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Opposing candidates in Utah: Here's why we recorded ads together

It’s time we expect more decency from our politicians and from ourselves.

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In the bitter acrimony of the 2020 presidential election, it can be easy to forget the admirable purpose of the American political system: forming a representative government through electoral democracy rooted in equality, liberty and justice for all.

As opposing candidates in the election for governor of Utah, we recently teamed up to deliver a series of public service ads trying to refocus our politics on the core American values of decency and democracy.

While we have gotten to know each other over a long campaign season, we’ve had occasion to commiserate behind the scenes. For us, running for elected office has too often meant being on the receiving end of baseless personal attacks, insults and occasionally even threats.

Politics has never been for the faint of heart, but mean spiritedness has reached a disturbing new low. We’ve seen firsthand how with the ascendency of social media, more and more people are algorithmically funneled into divided echo chambers. Too many Americans now see their political counterparts not as friends, family and neighbors, but as enemies.

This digitally enhanced incivility has led to a shift in American politics in which rather than debate differences on policy (of which we have many), too many politicians have resorted to an onslaught of attacks focused on degrading the character and humanity of their opponents.

Outrage doesn't lead to change

The culture and the technology of outrage politics excel at getting clicks and increasing watch time, but it is failing to produce meaningful policy successes that make a positive difference in the daily lives of all Americans.

With our joint public service ads in the final weeks of a hotly contested campaign, we hope to serve as examples in reforging a national commitment to civility and respect for the peaceful transfer of power.

Being decent to one another in politics is indispensable, both because it is the right thing to do and because it works better. Over the long term, civility is more productive than scorched-earth politics because lasting change requires coalitions, consensus and ultimately consent.

Collaborating with those with whom we differ strengthens our solutions. We must never mistake civility for indifference to the pain of those who have been wronged. Rather, tactical civility is a method through which political leaders preserve the political order needed to actually implement solutions that address suffering.

We're at a key time in history

The other option, born of rank tribalism, breeds obstruction and ultimately will leave too many ordinary Americans behind. When elected officials can engage in civil discourse from different perspectives, we find ourselves closer to the still elusive American ideal of a more perfect union.

Today, we stand at an inflection point in American history. We can either choose to fall further into this division, or we can change course by recognizing each other’s humanity and that our common values transcend our political differences. We choose civility.

That’s why we are setting aside our differences to agree that whether you vote by mail or in person, we are committed to counting the vote of every American and respecting the results of the presidential election.

We commit to the time-honored values of working together and a peaceful transfer of power. It’s time we expect more decency from our politicians and from ourselves.

As you, the American people, fill out your ballots this election season and beyond, we implore you to pressure the news media and the politicians up and down the ballot to rise above the fray of outrage politics. Altering the culture of our government and society begins with you.

America has an opportunity, right now, to renew ourselves as an example to the world of human decency and democracy. But that vision requires your active participation. Your voice and your vote matter. We’re proud that in Utah’s gubernatorial race, Utahans have two choices who will strive toward those ideals.

Of course, we recognize that civility in politics alone will not solve all the policy issues facing our nation. Being nice to each other won’t make COVID-19 go away, bring back all the jobs we’ve lost over the past year, put our finances in order or protect our environment for future generations, but it will allow us to tackle these issues together, on the same team. Not as Republicans and Democrats or liberals and conservatives, but as Americans.

When we work together and recognize each other’s humanity, there is no problem too large for the American people to solve.

Chris Peterson is the John J. Flynn Endowed Professor of Law at the University of Utah and the Democratic candidate for governor of Utah.

Spencer J. Cox is the lieutenant governor of Utah and the Republican candidate for governor of Utah.

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