Photo courtesy of the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute
Can an exhausted majority find hope in a campaign for dignity?
Cox, a Republican and chair of the National Governors Association, and New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, also a Republican, invited their fellow governors to talk about toxic polarization in the U.S.
Cox also announced the formation of a bipartisan group of governors working on immigration reform. He hopes to demonstrate how policymakers with differing viewpoints can work together to solve seemingly intractable problems.
These efforts are part of a broader campaign to reduce polarization announced by Cox at this summer’s NGA meeting in Atlantic City. Designed to improve the quality of public debate, the one-year initiative urges governors to be leaders in elevating the substance and reducing the toxic style of current political discourse.
Cox believes there is an “exhausted majority” of Americans eager to lower the temperature of political debate. “We’re not going to change the country overnight, but we have to offer an alternative,” he said in Atlantic City.
“We know what happens when people get too much power and too much authority and [are] too full of themselves,” Cox said. “So, the incentives need to be put into place to keep those things in check…[because] many politicians [are] using our institutions for performance instead of substance.”
Cox was joined onstage at the NGA meeting by Yuval Levin, director of Social, Cultural, and Constitutional Studies at the American Enterprise Institute, who echoed these concerns.
Of politicians, Levin said, “Rather than operating within the framework of a legislative institution in a way that brings differing sides together… a lot of people now use those institutions as a stage to stand on and build a personal following and build a personal brand… participating in the work of political expression rather than the work of governing.”
“The problem…is not that we’ve forgotten how to agree; the problem is we’ve forgotten how to disagree,” Levin explained. “The forgetfulness is created by a political culture that encourages us to see the various institutions that we’re all a part of… not as [forums] to achieve something together…but as platforms for ourselves as individuals.”
Cox was also joined by Timothy Shriver, chair of Special Olympics and cofounder of Unite, a national non-profit focused on healing America’s divides.
Shriver sees contempt as the single biggest problem in the United States right now. “We have challenges on immigration, and education, and health care, and energy,” he said. “But the biggest problem is the rise of contempt as the problem-solving tool of choice.”
“When I use contempt, I’m no longer disagreeing on the issue of immigration. I’m attacking you. You are the problem. You become not only ‘not good,’ but potentially evil; and not only potentially evil, but in need of destruction,” Shriver said. “If we treat our opponents with contempt, we are doing nothing to solve the problems in the country.”
The survey found that 72% of Republicans viewed Democrats as “immoral,” compared to 63% of Democrats who held the same beliefs about Republicans. Eighty-three percent of Democrats said they believed Republicans are “close-minded” while 72% of Republicans called Democrats “dishonest.”
It’s not just contempt that’s on the rise. Acceptance of violence as a political tool is also on the rise. Support for political violence has doubled among Republicans since 2017 and has grown for Democrats.
In congressional testimony, Rachel Kleinfeld, senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, cited the work of Lilliana Mason and Nathan Kalmoe, who have been tracking public opinion on political violence using identical questions and methods since 2017.
Mason and Kalmoe found support for political violence rose across several measures prior to the midterm elections and declined after the elections. It also rose, especially for Republicans, around then-President Trump’s first impeachment, and again dropped afterward. Support for violence from 2017 through the summer of 2020 was generally quite close across parties but somewhat higher for Democrats, though actual incidents of violence were higher for Republicans.
By February 2021, 25% of Republicans and 17% of Democrats felt threats against the other party’s leaders were justifiable, and 19% of Republicans and 10% of Democrats believed it was justified to harass ordinary members of the other party. One-in-five Republicans (20%) and 13% of Democrats claimed that political violence was justified “these days.”
According to Kleinfeld, support for political violence is fast approaching levels recorded in Northern Ireland at the height of its troubles when 25% of Catholics and 16% of Protestants agreed that “violence is a legitimate way to achieve one’s goals.”
Threats against members of Congress have increased tenfold in the last five years, leading the House Sergeant at Arms to announce in 2022 that House members would receive up to $10,000 to upgrade security at their homes. Also in 2022, authorities filed federal charges against a man who they say traveled from California to Maryland with the intent to murder Supreme Court justice Brett Kavanaugh. Between the 2020 election and the 2022 midterms, candidates running for House and Senate offices increased spending on security by more than 500 percent according to a Washington Post analysis of filings with the Federal Election Commission.
Shriver sees a connection between the rise of contempt and the acceptance of political violence. Citing the work of Amanda Ripley, who has written about the connection between hateful political rhetoric and violence, he notes the role of political speech in the terrifying rise of the Nazi regime in Germany in the 1930s and in the outbreak of the murderous violence in Rwanda in the 1990s. “The link between hateful language and violence has been demonstrated over and over again in human history,” Shriver said.
In response, Shriver and his Unite cofounder Tom Rosshirt, along with Tami Pyfer, developed the Dignity Index, an eight-point scale to score political rhetoric based on how dignified or contemptuous it is.
