“The Elephant in the Room”: Utah Politics 1890s-1970s with Rod Decker (Part 1 & 2 Reissued)

Date: December 16, 2019 (Season 1, Episode 6 – Part 1: 30 min. & 0 sec. long and Part 2: 17 min. & 26 sec. long). Click here for Part 1 and Click here for Part 2 of the BuzzSprout version of this Speak Your Piece episode. The above cropped photograph is of the 1966 Utah’s Republican Party Convention at the University of Utah. Photograph courtesy of Utah State Historical Society, from the Salt Lake Tribune collection. Are you interested in other episodes of Speak Your Piece? Click Here. This episode was co-produced by Brad Westwood and Chelsey Zamir, with help (sound engineering and post-production editing) from Conner Sorenson (Studio Underground) and Jason Powers (Utah State Library Recording Studio).

This SYP episode is an interview with Rodney Decker, former reporter on KUTV Channel 2, with SYP host Brad Westwood on his 2019 book Utah Politics: The Elephant in the Room. Decker’s experiences as an intelligence officer during the Vietnam War, developed in him a healthy measure of skepticism. Add a knack for deep journalistic research, and an equal measure of careful and thoughtful thinking, Decker developed a “tell it like it is” approach in his writing and later in his televised reporting. The same may be said of Decker’s book which discusses Utah’s political climate from the 1890s to 1970s.

Decker’s task in writing this book was to describe, plainly, Utah’s complicated late 19th and early 20th century political climate, which led, in the mid-20th century, to Utah becoming a bastion of social conservative thinking, along with a near religious alignment with the Republican Party. Although the state and the Republican Party haven’t always been inextricably linked, Decker argues that starting after World War II, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (hereafter LDS Church) started to align with the socially conservative and business-friendly Republican Party, mostly in reaction to the changes in civil rights, political and social mores, and sexual attitudes that rippled through mid- to late-20th century America.

Today the clash of values, beliefs, and practices, is gathered up and described as America’s “cultural wars,” pitting America’s progressive factions against the nation’s conservative or traditionalist counterparts. Utah’s last 50 years of politics, Decker argues, are a result of that cleavage.

Why listen to this SYP episode? Because there are rapid changes in social and religious attitudes today in Utah, and a near imperceptible change demographically in Utah’s population. Utah appears to once again be poised for social-political change. Understanding the political story that frames up the last 50 to 75 years, may help Utahns understand future changing conditions.

Podcast Content:

Part One of Two:

Part Two of Two:

Over the last 50 years, Utah’s political climate has changed drastically. Before the 1970s Utah had a different complexion: there was a mix of near equal parts of Utah’s population being Republican and Democrat. In the early 1970s, Decker notes that Utah was a “state of thirds”: one-third were members of the LDS Church, one-third were non-members, and one-third were cultural or “Jack Mormons,” not active church goers yet friendly to the church and its beliefs.

This created another set of thirds among the population: one-third were Republicans, one-third were Democrats, and one-third were Independents. Utah historically, in the early to mid-20th century, had many Democrats as union membership was strong, and they voted mainly for the Democratic Party. There were even two popular governors, Calvin L. Rampton (1965-1977) and Scott M. Matheson (1977-1985), who were Democrats, albeit conservative Democrats. Now the religious makeup has changed, and the political climate is much different with the majority of the state having a Republican majority, outnumbering Democrats 2 to 1.

Caption: Book cover for Rod Decker’s Utah Politics: The Elephant in the Room.

So, what changed? Decker explains the turning point for the political climate in Utah starting in the mid-1960s and onward. Decker notes that until the election in 1976 (when Democrat Jimmy Carter defeated the incumbent Republican President Gerald Ford), Utah was politically a “mainstream” state, having voted with the majority of Americans in presidential elections for the winner. In 1969 Decker adds that nearly three-quarters of Americans thought sex outside of marriage was always or almost always wrong. By the 1980s as few as a third of Americans still held that view. Alongside the sexual revolution, which started after WWII mainly in the 1960s, but strengthened in the 70s and 80s, Roe V. Wade was instated as law (making abortion constitutionally protected, which changed after this interview was conducted in 2022). Social norms and marital customs were changing and the conservative beliefs for members of the LDS Church largely resisted this rapid social change. Due to the population of Utah as majority LDS, the Church carried Utah’s political majority, veering towards social conservatism and Republicanism.

Decker concludes Part 1 of this episode by discussing the improvement of Utah government management since statehood and particularly within the last 50 years. Although particularly sloppy with party patronage in 1917 and no merit system in place for quite some time, gradually Utah improved on its government management operations, and now are nationally recognized for it. Although better managed now, Utah has struggled with some aspects historically and have kept government funding at a low/minimum, especially in terms of education funding. Decker states that education funding in Utah has been the worst-funded program in America for 32 years (at the time of this recording).

In Part 2 of this episode, Decker continues the discussion of Utah’s continued difficulties to fund education in Utah and how that issue is inextricably linked to the politics in the state. In the 1960s and 1970s, Utah’s cultural politics affected the educational system in Utah. Decker describes that Utah, for decades, had a high birth rate, and on average Utah had to pay more for education sheerly due to the number of children. Additionally, Decker continues, Utah has had a mediocre economy (at the time of this recording, Decker states that the per capita income is 82% of the national per capita income due to a largely younger population); Utah’s wages are also lower (due to a young population), therefore it’s hard for Utah to keep up financially. Republicans, as the majority political party in the state, have made low education funding a state policy. Decker adds that it’s not that they have a loss of love for good or well-funded education, but that they love lower taxation more. Unfortunately for many Utahns, education is funded by taxation.  

Decker and Westwood conclude Part 2 of this episode by weighing in on the nation’s current 2019 political climate. Decker has held the opinion that the American news media are biased and tend to veer toward progressive thinking. In part, “Fake News,” and the discussion thereof, comes from a bias that sprang up against a progressive leaning press. The media feels a long-term frustration of this bias and, Decker continues, in a way the “Fake News” argument is almost self-inflicted. 

Bio: Perhaps one of Utah’s most well-known and respected journalists, Rod Decker retired in 2017 as a senior political reporter at KUTV Channel 2. Before this he was a columnist and editorial reporter at the LDS Church owned Deseret News. Altogether Decker had a 45-year career in journalism, with degrees from the University of Utah and the University of Chicago in political science. A Harvard Nieman Fellow in journalism, Decker also served as military intelligence officer in the Vietnam War. He is the author of one fiction novel “An Environment for Murder” (Signature Books, 1994) and “Utah Politics: The Elephant in the Room” (Signature Books, 2019). Photo courtesy of The King’s English Bookshop.

Additional Resources & Readings:

Do you have a question or comment, or a proposed guest for “Speak Your Piece?” Write us at “ask a historian” – askahistorian@utah.gov