Utah’s resilient politics bolstered by its social capital

Written by Derek Monson

July 22, 2022

In conversations with political thinkers and observers living outside of Utah, it is common to hear favorable comments about the health of Utah’s politics or political culture in comparison to much of the rest of the nation. Despite growing political and partisan divisions nationally and in other states that prevent consensus solutions from moving forward, in Utah we have generally continued – for the time being, at least – to find ways to arrive at practical, principled policy solutions to difficult issues.

A new index measuring social capital across states may offer some insight as to why that is the case.

Local nonprofit research organization Utah Foundation recently published an index that seeks to measure and compare social capital in Utah, other states and the nation as a whole. Social capital means “the bonds between people and among networks, which they can use to benefit themselves and the group as a whole” and stands alongside economic concepts such as physical capital (the physical tools available to use to produce things) and human capital (the skills, knowledge and capacities of people). Where physical capital references material things, and human capital references things internal to an individual, social capital references the strength of the connections and relationships between people that can help them thrive socially, financially and in many other ways.

According to Utah Foundation’s social capital index, “Utah had the highest level of social capital in the nation, and has consistently been among the top states during the previous eight years.” Utah’s social capital score is higher today than in past years, indicating an increase in social capital during the recent past.

The reasons for these outcomes include improving civic engagement, high levels of social trust, strong and improving community life, the best family life in the nation, a high focus on future generations, and high social mobility. Areas for potential improvement in Utah’s social capital, according to the index, include room for additional improvement in civic engagement and social cohesion, and a concerning decline in the focus on future generations (despite it still being higher than many other states).

How does all of this connect to the health of politics in Utah?

Back in 2016, I helped host Tim Carney – author, journalist and American Enterprise Institute scholar – as he toured parts of Utah to explore why our state seemed more resistant than the typical red state to then-candidate Donald Trump’s campaign message. In a subsequent book partly informed by his Utah experience, Tim concluded that a big part of the answer was that we had “strong institutions of civil society. They have community, and by community I mean institutions like clubs, organizations, networks, and—most importantly for the non-elite—church.”

While institutions and social capital are not synonymous, they have a strong connection to each other. Social capital measures the strength of interpersonal connections and networks between people. Civic institutions that tend to thrive in Utah, on the other hand – family, church, neighborhood organizations, etc. – create strong interpersonal connections and networks for their members. In other words, Utah’s strong civic institutions are among the strongest incubators, so to speak, of its nation-leading social capital.

That process of healthy civic institutions generating high levels of social capital has helped inoculate Utah, in many ways, against political narratives of resentment and alienation that have taken deep hold in other areas of the nation.

This is not to say that Utah is completely immune from political and partisan division driven by social alienation and various forms of resentment (economic, racial, etc.). But it is to say that Utah has resisted some of those forces and prevented them from permeating many political narratives and policy debates, and our social-capital-producing institutions have played a large role in that outcome.

None of this is certain to be true of the future, of course. In order for Utah to maintain healthy, functional politics it will have to maintain the strength of its civic institutions and social capital outcomes – and address the institutional declines or other factors contributing to things like middling social cohesion and civic engagement as well as declining focus on future generations.

However, we should recognize that here in Utah we have certain advantages lacking elsewhere in the nation. That recognition should generate in us both a gratitude for what we enjoy and a desire not to take the advantages for granted. Utah is the way it is, for good or ill, because of the people and institutions – civic, religious, economic and government – that reside here. Our political, economic and social future will be determined by the direction we as a people and our institutions choose to go.

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