The Morality of Politics: The Challenges of Mormon Tribalism

Last year, I did something no sane person would do. I ran for the state legislature. In Utah county. As a Democrat. I knew going into the campaign that only five percent of the district was registered Democrat, and that Utah county is often referred to as one of the reddest counties of one of the reddest states in the union. In 2004 Bush won Utah county 86% to Kerry’s 12%; statewide, Utah gave Bush his largest margin of victory, and Utah County gave Bush the largest percentage of any county its size. The fact that I knew all this going into the campaign and still proceeded proves, I suppose, just how mentally unstable I was. But I also knew that within my district, a larger percentage of voters were registered as “unaffiliated” than Republican, 49% to 43%, so I thought it might be possible to win over these voters. And I was running as a socially conservative Democrat; my most radical position is supporting public schools and the PTA. We had seen a referendum on vouchers go down to defeat the year before, in my district vouchers failed by a strong majority, and I was running as an anti-voucher candidate. I was hoping the voters would consider the election Vouchers Part II: Revenge of the Voters.

I discovered, however, that in politics things are just not that simple. First, I found that most of these unaffiliated voters self identified as Republicans, or at least saw the Republican “brand” as more appealing. They liked to claim independence of thought, but most were every bit as committed to the Republican Party as the affiliated Republicans. I found that even the registered Republicans liked to think of themselves as fair-minded people who study the issues and vote for the best candidate. But what they think they do and what they actually do is not the same.

For example, my wife was helping out with polling one night and she reported speaking to one self-identified Republican voter, reading the prepared questions:
“On what do you base your voting decisions?”
“Issues,” responded the voter.
My wife continued, “If someone shared your views and was running as a member of the opposing party, in your case a Democrat, would you vote for him or her?”
The response, “absolutely.”
“Do you plan to vote for Becky Lockhart, or Boyd Petersen for state legislature?”
“Which one is the Republican?” the voter asked.
Some voters, however, didn’t seem to know they could vote for individuals rather than a straight party ticket. I spoke with one Hispanic gentleman who had very strong feelings about immigration reform but also had very strong conservative moral values. He said he was going to vote a straight Republican ticket. It took twenty to thirty minutes to explain to him that if he did this he would end up voting against his interests about half the time. I finally ended up getting a sign in his yard and probably got his vote, but I realized that every vote above my 5% was going to require a long conversation.

Nevertheless, if some votes came hard, some came surprisingly easy. I found that the people who knew me, people in my neighborhood and ward—most of them strong Republicans, enthusiastically supported me. If they knew me, they tended to support me, and my position on issues didn’t really seem to matter to these people. In fact, my home teacher and I had just engaged in a very lively debate about vouchers a few months before I announced I was running. He was solidly pro-vouchers and I was solidly anti-vouchers. Nevertheless, when I announced my candidacy, he was one of the first people in the neighborhood to request a sign and offer to help with the campaign. But I also found that some votes, even from people who agreed with my platform, were impossible to get. Some people who should have supported me ideologically but didn’t know me often would adamantly not support me. Several public school teachers and officials told me flat out that they could not support a Democrat. On election day, I got a phone call from a sister in my ward who reported “Today, I did something I have never done before: I voted for someone who was not a Republican!” She had voted for me, but still couldn’t say the “D-word.” My positions really didn’t matter to most people. It was about whether I had a relationship of trust with them. Was I one of them? It all came down to tribe.

Now that the election is over, I have been reading up on the subject of how voters make decisions, and I have found that the anomalies I encountered as a candidate can all be explained by current research on the brain. According to that research, positions don’t much matter in politics. It’s all about emotion. Emotions about party, candidates, and, finally, issues.
In study after study, researchers have found that it is not so much what voters think than it is about what voters feel. “In politics,” states Drew Westen, “when reason and emotion collide, emotion invariably wins” (35). Contrary to Enlightenment models of thought, emotion works hand in hand with reason. Summarizing the conclusions of cognitive and brain scientists, George Lakoff notes that idea that reason is “conscious, literal, logical, universal, unemotional, disembodied, and serves self-interest” is completely false (2). In fact, 98% of our thought takes place unconsciously and emotion and reason cannot be separated. It’s not so much that we are duped by emotion, but that emotion guides reason. Westen compares emotion to a “compass” that, in conjunction with reason, helps us to avoid adverse stimuli and seek out rewarding stimuli (88).

In sum, Weston states, “although the marketplace of ideas is a great place to shop for policies, what matters most in American politics is the marketplace of emotions” (35-36). And three sets of emotions, in this order, are primary in determining how people vote: their feelings toward the parties and the party’s principles, their feelings toward the candidates, and, if they haven’t decided by then, their feelings toward the candidates’ policy positions. Voters get their feelings toward the parties largely by internalizing the values of their parents. “The single best predictor of party affiliation—and of broader value systems associated with it—is in fact the party affiliation of our parents” (Westen 82). So party loyalty is largely determined before one has really thought about the issues, despite what we might consciously want to believe. Most of us determine what tribe we belong to long before we know what that tribe stands for.

In a study I found particularly interesting, Drew Westen and several of his colleagues at Emory University did brain scans on fifteen committed Republicans and fifteen committed Democrats during the 2004 election. The psychologists discovered that when subjects saw images of their own party’s candidates, a part of the frontal lobe called the “frontal pole” was activated. It is an area that other studies have shown is particularly active when a subject thinks about something related to him- or herself. In short, the very sight of an image of our party’s candidate involuntarily activates brain synapses that foster identification with that candidate; whereas seeing images of the other party’s candidates activated areas of the brain where negative emotional reactions take place (52-53). We perceive candidates from our own party as “like us,” as part of our tribe. These responses are as involuntary as our breathing.

