Monthly Archives: May 2016

Cynicism and Utah’s Opportunity

The mad dash to get behind candidate Trump and save the Republican Party from extinction is perhaps the most obvious sign of widespread cynicism and political decline in American history. How badly do we hate our nation if Donald Trump is considered its standard bearer? As House Speaker Paul Ryan recently uttered, “You have to have standards to be a standard bearer.”

Psychology Today magazine describes cynicism as “part of a defensive posture we take to protect ourselves. It’s typically triggered when we feel hurt by or angry at something, and instead of dealing with those emotions directly, we allow them to fester and skew our outlook. When we grow cynical toward one thing in our lives, we may slowly start to turn on everything.” The rise of Trump is a sure sign many Americans have turned on everything. read more

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Sutherland Institute looks to broaden reach as conservative think tank

It hasn’t been business as usual at the Sutherland Institute in hopes of upending politics as usual in Utah.

Those words appeared in the Deseret News 12 years ago as Sutherland’s then-President Paul Mero overhauled the conservative, free-market think tank to make it more relevant. Mero accomplished that task in his 14 years at the helm.

But the outspoken political advocate and Sutherland parted ways nearly two years ago, leaving the 21-year-old organization without a visible leader. Though it lobbies state legislators as usual, it seemed headed for obscurity without a strong community voice. read more

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Political Fundraising

Winston Churchill is credited with saying, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.” Observing campaign finance policy today, he could just as easily say, “Current campaign finance law is the worst form of electioneering, except for all the others.”

The Salt Lake Tribune recently ran stories about a fundraiser that Governor Gary Herbert hosted for his reelection campaign. As reported by an unnamed lobbyist, present at the fundraiser, Governor Herbert and his election team were eager, implicitly unethical, to raise money. Doubling down on the story, the Tribune oh-so-surprisingly got a hold of audio from the meeting seemingly confirming concerns.

Like clockwork, Governor Herbert’s libertarian opponent was quick to stir the pot when the audio was released. Jonathan Johnson is reported as saying, “I’m shaking, that tape makes me so mad. That’s what’s wrong with career politicians. They will do anything to stay in office…[it] just disgusts me. It may not be illegal under Utah law, but that’s not the threshold we should hold our governor to. It’s complete pay-for-play and it’s the kind of reason that non-politicians don’t run for office.”

His response to the fundraising story is how I imagine an emotionally naïve, sheltered little rich girl would respond at the sight of a pig being slaughtered. “That’s where sausage comes from? Oh gross!” But Johnson isn’t a naïve little girl.

Fundraising is a harsh political reality and charges of “pay-to-play” are easy to raise but extremely difficult to defend. Who do you think would have more influence with the state’s chief executive? A lobbyist trying her best to build a relationship with a policy maker in behalf of her client or a rich guy running for governor who phones a couple of his wealthy friends to bankroll the whole campaign? What’s a $5,000 donation to the governor from a lobbyist compared to one $250,000 donation from Johnson’s business partner? Well, I’ll tell you. The governor’s $5,000 donation is diluted by a thousand other small donations, while Johnson’s $250,000 donation from his business partner is half of his entire campaign chest.

Is it really a startling revelation that a candidate would say he would “go anywhere” to meet with donors? No serious officeholder would deny the effort. But neither would any honest businessman. Let’s put the shoe on the corporate foot. Would Jonathan Johnson fly to China to meet with investors interested in plowing hundreds of millions of dollars into his company? You bet he would. And how much time do you think he’d schedule for a one-share stockholder?

The processes of raising capital in the private sector are similar to the processes of fundraising for elective office. So is the potential influence. The only thing threatening the integrity of the deal is the integrity of the man. Nobody criticizes Donald Trump for the art of the deal. We criticize him because his character reeks of fraud.

Candidate Donald Trump and candidate Jonathan Johnson have a lot in common – pretentiousness, double standards, divided political loyalties, questionable motives in running for office and, yes, an otherwise very small circle of donors – but neither of them are calling for campaign finance reform. If Johnson wants to trade in his wealth advantage for raising money the old-fashioned way (the poor man’s way), he’s free to do it at any time.

