After a divisive campaign that brought us the #AnyoneButTrump movement and Hillary Clinton’s literal Woman Card, you might know where you stand when it comes to the presidential candidates—or maybe you’re not so sure, even as the polls ready to open this November.
But that’s not what this guide’s about.
Here we present an alumni-tailored look at the American political process: what’s working and how we, as Marriott School grads, can fix the things that aren’t. Read words from elected alumni leaders, find out what issues matter most to voters like you, and learn how BYU research is shedding new light on America’s polarized rhetoric.
If Not Us, Who?
In this time of political upheaval, I am sorely tempted to throw my hands in the air in disgust and walk away from the political process. We are encouraged to vote our conscience, but my conscience is ill at ease with the current rhetoric of both major political parties. And yet, our nation’s founders paid such a dear price for our liberty and system of self-governance that my conscience also won’t allow me to sit idly by.
I’ve spoken with many who feel so let down by today’s political landscape that they are choosing to ignore politics altogether. There is so much water running over the riverbanks at this point, they argue, that adding one small bag of sand to the breached strand won’t make enough of a difference to be worth the effort. Plus, their lives are so busy with so many other good activities—work, church, family, recreation—that it is easier to leave the bother of governance to those few still willing to enter the arena. I admit that I’ve felt the same way at times.
It is tempting to feel secure in the belief that our government is stable, that the checks and balances put in place long ago by George Washington, James Madison, and Alexander Hamilton are strong enough to protect against the decline and collapse that have befallen other experiments in democracy. However, these checks and balances are only as stable as the leaders we elect to uphold them.
Upon leaving the Constitutional Convention in 1787, Benjamin Franklin was asked what system of government had been established, and he famously quipped: “A republic, if you can keep it.” He was not alone in worrying about the permanency of our constitutional republic; Hamilton, Madison, and others fretted that past democracies had all eventually crumbled from within. John Adams predicted in a manner that now seems clairvoyant: “Democracy will soon degenerate into an anarchy, such an anarchy that every man will do what is right in his own eyes and no man’s life or property or reputation or liberty will be secure, and . . . will soon mould itself into a system of subordination . . . to the wanton pleasures, the capricious will, and the execrable cruelty of one or a very few.”
I fear we may now stand upon such a precipice as Adams and his compatriots foresaw. As tempting as it may be, now is not the time for us to shirk our civic duties. Now is the time to make our voices heard in whatever capacity we can. We must educate ourselves on the issues of the day; select good men and women of high moral character to represent us at every level of local, state, and federal government; and vote for the candidates we believe will best uphold our values. I encourage all of us to find a way to become further involved: volunteer for a campaign, run for office, or write to your representatives.
In 1963 my grandfather and former presidential candidate George Romney popularized an ancient mantra that is as true today as it was then: “If not us, who? If not now, when?”
I echo his statement. For truly, if not us, who?
About the Author
Tagg Romney, the son and grandson of two presidential candidates, graduated from BYU with a degree in economics in 1994 and earned an MBA from Harvard Business School in 1998. A management consultant and venture capitalist, Romney is a member of the Marriott School’s National Advisory Committee.
Meeting in the Middle
Republicans are red. Democrats are blue.
BYU public management professor Eva Witesman advocates a more prismatic approach.
During the 2012 presidential race, Witesman set out to identify which values predicted voters’ political preferences. Surveying people from around the country, she asked respondents to identify which issues were most important when choosing a commander-in-chief. Unsurprisingly, liberals identified things such as social justice and the protection of minorities. Conservatives favored national security and altruism. But that’s about where the blue-vs-red matchup ended.
“What was interesting was there were a ton of values that neither party was capturing,” Witesman says. “And these were values that research had previously demonstrated were important for making public sector decisions.”
Witesman’s study, coauthored with retired Marriott School professor Larry Walters, was published in the International Journal of Public Administration last year. The findings reveal that Americans tend to agree more than this election’s polarized rhetoric might suggest. These neutral values—think accountability, efficiency, and transparency—were universally important to voters regardless of political preference.
So what’s a values-driven voter to do when parties paint with broad strokes?
First, become an empowered citizen. “We have to be active beyond just voting,” Witesman says. “If we want to see all of our values come to fruition, we need to work to enact them, whether that is through the nonprofit sector, community organizations, or local government. It’s unfair to place that burden solely on our elected officials.”
Second, keep all of your values in mind when you step into the ballot box. “Political candidates can’t and don’t fully represent the range of things that individuals find important—that’s not how you win an election,” Witesman explains. “While we might align with one candidate on a specific value, we should think about and vote our full range of values.”
|Blue Values||Neutral Values||Red Values|
Want to read more?
Witesman’s study was inspired by Culture War? The Myth of a Polarized America, authored by Morris Fiorina, a Stanford political scientist, with BYU professor Jeremy Pope.
