Brooks believes “America is developing a ‘culture of contempt’ — a habit of seeing people who disagree with us not as merely incorrect or misguided but as worthless.” He advises us to do something radical: love each other.

And, in a simple way without any fanfare, Cox demonstrated that kind of love — with basic respect and kindness.

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Cox reminded the students of the purpose of government: It exists to protect the rights that we have inherently. The government didn’t create those rights. Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are unalienable rights given to us by our Creator. Conscious of the public school setting, Cox quoted from the Declaration of Independence without elaboration.

But I was immediately reminded of hearing then-Vice President Joe Biden speak in Philadelphia in 2014. It was the Fourth of July, a day when, Biden said, we celebrate “the notion that all men are created equal.” He spoke of the march toward “guaranteeing every man, woman and child the dignity that you’re entitled to merely because they are children of God. Not because of the Constitution, not because of any written document, merely because they exist, they are entitled to dignity.”

This basic understanding of the source of our rights is one that is shared by two men — Biden and Cox — who are politically opposed. Their ways of emphasizing and ensuring those rights are different, but they have the same foundational understanding. 

Listening to Cox’s perspective was beneficial, and I hope our high school students appreciated it. Although I don’t agree with all of the governor’s viewpoints, I can sincerely respect his approach of being respectful, showing civility and finding common ground.

I don’t agree with all of anybody’s viewpoints, including my own husband. That’s what makes democracy work. It makes democracy hard, but it also makes it work. We need each other. We need diversity of thought and diversity of ideas. And if we respond to that diversity with the respect and positivity Cox displayed, we have many reasons to be optimistic.

Megan Rawlins Woods is the senior director of nonpartisanship for Mormon Women for Ethical Government. She is from West Jordan, Utah. She earned a bachelor’s degree in planning and resource management from Brigham Young University and currently lives with her husband and five children in rural Utah.