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Government leaders talk solutions to polarized politics at the Aspen Ideas Festival

Moderator Liz Kreutz, Utah Gov. Spencer Cox and Colorado Gov. Jared Polis speak about productive discourse during a panel titled “Can We Disagree Better?” at the Aspen Ideas Festival on Friday, June 28, 2024. The conversation was one of several at the festival that addressed the topic of political polarization.
Leigh Vogel
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Courtesy of the Aspen Ideas Festival
Moderator Liz Kreutz, Utah Gov. Spencer Cox and Colorado Gov. Jared Polis speak about productive discourse during a panel titled “Can We Disagree Better?” at the Aspen Ideas Festival on Friday, June 28, 2024. The conversation was one of several at the festival that addressed the topic of political polarization.

“Can I just see by show of hands how many people here think that we are living in more divisive times than ever before?”

It’s Friday at the Aspen Ideas Festival, and journalist Liz Kreutz is kicking off a panel on productive discourse. If there’s one thing most people can agree on, it’s the answer to her question, as the bulk of the crowd raises a hand.

“Oh, okay, so yes,” she says, taking stock of the room. “I think we, at least, have consensus over that, that this is a very polarizing period for our country.”

The matter was top of mind at this well-attended panel—titled Can We Disagree Better?—and several others throughout the festival, which concluded Saturday.

Over the course of multiple sessions, Republicans, Democrats, and Independents alike have lamented the divisive state of American politics and proposed solutions to it. That includes Colorado Gov. Jared Polis, a Democrat, and Utah Gov. Spencer Cox, a Republican, who have joined Kreutz in this tent at the Aspen Institute campus to explain the promise of their “Disagree Better” initiative.

They show up at many places together to speak about the concept, which Cox spearheaded as chair of the National Governors Association. Polis tells the crowd it’s about respecting the dignity of other people.

‘Disagree Better’ doesn't mean you sacrifice your deeply held values,” he says. “In fact, it's in many ways a more elevated way of expressing those values and making sure that you're able to work with people who might have different ideas but also might share a lot in common about love for family and for the country.”

Disagreement isn’t new, Polis says; even the Founding Fathers weren’t all on the same page, but they managed to get things done. He points to leaders of the more recent past, too, like Republican Ronald Reagan and Democrat Tip O’Neill. They would spar all day over politics, then share a drink as old friends after hours.

The thing is, “our system favors strong personalities over the ability to work with others.” And while a strong personality isn't always a bad thing, Polis acknowledges it might be driving the current state of division.

As Cox notes, something has changed — and some politicians seem more interested in clicks and hits than respect and policy goals.

“It's really hard to be the face of ‘Disagree Better’ when every incentive is lined up against that. … I get much more attention when I attack and tear down my opponents,” Cox says. “People love it, right? Even if we know we shouldn't, we kind of do when it’s our team versus the other team.”

This idea comes up in other conversations at the festival, too. It’s not only an undercurrent to last week’s presidential debate-night screening; performative politics also emerges as a topic in panels like A Friendship Forged Across the Aisle and A Political Gamble.

The latter features West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin—formerly a Democrat, now a registered Independent—and his daughter Heather, who says this polarization is due to billions of dollars going into divisive elections.

“When you are talking about that kind of money, and manufacturing outrage is the quickest way to win, … it's just been a vicious cycle,” she says.

The Manchins feel like there’s no place for centrist politics anymore, so they’ve launched a concept called “Americans Together,” with talking points like “common ground” and “reasonable compromise.” And they’re advocating for changes to the political system, like open primaries that don’t restrict voters to their registered party and term limits for Congress and the Supreme Court.

(Other speakers at the festival, like former Senator Kay Bailey Hutchinson, a Republican from Texas, also mentioned primary reform.)

Joe Manchin, for his part, says he wants voters to consider political division as they consider which candidates to support.

“Ask us. Find out where we come from,” Manchin says. “Find out if we have any bipartisanship in our thought process, or (if) by God, all we talk about is how bad the other person is.”

That sounds a lot like the advice Spencer Cox gives when he talks about how to change the system:

“Ask (the candidates) this question: What are you going to do to depolarize our nation? What are you going to do to work with the other side?” Cox says.

Cox explains that he’s trying to prove this isn’t just a feel-good idea but one that candidates can use to win elections. And Polis thinks it could actually get people more engaged in democracy.

Both also believe that this idea of “disagreeing better” can lead to healthy conversations among families and community members.

Cox says people should look for their shared identities first.

“We've elevated our political identity to be our first identity, and … it's not healthy, it's bad for us,” he says. “And so one of the ways to help fix this is to find … something you do have in common with someone else and build those bonds of trust before you have the harder conversations. Because once there's trust, then we can have the difficult conversations without hating each other, tearing us apart.”

Copyright 2024 Aspen Public Radio

Kaya Williams
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