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Gov. Spencer Cox of Utah wants Americans to learn how to disagree


When Utah Governor Spencer Cox took the chairmanship at the National Governors Association this week, he announced his chair's initiative called Disagree Better. It's a program to encourage governors to try to set an example in how to disagree but still seek bipartisan solutions and, dare I say, be civil as they disagree. Governor Cox joins us now from Salt Lake City. Thanks so much for joining us, Governor.

SPENCER COX: Thanks for having me, Scott.

SIMON: Governor, I have to ask, what do you say to people who say, I'm sorry, there's just no way to civilly disagree or dignify the viewpoint of people who tried to violently overthrow democracy on January 6 or who don't accept somebody's orientation or identity?

COX: Yeah, well, I hear those types of arguments from both sides of the aisle very routinely. We've been working with departments, policy labs at Stanford University, at Dartmouth, at Duke, who do this type of work and actually look at the work of persuasion. If you really care about your side and about your argument, you're going to have to convince other people to see what you see and believe what you believe. And we don't do that by attacking people.

We don't do that by tearing people down. In fact, it's the exact opposite. You know, I'm not saying you have to engage with someone who is abusive to you in any way. That's not the point of this. The point of this is that most Americans - recent polling has shown that 75% of Americans - are tired of the polarization, are tired of the toxic disagreement that we're seeing across our country and are looking for something better.

SIMON: Can you cite a good example of what you're talking about?

COX: Well, right here in the state of Utah, we have Equality Utah, which is the LGBTQ organization that represents that group of people in our state. And I had a fascinating conversation. They actually bought a booth at the Republican state convention and went in there - you know, again, very hostile territory for somebody in that group. And they were able to have civil conversations with people who disagreed very passionately with them and actually changed people's minds - maybe not exactly about those specific issues, but they left with a better understanding of each other, treating each other with dignity and respect. And I was blown away by that example as I heard some of those stories.

I've certainly tried to model this behavior myself. I don't always get it right. I've made mistakes. But we're certainly trying. We've been working on some very difficult issues. And I always try to give people a seat at the table, including inviting them over to the governor's residence as we were working on some very difficult and polarizing legislation around transgender rights and also around conversion therapy. And so we invited transgender youth and their parents over to the governor's mansion with leadership from the legislature and had, again, a dignified conversation. And although they weren't happy with how that legislation turned out, the discussion was very different. And there were some changes made to the legislation because of those conversations. So there are examples out there, but they're getting harder and harder to find.

SIMON: You mentioned having people who were transgender into the governor's mansion to talk about the piece of legislation you ultimately signed, which prohibits a lot of what they consider to be rational medical treatments. I wonder, did anybody say to you, Governor, you're not recognizing my humanity with respect?

COX: Sure. Yeah, we hear that all the time. And I mean, obviously there are people who disrespect our humanity on both sides of the aisle. But that was not the case in this one. And again, very methodically, I listened, learned from them. We made some changes to the legislation - obviously not as many changes as they would have liked, but also did research and looked at the science, the real science behind what is being advocated for.

And the truth is, again, as I came to it, that the science is just not there to support those claims. This was not about attacking their humanity or their dignity. I deeply care and love those individuals. And when they're adults and their brains have been able to form, they can make those decisions for themselves. We find ourselves far too often in this country with false choices, false choices that each side imposes upon us. And we can do that. You can love somebody and disagree with them.

SIMON: I know you can cite polls saying that people are getting tired of all the disagreement, but haven't we also seen that sneering and invective just get a lot of clicks and a big audience?

COX: Yeah, and that's the problem. The incentive structure that exists in our country right now, especially with media and social media - and I think both traditional media and social media are to blame for this. We - our human nature is that we like a train wreck, real or proverbial, right? We always slow down to look. Our media and our social media rewards extremism. And so that's the incentive structure that we have set up right now. And again, that won't change until we as Americans decide to change it, to not click on those and especially where we're participants now in the media landscape to be very careful about what we're posting.

And, yeah, we may not get as many clicks and as many views and as many likes, although I do have to say that when everyone's zigging, a zag can get a little bit of attention. We're hoping to provide some counterprogramming to what is likely to be the next most divisive election of our lifetimes as we head into 2024, to give people something else to look at and hopefully to give Americans a little bit of hope that there are at least some of us governors across the country who are trying to do things a little differently.

SIMON: Governor Spencer Cox of Utah, who is new chair of the National Governors Association. Thanks so much for being with us.

COX: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.