“Let each person do his or her part. If one citizen is unwilling to participate, all of us are going to suffer. For the American idea, though it is shared by all of us, is realized in each one of us.”
—Barbara Jordan, Texas Congresswoman, Democratic National Convention, 1976
The Case Against Violent Rhetoric
For BYU professors David Wood and Josh Gubler, the evidence is clear: violence is infecting our public discourse.
It was Utah’s “Holy War”—one of college football’s most notorious rivalries—that sparked the pair’s first research question: does framing issues in violent terms lead to unethical decisions?
After tackling CEOs’ use of hostile rhetoric last year, Wood and Gubler are now zeroing in on politicians in a paper that’s currently under review at a leading political science journal. Through a series of experiments, the duo found that violent metaphors—laced with words such as fight, battle, and attack—are contributing to political polarization on an individual level. Here, the professors discuss their findings and the implications for voters.
I love deliberative democracy and the chance for sharing ideas.
When you have an election, you have a new beginning and the chance to ask, ‘How could we improve society?'
Talk us through how you tested your hypothesis.
JG: We conducted experiments presenting individuals with policies. Some people saw a policy statement that had a violent word in it such as, “We need to fight for this.” Others saw, “We need to work for this.”
DW: We changed just one or two words and everything else in the study was identical. Since we randomly assigned people to both groups, we can say that if there are any differences, it is because of those little changes in the words. We found that the people who were more aggressive were more likely to go to the extreme end of their political party’s preference while those who exhibited less aggression moved to the middle.
How did you measure aggression? What did the results look like?
JG: We used a measure called trait aggression. Survey participants responded to a battery of questions, rating themselves on a five-point scale. This told us how naturally aggressive respondents were in their everyday interactions. Like most social characteristics, there was a bell curve. We found that it was distributed across political parties fairly equally, although there tends to be slightly higher trait aggression on the right than on the left.
BYU’s Eva Witesman argues that most Americans are in the middle of the political spectrum. Do your findings fit into that framework?
JG: There is a middle ground, in terms of policy and values, where a lot of people agree. What violent rhetoric does is fire up people who are naturally aggressive and on the poles. But it turns off that middle group who are repulsed by the language; it actually drives them away from the candidate.
DW: And once this group withdraws from the conversation, candidates don’t see them, so they think,
“I need to use more violent rhetoric to get people involved.” It’s critical for candidates to see that, yes, violent rhetoric makes some people excited, but it is also turning off a significant group of people.
What can voters who are concerned about negative political rhetoric do?
DW: Stop using violent rhetoric and encourage a mutual discussion, realizing that we have to compromise. It’s not the Republicans’ way or the Democrats’ way; it’s the American way. It’s our challenge to figure out how to accommodate the vast diversity of opinions in the best way possible.
Want to learn more?
Wood and Gubler’s first study, published in the Journal of Business Ethics, showed that business execs derail success when they use fighting words at the office. Visit news.byu.edu for details.
What Makes a Great Political Leader?
Being true to the promises that you make and following through on your commitments is more important than just about anything. Your word is your bond.
Great leaders see the best in others and inspire them to reach their potential while fulfilling the vision of the organization.
A good leader is one who is willing to adopt the motto ‘service above self.’ Working for the good of the community and improving people’s lives are paramount.
Pushing Hot Buttons
It is a truth universally acknowledged that politics and the workplace don’t mix. Unfortunately, your coworker, boss, or client may have missed the memo. We consulted the experts to clear up rules of engagement when someone forces a charged conversation.
“If you don’t usually engage in political discourse with colleagues, then now—in the run-up to what could be the most divisive presidential election in years—is a terrible time to start,” says Ben Hawkes, a business psychologist and founder of UK-based consulting and research firm Mindsight. “Sure, you could end up in a fascinating and respectful discussion, but there’s a real risk of negatively impacting long-term professional relationships.”
Hawkes recommends developing an exit strategy that you can deploy whenever the election comes up—something that’s bound to happen before 8 November. “It might be as easy as saying, ‘I like to keep my politics to myself,’ or excusing yourself to send an email,” he says.
If you can’t escape a discussion, focus on nonpartisan issues: how negative campaigns get or the length of the electoral process. By finding common ground, you can avoid potential political land mines. And if someone says something you find offensive, remember to keep it civil.
“In January we’ll have a new president,” Hawkes cautions, “but after the inauguration has come and gone, you’ll still have the same colleagues.”
Do I have a right to share my political views at the office?
“Generally, yes,” says Fred Manning, a partner at national labor and employment law firm Fisher and Phillips. “Many states have laws that prohibit employers from taking an adverse employment action because of an employee’s support or opposition to a political cause, party, or viewpoint.” However, employers can regulate the workplace if the political discourse violates discrimination or harassment policies, and are allowed to set reasonable restrictions. For example, discussions can’t interfere with getting work done or distract another employee. What an employer can’t do: “Be selective based upon the content of an employee’s speech,” Manning says.
