The ranks of the alienated include both Mormons (who tend to be among the most reliably Republican voters) and non-Mormons (who tend to vote Democratic). Mormons increasingly feel alienated from a city that still serves as the center of their religion, but is becoming less Mormon and increasingly hostile to that faith. (To hear some Mormons outside of Salt Lake City talk about the place, you’d think they were talking about the Whore of Babylon.) Conservative Mormons express discomfort with the fact that progressives have a lock on the Mayor’s Office and are in sharp ascendancy on the Salt Lake City Council and in Salt Lake County government. Furthermore, far too many non-Mormons mistake bigotry for honest criticism of LDS Church policies, and frequently launch into vicious anti-Mormon diatribes, often as a way of bonding with other non-Mormons. These attacks, in public and private, further alienate the LDS faithful and divide the city.
Many non-Mormons, for their part, do not feel at home in a city where a single religious institution wields so much social and political power. So massive is the LDS Church’s influence that people of all faiths here generally refer to it as “The Church,” an annoying and chauvinistic shorthand common to Mormons and, elsewhere, their “great and abominable” brethren, the Catholics. As a developer and an interest group, the LDS Church automatically assumes preferred status and seems never to lose, which indicates to many that the city’s political landscape is deeply imperfect. (The single recent defeat the LDS Church has experienced was related to its principled, compassionate stand on immigration reform, which the right wing of the Legislature regarded with about as much sympathy as it would a gay pride parade.)
A Republican-controlled process of legislative redistricting after the 2000 census created safe districts for Republicans and Democrats throughout the state. This has made electoral competition meaningless in the vast majority of legislative districts, which alienates people of both parties and any religious faith. Also, particularly in the Republican Party, safe districts tend to hurt centrist candidates and reward extremist candidates who pander to party orthodoxy and the Communist-fluoridation-conspiracy-type elements of the base. The lack of a political center leaves a large and growing number of Utah Republicans and some conservative Democrats without a voice in local and state politics.
Redistricting also has guaranteed the Republicans a veto-proof majority in both the House and Senate, meaning that Democrats in the Legislature play the role of observers who can only infrequently introduce and pass important legislation. Only gradual political and cultural change or utilizing an independent redistricting commission in the 2010 process could alter this situation.
Then there are the lobbyists, the mere mention of whom tends to produce disgust among voters. Long a symbol of the corruption of influence at the state Legislature, lobbyists are becoming increasingly prevalent in city and county government as well. They are central to the culture of gifts, influence peddling and horse-trading that predominates at the Legislature, where former (and current!) legislators-turned-lobbyists pal around with their old buck-hunting or wine-tasting buddies, grease the palms and git ’er done.
Just as disturbing, hiring a lobbyist means that an organization has no confidence in direct communication with its representative and is resigned to having a brokered conversation. This is a disquieting trend in what is supposed to be a representative democratic government. Also, lobbyists sometimes work both sides of an issue, choosing ultimately to support the side that will give them lucrative future contracts, rather than supporting the side they are taking money from and pledged to represent.
So, why bother?
There’s no reason it has to be this way. The first Catholic Mass said in Salt Lake City, in 1866, was celebrated in the LDS Church’s Assembly Hall, with the approval of Brigham Young. This kind of respect and interfaith engagement suggests a way out of the present climate of suspicion and bigotry among people of different faiths or no faith. We can also urge that our elected officials listen to and treat the LDS Church as they would any other developer or interest group—and oppose elected officials who insist on biased treatment, whether positive or negative.
We can make a huge push for an independent ethics and, just as important, an independent redistricting commission, both of which Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. supported during his re-election campaign. This would create competitive races in the state and improve our pathetic voter turnout. We can engage with Democratic or Republican Party politics, at all levels, supporting candidates whose positions reflect the best interests of our communities. We can become involved with our local community councils, making our voices heard to a city government that relies on the complaints of citizens to be able to do its job. We can make our voices heard directly to our elected officials, rather than becoming ensnared in the soulless, destructive culture of professional lobbying.
We owe it not just to our community but also to ourselves to become more engaged. It is too easy to fall into a spectator culture, with its proliferation of constant distractions and empty amusements. It is too easy to sit back and merely watch, in the smug conviction that everyone is corrupt, that nothing will ever change, and that the only places to find political truth are in the echo chambers of your ward house or your wine-and-cheese party. Compared with a life of learning, hope, engagement and struggle for the good, this is no way to live. Get out and fight.
Patrick Thronson served two years as former Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson’s communications director. He now operates Thronson & Associates Strategic Communications.