In another part of their study, Westen took brain scans as subjects read a series of statements attributed to the Republican and Democratic candidates, statements that any dispassionate observer would find conflicting. What Westen and his colleagues found is that people had no problem seeing the contradictions in the opposition’s candidate, but found their candidate’s position much less contradictory.

The brain scans showed that when confronted with the initial conflict in the person of their candidate, neural circuits associated with negative emotional states turned on, but as the individuals reasoned, falsely, toward a rationalization for their own candidate, neural circuits associated with positive emotions turned on. The partisan brain actually rewarded the individuals for biased reasoning. The circuits activated overlap significantly with those activated when a drug addict takes a hit, “giving new meaning,” as Westen puts it, “to the term political junkie” (xiv). Again a tribal instinct kicks in: our brains suppress conflicts with those who are part of our tribe.
I discovered when running a campaign that what voters really wanted to know was what tribe I belonged to. Was I one of them? My positions mattered very little. Voters were focused on their emotions about the political party I was affiliated with first and foremost. If they already knew and trusted me, their feelings toward me overshadowed their feelings about my party. But if they didn’t have any feelings for me, they focused on party and often voted, I believe, against their own interests.

So how did Mormon voters as a group come to have such positive feelings for the Republican party? How did Mormons come to see themselves as part of the Republican tribe? (My wife suggests it comes from Joseph’s Inspired Version translation of James 1:5: “If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, who giveth to all men conservatively….”)

Thomas Alexander has outlined five distinct periods of Church involvement in Utah politics. During the first period, spanning from 1847-1891, the church “essentially dominated the Utah scene” (36) with its own party, sponsoring candidates and opposing gentile political involvement. As the Church moved into the 20th century, it was forced to confront the dominant American culture head on. We can think of this as a process of assimilation, as Armand Mauss has called it; as a process of reconstructing memory, as Kathleen Flake has called it; or as a process of colonization of the Mormon mind, as Richard Bushman has called it; but we know that this process involved both accommodation of American values and a reinvention of what it means to be Mormon.

In order to achieve statehood, Mormon leaders disbanded the Mormon People’s Party, and urged members to become Republicans in order to achieve the political balance necessary for Utah to be granted statehood. Mormons were asked to switch their tribal loyalty from the Democrats (who had not had a party platform against the “twin evils of slavery and polygamy,” as the Republicans had), to the Republicans, in the name of political expediency. The administration of Heber J. Grant inaugurated a less partisan period of Church influence; however, Grant’s concerns about the New Deal and J. Reuben Clark’s increasing influence in the First Presidency led to a more partisan approach. From the late 1950s to the present, despite many individual Church leaders’ avowing Republican leanings, the Church as an institution has taken a more neutral part in political affairs, only entering the political fray, as Alexander put it, “to support or oppose measures they considered moral issues” (36). Significantly, this is the very period in which Utah Mormons became more closely allied with the Republican party.

Looking back, it is hard to believe that Utah (and its predominately Mormon electorate) once voted enthusiastically for Democratic presidential candidates. From William Jennings Bryan, and Woodrow Wilson (second term), through all four terms of FDR (despite President Heber J. Grant’s advice to vote against him), to Truman and LBJ, Mormon Utah supported Democrats. Certainly, it also supported Republicans, but it was once considered a swing state, one that both parties courted and wooed. However, since 1964, every Republican presidential candidate has won Utah, and in all but two cases by over 60% of the vote. Utahns have not elected a Democrat to the Senate since Frank Moss left in 1977, nor to the governor’s mansion since Matheson left in 1985. The shift in Utah politics took place over the very period that Alexander says the Church leadership became less overtly and publicly partisan. It is curious that this tribal identification of Mormons with the GOP took place at a time when the Church leaders were less directly involved in politics.

Certainly the issues coming to the fore during the decades of the 50s through the 70s—communism, civil rights, welfare reform, abortion, the ERA—were galvanizing. Furthermore, the impact of Ezra Taft Benson’s outspoken conservatism during these years must also be considered. However, I believe there was another factor, one more subtle but more profound: Republican discourse frames began to overlap with the frames of Mormon discourse in subtle ways that remapped the Mormon mind.
Linguists have known since the mid-70s that the brain organizes words by semantic fields, or what Lakoff calls “conceptual frames” (22). We are mostly familiar with this concept in the idea of professional jargons. For example, for an actor, the words “play,” “direction,” “score,” and “run” have specific meanings in the semantic field of her profession. The exact same words used by an athlete, in the semantic field of sports competition, mean something else entirely, and the framing is what makes the difference.

Such frames, in turn, create conceptual metaphors that organize our thinking. We think metaphorically and, at the same time, metaphors shape how we think. Political issues, like everything else, are always framed, and political language is never neutral. Take, for example, the issue of immigration reform. If we use the phrase “illegal immigrant” we are already, by framing it with that adjective, making a judgment about the issue that is very different from the alternate frame available in the term “undocumented immigrant.” We are usually not aware that we are using such frames when we think about issues, but by talking about these issues in these ways, repeating the framing metaphors over and over again, our brains are changed.

