Politics

How To Win in Politics Without Going Negative

Utah Gov. Spencer Cox and Vermont state Sen. Becca Balint on when to fight back and when to make peace.

A headshot of Sen. Balint smiling on the left and a headshot of Gov. Cox smiling on the right. Both images are set on a light blue background.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Utah.gov and beccabalint.com.

You might have noticed that the media gives a lot of airtime to the most narcissistic politicians in the country these days—which just leads more narcissists to run for office. Meanwhile, the reasonably sane, dedicated public servants we really need in office? Well, they tend to retire—or never run at all.

So over at the How To! podcast, we thought we’d do the opposite for a change. We brought together two politicians from across the aisle who manage to practice politics with decency and grace, even as they continue to fight passionately for what they believe in.

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Utah Governor Spencer Cox and Vermont State Senator and US Congressional candidate Becca Balint disagree about many things – from guns to abortion. But they share an almost superhuman ability to rise above – on the campaign trail, in backroom legislative battles, and even on Twitter. They are, in other words, like unicorns. And we wanted to know: how can we make it easier to be a unicorn in politics today?

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Cox and Balint had never met before, but they had a lot to talk about – swapping hard-earned tips for resisting peer pressure, dealing with enraged constituents and getting things done. This transcript has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Ripley: So how would you describe politics right now with one word?  

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Governor Spencer Cox: One word? I was going to say ‘toxic.’ But ‘broken’ probably works too.

Senator Becca Balint: ‘Inflamed.’

Ripley: Now let’s imagine something better. Could you tell me what kind of politician you’d like to be? 

Sen. Balint: I hope it’s the politician that I already am. Not demonizing each other. Really seeing the humanity underneath. I’ve found that when I’m calling a constituent that I know is going to be angry with me, I call them anyways and explain why I voted the way I did and explain all the different parts of policy making. Even if they don’t agree with me, by the end of the conversation they’ll almost always thank me for taking the time to call and actually have a conversation.

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I think people are starved for conversation that is heart to heart, person to person. I’ve heard more than any other thing on the campaign train this spring that people desperately want to be able to talk to their neighbors again.

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Gov. Cox: I guess I should say up front that Sen. Balint and I don’t know each other. This is the first time we’ve met. We do represent different parties and we do have very different and divergent views. But I loved everything she said. It’s about listening. It’s about being respectful. It’s about finding ways to give people wins. This all or nothing mentality that we’ve gotten into, that kind of toxic mindset, is so debilitating for a democratic republic like ours. I don’t know how we survive if that’s the case. This is a country that was founded on collaboration and the ability to come together to solve very difficult issues and compromise.

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Ripley: So it sounds like the politician you want to be is someone who is not afraid to find common ground when it exists, to disagree with dignity, and also to have hard conversations between people and not assume that if you give them an inch they’ll take a mile. Is that right? 

Gov. Cox: Correct, yes. I would also say a willingness to stand up to our own side. It’s the ability to agree with someone in your tribe or team and try to hold ourselves accountable. I think we’ve certainly lost that in so many ways.

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Ripley: When you think about the various forces that are the headwinds that you’re both up against, is the biggest headwind from the opposing side? Is it from the media? Is it from partisans? Is it from your own side? 

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Sen. Balint: I think it’s a healthy mix of all of those pieces. We have a very limited view and sense of what good leadership looks like in this country. It’s about a fighter. Someone who is brash. Someone who is going to burn it down. They’re going to take it to the mat. I certainly was criticized over my career that I wasn’t going to be able to do it my way—that I was going to have to throw more elbows consistently. You don’t always have to show up in fighting mode. Sometimes you show up as a fighter. Sometimes you show up as a defender. Sometimes you show up as a peacemaker. You have to be able to move between those three modes.

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Somebody will say something in a forum or social media implying that. The only way to show true leadership if you’re fighting for your party or your base, your constituency is to be in fighting mode all the time.

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Gov. Cox: I couldn’t agree more. I thought we were in bad shape eight years ago and it’s gotten so much worse… When [Former Utah Gov. Gary Herbert] asked me to run for governor when he decided he wasn’t going to run again, we did not want to do it. This was 2018, 2019, heading into 2020. We said if we’re going to run, we’re going to try to do things differently. We’re not going to run any negative ads. We’re actually going to run a campaign based around service and giving back. We’re going to have projects in every town, we’ll invite our opponents to join us in the service projects and then we’ll have debates to talk about our differences.

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Our thought was if this works, maybe other people will follow because the most cowardly people in the world are the people who advise politicians. Somebody ran a negative campaign and won. So now everybody runs negative campaigns. Maybe if we do this right, that will encourage people to follow and if it doesn’t and we lose, at least we can look back and say we made the world a better place.

