‘The Answer to Our Problems is Dignity’
The ballroom of the Ahern Hotel in Las Vegas was a riot of red, white and blue when Pyfer arrived for the National Federation of Republican Women’s “Stars & Stripes” conference on Veteran’s Day weekend. Some 150 women from 17 western states were there, wearing bright-colored blazers and buttons. Pyfer had been invited at the last minute by one of the organizers, a woman named Kari Malkovich who had seen Pyfer talk about the Dignity Index in Utah and wanted her to do the same thing for this crowd.
Pyfer and her husband took their seats to watch the speakers who would precede her, including Utah Rep. Owens and Utah State Treasurer Marlo Oaks. Almost immediately, Pyfer realized she was in trouble.
One after the other, Owens, Oaks and other speakers stood up before the crowd and fired off volley after volley of blame, outrage and fear, whipping the crowd into something of a frenzy, according to multiple people who were present. Owens had just won re-election to Congress, although he’d declined to participate in two out of three debates. His words had been scored five times by the Dignity Index over the course of the election season, and all but one of those scores were low in dignity. This was, after all, a man who had written a bestselling book titled “Liberalism or How to Turn Good Men into Whiners, Weenies and Wimps.”
Oaks, meanwhile, had received a lot of attention as Utah’s State Treasurer for challenging the Environmental, Social and Governance policies that have caught on with many large corporations and investment firms. He’d recently moved $100 million of Utah money from the investment firm BlackRock to different asset managers, accusing BlackRock of “using other people’s capital to drive a far-left agenda.” At the Vegas event, he stressed the importance of free speech and warned of cancel culture and censorship, showing a slide deck that referenced Hitler, Marxism and fascism. During a Q&A session afterward, a woman in the audience called Democrats “barbarians.” Watching this, Pyfer felt her heart pounding in her chest. She wondered if she could find an excuse to bow out. She texted Shriver and Rosshirt: “I don’t think this is going to end well.”
“It was not quite a ‘1’ on the Dignity Index but a number ‘2’ for sure,” said Malkovich, the woman who’d invited Pyfer. Malkovich was an elected city council member from Woodland Hills, UT, and she’d arranged for a mix of speakers that weekend, including a panel of Holocaust survivors and a Paralympian. But by the time it was Pyfer’s turn to speak, the vibe was a little less than dignified, she had to admit. “I had to have a few congressmen there, and they were the cheerleaders. And everyone was back in that red-meat mentality,” she says. “There was some fear.”
Sitting in the ballroom, waiting to be introduced, “I was dying,” Pyfer says.
She turned to her husband. “I can’t give my presentation,” she said.
“You have to,” he told her, sounding confident but looking worried. Frantically, she started tweaking her slides on her laptop, finding ways to remind her audience of her GOP bona fides.
“She was nervous. She was pretty much shaking,” Malkovich remembers. “I knew I was putting her in a hard spot.” She grabbed Pyfer’s hand. “You got this,” she told her. “I really feel strongly that they need to hear this.”
At the podium, Pyfer ditched her prepared opening gambit. Instead, she said: “I love the energy in this room. I’m a lifelong Republican woman, and I’m here surrounded by Republican women.” Then she paused.
“I will tell you though, I’ve been asked to give a different perspective.” The room got quiet. “It’s a counterintuitive way to solve the problems in your communities, and it’s gonna surprise you.” This was a tactic she had learned as a teacher. “We call it a pre-instruction,” she told me later. “I just wanted to signal to them: ‘This is not what you want to hear.’”
Then she hit them with the gut punch: “I think the answer to our problems is dignity.”
Watching this, Malkovich felt the energy in the room shift. It was almost like someone had said something obscene. “There was whispering. I could see the restlessness in the crowd. We could all feel it.”
Then, slide by slide, Pyfer went through the definitions of 1 through 8 on the Dignity Scale, just as she had so many times before in friendlier rooms. “Level two accuses the other side not just of doing bad or being bad,” she said, her mouth dry, “but promoting evil.” It was hard not to feel like she was indicting the entire room. So she tried to fall on her own sword, confessing that she routinely caught herself engaged in this same thinking. “Every day, I realize that the first thing that comes to mind sometimes for me is, ‘Those people are ruining everything,’ I’m like a 2 or a 3.” She saw some eye rolls — but also a few nods. She waited for someone to boo.
At one point, she referenced a survey finding that one in four Americans believed it might be time to take up arms. Several women sitting up front cheered. “You better believe it! 2nd Amendment!” Still, Pyfer continued. “Yesterday was Veteran’s Day. My dad was in the military. And it frightens me, with what they went through for our country, that we would think violence is the way to solve our internal disagreements.”
When she finished, there was tepid applause. No one booed. But about a dozen people approached Malkovich to complain about Pyfer’s talk. “Most were just angry. ‘Why did you pick her?’ That kind of thing,” she says. “I said, ‘I thought it was a really great presentation.’”
Pyfer came up to her, shaking her head. “They hate me,” Malkovich remembers her saying. “I said, ‘They don’t even know you, Tami. They are upset at themselves, and they need to project it on someone else. Let it sit. It’s a spiritual and physical emotion, not just mental.’”
The day before, these same women had listened to Holocaust survivors talk about what happens when contempt becomes the law of the land, when annihilation feels like the only option. They had wept with these survivors, wondering how countries could succumb to such brutality. Then, hearing Pyfer connect contemporary hyper-partisan language to political violence, the cognitive dissonance was hard to process, Malkovich said. It would take time. “When you recognize that you’re just one or two steps removed from the people you were crying with the day before, that’s quite a moment.”
A few people came up to Pyfer afterward. One cried. One invited her to speak in her hometown. It was the most partisan crowd Pyfer had addressed, and it was a reminder of what the Dignity Index was up against. Trying to convince partisan Americans to reject contempt in 2022 was like trying to convince people in the 1600s that the Earth revolves around the sun. That’s how Galileo ended up in prison, after all.
Still, Pyfer declined to criticize anyone at the event. “They were all playing their roles in a system that we’re all part of,” she told me. “And the Republican women were dutifully playing their roles. They want so badly to make a difference and do the right thing. How could you listen to these horrible things happening to your country and not be outraged?”
The ordeal prepared her for whatever came next, she said. “It was horrible but necessary.” The Unite team is analyzing the results of the Utah demonstration project and expects to make a plan in early 2023 for expanding the Index. They might create a funders’ alliance, channeling donations to politicians who score high on the Index. Or a project like the one in Utah — but in many more states. Eventually, the Unite team could collect enough human-coded passages to develop a way of automating the scoring with artificial intelligence — a difficult but not necessarily impossible goal. One way or another, their ambition, Shriver says, is to “put dignity on the ballot in 2024.”