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November 27, 2011 8:44 PM Can the Dems Flip Utah?

By Colin Woodard

As the apparent Republican presidential nominee, Mitt Romney has been receiving plenty of scrutiny: of his business career, of his policy flip-flops and, perhaps least fairly, his Mormon faith.

The New Republic’s Alec MacGillis - who reviewed my book in Sunday’s Washington Post - has posted a cogent summary of the hits Mormonism has taken this election cycle, from Southern Baptist Robert “Mormonism is a Cult” Jeffress to Shakespeare scholar Harold Bloom, who warns of the faith’s plutocratic character.

But, as MacGillis and others at TNR have recently pointed out, Mormonism also carries a powerful progressive strain, one that Mr. Romney exhibited as governor of Massachusetts and, indeed, his father showed as governor of Michigan. In an earlier piece, MacGillis wrote:

Romney’s liberal heresies on health care, gay rights, and abortion are well established. Less well known is that, as governor of Massachusetts, he was a smart-growth acolyte. He hinted at this predilection during the campaign in 2002. “Smart growth, or purposeful planning, is a concept that will be in the governor’s office if I’m elected,” he said. After winning, he created a new “Office for Commonwealth Development” to oversee the transportation, environment, and housing departments—and named as its chief Douglas Foy” [head of the Conservation Law Foundation, a New England environmental group].

This sort of public sector-led social engineering is consistent with Mormon values, as Matthew Bowman explains in this TNR post entitled “Mormonism’s Surprisingly Deep Affinity For Progressive Politics”:

[T]here is a particularly Mormon version of classical American progressivism to which Mitt Romney stands heir. These progressives believed that effective organization and the promotion of virtue went hand in hand; they are two manifestations of a single commitment, and the former can indeed promote the latter. In a nutshell, these progressives believed that public organization can promote a moral imperative, that technocratic bureaucracy can in fact change lives for the better.”
Mitt Romney’s progressive genealogy passed from this period through the northeastern Republicans of the 1950s and 1960s, like his father, George, or Nelson Rockefeller, or Thomas Dewey: good government Republicans who were confident that their business-honed competence was not only the best hope of American politics, but also was simply another manifestation of their efforts to cultivate virtue….[Romney] is a pragmatic technocrat who believes that competent management can solve humanity’s problems, nourish civilization, and even cultivate virtue.

To this discussion, I would add that there is a regional aspect to Mormonism’s progressive heritage. As I’ve put forth in American Nations, in my feature in the current magazine, and in recent postings here, there has never been one America, but rather several Americas, each tracing its origins back to a separate colonial project with distinct ethnographic, religious, and political characteristics. Today there are eleven, all told, one of the oldest and most powerful of which is Yankeedom, the Greater New England cultural space, which extends all across much of the Upper Great Lakes Region, and which I describe thusly:

Since the outset Yankeedom has put great emphasis on perfecting earthly society through social engineering, individual self-denial for the common good, and the aggressive assimilation of outsiders. It has prized education, intellectual achievement, community (rather than individual) empowerment, and broad citizen participation in politics and government, the latter seen as the public’s shield against the machinations of grasping aristocrats, corporations, and other tyrannies.

If you hear echoes of Bowman’s description of Mormon thinking in this description of the Puritan legacy, that’s because Mormonism has Yankee roots. It was founded by a Vermont Yankee, Joseph Smith Jr., in Upstate New York, who led his largely-Yankee followers westward on a mission to create - like the Puritans - a new Zion, a more perfect and Godly society here on Earth. (This is in itself a break with the dominant religious traditions of the more southerly nations, which instead emphasized individual salvation in the hereafter.) After Smith’s assassination, his followers moved all the way to Utah, which even today is the state which has the highest percentage of people who report being of English ancestry on their census returns, narrowly edging out Yankee Vermont and Maine.

Although Yankeedom has become a bastion of liberalism, and the Mormons of the Far West are widely regarded as conservatives, this shared historical and cultural legacy can only help Mitt Romney in the Yankee-settled parts of the northeast, including Upstate New York, the Western Reserve of Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin. That Romney was born in Yankeedom, the son of a governor of Michigan, and went on the be elected to the governorship of the Puritan-founded Commonwealth, only adds to his advantage over most of his GOP rivals in New Hampshire and across this populous region of our federation.