George Lakoff argues that there are two primary frames that shape the way people think about political issues: both see governance through metaphors of the family. One is an obedience-oriented frame that Lakoff calls the “strict father” metaphor. It sees a family structure where “children” (i.e., the citizens) need to be disciplined by a strong “father” (i.e., the government) in order that they can be made into responsible “adults.” Once the “children” reach adulthood, however, the “father” should no longer interfere with their lives: the government should not interfere with the business of those in society who have proved their responsibility.

The other frame is an empathy-oriented approach that he calls the “nurturing parent” metaphor. This metaphor sees both “mothers” and “fathers” working to help the essentially good “children” develop and keeping them away from “corrupting influences” like pollution, social injustice, and poverty. Most people are what Lakoff calls “biconceptional,” employing both models in different spheres of their lives. But when one frame is activated, the other turns off. The difference between conservatives and progressives, Lakoff argues, stems from the fact that they subscribe with different strengths to one or the other of these orienting metaphors.

Conservatives follow more closely the “strict father” metaphor and thus find themselves in the Republican tribe, while progressives follow the “nurturing parent” model and find themselves in the Democratic tribe. However, Republicans, both Lakoff and Westen concur, have been much better at crafting frames for their arguments, moving politics from the world of ideas to the world of emotion-laden values.

At the same time Republicans have been mastering the world of metaphorical framing, Mormons leaders have, likely unconsciously, employed metaphorical frames from the same network. For example, Gordon and Gary Shepherd have shown how the rhetoric of General Conference shifted between 1890 and 1950, as uniquely Mormon themes like Zion, kingdom-building, eschatology, missionary work, apostasy, etc. declined and more American themes like patriotism and good citizenship increased. Particularly important has been an increased emphasis, especially since the 1950s, on obedience, keeping the commandments, and the importance of obeying priesthood leaders. Academics like Richard Poll, Eugene England, and most recently Terryl Givens have noted the tension within Mormon thought between obedience and individuality, community and freedom, the “Iron Rod” and “Liahona” perspectives. However, within the general Mormon populace the emphasis has shifted so far toward “obedience” that most members don’t often perceive much tension.

For example, when I read to my High Priests Group the 1945 ward teaching message that “when our leaders speak, the thinking has been done,” all of them nodded in agreement, assuming the statement was gospel. When I told them that the statement had been repudiated by President George Albert Smith, they were astonished, but seemed, ironically, eager to follow their priesthood leader’s orders to stop blindly following orders. Combine this discourse of obedience with the patriarchal structure of Mormon hierarchy, and contemporary Mormon cultural framework maps astonishingly well onto Lakoff’s metaphor of the “strict father.” In fact, Lakoff even cites as an example of the strict father “politics of authority” a quote by President James E. Faust: “Obedience leads to true freedom. The more we obey revealed truth, the more we become liberated” (61).

Another significant shift in Mormon rhetoric has been noted by Armand Mauss in an essay published in the recent festschrift for Eugene England. Mauss sees a change in Mormon discourse from the analytical to the affective, from an emphasis on doctrine to an emphasis on feelings. He astutely observes that while speakers in Mormon chapels once “reached under the lectern in search of the books of scripture,” today they reach for that “dependable box of Kleenex tissues” (23). This change in discourse, Mauss argues, “symbolizes the triumph of feeling over understanding” in contemporary Mormonism. It is indicative of: “a softer worship over a harder one; perhaps of an evangelical—or even Pentecostal—homiletic over an analytical style; of personalized adaptations of scripture over appreciation of historical context. It represents the triumph of the heart over the head in popular Latter-day Saint religious expression” (24).

I certainly do not wish to characterize conservative thought as less intellectual or less rational, but many on both sides of the political divide have acknowledged that Republicans have done a better job of framing their agenda in emotional terms. Democrats have too often grounded their campaigns on Enlightenment theories of rationality, ignoring the ways emotion and reason work together in the decision making process. So the Church’s move toward more emotive discourse would also help solidify an unconscious tribal connection between Republicanism and Mormonism.
Many Mormon Democrats share with me a sense of frustration that we are not fully accepted within Mormon culture, that our tribe has been voted off the island. We believe, as we must seeing the world as we do through our framing metaphors, that what we see as our core moral values—caring for the poor, providing strong education, protecting the environment—are fully compatible, in fact, central to Mormonism. Yet many of our fellow Church members see us as apostates.

For example, in Tuesday’s Deseret News, an op-ed written by an adjunct history professor at Weber State cried out for tolerance among Mormon congregations for differences of ideology, stating that Mormon Democrats “have faced increasingly vicious verbal attacks in [our] wards and in [our] neighborhoods.” Many of the comments from readers of the online version of the article drove her point home with unconsciously and self-righteously viscious irony. They compare progressive ideology to “Satan’s plan,” state that tolerating Democrats’ views would necessarily “dilute the true doctrines of the Church,” and call the author of the column “morally week,” “unstable,” and “a nutcase.” Utah Mormons still ask the question, “Can a good Mormon be a Democrat?” But no one is asking “Can a good Mormon be a Republican?” despite the fact that many of us see, as we cannot help but see, through our progressive Mormon frame, serious problems reconciling some of the values of the Republican party with Mormon values. At times we progressive Mormons feel like we are not just a different tribe, but like we are living on a different planet from politically conservative Mormons, and I’m sure that conservative Mormons can only look upon progressive Mormons with disbelief. While we may not be living on separate planets, we are seeing our world through different frames and that gap that divides us into separate tribes can seem unfathomable.

