As Americans, can we learn to disagree better?

Utah Gov. Spencer Cox thinks so, and on Friday he kicked off his yearlong tenure as chairman of the National Governors Association with a mission he says is “an existential issue and crisis for our country”: Americans’ inability to disagree without hating each other.

“The course that we’re on right now as Americans is unsustainable,” Cox said Friday morning, speaking to a room full of governors in Atlantic City, New Jersey, shortly after outgoing chairman New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy handed him the gavel.

Cox then warned that with the country heading into a presidential election year, the divisiveness and toxicity could ramp up.

“We as governors have an opportunity to provide some counter programming to that terrible thing that is going to happen to us. We can give Americans another vision, another option,” Cox said.

Part of that “counter programming” began Friday with a video Cox filmed with the incoming vice-chairman of the National Governor’s Association, Democrat Colorado Gov. Jared Polis. It’s reminiscent of the campaign ad Cox filmed with his Democratic opponent Chris Peterson in 2020, and something the Utah governor will encourage throughout his initiative.

“We’re here to save your family dinners,” Cox said in the video.

“Be curious, ask questions. If you still disagree, that’s OK. But you might find out you’re not as far apart as you think,” Polis added.

Through the Disagree Better initiative the governor will take on immigration, a topic Cox has been outspoken on and is often in the middle of. He has been both a passionate advocate for refugees and a supporter of secure-the-border immigration policies, including those put forth by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott.

As chairman of the National Governor’s Association, he hopes to bring governors together to work on national immigration policy with a two-pronged approach — secure the southern border and fix legal immigration.

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“Most governors, at least privately, will admit that they agree on those two things. Republican governors admit we need to fix legal immigration, Democratic governors admit that we need to fix the issues on the border,” Cox told reporters during a meeting in June in anticipation of today’s announcement.

But finding consensus on a topic as divisive as immigration won’t be easy. Cox says the initiative isn’t a civility exercise. And the goal certainly isn’t for everyone to agree on everything.

“We want people to stand by their principles and things that they believe in. But we believe that there is a better way to disagree without hating our fellow Americans,” the governor said. “... A lot of people get that wrong, that when you disagree on an idea that means you hate the person — that we can’t disagree. That’s also problematic. And so, again, helping people understand that attacking the idea, as opposed to the person, is what we’re trying to do.”

The initiative will include engaging public schools, institutes of higher education, politicians, even businesses. Cox will also partner with Dartmouth, Stanford and other researchers in the public policy space to “learn the science behind depolarization.”

“This is not just a feel good thing that we’re trying to do. There’s actual science behind this,” Cox said Friday.

The governor said he sometimes runs afoul of his own initiative. In May, he made headlines after he called Congress imbeciles who “can’t get their crap together” to pass immigration reform. He apologized the following day. On Thursday, he was quick to delete a Tweet that poked fun at the Secret Service’s inability to identify who brought a small bag of cocaine into the White House. And on Friday, the announcement was met with some criticism on social media from constituents upset over things the governor has done, like signing abortion restrictions into law and passing the state’s new voting districts that some say are gerrymandered.

“Still waiting for you to call out the extremist elected officials in your own party … but we won’t hold our breath,” the Utah Democrat Party Tweeted.

“I will be the first to admit that sometimes I fall short, but we’re certainly trying to do better,” he told reporters, later noting that “the political playbook says to always strike first and never apologize. That’s what people are taught when you run for office. And I think it’s wrong. I think apologizing can be powerful.”

One of the more divisive issues to come out of the 2023 legislative session were the bills regarding LGBTQ rights. Cox signed three bills he said were directed at protecting children, while critics of the bills said they would negatively impact the well-being of transgender youth.

When asked how to disagree with transgender people who feel like their existence is being questioned, he said it’s important to not shy away from tough conversations.

“If you’re not willing to sit down and listen to transgender kids and their families, then you’re probably doing policy the wrong way,” Cox said, telling reporters the inverse is also true.

“Why is it that you don’t want kids to get transgender surgeries before they’re 18? Or to take these hormone blockers? Why do you believe that? And try to understand exactly where they’re coming from, what is their motivation. And when I’ve been able to do that, I find that we end up coming from the same place, we just end up in a different place,” Cox said.

The initiative will ask governors to do the following:

  • Host service projects within their communities, with spouses and state lawmakers.
  • Record an ad with an opponent, neighboring governor or lawmaker from a different political party, similar to the one Cox filmed with his Democratic opponent Chris Peterson in 2020.
  • Record a civic education ad that explains how the constitution and founding of America “were designed for people from different backgrounds and with different views.”
  • Write an op-ed with someone from a rival political party that finds common ground on an issue.
  • Host a college debate that “models healthy conflict to future generations.”

With an initiative as ambiguous as “disagree better,” how does Cox measure success?

He says polling data will show if the messaging is resonating with voters. Whether governors engage with the initiative or not is another good metric. Cox said he’ll look to see if the videos, like the one the governor rolled out on Friday, “get a fraction of the attention that the negative videos get.”

“This is not just for governors — mayors who may be listening, county commissioners, city council members, school board members in Colorado, Utah, across the country, we encourage you to do this. Even everyday citizens, go film a video, put it on Instagram, Facebook, Tiktok, whatever, with somebody that you disagree with, showing that you can you can still be friends,” Cox said during a press conference, standing alongside Polis.

But the ultimate measure, Cox says, is if politicians get elected by modeling that behavior.

“We’re hoping that we will see a lot of copycats” he said, suggesting that the behavior modeled by the initiative is “good for business.”

Cox’s tenure as chair will last one year, and will include conventions in New Hampshire, Kentucky, Utah and Colorado. Colorado Gov. Jared Polis will serve as vice-chair.

Cox replaces New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, a Democrat, whose initiative focused on teen mental health.

Utah Republican Sen. Mitt Romney gave his support to Cox Friday, tweeting “This is a great opportunity for him to promote Utah’s values across the country.”