There’s another intriguing long-range political implication to Mormonism’s progressive thread: the potential for Utah to become dissatisfied with the Republican Party, just as many Yankees have. As the national GOP has embraced an almost exclusively Deep Southern agenda in recent decades - slash taxes on the wealthy, labor, environmental, and consumer safety protections, and the powers and reach of the federal government - it has lost support in Yankeedom, the region of its birth, precisely because of its rejection of a progressive tradition that long predates Dewey and Rockefeller.

As Patrick Doherty and Christopher Leinberger recently pointed out in these pages, Utah’s capital, Salt Lake City, has become something of a poster child for long-term, large-scale, public transport-supported, public-sector driven planning, with a rapidly expanding and extremely popular light rail system linking four counties. It’s an example of a sort of utopian communitarianism that is more likely to find support from the congressmen and women of Yankeedom, the Left Coast (the thin, Yankee-influenced coastal region from Monterey, California to Juneau, Alaska), or the Dutch-founded Big Apple than those from the Deep South or Greater Appalachia. A decade from now, it’s not impossible that a majority of Utahans could feel themselves as out of sync with the G.O.P. as their former governor (the global warming believer) Jon Huntsman, does now.

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Colin Woodard is State and National Affairs Writer at the Portland Press Herald / Maine Sunday Telegram and author of American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America.

Comments

  • JDC on November 23, 2011 6:33 PM:

    This will never happen so long as gay people exist. Nice thought, though.

  • Karl on November 24, 2011 9:54 AM:

    I have lived Utah for the last five years and my impression is that Mormons are getting much more conservative, the anti-immigration movement has really taken hold here, and womens rights seem to be going backwards. If there is money to be made there is some flexibility like loosening up liquor laws but I don't think progressives will ever find much common ground with mormons.

  • K in VA on November 24, 2011 10:09 AM:

    Yeah, I'm sure the Mormons in Utah will support Democrats ... right after they start supporting gays.

  • Texas Aggie on November 24, 2011 2:57 PM:

    Organizations that are as strongly hierarchical as the Mormons are much more likely to be conservative than progressive. Even Catholic Church officials are much more conservative than progressive despite their platitudes about caring for the poor and the helpless. For that reason I see little hope that Mormons will ever be progressive in the broader public arena. Within their own group, there is the possibility that they may have progressive tendencies, but outside of that, no.

    And while Salt Lake City may be described as progressive, it is also the least Mormon community in Utah. Even the mayor is not a Mormon.

  • Lance on November 24, 2011 10:54 PM:

    I really wonder, wasn't Mormonism mostly Republican long before Republicans were the conservatives?

    I know people get caught up on Prop 8 and the gay issues, but there have to be Mormons who realize that the Evangelicals who control the Republican party are anti-religious freedom, and liberals at least accept religious plurality.

    We should TRY to win Utah. But then we should TRY to win Texas too.

    And if Romney loses and Perry wins the nomination, we could win both ;-)

  • Lynn in Colorado on November 26, 2011 8:20 PM:

    There was time when Mormons were largely Democratic. The Mormon Prophet (profit) Ezra Taft Benson changed all that with his conservatism and links to Republicans. Then came Reagan with his ties to fundamentalism, opposition to the ERA and by then Utah was headed to the right.

    I agree with those who say Utah is conservative and likely to stay that way. I lived in Utah for about 30 years and noticed the population general went hard right during that time. In most of the state, Republicans were "favored" by God somehow and it was common knowledge that you couldn't be a good Mormon and a good Democrat at the same time.

    My friends in the Utah trenches report a further hardening of philosophy. Even in the poorest of neighborhoods the people would rather be cold and hungry than vote Democratic or accept any government help. Talking about strengthening communities brings accusations of "socialism." I have one community-minded friend there who has been shunned by her neighbors and her Mormon ward for trying to help people out.

    Utah is a very difficult place to be if you are not mainstream white, married, mormon, and rich. I won't go back and I would never vote for a Conservative Mormon for President. Never.

  • Aaron on November 28, 2011 8:27 AM:

    As recently as the 1970s, Democrats held three of the four Utah delegation seats in Congress and had two extremely popular governors in a row, one who served an unprecedented three terms. Utahns voted for Roosevelt four times, I believe, and elected the nation's second Jewish governor in the early 20th century. But that was in a different universe, a sane and balanced universe. Since then, the state has lost its collective mind and soul. I do not see it changing at all anytime soon, although I will make this prediction: if the Democratic party ever regains power, it will not be our father's Democratic Party. It will be as ugly on the left as the Republican Party has become on the right.