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Society

Road Trip: Amid American Rancor, a Dash of Utah Nice (Photos)

December 19, 2020

SALT LAKE CITY — In one of the most corrosive presidential campaigns in recent American history, Utah's top candidates for governor made a television commercial together. 

It wasn't your typical political ad. 

On one side of the screen was Chris Peterson, the Democratic candidate, an affable man looking earnestly into the camera. On the other was Spencer Cox, his Republican opponent, with a similar expression. 

They cheerfully acknowledged that they disagree on many things, but then added something unusual for America in 2020. 

"Win or lose, in Utah we work together," said Peterson, who would be crushed in the November elections.

"Let's show the country there's a better way," said Cox, who, soon after his victory, criticized Republicans for attacks on the elections' legitimacy. 

When it comes to politics, Utah has long claimed things are different here. 

Political viciousness is for other places, politicians will tell you. Legislators are more polite, more willing to compromise. 

It might make you wonder: With U.S. politics so divided, could this idiosyncratic state in the heart of the Rockies show America a better way? 

Ehhhhhhh. Sort of. 

Salt Lake City turned out to be the end of the AP's road trip. Three of us have been trying to make sense of a year wracked by coronavirus, economic devastation, sometimes-violent protests and an election campaign that ended with President Donald Trump, the clear loser, insisting he had won. 

The year had offered so little good news. 

So we came to Utah, hoping. 

It didn't take much poking around to realize that the state's reputation — overwhelmingly white, overwhelmingly Republican, dominated by a cultural conservatism inherited from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — was only part of story. 

The other part is a surprising political complexity and slowly changing demographics. Utah, it turns out, is a place where right-wing Republicans have fought for undocumented immigrants and deeply religious legislators have enacted strong protections for gays and lesbians. 

It is one of America's most conservative states, but has one of its most liberal cities: Salt Lake City, with its throngs of Democrats and array of hipsters.

 What is going on?

"I really do think it's different in Utah," said state Rep. Robert Spendlove, a Republican economist. "In Utah we really do have a sense of wanting to work together."

"There are levels of civility, of decorum, that are unique to the culture of the state,"said state Sen. Luz Escamilla, a Democrat. 

But Utah culture also includes a powerful streak of conformist perfectionism, and generations here have faced the pressure of living up to a mythological ideal: the happy family with a string of polite, hard-working children. 

So some of that outward political civility is what people around here call Utah Nice, where viciousness can be hidden behind a fake smile and a batch of fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies. 

Jim Dabakis, a former Democratic state senator, said he never faced a harsh word from a Republican during his years in office — but he said they still worked to quash pretty much every progressive bill he backed.

"This is a society of very passively aggressive people," he said. 

He argues that Republicans' crushing majorities in the state House and Senate and longtime control of the governor's office have warped Utah's politics.

"It is simply one party that is in total, complete, absolute control and then saying, 'We all get along so well,'" Dabakis said.

But it's also complicated. 

"The Utah Nice thing, it can be superficial, but there can also be substance to it: It's a method of getting from A to Z," said Brian King, the Democratic House minority leader

In many ways, the overwhelmingly white, male and Mormon legislature doesn't reflect the changing state. Utah is no longer a cliché of homogeneity. It has an increasingly large Latino population and growing numbers of other racial minorities, as well as ever more non-church members.

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