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U.S. a ‘declining democracy,’ Utah governor says, and it’s time for a ‘wake up call’

Sen. Mitt Romney, other elected officials are experiencing violent threats amid polarization. Utah Gov. Spencer Cox said it’s up to everyone — not just politicians — to stop it

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Gov. Spencer Cox speaks at his monthly PBS news conference at the Eccles Broadcast Center in Salt Lake City.

Gov. Spencer Cox speaks at his monthly PBS news conference at the Eccles Broadcast Center in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Sept. 21, 2023.

Francisco Kjolseth

Utah Gov. Spencer Cox’s brow furrowed when he was asked about Sen. Mitt Romney spending $5,000 a day since the Jan. 6, 2021 riot at the U.S. Capitol to cover private security for his family.

It was among the bombshell accounts The Atlantic writer McKay Coppins has so far revealed in a recently published excerpt of the biography he’s writing about Romney’s last few years in office, titled “Romney: A Reckoning.”

“It’s very disturbing, but not surprising,” the Republican governor told reporters during his monthly PBS Utah news conference Thursday of Romney’s spending to protect his family from threats of violence.

Utah’s soon-to-retire GOP senator has drawn the ire from far-right extremists and supporters of former President Donald Trump for being the only Republican senator who voted to convict Trump during his first impeachment trial in 2020 for abuse of power, then joining seven other Republicans to vote to convict Trump in his 2021 trial for accusations of inciting an insurrection at the Capitol on Jan. 6. Trump was ultimately acquitted both times.

In the excerpt, Coppins details how Romney learned that some fellow Republicans wanted to vote to convict Trump in his second impeachment trial but chose not to out of fear for their personal safety and their family’s safety.

“As dismayed as Romney was by this line of thinking, he understood it,” Coppins wrote. “Most members of Congress don’t have security details. Their addresses are publicly available online. Romney himself had been shelling out $5,000 a day since the riot to cover private security for his family — an expense he knew most of his colleagues couldn’t afford.”

Cox said he — and plenty of other Utah officials — have experienced their own share of violent threats amid today’s political vitriol.

“I’ve received threats as well. I think a lot of public officials here in the state of Utah have received those threats,” Cox said. “I’m grateful for our security teams that work hard ... anytime there’s a threat.”

Cox then delved into a topic that’s been top of mind for him in his new role as chairman of the National Governors Association with his “Disagree Better” campaign, in which he’s been urging Utahns and Americans to come to together to combat what he calls “an existential issue and crisis” in the country: Americans’ inability to disagree without hating each other.

“Look guys, I’m not usually prone to hyperbole,” Cox told reporters, but he said the U.S. is “headed down a very dark path, and we’re further down that path than I think most people realize.”

“There is a very real chance over the next couple of decades of a complete failure of our democratic institutions, of our republic,” Cox said. “I take that very seriously. If we don’t wake up as a society and if we don’t stop playing with fire, stop the hatred that we’re exhibiting toward our fellow Americans with whom we have some disagreements, we could end up in a very dark place.”

Evidence of ‘declining democracy’

Cox pointed to research by Rachel Kleinfeld, a senior fellow in the Carnegie Democracy, Conflict and Governance Program, who has studied troubled democracies. In an opinion piece published by The Hill in January titled “American democracy is dodging bullets,” Kleinfeld wrote “Americans have normalized a dangerous amount of violence in our politics — and our daily lives.”

“Threats have not only risen ten-fold in the last few years against members of Congress — they have also skyrocketed against mayors and local office holders,” Kleinfeld wrote. She cited a 2021 poll by the National League of Cities that found 81% of local leaders have experienced threats or violence.

Earlier this week, the daughter of a newspaper reporter was arrested and accused of assaulting Orem Mayor David Young after a City Council meeting in which Young ranted for 20 minutes about news articles and repeatedly disparaged the reporter. Last month, hours before President Joe Biden was set to visit Utah, the FBI shot and killed a man in Provo while attempting to serve a search warrant at his home after the man repeatedly threatened violence against the president on social media.

Cox said the “hallmarks” of failing democracies are a rise in political violence and threats toward elected officials. Asked if he believes the U.S. is in a declining democracy, he said:

“I do. It scares the hell out of me, and it should everybody else.”