This gulf between the tribes is not healthy for Mormon religious devotion. I have personally known many students who have left the Church because they have felt excluded or ridiculed for their progressive beliefs. However, I believe, one-party dominance is a problem for the Church itself. As others have noted, nationally both parties tend to ignore the Mormon vote; Republicans know they have it in the bag and Democrats know they don’t have a chance. Candidates for national office don’t bother with Utah. But one-party rule also leads to ethical lapses. When I lived in Washington, DC, I experienced first-hand the problem with single-party Democratic party rule, and I believe similar problems plague Utah. The problem also affects the image of the Church as we become a world religion. It becomes difficult to bridge cultural divides when we have a dominant “strict father” political frame and Mormonism is so closely tied to the Republican agenda. However, the bigger problem can result when our culture’s “strict father” obedience frame overwhelms and even denigrates the “nurturant parent” frame. I reported elsewhere how the Church received some extremely unfavorable media attention these past few years as it was revealed that Mormons had been involved in creating, implementing, and defending interrogation techniques that many felt crossed the line into torture. This was not just a crisis of bad publicity; it took a human toll. The press also reported how one Mormon Army interrogator committed suicide after she was forced to implement these techniques. The “strict father” model certainly is a valid frame from which to view the world, but without the mitigating influence of the “nurturing parent” model, it can lead to abuses.

So how might progressives create a space within Mormon culture for their tribe? The answer is to do exactly what conservative Mormons have done: employ frames both within political discourse and within Church discourse that remap the brain. Mormon theology fully supports an empathy-based frame, perhaps more so than any other Christian denomination. Mormons believe in a Heavenly Mother as well as a Heavenly Father, who are literal parents of each of us. We believe in serving each other and the community. We believe in building communities where people live with one heart, one mind, dwell in righteousness, and eliminate poverty among us—and not just by building gated communities in which the poor are unwlecome. We believe in an earth that is created spiritually, and we can understand environmental responsibility as an act of stewardship. And in a moving examples of a completely nurturant parent, Mormon scripture tells us that God himself looks down from heaven and weeps for his suffering children. In short, Mormon theology supports a metaphorical frame of empathy.

Finally, I believe that as both sides come to understand the workings of language and the mind, we will be able to foster more tolerance. As we discover that each individual’s moral vision is necessarily framed by an organizing primary metaphor, one that necessarily shuts off competing frames, we can better relate to one another. . We will, we can hope, stop assuming that political difference is simply a matter of sinfulness, insanity or not having all the facts. To paraphrase the Apostle Paul, “For now we see through a frame darkly.” We must remember that each of us has a point of view. “I have a point of view,” says Madeline L’Engle, “you have a point of view—God has view.”

Works Cited

Alexander, Thomas G. Mormonism in Transition: A History of the Latter-day Saints, 1890-1930. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1986.

Bushman, Richard Lyman. “The Colonization of the Mormon Mind.” Annual Meeting of the Association for Mormon Letters (2000): 14-23.

Flake, Kathleen. “Re-placing Memory: Latter-day Saint Use of Historical Monuments and Narrative in the Early Twentieth Century.” Religion and American Culture 13 (2003): 69-109.

Gottlieb, Robert, and Peter Wiley. America’s Saints: The Rise of Mormon Power. New York: Putnam, 1984.

Heinerman, John, and Anson Shupe. The Mormon Corporate Empire. Boston: Beacon, 1985.

Lakoff, George. The Political Mind: Why You Can’t Understand 21st-Century American Politics with an 18th-Century Brain. New York: Viking, 2008.

L’Engle, Madeline. Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art. New York: Shaw, 1980.

Mauss, Armand L. “Assimilation and Ambivalence: The Mormon Reaction to
Americanization.” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 22.1 (1989): 30-67.

—. “Feelings, Faith, and Folkways.” “Proving Contraries”: A Collection of Writings in Honor of Eugene England. Ed. Robert A. Rees. Salt Lake: Signature, 2005.

Ostling, Richard N., and Joan K. Ostling. Mormon America: The Power and the Promise. New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1999.

Prince, Gregory A., and William Robert Wright. David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism. Salt Lake: U of Utah P, 2005.

Quinn, D. Michael. Elder Statesman: A Biography of J. Reuben Clark. Salt Lake: Signature, 2005.

—. The Mormon Hierarchy: Extensions of Power. Salt Lake: Signature, 1997.
Shepherd, Gordon, and Gary Shepherd. A Kingdom Transformed: Themes in the Development of Mormonism. Salt Lake: U of Utah P, 1984.
Westen, Drew. The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation. New York: Public Affairs, 2007.


21 thoughts on “The Morality of Politics: The Challenges of Mormon Tribalism

  1. Like I said in lds-left, I haven’t really experienced the problem specifically, but I have under a different frame, so it sounds familiar. Having discussed politics for quite sometime via the Internet I believe your observations to be true and your analysis interesting. The idea that “Democrats” threaten my “Mormon” values, is an insult to the progressives everywhere, and there needs to be a campaign pointing out the contradictions based on the Republicans, like the one you mentioned “This was not just a crisis of bad publicity; it took a human toll. The press also reported how one Mormon Army interrogator committed suicide after she was forced to implement these techniques.” Which I was unaware of!

    Seriously, there is enough material during GWB rule to fill an encyclopaedia and our Republican and Conservative brothers and sisters need to be aware of how the US Constitution was subverted for lies and misrepresentations.

    Keep up the good fight Boyd 🙂

  2. Nicely writ. As an Utah independent who actually tries to find out about positions and people, I see where you’re coming from. I would love to see some pragmatic ideas about how to help bring two (or more) parties onto the a Utah political playing field.