Disagreement is critical to the well-being of our nation. But we must carry on our arguments with the realization that those with whom we disagree are not our enemies; rather, they are our colleagues in a great enterprise.
Voters Like You: Marriott Alumni Magazine Reader Poll
In the Summer 2016 issue of Marriott Alumni Magazine, we asked readers to weigh in on politics and this year’s White House race. Take a look at the (nonscientific) results.
Total respondents: 106
What matters most
Candidates’ positions on the following issues are very or extremely important to earning a vote from responding alumni:
- Economy 93.9%
- Terrorism and national security 84.7%
- Size and efficiency of the federal government 78.6%
- Federal budget deficit 76.5%
- Foreign affairs 71.4%
- Employment and jobs 67.4%
- Immigration 60.2%
- Taxes 60.2%
- Healthcare reform 53.1%
- Education 46.9%
- Gun policy 39.8%
- Distribution of wealth 31.6%
- Regulation of wall street 31.6%
Alumni’s reported election-season social media habits:
- 17.8% I avoid social media at all costs.
- 33.7% I’m Switzerland; based on my feed, people wouldn’t even know an election was happening.
- 7.9% I’ll post a selfie to show off my “I Voted” sticker but won’t publicly endorse a candidate.
- 27.7% I share information about my favorite candidate, but I’m not looking for a discussion.
- 7.9% I recruit friends to vote for my candidate by starting political conversations. The more people weighing in, the better.
- 5% I take every opportunity to share my political views. Getting into an online debate with a stranger is a badge of honor.
Up to the minute
Time of day readers plan to head to the polls:
- Morning 60%
- Midday 12.6%
- Afternoon 8.4%
- Evening 19%
- 25% have volunteered for a campaign
- 40% would consider running for public office one day
- Alumni voted Ronald Reagan as their all-time favorite president, followed by George Washington and Abraham Lincoln
- 95% plan to vote on Election Day
That’s a Good Question
Nowhere is sacred when it comes to politics—including the playground. This year even tots are curious about the election, says Rachel Ruiz, a former Obama for America video producer. Her three-year-old daughter’s questions—“What does the president eat for lunch?” and “Does he like the color red?”—inspired Ruiz to pen When Penny Met POTUS, a children’s book that introduces kids to the Oval Office. Utilize her know-how when facing little inquiries.
What is voting? Explain that citizens have a responsibility to share their opinions. “Voting is a way for a group of people to make a decision,” Ruiz says. To illustrate the point, she recommends giving kids three options for a weekend activity and then casting votes as a family to choose what to do.
Who are you voting for? The key is to be honest. “If your child asks who you think should be president and why you support that candidate, tell them,” Ruiz advises, with the caveat that you should stay positive when talking about the opposing party. This will demonstrate that “a healthy respect for other viewpoints can be constructive.”
What can I do to help? Future voters can encourage adults to register to vote, pass out fliers and yard signs, and accompany parents to the polls. Most importantly, invite your kids to discuss with you what they think would make the country better. “It’s a good exercise in teaching them why it is important to vote when they come of age,” Ruiz adds.
Innovation in the Public Sector
By Jeff Thompson, MPA director
A couple of months ago, a friend asked me what makes a person a good public servant. Though this is something I think about regularly as director of the MPA program at BYU, I still found it difficult to answer him. Some of the classic traits of good leadership—integrity, hard work, respect for others, vision, passion, and a desire to serve—first came to mind. I think all of those are essential traits for public leaders. But the answer I blurted out surprised me: an entrepreneurial spirit.
Public servants aren’t entrepreneurs in the traditional sense—they don’t develop and market new products. But our most successful MPA students and alumni share this common entrepreneurial trait: they proactively seek to build and innovate to improve their communities and organizations. They aren’t stereotypical bureaucrat bots—the people who mindlessly follow policies and churn out red tape. Instead, they are problem-solvers who like to create initiatives in collaboration with others.
I have come to believe there is far more room for entrepreneurial spirit in the public sector than people usually suppose. Yes, we operate within legal and governmental frameworks that create certain boundaries. But the great improvements we see in our communities don’t come from constraints; they come from people who take the initiative to develop something new.
I have been thrilled as I have watched our MPA students engage with local communities and nonprofit organizations to help them solve problems and improve services. For example, one team of students recently helped the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire, and State Lands develop a system for evaluating its fire mitigation program. Other student teams have developed new initiatives for American Red Cross International, Hope for Tomorrow (a suicide prevention nonprofit), and The HEAL Foundation (which promotes development in rural India).
I love being part of a program where we couple students’ desire to serve with their creativity and initiative. Add to that the traditional traits of integrity, diligence, and respect, and you have a truly remarkable public leader.