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America is on ‘a very dark path,’ says Gov. Cox, and it ‘scares the hell out of me’

Gov. Spencer Cox speaks at his monthly news conference in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Sept. 21, 2023.
Francisco Kjolseth
The Salt Lake Tribune, pool
Gov. Spencer Cox speaks at his monthly news conference in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Sept. 21, 2023.

American democracy is heading down “a very dark path” and Gov. Spencer Cox believes the culprit is political polarization that could end in “total failure” if elected leaders and the American public don’t shape up.

“It scares the hell out of me,” he told reporters during his monthly news conference.

The governor said a key sign that democracy is in peril is that elected officials are being targeted.

In August, the FBI killed a Provo man while serving a warrant after he made lethal threats toward President Joe Biden during his visit to the Beehive State. The mayor of Orem was assaulted after a city council meeting on Sept. 19. The soon-to-retire Sen. Mitt Romney told his biographer he spends $5,000 a day to protect himself and his family from extremists who are livid with Romney’s treatment of former President Donald Trump.

Gov. Cox added he hasn’t been immune to the danger but is confident the Utah Department of Public Safety will vet and handle the threats before they are carried out.

Since Trump took office in 2016, threats toward elected officials have increased tenfold, according to data from the U.S. Capitol Police. Researcher Rachel Kleinfeld, whom the governor cited, found that violent political attacks have also sharply spiked since 2016, mostly by far-right believers.

Cox placed some of the blame for political polarization on cable news for adding fuel to the fire and giving a platform to extremist politicians. He also dinged social media algorithms for helping “drive the division.”

“If you want attention, you have to be extreme,” he said.

But the attention and notion that the other side of the political spectrum is willing to violate “democratic norms,” Cox said, is leading to a “death spiral” for the republic.

He added the vast majority of Democrats and Republicans agree on most big issues even if their approach to solving the problem differs, but if the public doesn’t know or recognize that, “it can be really really dangerous.”

Contentious politics are also having a mighty impact on the American people. Pew Research found unfavorable views of both parties have quadrupled since the mid-90s, and the majority of Americans surveyed reported feeling exhausted or angry when thinking about politics.

“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 said. “If we don't wake up as a society, if we don't stop playing with fire, stop the hatred that we're exhibiting towards our fellow Americans with whom we have some disagreements, we could end up in a very dark place.”

Cox hopes his“Disagree Better” initiative as the chair of the National Governors Association will help reduce partisan polarization. The project outlines the problems with hyper-partisanship, and how people with opposing views can productively listen to one another without disengaging through “public debates, service projects, public service announcements and a variety of other tactics.” Cox said the association will use the tools from the initiative to tackle immigration.

In getting to a place where there’s more cooperation, the governor noted that the framers of the Constitution didn’t intend for there to be a professional political class.

Cox believes Romney’s decision not to run for reelection is setting a “great model” for other elected leaders to walk away from campaign politics due to their age or the amount of time they’ve spent in office. That model, Cox said, is something he plans on following as governor.

“I do believe people stay in politics for too long. These aren’t made to be lifelong callings or careers,” he said. “It's why I’ve said that I will serve no more than two terms as governor … I'm not indispensable. And there are other great people that deserve an opportunity to serve.”

He added that Biden and Trump, both current frontrunners for the 2024 presidential election, should take a page out of Romney's book.

“We have two candidates running for president that I wish would follow that example.”

As for who could replace Mitt Romney as the junior senator of Utah? He remarked it’s obviously too early to talk about the 2024 race but that he “just loves Brad [Wilson].”

It’s not a secret in Utah politics that Speaker of the House Brad Wilson, who will step down from his speakership in November, is looking to fill Romney’s shoes. An official announcement from Wilson’s campaign is expected before the end of the month.

Saige is a politics reporter and co-host of KUER's State Street politics podcast
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