Meanwhile, Utah gets campaign finance right. Keep it transparent and accountable. As long as campaign donations are reported accurately and publicly, Utah voters can decide for themselves who they trust. The Herbert fundraising story is a non-story. If there’s any actual wrongdoing, critics should state it. Otherwise, they should grow a pair.

I’m Paul Mero. Thanks for listening.

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The Politics of Self-Righteousness

LDS Living magazine had an interesting article about overzealous Mormons who basically compete to be more righteous than the other. This phenomenon elevates Mormon culture ahead of actual commandments.

We see it all of the time. Everyone knows someone who is hypersensitive and overzealous about some feature of the Gospel – like food storage or church service or cola drinks. You can see these dysfunctions most clearly in settings where Mormons are clustered and dominate a population. For instance, take a look inside the LDS Church office building. The first thing that stands out is that everybody looks the same – male employees look and dress the same, as do the women. Those familiar styles aren’t the result of commandments; they’re culture.

For over 25 years, earlier in my career, I had a beard. When I was offered the Sutherland job, its founder asked me if I’d shave my beard. I replied, “Is that a deal breaker?” And he said, no. Not being an Utahn, I thought his request was weird. For instance, I’ve never had a donor who gave me $50,000 tell me he would have given me $100,000 if only I’d have been clean shaven. But the founder said, “I think you will come to see that first impressions mean a lot in Utah and most people here aren’t fond of beards.” And, you know, he was right. My beard was gone within a year or so. The broader Utah culture didn’t press me to shave; the heavy Mormon culture inside Sutherland did.

The LDS Living article I mentioned is an excerpt from a new book by Brent Top titled, Finding Inner Peace: Lessons Learned From Trying Too Hard. He writes, “Sometimes, in an attempt to prove our faithfulness to the gospel, Mormons create standards that require even more than what the Lord is asking of us. So before we expend too much energy trying to live these ‘higher’ standards, we should ask ourselves if we are living the cultural gospel or the Lord’s gospel.”

And then it hit me. This idea of Mormons living the cultural gospel explains the politics of self-righteousness so prevalent in Mormon political circles, such as the Utah Republican Party. But, before I share that thought, the book author includes a quote from Brigham Young in his article. It goes like this, “How I regret the ignorance of this people – how it floods my heart with sorrow to see so many Elders of Israel who wish everybody to come to their standard and be measured by their measure…If they see an erring brother or sister, whose course does not comport with their particular ideas of things, they conclude at once that he or she cannot be a Saint, and withdraw their fellowship, concluding that, if they are in the path of truth, others must have precisely their weight and dimensions.” (Journal of Discourses, 8:8-9)

There is a reason why so many of the Republican crazies in Utah come from Utah and Davis counties. Those populations are heavily Mormon. Their politics cannot help but become insular, competitive and backbiting. Just as with the Church in prosperous Mormon populations, the politics in these areas become hyper-competitive. When a population is homogenous there is little separation in difference between people and candidates for public office. One way to separate yourself from your opponent in these heavily Mormon areas is, unfortunately, to sound and behave self-righteous.

Everyone has witnessed this act. Everyone has been exposed to that guy so strident about the Constitution that you just cringe every time he gets up to speak. Utah Republicans quote the founding fathers as if politics is gospel, forgetting that it’s quite possible that even George Washington was wrong about something.

Nowhere is this phenomenon more prevalent than down in Utah County these days. Between the recent libertarian crazy talk and the push for political purity, Utah County has become a hotbed for everything that makes normal people just shake their heads. Just as when the cultural gospel incites apostates and Tribune writers to bash the LDS Church, so too does this pharisaical, self-righteous political posturing inside Utah’s Republican Party incite normal voters to run for the hills or fight back, as with Count My Vote.

Today’s Republican candidates in Utah run on ideological platforms, not policy platforms. We no longer hear about reforms and innovations. All we hear about from these candidates is who is more conservative, who knows the Constitution better, who is the true purist, not who is actually the most qualified or the more intelligent or more reasonable or more inspiring. I’m all in favor of truth. I’m just not in favor of substituting self-righteousness for truth.

