What do you guys think?
Is Utah conservative?
That's the question being asked today by a Salt Lake City think tank. The group -- conservative itself -- has asked various deep thinkers if Utah is, in fact, as conservative as its reputation. Their answers will come today in a series of essays.
Well, here's my answer.
No, Utah is not conservative.
Utah is actually a fairly liberal state. Not the same way Oregon or New York are liberal, but liberal nonetheless.
That may be surprising to people, because Utah is -- in its own newspapers -- almost condemned as "the reddest of red" states. That title comes as a consequence of the state's habit of voting for Republican presidential candidates at a higher percentage than any other state in the nation.
But Republican doesn't mean conservative, as far too many Republican politicians regularly prove. Republican is about party, conservative is about principle. And the political principles of most Utahns are not conservative.
And that's heartbreaking. It's also a wholesale abandonment of the state's heritage.
Utah is seen as conservative in part because of its history as the home state of the Mormon Church. The teachings of that church would generally be seen as morally conservative and it is not uncommon for people who are morally conservatives to also be political conservatives. Further, some former Mormon Church leaders have been politically conservative, and some of their teachings in years past were held dearly by Utahns.
But you've got to apply the duck rule. If it looks like a duck, acts like a duck and quacks like a duck, then it's a duck.
And by that rule, Utah is a moderate to liberal state.
The first substantiation of that claim is that Utah has not elected a true conservative to statewide office in a generation. Typically, people vote for candidates who are like them. And successful Utah candidates -- for statewide office -- are almost always in the center-left mold. The 30-year senator -- Orrin Hatch -- is conservative about 20 percent of the time. The other senator -- Bob Bennett -- has no discernible political philosophy and operates in a mode of country-club expediency.
Utah has not elected a conservative governor since 1965 -- and he was a Democrat. The last three governors -- including one elected three times -- have overwhelmingly expanded the size of government, presided over ever-larger tax levies and pushed for dramatically higher state spending. The wife of one made commercials encouraging people to sign up for welfare benefits.
Speaking of welfare, in less than 30 years Utah culture has done an about-face on the issue of the dole. Once thought of as morally destructive and proof of creeping and evil socialism, welfare is increasingly embraced in Utah society. At Brigham Young University -- where past Mormon leaders and a former school president have specifically condemned taking government welfare or health care -- the rate of welfare use among students is little different than in states like California and New York.
Speaking of New York, the most powerful voice in that state's politics mirrors the most powerful voice in Utah politics. In the Empire State it's New York State United Teachers and in the Beehive State it's the Utah Educators Association. In both states, the loudest and most effective lobbyists in the statehouse are from the teachers union. That's not a sign of conservatism.
Utah has a very powerful environmental movement. Utah is in love with public transportation. A Utah congressman was chosen to carry President Bush's illegal-alien amnesty plan to the House of Representatives. Just this week a newspaper poll showed that a sizable majority of Utahns believe guns shouldn't be allowed on college campuses, even though the state's Supreme Court, attorney general and legislature have said they should.
And when Utah approved a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, it did so by one of the smallest margins in the country -- a full 20 or 30 points below some other states. Salt Lake City has a large and vocal gay population, its mayor is one of the most liberal mayors in the country and the state is host to the Sundance Film Festival, a very liberal institution. Utah has a very liberal Episcopal bishop, who has been a national voice in favor of liberalizing that church and bringing homosexuals into its most senior leadership, and Utah's new Catholic bishop leads a national committee assisting and encouraging immigration -- legal and illegal.
Additionally, Utah is in a state of demographic flux. It is being swamped in its southern portions by new move-ins who cluster around St. George. Elsewhere the state has seen years of a steady stream of people fleeing California. Additionally, Utah is arguably the most illegal-alien friendly state and, consequently, has large numbers of immigrants, direct from Latin America or by way of California. The significant majority of these new residents are to the left of Utah's traditional political position.
Further, the editorial positions of the state's two major newspapers -- the "Deseret News" and the "Salt Lake Tribune" -- as well as its largest television and radio stations -- KSL radio and TV -- are all decidedly liberal.
Utah is a morally conservative state, in that its people are largely against abortion and very committed to family. They also don't much like smoking or drinking. But its moral conservatism does not anymore cross over much into philosophical or political conservatism. Part of this is because of the changing personalities and emphasis of leaders of the Mormon Church. In years past, men like J. Reuben Clark, Mark E. Peterson, Ernest L. Wilkinson, David O. McKay and Ezra Taft Benson spoke of political conservatism in spiritual terms, but such discourse has been very rare in the last 20 years.
Certainly, there are conservative people in Utah. Some of the most politically, economically and philosophically conservative people in the country are in Utah. But they are not in the majority, and their favor is seldom courted by politicians. Their viewpoints are seldom represented in the highest levels of Utah society or government.
So, no, Utah is not a conservative state.
There are several through the South and Midwest, and even in the Rocky Mountains, that are more conservative.
This is not meant as a criticism, but as an observation.
For a variety of reasons, Utah is changing, and its old conservative ways are less and less evident. That's good or bad, depending on perspective, but it is unquestionably true.
- by Bob Lonsberry © 2007