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MANAGEMENT UPDATE.

FOUR GOVERNORS DISCUSS HOW TO “DISAGREE BETTER”

It feels these days like much conversation about government consists of opposing parties standing on their respective hills, throwing rocks at one another. 


That’s why a March 27 conversation among four governors – two Democrats and two Republicans – was particularly refreshing. They talked about the importance of listening to one another other; sharing views, and sometimes compromising on solutions.

The occasion for the discussion was a podcast called “You Might Be Right” that has been produced by The Howard H. Baker Jr. School of Public Policy and Public Affairs at the University of Tennessee since September 2022. We were impressed with this podcast from its first episodes, which we recommended in a November 2022 B&G Report. The premise underlying the series can be summed up in the late Tennessee Senator Howard Baker’s advice to “always remember that the other fellow might be right.”



The two hosts of the show are Bill Haslam, who was the Republican Governor of Tennessee from 2011 to 2019 and Phil Bredesen, that state’s Democratic Governor who served from 2003 to 2011. Their guests for the March 27 episode were Utah Republican Gov. Spencer Cox and his neighbor, Colorado Democratic Gov. Jared Polis. They are currently chair and vice chair of the National Governors Association. The NGA Chair’s Initiative for 2023-2024 is “Disagree Better”.


All four lamented the way viral partisan politics has insidiously crept into practically every crevice of local and state government management, performance, and policy discussions.  But there are ways around this thicket, as well, as some of the following nuggets from this episode demonstrate.


On why “Disagree Better” became the initiative of the current chair and vice chair of the NGA


Spencer Cox: (We) just had this realization that we couldn’t solve any of the biggest problems affecting our country if we all hate each other and can’t even have conversations. . . We thought maybe we could launch an initiative around that.


Jared Polis: The tone that I try to set in our Colorado General Assembly, (and) I know Governor Cox tries to set this in Utah General Assembly, is try to hear one another and work together. It doesn’t mean that everybody is going to agree on every issue. You can be conservative, liberal, moderate. This initiative is not about that. It’s about making sure that you value where somebody’s coming from and their perspective and you disagree in a way where you don’t demean or undermine the humanity of those whom you disagree with. 


On the Impact of Dehumanizing the Political Opposition


Jared Polis:  In today’s political discourse, it’s become all too common to question the patriotism, the humanity, the decency of people who just might happen to have a different opinion on a policy issue.


Spencer Cox: I’ve never changed my mind and I don’t think you all have either by being attacked or told you’re a terrible human being,


On What’s Changed


Phil Bredesen: The thing that seems to have changed to me is just more and more people putting more and more emphasis simply on the political side of the thing, the preservation of office . . . and less and less on, what am I really here for and what's in the public good?


Spencer Cox: We've worked with universities and researchers on this polarization issue, and I think there are a lot of things driving it. We know that we're lonelier than we've ever been before, we're losing a lot of the institutions that would bring people together and increase trust in one another. We know that religious attendance is down, other institutions, the volunteer service-oriented institutions aren't as strong as they used to be. . . The rise of social media and cable news I think has played a role.


In political science, which I studied, we always said that all politics is local. I don’t believe that anymore. I believe all politics is national If you look at a city council race, they’ll be talking about issues that have nothing to do with the city council.


On Immigration Reform


Bill Haslam: We both agree that there’s some very practical things that could happen if the politics could get out of the way.


Spencer Cox: The most frustrating thing about this issue is that the four of us could solve this by dinner today, if we had the opportunity to do that. There is broad consensus.


Jared Pollis: When you scrape the surface, there’s a lot more agreement on immigration than disagreement, but because it's such an intensely political issue you will find people in both parties who actually don't want to solve it because they want to use it as a cudgel against the other party for political reasons. . . .You have factions in both parties that sometimes see a political benefit in maintaining the crisis.


On how to genuinely influence people and have productive conversations


Jared Polis: Be curious. Ask questions. It doesn’t mean you’re going to agree, nor does it mean that either side should feel any pressure to agree. But at the very least, you’ll validate the humanity of those you disagree with, they'll validate your humanity, and both sides will walk away happier rather than angrier, that at least they were heard.


Spencer Cox: The way you actually influence people and persuade people, and I still believe in persuasion, is by treating them with dignity and respect. . .


One of the big things coming out of this work is an understanding of using other identities to bring us together. When I was growing up, I didn’t know who the Republicans and Democrats were in my town or my congregation. . . We were moms or dads, we were Utahans, we were Utah Jazz fans or Denver Nuggets fans or whatever. . . I always encourage people to try to find the other person’s identity that matches yours and talk about that.


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