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Utah governor’s TED Talk urges US to resist hate, tribalism as presidential election looms

‘We cannot wait for politicians or the media to do it,’ Utah Gov. Spencer Cox says, expressing concerns about threat to freedom and democracy

By Katie McKellar - Utah News Dispatch | Apr 19, 2024

Photo supplied, Gilberto Tadday/TED

Utah Gov. Spencer Cox speaks at "TED2024: The Brave and the Brilliant" in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, on Wednesday, April 17, 2024.

Utah Gov. Spencer Cox opened his TED talk, which he delivered from Canada on Wednesday, with a quote from former President Ronald Reagan: “Freedom is a fragile thing, and it’s never more than one generation away from extinction.”

Cox said he, like many others, has used that quote many times — but he confessed he didn’t actually believe it. That is, until the “first cracks in my confidence came” when he was Utah’s lieutenant governor, and that was when he showed up to what was supposed to be a routine meeting to certify the votes of electors for a presidential election.

“I was stunned to see dozens of angry protesters screaming that the election had been stolen and demanding that we violate state law and change the votes of the electors,” Cox told the audience members at the Vancouver Convention Centre, where his talk was live streamed on TED’s website as part of a series of talks titled “Bridge-Builders.”

“Now, I know what you’re all thinking, and you’re probably wrong,” Cox said. “This was not 2020. This was 2016. And the protesters were Hillary Clinton supporters.”

However, Cox said election protests “got far worse, somehow, four years later,” referring to the 2020 presidential contest between then-President Donald Trump and Joe Biden. It was then, “after a summer of destructive protests by the extreme left and extreme right that was already undermining the validity of an election that hadn’t even happened yet,” that Cox said he decided to try something new.

Cox, at the time the Republican candidate for governor, said he called up his Democratic opponent Chris Peterson and pitched a “crazy idea: what if we filmed a campaign ad together?”

“I could almost hear the confused look forming on his face,” Cox said, to laughs. “To his credit, he agreed, and one week later we were in a studio together.”

The result was an ad in which Peterson and Cox stood side by side to give Utahns a message they called “critical to the health of our nation.” They urged voters, regardless of political affiliation or the outcome of the election, to support the results of the presidential election. Cox said in the ad they’re “both committed to American civility and a peaceful transition of power.”

Some dismissed the joint ad as one that would only appear in a state where one candidate was all but sure to win (Utah is bright red and hasn’t seen a Democratic governor since the ’80s). However, the ad went viral and made national headlines.

Cox recalled thinking at the time that the ad and its response perhaps showed “there really is an exhausted majority” fed up with polarized rhetoric and “maybe this is the message they want to hear.”

“The popularity of the ad validated my hope that most people really do want their political leaders to uphold the values that we teach our kids,” Cox said. “That we can disagree without hate and contempt. That we can find ways to treat each other with respect, even when we disagree.”

Cox said there seemed to be “a hunger for architects instead of arsonists.”

That hunch, he said, was confirmed when a professor submitted a version of the ad to the Stanford Polarization and Social Change Lab as part of a depolarization experiment. Out of 25 interventions tested on 31,000 people, the experiment found the Cox-Peterson ad was one of the most effective, ranking No. 2 for reducing support of partisan violence and No. 4 for reducing support for undemocratic practices, according to the experiment’s results.

“It turns out, there really are things that we can do to alter the trajectory of the United States,” Cox said.

With a repeat contest between Trump and Biden looming this November, Cox acknowledged it’s “easy to feel a little hopeless as Americans once again barrel towards an election with unsatisfying candidates and campaigns.”

“But there is good news,” he said. “Over the past six months, 20 governors from all across the country have filmed similar ads, most of them with a public servant from the opposing party.”

Cox, who is currently serving as the National Governors Association’s chairman, was alluding to videos created by his “Disagree Better” campaign, aimed at reducing hyperpartisanship and polarization across the U.S.

Cox said there are “very practical things that every one of us can do every day to help heal the divides in our nations and our neighborhoods.”

Cox said Americans start by “turning off and tuning out some of those conflict entrepreneurs,” pointing first to cable news. He said studies have shown more time spent “doom scrolling” is “really bad for our mental health.” He also said engaging in volunteering or service projects can help build communities and improve outlook on life.

“You see, more news all the time isn’t making us smarter, it’s just stressing us out,” Cox said. “Second, we can spend more time, preferably offline, with real people who are different from us. … You see, it’s just harder to hate up close.”

Cox said asking someone with opposing views “‘tell me more about why you feel that way’ is a magical request.”

“If we look beyond our political tribes, we can actually find shared identities and friendships that unite instead of divide,” Cox said.

Cox acknowledged that it’s “almost laughable to talk about words like humility in political discourse, but I truly believe that it is the only way for us to remember how to disagree without hate and contempt.”

Cox closed with a call to action — for everyday people to “once again secure the freedoms endowed to all of us from on high.”

“We cannot wait for politicians or the media to do it,” he said. “It will take real work, hard work, by each of us.”

The solemn talk took a humorous turn when Cox briefly misspoke, drawing laughs from the crowd. “We must remember how to hate — how to disagree without hate,” Cox said, quickly correcting himself with a laugh of his own. “We must remember how to disagree without hate. We must rise up and meet that radical call to love our enemies, even — especially our political opponents.”

Cox concluded with what he said is not “an easy answer. But it is a simple one.”

“If we really want to change the world, we have to start by changing our own hearts.”

Utah News Dispatch is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news source covering government, policy and the issues most impacting the lives of Utahns.


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