Random Thoughts on the Cruz/Sanders Sweep of Utah

The results of the Utah primaries/caucus– in which Cruz won in a landslide for the GOP, and Sanders in a landslide for the dems– are fascinating, anomalous, and once again really reaffirm the fact that this state was and still is one of the most culturally and religiously homogenous states in the union.

Analysts have been making a big deal of how both Trump and Sanders are riding a wave of anger at the political establishment– they’re both on the fringes of their parties, “outsiders,” and speaking the language of populism as it has not been voiced in over a generation (or arguably since the era of Huey Long and Father Coughlin). So, it would make sense that the two would both win in places with strong grassroots political insurgencies (Vermont, New Hampshire, for example).

Other places that are more mainstream and establishment, like Ohio, would go for more “establishment” candidates, like Clinton and Kasich.

So, why would Utah go for a GOP candidate that is very much a more establishment, insider, and a democrat who is quite radical?

Well, in the case of Cruz, it’s pretty obvious. Cruz is an ideologue, well educated but dogmatic, smart but certainly not an intellectual.  He’s the closest thing to an establishment candidate.  He fits the best with Mormon values this cycle.  Trump does not.

I think it tells something about the faith and culture that Trump is not gaining Mormon supporters at the same rate that he’s getting evangelicals in the Bible Belt.  Utah social conservatism has long been an enigma when compared to other strongholds of social conservatism like the Deep South, Central Midwest, or even other parts of the rural West.  Most of these places have had similar hostilities to same-sex marriage, pro-choice women’s issues, and even liberal alcohol laws.  But Utah, unlike, say, the bible-belt south, does not have the same dismal statistics of high school dropout rates, unemployment, divorce, teen pregnancies, drug addiction, or (here’s the big one) deep-rooted racial issues.  Historically, this is because although Mormonism is deeply conservative, it originally was descended from northeastern Puritanism, rather than slave-state evangelicalism, but that’s another story.

Returned-missionary Mormons tend to have seen more of the world than most Trump supporters, and they are turned off by foul language.  Furthermore, Mormonism has a deep history of not flaunting one’s wealth.  Perhaps even a few Mormons have heard Trump’s ugly comments profiling Muslims, and thought back to their own history of religious persecution.

The one demographic of Mormonism that I think may have fallen into the Trump camp would be those Far Right, pseudo libertarian survivalist types– those rooted in the views of Ezra Taft Benson and Cleon Skousen who view social liberalism/big government as a plot of Satan.  This fringe strain of Mormonism most recently got attention with the Bundy clan occupying the wildlife refuge in Oregon.  But, while their anger is certainly Trumpish, The Donald never came to these guys’ support; when asked about the Oregon occupation, Trump merely said he’d “tell those guys to get out.”  No support here.

Ok, but WHY on earth would Utah democrats go for Bernie Sanders?  Utah Republicans and Mormons (yes, I know they are not interchangeable, but seriously, the Venn diagram would be pretty close-fitting) are going for the more establishment, so why aren’t democrats?

This is a more complex question than the one about Trump and Cruz.  Utah does not have the deep history of Rust Belt, working class, unionist democrats that places like Ohio does, and this is the demographic that Clinton seems to be going for.  But I actually think that the root of Sanders’ popularity in Utah also is traceable back to the state’s strong Mormon presence.

It is difficult, VERY difficult, to be a moderate Mormon in Utah.  From firsthand experience, I can say that it usually involves doing complex logical gymnastics to justify your faith with your politics; gymnastics that usually throw people off the bar.  And once you’ve decided to leave the faith, your entire community, social structure, often family, quite literally FORCES you to be a radical.

A friend of mine who spent a summer in my hometown of Logan, Utah once from back east made the comment, “it’s a weird place, you’re either 100% Mormon, or a complete alcoholic stoner pillhead.”  While my own experience with Utah is more nuanced than that, I understand what he was saying.  Mormonism treats so many things as taboo, that young kids breaking away from the church and rebelling often do not stop to think that drinking coffee and huffing gas are completely different pursuits from one another.  Both are seen as “bad” by the culture and religion, and once you’ve rebelled, it is up to you to distinguish between them.  And not everyone can.  My graduating class from Logan High School had more than its share of drug overdoses, suicides, and meth addicts (though certainly not as many as my current home of West Virginia).  I think it was BECAUSE of, not in spite of, the Mormon culture.

This may be reason for the surge of Bernie– if you are a liberal in Utah, you have no reason to be a moderate liberal.

Either way, I’m proud of my state for continuing to buck the demographic stereotypes.  The Trump Train will not be pulling into Promontory Point anytime soon.

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One thought on “Random Thoughts on the Cruz/Sanders Sweep of Utah

  1. Spot on. Even non-Mormon liberals in Utah tend to get pushed further left because of how completely the church dominates local politics. I know I certainly have been.

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