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Gov. Cox brought ‘Disagree Better’ to TED, but can we play nice in an election year?

Spencer J. Cox speaks at TED2024: The Brave and the Brilliant, April 17, 2024. Vancouver, BC, Canada.
Gilberto Tadday
Utah Gov. Spencer Cox speaks at TED2024: The Brave and the Brilliant, April 17, 2024. Vancouver, BC, Canada.

Standing on the TED stage, Utah Gov. Spencer Cox reiterated his fear about the direction America is headed in. He cited a famous Ronald Reagan quote: “Freedom is a fragile thing and it’s never more than one generation away from extinction.” While he’s uttered the phrase “many times” he said he “never really believed” it to be true.

“I'm not pleased to report that I actually believe it now,” he told the TED2024 audience in Vancouver, Canada.

Cox hasn’t shied away from his concerns about the potential fate of American freedom and democracy.

His “Disagree Better” campaign is the centerpiece of his time as the chair of the National Governors Association. Cox’s motive to address the debilitating polarization the nation faces, he said, is based on data. Pew Research found 65% of Americans feel “exhausted” when they think about politics and 55% reported feelings of anger. Nearly 80% negatively described American politics, calling it “divisive” and “corrupt.” Only 4% felt “excited” about the political system.

Another Pew report showed the hold polarization has on Americans is strong, as people have pessimistic views of those on “the “other side” of politics.” Of those surveyed, 72% of Republicans and 63% of Democrats viewed those across the aisle as “immoral.”

The way Cox is working to combat polarization will likely be a marathon and not a sprint, with the impact of his initiative being felt more on a local level before it resonates with a national audience.

Tami Pyfer, co-founder of The Dignity Index, an organization that rates rhetoric from elected officials and candidates on a scale from civil to contempt, said people are fed up. The mainstream strategy for candidates now, Pyfer said, is “here's why my opponent is awful and it's attacking the other side,” and not this is “what I will do for the country if you elect me.”

The index’s goal is to encourage people to “start looking at conflict in a different way,” not too disparate than Cox’s “Disagree Better.” As a whole right now, Pyfer said national political speech often lands at a two on their scale, “which is just one step away from violence.”

“Once you start entering into contempt and you say the other side's bad, then you have shut down any possibility for problem-solving. And that's what politics is about,” she said. However, she continued, “when I call you evil or your side evil and that you're ruining the country, there is almost zero chance of problem-solving.”

Pyfer believes their efforts are making an impact. The organization has been utilized in a couple of states, including Oklahoma. City councils in Utah and Pennsylvania have adopted their initiative. Pyfer said they’re also working with county commissioners in Nevada as well. The biggest interest, she said, has been state school boards.

She also believes people are “becoming more sensitized to contempt” and it is beginning to influence voters. That accomplishes a “big aim,” which is to have “contempt backfire.” In Utah, firebrand state school board member Natalie Cline lost her re-election bid at the Salt Lake County GOP Convention after intense scrutiny for falsely alluding that a high school female athlete was transgender.

“In the past, it [contempt] hasn't backfired. Contempt wins elections,” Pyfer said. “We want that bar to be lower and lower so that it doesn't take a lot of contempt for you to lose an election.”

Leah Murray, a political science professor at Weber State University, said Cox’s civility crusade is “clearly not” going to be accomplished by the end of the year when he leaves his position as chair of the National Governors Association. And in an already contentious presidential election year, Murray isn’t convinced the high road will play out.

“This is a whole culture shift,” she said. “To a certain extent, this kind of nastiness, this kind of feistiness, this kind of, just lack of respect and regard for anyone who disagrees with us, I think is baked in right now for this election.”

But as Cox hits the road, traveling around the nation discussing his initiative with other state leaders, Supreme Court justices, the public, the media and various academic institutions, Murray said it’s a way for him to elevate an alternative response to the “attack, attack, attack” campaigns seen on the national and even local stage. However, she thinks that since people are so fatigued with politics right now, the audience is ready for a taste of civility if they want to engage in politics again.

While “Disagree Better” may not influence the 2024 election much, Murray added a “year is absolutely enough time to message better” and lay the groundwork for change.

“If you ask me, how does it affect 2026 and 28 and 30? I think it's got a real shot.”

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