I'm Right...and You're Stupid. How Civil is Utah Politics?

Do we sometimes, perhaps subliminally, think that because someone disagrees with us that they are less intelligent? How civil is political debate in Utah? Why does it seem that incivility is more attractive and entertaining? Is a little incivility okay every now and then? If you had to choose between being civil and being honest, which would you choose?

These and similar questions were discussed last night at the quarterly blogger briefing entitled "CIVILITY IN POLITICS: WHERE DO WE DRAW THE LINE?", hosted by the Sutherland Institute in Salt Lake City.

Dave Hansen, chair of the Utah State Republican Party, noted that there have been several times in American history where political debate has been much less civil than it is today. The 1968 presidential election at the height of the Vietnam War was one such high-water mark. Early campaigns in our nations history, such as those between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, were fraught with name calling and half truths that might make today's politicians blush. Also on the early side of our nation's history, at least one instance has been chronicled of a United States congressman nearly succeeding in killing a colleague on the floor of congress; has that happened recently?

Hansen's point was that political debate only seems to be more rancorous today because of the immediacy of cable news and the internet. Back in the day when there were only a few newspapers to accompany Walter Cronkite and the CBS evening news, it was not possible (as it is today) for Americans to get all of the salacious details of any political event they wanted to know more about.

Rob Miller, chair of the Davis County Democrat Party, opined that Representative Joe Wilson's recent outburst during President Obama's speech--"You lie!"--is not only completely lacking in decorum, but is an outburst without precedent. I completely agree with the statement that it was a disgraceful outburst, but Dave Hansen wondered if we simply don't know about any other such outbursts (1) because, until recently, presidents very seldom gave speeches in front of Congress, and perhaps more importantly (2) the almost immediate accessibility of virtually any news story is an advent of only about the last 10 years or so.

It reminds me of the recent "Obama Worship Song" that was videotaped and clandestinely uploaded to the internet. Did any such Reagan worship (for example) ever occur? The world may never know.

Is it more important to be civil or honest? There seemed to be nearly as many answers to this question as there were people in attendance at last night's briefing. In my opinion, it's important to be "civilly honest" (hopefully that doesn't sound like a copy-out). Only then can you be persuasive. If you're civil, but not honest, then eventually no one will believe you. If you are honest, but not civil, then eventually no one will listen to you.

Why does incivility seem to be more attractive than civility? No one at the blogger briefing had a really good answer to that question...

So what's your experience? Is incivility up in the Utah political area? Is Utah politics more or less civil than other places you've been.

Note: Jeff Reynolds and Lisa Johnson of the Sutherland Institute indicated that the next briefing would take place in December. For more information, or to attend, please contact Lisa.


  1. Do we seek to be civil? I think that is the question Dave Hansen might ask. Is the goal civility, or is persuasion the goal. Which accomplishes what we seek to accomplish?

    I had been taught by my father to always look at your own motives. Are you trying to dress down someone, or are you trying to persuade them? In an ideal world, we would all have pure motives and seek to understand the other's position in order to contrast our own position's strengths and weaknesses and rethink that position if warranted.

    However, pride gets in the way for most of us. It is really hard to convince anyone that they are wrong. They might be persuaded to reconsider their position, and come to a different conclusion on their own. Atleast that's my take.

    Best regards.

  2. "Why does incivility seem to be more attractive than civility?"

    Because it's always exciting to see people argue (unless it gets violent), just like people always have to slow down to look at an accident. We like to see unusual things.

    "So what's your experience? Is incivility up in the Utah political area?" I used to work in politics in D.C. and did grad school in L.A. and I noticed a huge difference when I came to Utah. People here seem to be more kind, straight-forward, and honest when they discuss/debate things. We have our own problems here for sure, but I think that overall it's better here.

  3. Speaking of Joe Wilson's outburst - it has happened. 2005, State of the Union, Dems on the House floor boo-ing the POTUS. How quickly we forget....

  4. Holly: Nice catch! Wow, I had forgotten as well, but I googled "state of the union dems boo bush" and found this: http://www.realclearpolitics.com/video/2009/09/10/flashback_democrats_boo_bush_at_2005_state_of_the_union.html Now I remember. Funny how it does cut both ways... ;-)

  5. There's one thing that I haven't seen addressed anywhere in regards to civility. Though it was touched on a little bit at the briefing. Dave Hansen said that the slash and burn campaign doesn't really work in Utah, and he said the best way to defend against it is with humor. I don't think he meant it this way, but it reminded me of something that's been bouncing around my head for some time.

    People use a form of humor to attack opponents all the time. This is the form of incivility which I see as the most damaging. CS Lewis called this form of humor flippancy. Instead of making a real joke about something, they talk about it as if it were funny, as if the joke were already made. This is why I see it as the most damaging - it removes any possibility of an actual exchange of ideas.

  6. It was good to see you Frank. Thanks for being there.


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