Sesno Series Spotlights Utah Gov. Spencer J. Cox and a Way to "Disagree Better"

February 22, 2024

Sesno Series hero image with photos of President Granberg, Frank Sesno, and Spencer J. Cox

This story originally appeared in GW Today.

Utah Gov. Spencer J. Cox, a Republican, launched the Disagree Better initiative last year because, like many Americans, he’s alarmed at the polarization in the country.

“The tension politically is at a height greater than before the Civil War,” said George Washington University undergraduate student Ben Solasky in a recorded segment shown during the latest event in the Sesno Series on Feb. 21.

“Disagree Better: How Politicians, the Public and the Press Can Turn Down the Heat” was moderated by  Frank Sesno, the director of strategic initiatives at the School of Media and Public Affairs and took place at the Jack Morton Auditorium. The second event in the Sesno Series featured Cox, the chair of the National Governors Association, and journalists Michel Martin of NPR and Jonah Goldberg of “The Dispatch.”

The event was intended to yield solutions, not just discuss problems. Video of GW students voicing their concerns about public discourse was integral to the discussion.

“You want to separate the person from the argument,” said graduate student Mally Smith.

Cox pointed out that there’s a perception gap among Americans as to the size of the political divide; it’s not as big as individuals perceive. Politicians can take advantage of this perception gap to increase social divisions. He cited a Stanford University study that found that if someone believes the other side is willing to flout laws and use violence, then that person is more likely to act similarly.

We need to understand the drivers behind people’s emotions, said Cox.

The governor spoke of how he grew up in rural America. Most of the people from that community are going to vote for Donald Trump, but not because they’re bad people, he said. There are things that have been happening to them over time that they think are finally being voiced by Trump.

Sesno asked Cox about the importance of politicians calling out bad behavior in their own party.

“It’s more effective when Republicans hold other Republicans accountable and when Democrats hold other Democrats accountable,” said Cox.

Tribalism was an underlying theme of the discussion, including the lack of engagement with people different than ourselves.

Students, shown on video, said it’s harder to disagree better when attacks become personal.

“If you put people in boxes, that leads to sort of angry, violent reactions,” said undergraduate student Margot Diamond.

Cox said that it’s important “we should approach people with whom we disagree with the initial belief that they’re arguing in good faith.”

“I hear people say, ‘I’m not even going to have a conversation with that person because they don’t want me to exist,’” he said. “If you truly care about a position or a policy position, the only way to come to a solution is to actually have a conversation.”

The governor highlighted legislation he signed that limits gender-affirming care for transgender youth under 18 as an example of the power of open discussion. Cox invited transgender youth to meet with legislative leadership, resulting in three changes to the bill that take into account transgender youths’ perspective.

Sesno touched on climate change, a focus of his as founder of Planet Forward.

“Most Republicans want cleaner air and want a better climate,” said Cox. “But getting rid of fossil fuels in the next three years is not going to happen.”

He suggested that replacing coal with natural gas, electric vehicles, infrastructure and phasing are potential climate solutions.

The media, including social media, has contributed to the political divide in the United States, and journalists Jonah Goldberg, co-founder of “The Dispatch,” and Michel Martin, host of NPR’s “Morning Edition,” weighed in during the second part of the event.

Martin emphasized the importance of local newspapers, which are disappearing. She cited a statistic of 70 million people in “news deserts.” That lack of local coverage makes it easy for bad actors on social media to fill the gap with misinformation.

Goldberg, who left Fox News and launched “The Dispatch” as fact-driven media, said that consuming news on TikTok or Instagram, a common Generation Z practice, is problematic.

Social media algorithms are designed to foment intense feelings, Martin pointed out.

“There’s nothing wrong with anger in a democracy,” said Goldberg. “Anger is a good thing. Democracy is about disagreement.

“What’s bad for democracy is contempt. Contempt gives you permission to dehumanize people. And that distinction about anger versus contempt poisons so much of the conversation in our politics these days.”

Everyone has a responsibility to practice “information hygiene,” said Martin. What you choose to consume and share on social media can contribute to healthy public discourse.

“Seventy-five percent of Americans hate what is happening in politics right now,” said Cox. “They hate both major candidates for president.”

Cox summarized a roadmap, from student ideas, to disagree better: Attack the idea, not the person. Assume good faith in conversations. Ask questions to understand other perspectives and look for common ground.

“I get this wrong all the time,” he said. “It’s hard for me, and it’s gonna be hard for you, but we have to if we care about our country and we care about the future of a pluralistic society, our ability to live together despite our disagreements, we have to work on this. All of us have to work on it.”

Endowed by GW alumni Ted Segal, B.A. ’03, and Meredith Perla Segal, B.Accy. ’05, The Sesno Series was created to honor the contributions of SMPA professor and former CNN reporter, anchor, and Washington Bureau Chief Frank Sesno. At a time of polarization, disinformation, and discord, this series brings to campus influential voices from across the political spectrum to discuss our democracy, our future, and our world.