I’m Paul Mero. Thanks for listening.

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Reclaiming Enlightened Civic Participation

While I have long supported Utah’s caucus and convention system, I’ve made no secret about my concerns. As with freedom itself, our caucus and convention system requires enlightened people. When the people aren’t enlightened, the system breaks down.

We need to be careful in our analysis of the caucus and convention system. We need to be discerning. The biggest mistake we can make is to confuse the honest voice of the people for the politics of marginalization just because we don’t like the winners and losers. Many people think the 2010 Republican senate race, when 18-year incumbent Bob Bennett lost at convention, was stolen by “Tea Party” activists. In truth, Utah Republicans were simply and justifiably concerned about President Obama’s progressive agenda and felt Bob Bennett was the wrong guy to stand up to it. A statewide Republican primary, followed by a general election, propelled Mike Lee to the United States Senate – not just the Republican convention. Senator Lee’s election in 2010 was the honest voice of the people, not a coup d’etat by a small group of unrepresentative crazies.

This was the first mistake by the Count My Vote supporters – they mistook the honest voice of the people for a systemic failure inside the 2010 convention. Actually, that systemic failure occurred after the 2010 convention.

In 2011, the state Legislature passed the immigration law. By that spring’s state convention the crazies raised their ugly heads and began to have sway with the delegates – not that those voices weren’t heard in past conventions, they were. But immigration policy seemed to bring out the worst in them.

It was during those weeks and months that I sat down with a couple of the founders of the Count My Vote strategy. After being involved intimately with the construction of the new immigration policy, and watching how the voice of the people supported the new policy overwhelmingly, I wasn’t about to let it all fall apart just because of a few crazies who had a systemic hold on part of our political process at the state Republican convention. Of course, exercising power where they have it, the crazies used the convention process to oppose the new immigration policy. That’s the right of party delegates. Likewise, it was my right to challenge the crazies. If that challenge meant my support for Count My Vote, so be it.

However, as the challenge to the crazies began to take shape, I realized that the Count My Vote strategy over-shot the mark – it initially sought for ways to minimize the influence of the crazies (to make their voice at the convention more reflective of the voice of the people) but that strategy soon changed to try to nullify the influence of the caucus and convention system entirely. At that point, I was out.

In hindsight, given this most recent state Republican convention, the legislative compromise crafted two sessions ago through SB 54 seems altogether enlightened.

Utah’s caucus and convention system, at its best, should be an environment of studied, rational, prudent and principled debate. Four thousand partisans shouldn’t be able to decide Utah’s political fate for three million people. But four thousand partisans can, if disciplined, establish principles, a sound course of action and reasonable arguments to defend our freedom. For me, that is what’s special about political parties generally and our unique caucus and convention system specifically. But when Republican delegates lose that discipline and begin to resemble the zombie apocalypse they are no longer constructive or helpful to the broader citizenry in Utah politics.

If the central idea of the caucus and convention system is to select good people to promote sound public policy and civil debate – in other words, to select our better selves to set the tone for political discourse in Utah – the system has lost its savor when the crazies take over.

Freedom benefits from civic participation. For decades, Utah has chosen a path for enlightened participation – the caucus and convention system. But over the past decade the system has hardly produced enlightenment. We know that crazy is as crazy does and crazy often responds to a challenging issue exactly opposite to what will fix the problem. Republican crazies have chosen retrenchment, exclusion and purity tests. It only made everything worse. Hence, Count My Vote.

Perhaps in the angry era of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, enlightened civic participation isn’t possible. I don’t see it getting any better. And so, in the face of this civic decline, I lean toward opening things up. For me, in this situation, civic participation is like free speech. The way to combat the crazies isn’t by doubling down on isolation and exclusion, it’s by broad inclusion. Yes, enlightened civic participation will suffer from the dilution of unenlightened masses. But when we haven’t achieved enlightenment inside the very system designed to promote it, perhaps the only way to reclaim it is to cleanse the inner vessel and try again.

So, as much as I don’t like the Count My Vote form of political chemotherapy, there are not a lot of alternatives to remove the cancer of the crazies.

I’m Paul Mero. Thanks for listening.

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