  3. I have been a solid republican for most of my life and in recent years been active with my wife in Texas Republican politics, attending local, state and in 2004 national republican party conventions. In spite of our political activities and leanings to the Republican Party several of our children have strong leanings to the Democrat Party and I even have family members that are active in the Democrat party in Utah County.

    I must admit that lately I have been very concerned with some of the actions of the Republican party. In some significant areas I have been opposed to actions of some of our republican politicians. I have generally tired to consider the candidates and the issues rather than party affiliation though when in doubt I will generally vote republican.

    I am very devout in believing that the Constitution of the United States was divinely inspired and that we will be better following closely the strict interpretation of the existing constitution rather than trying to remodel it to suit current sentiments that are in vogue. We need to review and remember what we have learned from world history and the importance of political freedom.

    Your article was very well written and thought out and I appreciate your thoughts.

    In trying to understand the political leanings of some of my family, I have been thinking about what kind of government we will have when the Savior comes back to reign on the earth. As I understand it we will have a theocratic form of government. Christ himself will be in charge and I am sure that it will quite different from either Democrat or Republican political models. The biggest difference will surely be the lack of corruption and greed for power that often dominates politics in both parties.

    Perhaps the turmoil that we are having in politics regionally and nationally is helping to set the stage for the final scene of conventional political models and to prepare us for the new theocratic model.

    Thanks for the thought provoking discussion.

  4. The author tries to explain away his loss of an election to various issues. However, he never addresses that national social issues are what have driven Utah to the Republican Party. Democrats are perceived to support abortion on demand (including 3rd trimester), gay marriage, hate America doctrine, etc. Even if a Utah Democrat does not support any of these issues, it is a lot of baggage to overcome during an election. They would have to communicate what parts of the Democratic platform they do not agree with as well has their positions on the local issues. It seems if the author wanted to make a difference he would run as a moderate Republican. Utah could use a wider variety of voices.

    The author also asks for understanding between the parties and then in the article he openly disparages the Republican Party. Saying the Republicans hate the poor and do not want to help in any way is partisan, intellectually dishonest and I doubt wins a lot of votes in Utah.

    1. Rick: Thanks for your comments. Let me clarify a couple of things that I had hoped would come through in the essay. First, I do believe social issues like abortion and gay rights have had an effect (and I briefly mention this in the essay) on the Mormon electorate, but I don’t think it was the only thing to switch voters’ positions. According to all the literature I’ve read, party affiliation is fairly deep-seated and our brains work unconsciously to solve the cognitive disconance we find within positions or statements made by our party’s leaders. Our brains even reward us for making these, sometimes very faulty, judgments. So I do not think issues alone account for the changes. Furthermore, those families of Mormon Democrats I know who have remained committed to both Mormonism and the Democratic party, do not tend to see a huge problem. Most see core values of the Democratic party as consistent with Mormon doctrine while rejecting some of the values as inconsistent but hoping to influence the party from within. I think you will find that many Western states Democrats tend to be fairly socially conservative.

      Second, I could not have run as a Republican here in Utah County because, as many news articles have discussed, the leadership of the local party tends to control who gets elected, even to positions within the caucus system. Furthermore, I am convinced that government works best when there is a strong opposition party. It is interesting that when Sen. Specter defected to the Democratic party, Sen. Bennett (R-UT) remarked that it was unhealthy for the U.S. to be run by a single party because there are no checks and balances. I wonder if he would say the same thing about Utah state government?

      I did, however, run as a socially and fiscally conservative Democrat. Like I said in the essay, my most radical position is, I believe, supporting the PTA and public schools. I think my neighbors who did vote for me (and I did better here in my district than expected–I got just over 30% district wide and over 40% in several precincts) know that my values are consistent with their values. It’s just that many voters did not know me personally and, in a district that covers as much geography as mine, it was hard to get to know all those voters personally.

      Finally, I do not think I disparage the Republican party in this essay, nor do I say they hate the poor or the underprivileged. I simply said that Democrats have that as a core value. Many social programs that have helped the poor or underprivileged have been initiated, supported, or created by Republicans. It was Bush I who signed the Americans with Disabilities Act, for instance. I think Republicans are concerned about others too, I simply think the core values for the Republican party are more like smaller government, less government interference, restricting abortion, and so forth. I do not see anywhere in my essay where I said Republicans “hate the poor,” so I sincerely hope you do not think I believe that. Since most of my dearest friends and relatives are Republicans, out of good manners I would never say such a thing. But moreover, as you say yourself, it would be intellectually dishonest to do so.

  5. Great piece, Boyd.

    As you point out, the LDS Church is politically neutral. The Church exists in 176 nations and territories; there is no evidence that the institutional Church is currently interfering in elections in my country (Canada) or in any of these other countries.

    In each of these nations Latter-day Saints are a minority of the overall Church membership and this includes the United States. Since American Mormons are a minority — and increasingly so — of the overall Church membership, the tribal thinking of Mormon Utahns will thankfully continue to be a diminishing factor in the Church. If what you refer to as “progessive” political ideals vs. “conservative” ideals were to be voted upon by the worldwide Church membership (without association with any political parties) there is no doubt in my mind that Latter-day Saints would choose the former over the later in spades.

    To help with reframing in Utah and southern Idaho, I suggest that Democrats pound away pointing out that the core value of the Republican Party is “selfish individualism” and that the core value of the Democratic Party is “love thy neighbor”.

