In a recent Salt Lake Tribune commentary, I wrote about the problems of extremism in Utah politics. As a conservative, I focused on how many members of the Utah Republican Party had become radicalized. By radicalized, I mean many Utah Republicans have separated their personal values from their political principles. Historically, we have witnessed the horrors perpetrated by a society in which personal values were abandoned when so-called principles were idolized. For instance, it is hard to imagine, still to this day, how a German husband and father in the 1940s could gas Jews during the day and joyfully bounce a new child on his knee at night.
Though more relevant today in the era of Trump, I delivered similar messages about the radicalization of Utah politics in 2004 and 2011 – no doubt I’ll repeat this message in another seven years. The division between personal values and faithfulness to political principles, regardless of how abstract and literal those principles have become, is not the only dissonance suffered by the radical ranks today. The division between civic character and civic participation is equally concerning.
Regardless of its procedural merits in an age of radicalization, I once strenuously objected to the Count My Vote initiative. I remember one entirely forgettable debate in which I participated wherein the Count My Vote proponents wrapped the initiative in the flag of civic enlightenment. They argued that Count My Vote would enfranchise many young voters who otherwise were not already participating in electoral processes. I argued that I really did not care if they did not participate. I was not very interested in placing my freedom in the hands of a bunch of 18 year olds. To which the proponents took offense and feigned effrontery that I dare suggest that teenagers old enough to fight for our country were not somehow old enough to vote for the leaders sending them into war. Kind of a “how dare you” reply – nice in a debate, highly rhetorical and, yet, rationally incongruent (the one has nothing to do with the other). That suggestion implies that civic character is the same thing as civic participation – and the two are not the same thing.
There is a difference between an 18-year old donning a military uniform and defending his country and the same 18-year old making mature civic decisions for his country. He can physically fight for the freedom of others even if he might not understand freedom. I’m grateful for his military service even if I am reluctant to endow him with the reigns of my day-to-day existence. Of course, 18-year olds can vote but that does not mean they should, no more than any other citizen who lacks civic character. Utah and this nation would be better off if we championed civic character more than civic participation – and that standard applies to radicals inside the Utah Republican Party as much as it does young people.
For my trouble in writing the op-ed about the crazies inside the Utah GOP, I was swarmed by charges of arrogance and self-righteousness. How dare I assume that some people know better than others and that some people should be discouraged from political participation. I got to thinking about how these crazies might feel about a brain surgeon or a car mechanic. Who would they like operating on their brains or fixing their cars? Would they seek just anyone with an opinion or would they want someone who actually knew what they were doing? It is weird how some people think that democracy is any different. The crazies worship our founding fathers and insist that we refer to this nation as a republic not a democracy. But the same fathers they worship for creating a republic knew that not everyone held the character necessary to sustain freedom. In other words, our founding fathers created a republican form of government precisely to keep these crazies and others lacking civic character from influencing our freedom. Many are called but few are chosen.
Nevertheless, radicals inside the Utah Republican Party, like so many kids today, want a participation trophy. They think their involvement is equal to any other voter. In truth, civic character requires more than simply showing up and having an opinion, even if that is all that participation requires.
We live in an age when standards for civic participation seem to have disappeared. Anyone now thinks they are qualified to vote and, obviously in the age of Trump, anyone now thinks they are qualified to run for office. Just because you can does not mean you should. The universal qualification, it seems, is that someone has an opinion. The old adage seems to be true: Opinions are like an unsavory part of the human body, everybody has one. And yet, experience in either case reveals that an unsavory body part and an unsavory opinion are equally unsavory – hardly a standard to encourage.