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In our opinion: Civil tone of Utah's conventions should be new political tradition

Published: Monday, April 23 2012 10:47 p.m. MDT

Delegates to the state Democratic convention show support for their candidate on Saturday. Civility ruled both party conventions.

Brian Nicholson, Brian Nicholson, Deseret News

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Winston Churchill is reported to have jokingly said, "The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter."

In all seriousness, however, and with due respect to the former British prime minister, the best argument for democracy is to get as many of those average voters together as possible and watch them make decisions. That's what happened last weekend in Utah as Democrats and Republicans held their respective state conventions.

We make no comment on who won or lost, or who was forced into a primary election for lack of support from 60 percent of the delegates. The outcomes may not have been pleasing to all. The democratic process — which in Utah takes on a republican form at the nominating level with delegates representing the wishes of caucus attendees who elected them — is bound to disappoint a portion of the electorate. Not all who run can be winners. But the triumph of last weekend's conventions was that they were conducted with a civil tone, especially in comparison with some conventions in the recent past.

Politics in the United States can be brutal. While there is nothing wrong with energetic debates over substantive issues — that is, indeed, what a robust government-by-the-people is all about — too much of what passes for discourse these days on the radio and in other public forums is of the almost tribal us-vs.-them variety. Some partisans seem physically incapable of a kind word for an opponent, and the long-honored notion of holding a measure of respect for a public office and the person who holds it seems quaint, naive and anachronistic in some circles.

Despite all this, most Americans want less rancor and more honest, respectful debate. An Allegheny College poll in 2010 found that 95 percent of Americans believe civility is important for democracy, and 87 percent believe it is possible to disagree respectfully about politics.

The problem in recent years has been that many average Americans have not become engaged in the political process, leaving it to the more extreme elements. That was not the case in Utah this year.

Urged on by many groups, including political parties and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which owns this newspaper, average Utahns turned out at caucus meetings in large numbers. It was hard to get a true sense of what this meant, other than that a larger-than-normal turnout resulted in a better mix of opinions and preferences than in the recent past. This was a good thing, especially in light of studies that showed convention delegates in recent years did not represent a true cross-section of average voters.

A mix of opinions does not necessarily have to result in rancorous arguments. With a few exceptions, civility seemed to rule last weekend. We hope this marks the start of a tradition.

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