Most people have heard by now that the locals out West are getting a little restless, as they have every other generation or so since the mid-19th century.
What’s less clear is whether this restlessness reflects a new conservative political tilt, or if it’s just the latest flare-up in a turf war over resources and real estate that’s been waged for over a century.
Are we looking at an ideological movement determined to turn this region to the right, or simply a periodic episode of sound and fury, signifying nothing?
Defining Western political forces has always been tricky because these forces so much depend on the current state of relations between the locals and their Washington, D.C., landlords. The federal government’s hand is especially heavy in a region where bureaucrats half a continent away control 50 percent of all lands and heavily regulate the state and private lands that remain.
Increasingly, though, Westerners’ political leanings can be pretty accurately guessed by how far their trade or their traditions lie from that heavy hand.
As in the blind men and the elephant parable, what an observer might “see” depends a lot on which part of the elephant he or she is sampling. A nurse in Seattle or a software engineer in Denver will perceive a much different Western political culture than will a rancher in Montana’s Missouri Breaks, or a roughneck in Utah’s Uinta Basin. They will also have significantly different public policy inclinations: not so much because their interests or goals vary so much they don’t. Their policy preferences diverge because of the angle and proximity of their viewpoint.
One perspective witnesses and experiences the rural production economy up close as a livelihood and a lifestyle, while the other has real memories or implanted images of an unspoiled and imperiled natural legacy.
This isn’t a left/right or Republican/Democrat divide, although that’s how it is manifested in the voting booth. It’s an urban/rural difference of perceptions more than of aims, and it is too often exacerbated by cooked-up controversies and outside agendas insisting that urban and rural values must be competing rather than complementary. But those perspectives are different, and they do make a difference.
While there certainly is a growing critical mass of people, especially in the West’s vast rural areas, warming to many of the self-governance and free enterprise principles that conservatives have traditionally cherished, these families and communities are in a race with a growing urban majority that benefits from that rural production economy but is choking the life out of it by supporting increased regulation and decreased access to critical resources.
It hasn’t always been thus. The rural West has historically been a conglomeration of New Deal and union Democrats, post-reconstruction Republicans, ornery libertarians and anarchists, and pretty much everything in between. But a common thread running through this tapestry was an insistence on being left alone and a feeling even if not always accurate of self-reliance. This common thread allowed a sort of dtente between all these groups, so long as there was enough room and resources for them to leave each other alone.
But over the past couple of decades a new player the federal government has stepped in and forced people to take sides, empowering a lot of busybodies and creating a lot of conservatives in the process.
Federal actions that restrict access economic and recreational to established livelihoods and lifestyles are creating a new conservative movement in the rural West. People who have never been active in politics or policy debates are getting involved because federal decisions are inflicting real pain on them, their families and their communities. Federal land and water restrictions, Endangered Species Act abuses, and other intrusions are turning rural voters to the right, even if they often don’t realize they’re supporting “conservative” ideals.
In a practical sense, they’re just trying to preserve their lifestyles and livings. But their priorities and arguments are increasingly conservative because traditional conservative values reflect their everyday lives. Limited government, free enterprise, personal freedom and privacy: these are the principles bringing rural Westerners into the conservative fold. The question is, can that fold make a difference?
The tilt of the West, and the nation may come down to mundane math. If an urban majority that is disconnected from the rural production economy, a majority that values feel-good policy over physical outcomes, can impose its values from tiny blue dots on a vast red map, then all is lost at least until those blue dots run out of food and electricity.
Carl Graham is director of Sutherland Institute’s Coalition for Self-Government in the West in Salt Lake City, Utah.