  6. This is an interesting article. While I consider myself and independent and have voted for democrat candidates in the past I always struggle to pull the lever. The national party itself does not help. Frankly the party’s talk of unfettered abortion on demand, even late term sickens me to no end. Whenever I think of the democratic party the image of dead babies immediately comes to mind. I know I’m not the only one. This has got to make it difficult of LDS candidates who run as democrats. But the party’s platform has done little to soften this image.

    I’m not real happy with the repubs spend like drunken sailors actions the last few years. In my opinion both parties are now for big government and are pretty much the same now except for a few issues like abortion, gun rights, etc. Neither one really represents me. But given the choice between the two on election day, it’s hard to pull the lever for killing babies even though the candidate may be against abortion. That label carries with it some hefty baggage that many church members will not be able to overcome.

    1. I agree that this issue hurts Mormon Democrats. As a pro-life Democrat, I understand the feelings here. In fact, my feelings may be even stronger because, when we were a fairly young, naive couple living in the DC area, my wife had to have a procedure performed and the doctor encouraged her to have it done at his “clinic.” We had no idea his clinic was an abortion clinic. That experience solidified my feelings that abortion is taken too lightly here in the U.S. What made me even more frustrated is that when I worked for congress I soon came to believe that no one really wanted to work toward a solution on this issue; neither party really did anything much. Many Republican politicians, I came to believe, really don’t want this issue to go away because it makes such a great issue to rally their base. When Clinton approved a ban on late-term abortions with the provision added that it be allowed only if the life of the mother was at stake, Republicans in the congress voted against it, saying it wasn’t strong enough. Then we had eight years of the Bush administration, six of those with a Republican congress, and the whole time they had a right-leaning Supreme Court, yet nothing much happened to curtail abortion. Forgive my cynicism here, but I honestly think we need more than lip service on this issue and I do not believe it’s a strictly Republican-Democrat divide. I know many Republicans (including Barbara Bush) who are pro-choice and I know even more Democrats who are pro-life. So this issue, imo, is more complicated than it appears. But again, I ran as a pro-life Democrat and I honestly support the LDS Church stance on this issue–abortion should be available in rare circumstances.

    2. I became a registered Republican because I bought into the “killing babies” argument. But in my first caucus there was no mention of abortion. Top on the list were other things, like building border fences. I felt really uncomfortable with what felt like un-Christian rhetoric. So I realized that I would do better to advocate for what I am passionate about (affordable healthcare for all, for example, and giving the poor a hand up and not a hand out) within the Democratic Party, while refusing to lend my support if I felt my values were threatened. Again, abortion really isn’t on the top priority list of either party, though, so for me it was a choice about what IS the top priority for me, and for the parties currently (am also in favor of gun control legislation).

  7. This article suggests that in order to entice Xenophobic Mormons into joining the Democratic party, Democrats should change their verbiage without bothering to change their social policy.

    If the “nurturing parent” party wants more Mormons, perhaps they should start by changing their national platform on abortion.

    Nationally The Democrat “brand” doesn’t sell well to people who are married, have children and espouse religious belief. Are religious families the problem? Should Mormon’s join forces with the A.C.L.U., G.L.A.A.D., and N.O.W. in an effort to elect more Democratic candidates? Did Rocky Anderson give Utahn’s a good reason to support Democratic candidates across the state?

    Frame your metaphor’s however you want, the DNC hasn’t earned our support.

    1. I think you assume that one Democrat is like all other Democrats. I would challenge everyone to look at the Utah County Democratic Party’s platform and see how it departs from the national party. We’re not all the same, and I think the Utah county party’s platform better represents the actual values of Mormons better than you’d imagine.

  8. I enjoyed your article. It has always fascinated me that Republicans have the level of support that they have in Utah. I am a Canadian and here I find a great support among Mormons for the Conservative party for many of the same reasons that you have identified.

    I have always hoped that someone would emerge with a conservative platform inlcuidng personal responsibility but with concern for the environment, concern for the poor and an agenda of peace. I don’t see that happening. So many issues get blown out of shape by politics when they make sense from a compassionate viewpoint.

    I know I might touch a nerve but universal health care is so hated in the USA but has actually despite propoganda been quite successful in Canada. Then you get the Michael Moore’s who make their stupid movies and take things too far the other way.

    I served my mission during the Vietnam period and I remember having many doors slammed in my face due to an identification of the church with the USA.

  9. While there were many points made in your essay that I found to be petty or included to support your view without real value or scientific consensus, I’ll readily admit that said points are not foundational to your thesis. I, too, believe that frames and metaphors aside, you’re giving the average voter too much credit in their choice to be Republican on one hand, and not enough credit on the other. Abortion, gay marriage, and a host of other unsavory practices that tend to gravitate towards the party of the “marginalized” i.e. Democrats, are enough I believe to cause most Utah Mormons to stay the “right” (Republican) course.

    What intrigues me is that you seem committed to supporting the Democrats…more than seeking to be elected to a state position. I could better understand your allegiance to your party if you were seeking a national stage, where party affiliation is key to affecting change. But on the state level? Sure, it might take some time…but why not seek to promote a third party in Utah that meshes the best of the the two nationally-dominant parties from an LDS perspective? I would think it would be easier to get Mormon Republicans to support a third party–one without the weak planks of abortion and gay marriage–than it would to get them to drink the castor oil of the Democrat party, no matter how much good it would do them.

    I believe that many people tune out the political debate not due to framing, but out of weariness of the barbs and pettiness of demeaning the “other guys.” What an election it would be if there were only Independents running and candidates were elected based on their positions (and their hair, of course.)

