Civics lies at the heart of ‘the Utah way’

Written by Derek Monson

July 28, 2021

The Salt Lake Tribune recently published two articles exploring the definition of the concept of “the Utah way” in state politics and policymaking. Having asked several dozen politicians, activists, and other politically prominent individuals to define “the Utah way,” the writer got myriad answers. Taken together, those answers can be boiled down to one thing: civic responsibility.

The definitions of “the Utah way” relied on various political practices (collaboration, good-faith compromise, consensus building, civil discourse, and finding common ground) personal virtues (selflessness, inclusiveness, service, respect and empathy) and civic institutions (families, communities and businesses). All of them, however, touched in some form on the connection or duty that people have to others – to their fellow human beings – in political and policymaking processes.

That connection, that duty, is civic responsibility.

Definitions of civic responsibility may vary, but a good definition is “active participation in the public life of a community in an informed, committed and constructive manner, with a focus on the common good.” The political practices, personal virtues and civic institutions listed above all fall under the constructive or common ground components of civic responsibility.

Of course, no Utah politician, activist, business leader, public employee or lobbyist lives up to the aspiration of civic responsibility in all instances. Having personally observed and participated in Utah lawmaking and politics up close for nearly one and a half decades, I can verify that each of us involved fails to live up to that standard.

However, what becomes apparent while reading the various definitions of “the Utah way” is that – despite differences in partisan affiliation, political philosophy or personal background – there is a shared and expressed commitment to fulfill civic responsibility as best as humanly possible. And that, sadly, has become a unique thing in politics.

In Washington, D.C., for instance, elected senators and members of Congress no longer allow the weight of their oath of office and the history of the institution of Congress to shape or form their priorities toward fulfilling their civic responsibility as federal lawmakers. Instead, as AEI scholar Yuval Levin describes so persuasively, a large and growing number of them use their profile as senators or members of Congress as platforms on which to perform for the sake of their ideological agenda, political fundraising, or electoral base.

When the civic responsibility of governing loses its power to guide the actions of federal lawmakers, it is little wonder that compromise and consensus on complex policy issues fail to materialize. In a polarized electorate, neither ideology, fundraising nor get-out-the-vote efforts are fueled by compromise. With relatively weak – in some cases nonexistent – devotion to civic responsibility among many federal lawmakers, there is little motivation to seek consensus on controversial issues.

The importance of civic responsibility in the success of “the Utah way” points to the importance of a STEM-level effort to restore a robust, accurate, sequential and prioritized system of history and civics education in public schools. An understanding of and devotion to civic responsibility doesn’t happen without broad assistance and encouragement from institutions, including schools, families and communities. Responsible citizens in a democratic republic are made, not born. 

With history and civics education being roiled at present by the controversy and debate over critical race theory in K-12 schools, it may take a unique application of “the Utah way” to education to ensure civic responsibility remains a priority in Utah politics and policymaking. But with vision, leadership and sufficient efforts on the ground, we can muster the political will to plant “the Utah way” in the hearts and minds of future generations.

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