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Ripley: Back when you were in your own fiercely contested primary for governor, you had an advisor who recommended doing negative ads because they do test well with focus groups. You resisted at the time. I wonder, is there something almost kind of pigment that the ad you did with your opponent vowing not to go negative went viral? I mean, it’s a fairly small thing in the scheme of the moral universe and yet it became breaking news. 

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Gov. Cox: In Utah, we’re a very red state and so the primary was the most contested piece of this. I was running against the former governor of the state, a former presidential candidate with unlimited funds, a former speaker of the house who was kind of the hard-charging Trump-like character, and then a former chair of the Republican party. I was the only one who wasn’t going negative and they all decided to go negative against me, not against each other.

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The last month, I was losing about one point of my lead every couple of days and I ended up winning by a point and a half because negative ads work… Then I ran against my democratic opponent. This is early October when I gave him a call and said, ‘Hey, I know we both know what’s going to happen in this election. But what if we tried to do something bigger just to let people know that there’s a right and wrong way to do this?’ And he was awesome and so cool and gracious enough to jump in with both feet.

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They ended up putting out joint ads that stressed unity and their commitment to uphold the 2020 election results.

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Gov. Cox: That went viral in a way that we were not expecting at all. I think it shows that there are a bunch of people who really don’t like where we are. I call them the exhausted majority. I like to say my life would be so much easier if I got up everyday and said whatever Fox News said the night before. But that’s not who I am and so we have to lean on the discomfort of trying to pull people together and the incentive structure isn’t really there right now for far too many people. We’ve lost that incentive structure to do what we think are the right things for the right reasons and we end up just going down this ‘I’ve got to do say this, I’ve got to do this, or I’m not going to get reelected.’ Or ‘everybody else is doing it, so it must be okay.’ We’ve got to prove that the opposite is true and I’m grateful that there’s a few people like you, Senator, that are trying to do that.

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Sen. Balint: I’m definitely seeing that as well. They’re exhausted from the vitriol. They’re exhausted from the pandemic. They’re very concerned about inflation. They’re concerned about the war in Ukraine. What they say is ‘I want somebody who believes in democracy, who believes in community.” I think it really resonates with so many people. It’s about turning towards one another and not turning away from each other.

Ripley: I believe that there’s a huge unmet demand in the American public for a different kind of journalism. I’m convinced that, just like you are in politics, it can be very isolating because it demands a lot of strength. 

Sen. Balint. I was reminded of a conversation I had with a colleague about a year ago. We were in really tough negotiations with our counterparts in the house. He was so mad at me because I kept saying to him, ‘the issue right now is not about the policy.’ He kept saying, “it doesn’t make any sense. Why aren’t they agreeing to this?” It’s not about the policy anymore. It’s about how they’re feeling about this relationship between the members of the conference committee.

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He said ‘that’s ridiculous, we’re wasting too much time on peacemaking and I said “I guarantee you that’s what this is about and we have to stay in these conversations and we have to do the work of repairing in order to actually get the bill across the finish line.”

And I remember at one time he just was screaming at me, “too much talking, too much talking.” I was just like, “nope, this is the price that we need to pay right now.” He would roll his eyes and he just thought that it was a sign of weakness in my leadership. We had a lot of hard conversations but we got to a deal with our counterparts.

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Ripley: By repairing the relationship? 

Sen. Balint: Yes, repairing the relationship. We had to acknowledge how they were feeling. I knew that was the only way we were going to go forward because ultimately, we’re all people, right? We want to be seen and they didn’t feel seen.

Ripley: I want to ask you, how do you decide when to defend and when to turn the other cheek or let it go? [Gov. Cox], Tucker Carlson came after you very personally. Classic bullying tactics attacking you as weak, elitist, and I noticed there was a pause before you responded and I got the sense it was with great care. 

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Gov. Cox: I wish there was a way to get this right all of the time. I certainly haven’t figured it out. We talk often about when do you respond. Do you respond at all? How do you respond?

For me, writing is really important. If I can take time to sit down and write out my thoughts and my responses, the first draft is always angrier and then I pause. I wait. There will always be an opportunity to respond. We don’t have to be in every news cycle. I have a good group of people around me to help take some of those edges off or decide when to leave some of those edges in.

Then I look at who you’re responding to. I rarely dignify, like I stopped watching cable news nine years ago—I’ve been sober for nine years—and it’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me. I don’t want to play into that. I don’t need to add fuel to that fire because you get trapped in that loop. I think we need to give politicians and public servants an opportunity to learn, grow, and change. We do that in every other profession in the world. We encourage it. We admire it. And here, if you learn or change you’re a flip-flopper or you’re weak. We’ve got to change those expectations.

To hear how Gov. Cox and Sen. Balint deal with protesters, angry constituents, and even homophobic neighbors, listen to the episode by clicking the player below or subscribing to How To! wherever you get your podcasts.

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