    1. I guess without specifics I cannot address the parts of my essay that you found petty or unscientific. But I will address your concerns about running as a Democrat vs. running as an independent. The challenges of running a campaign as a Democrat are great here in Utah, but they are even greater if one runs without a party’s support. Parties provide a great deal of support for candidates, especially candidates who have never run before, like me. First, most states have election laws that allow the major parties put their nominated candidates on the ballot; if you are nominated by your party, you are on the ballot (after paying your filing fee, of course). If you run as an independent, you have to get a large number of signatures before your name can appear, so that is much more difficult. Second, parties provide training. We candidates received wonderful training from county party leadership that was essential to our campaigns. Running a campaign is not simple, and there are a lot of things to learn and laws one must know in order to run an effective campaign. Third, the party provided other support, conducting some polling, discussion groups, and fundraising. The Democratic party here in Utah county is small compared to the Republican counterpart, but they helped us a great deal. Fourth, having the support of a party is important even as a social organization. All of our Utah county Democrats who ran this last election developed bonds of friendship that really helped us keep going when we got discouraged. I can’t stress enough how much this helped. But I suspect the most important reason I ran as a Democrat is that I am a Democrat.

      President James E. Faust, an active Democrat until the day he died, once said, “I am a conservative on fiscal and property matters and I am a liberal in terms of human values and human rights. I believe what is said in the Book of Mormon, that the Lord values all his children equally–black and white, bond and free, male and female, Jew and gentile–and that the Lord likewise has compassion for the heathen. As a result, I like to see all people enjoy every advantage, every blessing, every opportunity that comes to them by reason of citizenship. I also support what has been said by the Brethren–that it is in the interest of the Church to have a two-party system and not to have one party that is exclusively LDS and the other party exclusively non-LDS. Both locally and nationally, the interests of the Church and its members are served when we have two good men or women running on each ticket, and then no matter who is elected, we win” (qtd in James E. Bell’s In The Strength of the Lord: The Life and Teachings of James E. Faust Salt Lake: Deseret, 1999, 86). My point in quoting President Faust is not to appeal to authority (although I think it is important to know that there have been many GAs who support the Democratic party) but to illustrate why a good Mormon can be a Democrat. I know Republicans see principles of their party being consistent with the Gospel, but they often can’t understand how a Mormon can be a Democrat. The answer is that Democrats see important principles of the Gospel best reflected in the Democratic party, principles they think are not emphasized enough in the Republican party. That’s not meant as a slam on Republicans, I’m just trying to point out that this is a world view issue. We have different world views and grasping another person’s world view can be like trying to snatch star light from a summer sky. It’s fairly elusive.

      I understand the urge to move away from a party, especially one with baggage (but I do believe both parties have baggage), but having run a campaign I can tell you that having the support of a party is crucial. Finally, let me point out that party platforms are written by people who are within the party and the only way to change a party platform is to be active in the party. If you look at the Utah County Democratic Party’s platform, I think you’ll see it is nothing like the national party’s platform.

      For example, here’s the party’s plank on abortion:

      “As Utah County Democrats we believe in the sanctity of human life and that there should be a balance between the rights of the woman and her unborn child. We believe that every abortion is a tragedy. We oppose elective abortion for personal or social convenience, and believe that abortion should be limited to instances of pregnancy resulting from rape or incest, or in cases of fatal fetal deformities, or when competent medical authority determines that there is a serious threat to the life or health of the mother. We again recognize those who hold differing views on this issue and seek to resolve our differences in a spirit of respectful cooperation.”

      I think you will find that this position reflects the influence of our Utah County Democrats’ Mormon beliefs. We are striving to move our party to the center, and the only way that gets done is to have people of principle actually participate within the party.

      Thanks for the comments.

      1. Thanks for your responses to my prior comments and the enlightening info about local party politics. It seems like some of the difficulties you listed regarding running as an independent are more challenging than others, and I’m trying to figure out which is the deal killer. For example, experienced pols from either party could find themselves interested in a third party and be willing and able to provide training to candidates. And the requirement to have a larger number of signatures to get on the ballot could just mean putting in more time to gain support, which could turn out to be a good thing. It could go something like this: “Hi, I’m Boyd Petersen and I’d like to serve you in our state legislature. My intent is to run as an independent so that I can more fully represent the wishes of this area’s residents. If you have found yourself frustrated by either of the well-known parties’ politics then you can help by signing this form that will allow me to have my name on the ballot. Doing so doesn’t commit you to voting for me, merely shows your interest in keeping our political system healthy and responsive to the voters.”

        I can appreciate that there are bonds between people with common interests and yet that could occur within a third party, too. So I’m guessing that the deal killer is the fundraising. It’s too bad, but money is a necessary component to running a successful campaign and unless one is independently wealthy it might just be impossible to get elected without strong party support. Hmmm…I guess I answered my own question to a degree. Thanks again for this thread and the opportunity to consider things political, which usually hold little interest to me.

  10. Thank you for the well written article. I would be more interested in hearing how your religous/personal values contribute to your political leanings. Much of your post seems to argue that Mormons who are Republicans were acted upon rather than making rational decisions. I would guess, if you looked a little harder, you would find research and arguments by more conservative Mormons that intelligently and logically explain how their religious/personal values interact and contribute to their political viewpoints. Your post seems to suggest that those of us who are Republican have been confused by outside influences and the result that many of us are zombies. Rather than try to tell me why so many of us are Republicans, try and tell me more about why you are Democrat and why I should be. It would be a much more effective argument.

