There is a strange object in the desert.
It has three shiny sides, stands about 12 feet tall and was only discovered by accident when conservation officers, hovering in a helicopter over a remote part of southeastern Utah while counting bighorn sheep, recently happened across the metal slab that looks a bit like the mysterious monolith in Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey.”
No one knows exactly where it came from, and no one knows what it really means. Perhaps the same could be said about Spencer Cox, the Utah governor-elect who is to modern American politics what a polished piece of steel is to rugged wilderness. That is, out of place.
This much was apparent a week before the election when Cox, then the lieutenant governor, cut a campaign ad with, of all people, his opponent.
“We can debate issues without degrading each other’s character,” Democrat Chris Peterson tells the camera. “We can disagree without hating each other,” Republican Cox adds. “And win or lose, in Utah, we work together,” Peterson continues. “Let's show the country that there's a better way," Cox concludes.
The 30-second spot went viral, and Cox went on to win by more than 30 points because the race was never really in question. But a big question remains: Does the incoming governor’s nice guy routine really have much relevance in a party defined by a president who insists that Democrats hate the country and stole the election? After all, the last four years were defined by talk of “nasty women” and “bad hombres,” not Boy Scouts.
Cox is the latter. He is an Eagle Scout, in fact, and during an interview Wednesday he tells RealClearPolitics that the “do a good turn daily” ethos of that organization guided his campaign.
“We didn't just want to run to be governor. We wanted to run in such a way that we could prove to people that there's a different way,” he explains. This meant service projects instead of the regular stump speeches -- events where supporters laid sod or spread mulch or repaired playground equipment. “People who would never come to a political event,” Cox says, “came out to help do something positive for the community.”
Whatever is the opposite of the typical dark arts of political persuasion, Cox has embraced it. “Never dreamed I would have protesters at my home in Fairview,” he tweeted as a crowd of demonstrators gathered to voice opposition to Utah’s statewide mask mandate. “But we don’t get many visitors, so if you make the long drive, the least we can do is make you cookies and hot chocolate.” He told them he disagreed on the masks. He also told them he loved them. It made headlines.
All of this could be dismissed as a calculated — or worse, a creepy — gimmick if the governor-elect wasn’t so earnest or if he was from any other state. Most rolled their eyes, and more than one person on social media mocked the refreshments and Cox as “the most Utah thing ever.” His response? “I'm proud of that. Like, if that's our brand, that's a pretty good brand. If you have to be known for something, be known for the great outdoors and skiing and beautiful landscapes and being a place that that believes in civility and kindness,” he says of his state. “I'll take that any day.”
Not only is this very different from Trump and Trumpism, it’s out of fashion with many on the right who see such overtures as political self-sabotage. “Progressives understand that culture war means discrediting their opponents and weakening or destroying their institutions,” wrote New York Post editor Sohrab Ahmari in a controversial and widely circulated essay last May. “Conservatives should approach the culture war with a similar realism. Civility and decency are secondary values.” This sentiment is apparently shared by the president’s oldest son, Donald Trump Jr., who tweeted that his father should “go to total war over this election,” and it will likely accelerate once Republicans find themselves out of the White House.
Cox knows that cocoa and cookies won’t stave off opposition filibusters in the coming years. Both parties have demonstrated a willingness to wage war -- and the collateral damage that ensues. Consider the very real casualties in the form of lost jobs and income after Republicans and Democrats deadlocked on a second round of coronavirus stimulus. But the incoming Utah governor insists that politics isn’t all enmity.
His prescription for governing seems almost alien when compared to the last four years. “It’s not that we won’t disagree,” Cox insists. “It’s that when we do, we disagree better and we should try to understand what is at the heart of our opponent’s argument.” He believes that his party has “really screwed up” by not “coming forward with actual solutions and instead just trying ‘to own the libs.’”
It is a nice sentiment, and one that works well in deep-red Utah. When Cox takes the oath of office, his party will continue to hold super-majorities in both chambers. Despite those lopsided numbers, it isn’t unusual for the left and the right to cooperate, something he hopes happens in Washington. Though comparatively young at age 45, Cox isn’t naïve.
“Americans are hungry for solutions. They're hungry for stability. They're hungry for more people that are willing to work together,” he says before adding that bipartisanship “doesn’t mean you don’t fight for the things we care deeply about.” This kind of thing has happened before. “Divided government can be the best place for this,” he says, pointing to the Reagan and Clinton administrations “where major pieces of legislation were able to get done with bipartisan support.”
Of course, socialism was far more anathema back then, and social media didn’t exist to turn every little squabble into a partisan grease fire. This is a large part of the problem today, Cox says, because, well, it gets the desired result. Operatives know how to enflame voter passions by painting every Democrat as just as liberal as New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. “And we plant them as the standard-bearer for the other party,” he says of this bipartisan bad habit. Good for fundraising? Sure. Good for the country? “I just don't think it's helpful.”
“I hope more members of both parties will push back on the extremes of their party, instead of just thinking, 'Well, we have to protect our own, we have to circle the wagons constantly,’” Cox says in what could be taken as a decent summation of 21st century politics. He doesn’t consider the last four years a wash. Trump tapped into the very real concerns of alienated Americans in towns like Fairview, where the incoming governor grew up, still lives, and watched coal and factory jobs diminish.
“One of the things that Republicans have done right is recognizing that there are people who feel like they've been lied to and that those promises aren't there,” he says. Ignoring their concerns, Cox believes, “is one of the big mistakes that the left has made in diminishing or demeaning or calling them out and making them feel stupid, uneducated and treating them with contempt.”
“Contempt is just dangerous,” he adds. “It's one of the reasons we're so polarized as a country.”
The rising pol isn’t the first to say these sorts of things. Warm and fuzzy messages about unity are, and have been, popular among voters who regularly complain about political bickering even as they elect bickering politicians. But, Cox says, his different way works, at least in Utah.