Pyfer was education policy advisor to then Utah governor Gary Herbert and worked closely with Spencer Cox, then Lieutenant Governor. Rosshirt is a columnist and a former speechwriter for President Bill Clinton and spokesperson for Vice President Al Gore. In the fall of 2022, they tested the Dignity Index for the first time in Utah with Pyfer as the project lead.
In early October 2022, political debates between candidates for Utah’s five Congressional seats were scored. Following the debates, student coders scored fundraising appeals, social media posts, third-party ads, and political speeches, releasing scores to the public each Friday.
Each candidate had moments of dignity and contempt. None scored 1 or 2, the lowest possible scores, but neither did any merit an eight, the highest possible score. Candidates earned higher scores during debates, perhaps because they were meeting face to face. The further removed candidates were from one another, the more contemptuous the language became.
Pyfer continues to be surprised by the broad audience for the Dignity Index. Following an October 2022 presentation at the Chamber of Commerce summit, a line of people formed to ask questions about what they had just heard. An administrator from a large state university expressed interest in developing a Dignity Index module for a required general education course. The director of a nonprofit serving refugees wanted to find ways to incorporate the Index in their work.
Corporate and business leaders asked Pyfer how to include Index principles in their communications. The Chamber of Commerce added the Dignity Index to their official list of priorities. The leader of the state Republican women’s group invited Pyfer to speak to a regional group of Republican women meeting in Las Vegas.
“Every time I speak, without exception, I have similar reactions from people lingering afterward to ask for more information, to partner, to speak to another group, to come to their campus,” Pyfer said.
The Utah pilot is shaping efforts to employ the Dignity Index in the 2024 elections. “The Utah pilot taught us that the Index can be used to reliably score political speech and we learned that it was imperative to have a diverse group of coders—ideologically, culturally, and politically—who were scoring the speech,” said Pyfer. “We have learned that we need to add more diversity to this team, including people from different parts of the country, age groups, and educational backgrounds.”
In addition to broadening the diversity of human coders, Unite is also partnering with Jonathan Stray at Berkeley’s Center for Human-Compatible AI (CHAI) to develop artificial intelligence that can automatically scan and score passages of speech. Pyfer noted several possible applications including, “aiding journalists who can use it to review political statements or other public speech to report on the level of dignity or contempt,” and “a plug-in app that people can use to monitor their own messages and posts on social media to keep their own language high on the dignity scale, or an app that can screen incoming social media, allowing people to rate or block messages that rate a certain level on the contempt end of the scale.”
The Utah project also prompted the formation of Students for Dignity, beginning with several students at the University of Utah who worked to code speech for the pilot project. According to Pyfer, both liberal and conservative students in the group said they were often afraid to speak out in class and give their true opinions or have robust discussions. “They wanted to show their fellow students a better way,” said Pyfer. “So, they formed a club!” Unite is encouraging Students for Dignity clubs on campuses across the country. “We hope these clubs will invite everyone to become agents for dignity by improving their own use of dignity in their disagreements and in their discussions,” Shriver said.
Rosshirt believes the Dignity Index can create a new set of incentives in public life. “When we put a spotlight on dignity and contempt, we use more dignity and less contempt,” Rosshirt said. “We begin to expect the same from people who inform us, entertain us, and represent us—and that’s how we can form a constituency that rewards dignity and starts to change the culture.”
In a speech to the Utah League of Cities and Towns, Shriver cited the prophet Isaiah’s call to service, and specifically to be repairers of the breach, as an organizing principle for this effort. He notes the Biblical witness as well that creation is good. “Our dignity work is predicated on that same conviction,” he said. “No matter how far or how difficult or how painful life may be, we all have that dignity.”
“We welcome religious leaders to this work of dignity and recognize in the dignity movement, a core tenet of many religions, if not most,” Shriver said. “That core tenet is simple: that everything is created with dignity—every person, the Earth, the universe itself, is infused with God-given dignity or divinely given dignity.”
Forgiveness plays a part as well. “Forgiveness is, in itself, an acknowledgement of the dignity of the other and an attempt to create a doorway into seeing oneself—and the other—with that dignity,” Shriver said. “Christians tend to repeat, love your enemies, but struggle to do so. Perhaps the Dignity Index can help.”
“The change has to start with us,” Shriver believes. “We all have some responsibility for our division. It didn’t just happen to us. We’re doing this to ourselves, and we can undo it.”
Reflecting on the lessons of the Utah pilot for the 2024 campaign season, Pyfer echoed the concerns Gov. Cox shared at this summer’s NGA meeting that there is an “exhausted majority” starving for a better way. “They are tired of the toxic and contemptuous political climate, and they want to know how to be agents of change,” she said.
“We learned that we need to help gather a dignity community and provide them tools and education and inspiration to make a difference,” Pyfer said. “And importantly, it needs to be a community. When you know you’re not alone—when you see others striving for the same changes in our culture—it gives you hope.”
Curtis Ramsey-Lucas is editor of The Christian Citizen.