    I am troubled that your comments seem to indicate that you are very close to the Republicans, outside of a couple of issues, and that you ran as a Democrat because the local Republican caucus won’t let you in. Are you really a “Democrat” in the traditional or national sense? Or, are you a Democrat to get elected? When you look at the national scene, which party’s candidates would you be most likely to vote for?

    I agree with you that a one party system is not the best option. I like diversity of opinion and often there seems to be a dearth of it in Utah. Personally, I would love to see a few different political parties involved in Utah government. I also agree that the last administration did several things that are not conducive to or in accordance with the Constitution or the gospel. Of course, it makes it easy to pull out the number of lives lost to abortion and compare it to the number of atrocities/torture committed since 9/11. On top of that one should mention President Obama’s support for the Freedom of Choice Act and it’s impact on the unborn. After mentioning your negative impressions of the Bush administration, you could also mention the amount of financial assistance he sent to Africa to fight AIDS.

    Finally, I wish more members of the Church who are LDS and Democrat wouldn’t get so offended when others who are Republican make the connection between their religious/personal values and politics. Instead of feeling judged or maligned, LDS Democrats should respond in kind. Then the debate could move forward.

  11. Fascinating article!

    As a conservative Mormon living near Seattle, I find all the things you say about the patterns of Utah voters true of my neighbors, except their tradition is to favor liberal Democrats. Mindless voting is not confined to Mormons; it’s an American habit.

    I think an interesting related question is: Does mindless voting explain why America has only two successful political parties? It seems like we are stuck with two national brands for political parties both of which Americans love to hate. More Americans self-identify as Independent than as Republican or Democrat. These swing voters ultimately determine Presidential elections. But Independents rarely field viable candidates! Why is that?

    I think the answer goes beyond money spent on campaigns. I think Independents are more easily persuaded to vote AGAINST a person or idea than FOR a person or idea. It’s as if they know what they don’t want but cannot articulate what they really want. Independents lack a unifying ideology. Hence we have this constant cycling between Democrats and Republicans.

    1. A brief response to the last couple of comments: I do not mean to suggest in this essay that Utah Republicans are “mindless voters,” although the science suggests none of us–none of us–are logical voters, at least not in the classical sense of the word “logical.” Our brains, according to Lakoff and Westen, do not work the way Englightenment philosophy suggested. We think with emotion. And our brains reward us for drawing conclusions, right or wrong, that are consistent with our preexisting frameworks. My point here is not that voters have been manipulated or that they are not rational, it’s that they are responding to the emotional frames they are hearing from politicians and that became reinforced as those same frames unconsciously crept into our religious discourse. I sincerely do not believe my neighbors are mindless. They are voting for their values, values they understand based on the frames they have and the frames that are being used. My point, however, is that there is another side of Mormon thought, one that is more in line with what Lakoff calls the “nurturing parent”–ideas about consecration, stewardship, care for neighbor, etc.–that should find resonance within more “progressive” politics and that Democrats who want to do better in states like Utah need to be aware of those frames and use them.

  12. First of all, I thank you, Mr. Petersen, for your willingness to run for office as a Democrat in Utah. While I no longer reside in the state (or the country for that matter) I am still registered to vote in Utah, and plan to remain so until residency requirements force me to do otherwise (I am currently a Peace Corps volunteer and am soon to join the Foreign Service).

    When living in Utah, I found myself very supportive of the Utah Democratic party, despite my unaffiliated voter status. Due to their minority status, it is clear that Utah Democrats are often the symbol of political moderation, seeking to balance the heavy Republican tribalism which exists in Utah, which you described so well in your article.

    Hopefully, continual efforts such as yours will yield positive results. Many of the Utah voting statistics I have observed have lead me to believe that, despite outward appearances, Utah is far more moderate than voter party support demonstrates. Nevertheless, it will take a continued effort to publish the importance of political moderate. Hope to see you run again in 2010.


  13. Thank you for this post. I have lived in Utah for about 3 and a half years. I was a registered Republican in Colorado before I moved here, for what I considered to be the moral issues. But I became more and more disillusioned with the radical talk on the right, against our immigrant brothers and sisters (love them! and want to deal with immigration compassionately) among other things (healthcare another big one for me– I think of the Savior as the Great Physician). I finally registered as a Democrat before the last election and I finally felt like I was where I belonged. I still have my moral beliefs, but I can advocate and find an ear for the things I really care about (elevating the poor, etc) much more easily through the Democratic Party. It was a roller coaster year for me. I felt so good about my decision and really felt the Spirit when I attended the caucus– I felt that the Lord wants good people on both sides. Some friends and family supported me, while I was really hurt by some mean-spirited and self-righteous comments from others. For the first time in my life, I was discouraged about going to church, even though I have always tried to be so inclusive to everyone I see there.

    Funny, to finally get to the point, I supported several candidates (its hard to find a Utah Dem who doesn’t agree with the moral issues that many claim are what make them a Republican) who were just like you. One had excellent education credentials and had a large LDS family and followed the Church’s stance on the moral issues. I fooled myself into thinking he had a chance! I thought reasoning people would look at his credentials (former Chief Economist for Utah) and his positions on the issues, but he lost by nearly 70%. I don’t think many people looked past the party name after all. I was so discouraged, as I continue to be on some days as an LDS Dem in Utah, or an LDS Dem period (still so much horrible stuff on Facebook by supposedly Christian people), but it is hopeful to hear there are people like you out there. Great job.

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