Estimated read time: 6-7 minutes
SALT LAKE CITY — At least there's one thing we all seem to agree on.
A vast majority — 90% — of Utahns say political debates have become less civil in the U.S. over the past six years, in the wake of the 2016 presidential election when Donald Trump won the presidency over Hillary Clinton.
That's according to a new Deseret News/Hinckley Institute of Politics poll that found 72% of voters think political debates have gotten "much less civil" and 18% say "somewhat less civil." Only 5% said political discourse has become more civil (with 3% who said "much more civil" and 2% who said "somewhat more" civil). The other 5% said they didn't know.
The poll also found 62% of Utahns say their personal interactions discussing or debating politics have become less civil over the past six years, while 26% said they think it's become more civil and 12% said they didn't know.
Dan Jones & Associates conducted the survey of 808 Utah registered voters May 7-13. The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.46 percentage points.
Why isn't civility improving?
When asked about the poll results during his monthly PBS Utah news conference last week, Utah Gov. Spencer Cox said he wasn't at all surprised by the results.
"I can't imagine anybody with a pulse thinks our civility is improving in this country," Cox told reporters.
The Republican governor has been vocal about the need for more civility in today's political landscape — even before he was sworn in as governor in January 2021.
During the 2020 election, when Trump and Joe Biden were battling head-to-head, Cox and his Democratic opponent, Chris Peterson, received national attention for appearing together in a public service announcement promoting civility in politics, saying Utah can set an example for the rest of the country in a divisive election year.
Cox and Peterson also produced messages encouraging Utahns to accept the outcome of the presidential election as Trump expressed reluctance to commit to a peaceful transfer of power amid his reelection bid.
And this year, during his second State of the State speech, Cox urged Utahns — Republicans and Democrats alike — to not "give up on the idea of America," despite today's ugly national discord. He said Utahns have a choice: "We can either become like every other state in the union or we can continue to be that quirky state out West that still believes in working together."
"I firmly believe in my heart that if America is the last great hope of the world, then Utah is the last great hope of America," Cox said in the speech.
The poll found virtually no difference among Republicans, Democrats and independents in terms of how they view political discourse, with about 90% in each group saying it is less civil. About the same is true for Utahns in the survey who identified themselves as conservative, liberal or moderate.
As for personal political discussions and debates, 59% of Republicans and 68% of Democrats say their interactions have become less civil.
At the end of his first term in office, Cox told the Deseret News in an interview he sees polarization and misinformation as a real threat — a threat that's literally killing people as live-saving COVID-19 vaccinations have fallen victim to politicization.
Cox continued those calls for civility during last Thursday's news conference.
"There is a place for debate — healthy debate is really good. In fact, healthy debate is fundamental to a robust democratic republic like ours," Cox said. "And yet what we are seeing is not that. It is not healthy at all."
Cox added: "The name-calling, the cheap shots and the divisiveness for divisiveness sake, the othering, the use of fear and demagoguery to gain influence or power or get elected I think is a sad commentary on where we are as a people."
The polarized political climate in the U.S. hit a violent boiling point on Jan. 6, 2021, when an angry mob of Trump supporters stormed the nation's Capitol.
"It's very destructive and very dangerous, and we've seen some of the results of that," Cox said. "And I'm certainly worried about the future if something doesn't change."
Can Utah be a beacon for civility?
So has Utah made any progress on his call to action for civic charity — or has his calls fallen on deaf ears and has Utah's polarization only gotten worse?
"I think people are starting to understand more," Cox told reporters. "The exhausted majority ... are starting to, I believe, speak out a little more about what they're seeing in that polarization and how dangerous it is."
However, Cox acknowledged Utah isn't perfect.
"We've probably taken a few steps in the wrong direction in our state, but not nearly at the rate of the rest of the country," Cox said.
"Obviously there was one very big example during the legislative session where I felt it was a mistake, others disagreed with me on that one for sure," Cox said. "But we also had so many other examples of things being done the right way, positive examples of people coming together. And that's what I would like to celebrate more."
This year, the Utah Legislature blindsided Cox and LGBTQ advocates by ramming through an altered version of a bill that banned transgender girls from competing in female school sports. Soon after, an emotional and disappointed Cox, who has been an outspoken ally for LGBTQ issues, vowed to veto the bill while telling Utah's LGBTQ youth, "It's going to be OK."
As governor, Cox has urged his fellow Republicans to focus less on culture war wedge issues and more on policy issues that impact the day-to-day lives of Utahns. He's garnered national attention for his approach, including in Vanity Fair, which highlighted Cox and Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb for both vetoing anti-transgender sports bills and "refusing to join their party's anti-trans culture war."
Utah lawmakers swiftly overrode Cox's veto and tweaked it to address some of his concerns.
Cox's veto frustrated the far-right wings of Utah's GOP. He received a wave of negative national attention when Fox News commentator Tucker Carlson named him in a tirade earlier this month for, among other things, sharing his preferred pronouns in an online conversation with high school students.
Despite the vitriol, Cox said he wants to focus on the positive work Utah leaders have been able to accomplish, even if the transgender sports bill overshadowed it.
"I'm still incredibly hopeful here in Utah that most people really do want to work together, most people do want to find common ground," Cox "There are very loud and vocal voices out there that are on the extremes, (from) both parties, that get most of the attention. But I believe the exhausted majority is still far outweighing those voices, they just don't get heard as much."
So even though Cox said he's still "deeply concerned" about the state of the nation's political discourse, he's also "optimistic."
"While I think we have seen the culture wars, the battlefronts expanding here in the state of Utah, we have also seen an increased willingness of people to come together to work on those very divisive issues to try and find some common ground."