In a paper published earlier this month, Kleinfeld reviewed a decade of research on polarization, democracy and political violence in the U.S. She concluded, among other findings, that:

  • “The American public feels affectively polarized largely because of misunderstandings about the other side (though the misunderstandings seem sensitive to actual ideological differences). Older Americans are polarizing more quickly than younger Americans. And the United States is polarizing much more rapidly than other Western democracies; partisans even more so. ... The rapidity of U.S. polarization compared to similar wealthy, consolidated democracies suggests that domestic issues in the United States are likely to be driving more of the country’s polarization than issues affecting many other countries.”
  • “People may be more at risk of affective polarization and more supportive of same-party antidemocratic breaches if they fear that the other party will gain power and use it to undermine democracy. Affective polarization is likely driven more by feelings of threat than simply feelings of dislike.”
  • “America’s entire media system — not just social media — may be playing a role in both ideological and affective polarization. Highly polarizing cable news and talk radio shows are probably more to blame than social media, and all of their polarizing effects are likely exacerbated because the United States lacks a single trusted media source or trusted local media organizations. Increasing the availability of trusted local media may be a helpful remedy but requires more study.”
  • “The interaction of economic precarity in rural areas facing a tougher recovery from the 2008–2009 financial crisis — at a moment when greater cultural attention was being directed at racial identity and politicians were exacerbating a sense of status anxiety — may be making rural Americans more vulnerable to racial resentment and affective polarization.”
  • “Politicians and political incentives are probably playing a larger role in driving affective polarization than structural issues such as inequality or geographic sorting.”

Kleinfeld warned a “win-lose-style, adversarial advocacy” between the left and right sides of the political spectrum “might be dangerous.” She wrote “advocacy that amplifies the belief that members of the other party are bent on destroying democracy itself is likely to deepen polarization and support for antidemocratic action on one’s own side.”

“The more each side fears the other is going to subvert the rules of the game, the more willing voters seem to be to do it first to lock in their party’s advantage,” she continued.

Kleinfeld warned parties and candidates “clearly believe that more polarizing candidates are more likely to win elections,” and the result is an “arms race” that’s “creating a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

“The United States may reach a point where the best it can hope for is to shore up democracy and inclusion in some states while abandoning others to a less democratic and inclusive future,” Kleinfeld wrote. “This is, after all, what occurred under Jim Crow for eight decades. But America is not at this point yet, and an advocacy style that pushes the country closer to such a dystopic fate is in no way helpful to the goals of social justice. Instead, intense mobilization efforts built around a positive future vision are needed to galvanize voters without exacerbating antidemocratic attitudes.”

The Washington D.C.-based nonprofit Freedom House has warned democracy in the U.S. has suffered “serious erosion” amid a 16-year decline in global freedom. The U.S. score in the organization’s Freedom in the World report that tracks global trends in political rights and civil liberties fell by 11 points on a 100-point scale from 2010 to 2020, with an “accelerated deterioration of 6 points during the presidency of Donald Trump.”

“The weakening of American democracy did not start with President Trump’s direct pressure on democratic institutions and rights, and his departure from the White House has not ended the crisis,” a Freedom House commentary states. “Disturbing problems that predated his administration — legislative dysfunction, partisan gerrymandering, the excessive influence of special interests in politics, ongoing racial discrimination, and the spread of polarization and disinformation in the media environment — remain unaddressed.”

‘Wake up call’

Cox said the indicators that the U.S. is a “declining democracy” should be a “wake up call to all of us.”

“We all have a role to play,” he said. “Political leaders are really good at using fear to divide us. I’m hoping today to use a little bit of fear to unite us.”

Cox cited a new Pew Research Center survey that showed 65% of Americans say they always or often feel exhausted when thinking about politics and just 4% of U.S. adults say the political system is working extremely or very well. Pew concluded “positive views of many governmental and political institutions are at historic lows,” with just 16% saying they trust the federal government always or most of the time.

“And in a very real way, what every one of us does every day — posting on social media, attacking other people instead of ideas — we are adding to that,” Cox said.

The governor said it’s up to all of us — not just politicians — to reverse the trajectory.

“You know, I don’t expect that politicians are going to solve this for us,” Cox said, “but politicians are a reflection of all of us, and we all need to do better. And I include myself in that.”