There is a phrase heard too often on Utah's Capitol Hill. It is used tirelessly and worriedly and desperately. It is both the hallmark of conservatism and its last bulwark. It comes in many forms, but its cautionary plea is always the same.
"Where does it stop?"
"What is next?"
"Can we afford to go down this road?"
"This is a slippery slope."
These phrases are the verbal expression of a particular politics: the politics of all-or-nothing. It is a politics rooted in the belief that the slippery slope argument is a reasonable and responsible way to govern. Yet it does so at a deep cost because it ignores our commitment to shared decision-making or that 10-letter word, compromise.
This language is essential to conservatism. Although modern-day Republicans champion themselves as the party of smaller government and human freedom, their language reflects a rejection of the American belief that humans are capable of exercising their agency. Instead, modern conservatives insist that humans do not act; rather, we are acted upon.
It is no coincidence that the slippery-slope argument would rely on a geographic metaphor. Our poor air quality illustrates the point. Despite the fact that the pollutants that contribute to our winter inversions are human-caused, too many state legislators prefer to see Utahns as victims of our unique geographical location. For them, we are literally powerless in the face of the giant slippery slopes that surround our valleys.
But this type of conservatism, one that sees humans as bound by their circumstances, has only recently found an unlikely home in Utah. Our political history is rooted in the American value of progress and westward expansion, and our cultural history is founded on the unique cosmological perspective of many Utahns: the value of eternal progression. In the past, these values have conspired to ensure that we wouldn't be hostages to our circumstances.
Confronted by an ailing economy in the 1860s, in part due to the territory's geographic isolation, political and religious leaders responded by creating a visionary network of cooperative stores designed to promote Utah industry. Most cooperative efforts failed throughout the country, but one need only stroll down Salt Lake's Main Street to learn that the Zion's Mercantile Cooperative Institution seriously altered Utah's economic landscape. The progressive vision of the co-op stabilized Utah's economy by empowering human cooperation despite the slippery slopes articulated by its opponents.
The public witnessed an exceptional moment of lucidity (yes, they can be heard) on the House floor when Rep. Brian King acknowledged this primary mission of legislators: to make the hard, ethical decisions. The discussion was smoking in cars with minors. Some legislators said banning this practice creates a slippery slope of regulating human behavior, in this case smoking, by banning it first in cars, then houses, then everywhere. But King's rejoinder was that this attitude bails on the act of governing that representatives were elected to do.
Representatives in the state Legislature must make those decisions, King said. There are many difficult questions that are presented that require action, not deference to well-worn clichés.
Progressivism is the political philosophy which advocates for human agency. It rejects the existence of slippery slopes. But that belief in human capability requires a people willing to accept responsibility for the hard work of governing and supporting that free agency.
The politics of all-or-nothing is rooted in the belief that humans are powerless to make choices about their present situations. But, as more and more Utahns come to see themselves as instrumental in shaping and creating the society in which we live, many of the phrases we hear so frequently at the Capitol may in fact be the last gasps of a loud minority.
Is it a minority that is becoming a casualty of its own rhetoric?
Sheryl Allen is a member of the board of Alliance for a Better Utah and a former Republican member of the Utah House of Representatives.