Rocky Mountain Realities

When I told my East Coast friends a few years ago that I was going to live in Montana, they were stunned. "Isn't that near Nebraska?" one wondered. ("Yes, relative to Washington, D.C.," I replied). Another New York friend recently sneered about my move last year to Colorado. "I'd never move to Denver," she said. "It's a B-list city."

Some friends, right?

But, as most Westerners know, such condescension is commonplace because this eight-state inland expanse between California and Kansas is often portrayed in our political culture as a backwater.

National journalists pen their occasional on-location dispatches from the West with self-congratulatory tones, suggesting they equate a visit here to an act of bravery -- as if this were a war zone. Parties brag about plotting special "Western strategies" -- like sci-fi armies planning assaults on alien planets. Through it all, the West is cast as a hinterland.

Normally, this region is totally ignored. But now, Rocky Mountain states are taking center stage in the February 5th nominating contests and the general election. With the South stymieing Democrats and the Northeast rejecting Republicans, the West is 2008's big prize.

To compete for Western votes, every Republican presidential candidate is likening himself to Ronald Reagan -- politics' version of a cowboy. On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton's campaign has been labeling Barack Obama "the black candidate," as the Associated Press reported -- an effort designed to stoke ugly impulses among the area's white-flighters. Obama is countering with an outsider appeal to frontier independence.

But which candidates win the Rocky Mountains will be less about who is Reaganesque, racially divisive or rhetorically gifted, and more about who ignores the red-versus-blue fictions and appreciates some nuanced truths about this storied place. Consider the myth that Western "red states" reflexively support right-wing national security policies. This storyline was most famously forwarded by New York Sen. Charles Schumer (D) when in 2006 he attacked fellow Democrats working to end the Patriot Act. He said, "To let lapse would be a disaster, particularly for our Democrats in red states."

Schumer's comments came despite legislatures in "red states" like Montana, Colorado and Idaho passing bipartisan bills condemning the Patriot Act for restricting civil liberties.

Then again, others fail to comprehend that this Western libertarianism is limited. In an overstatement typical of national pundits, New York Post columnist Ryan Sager proclaimed that Rocky Mountain voters cling to a "leave-me-alone philosophy when it comes to government." Except on lots of issues, that's false.

For example, OpenLeft.com's Paul Rosenberg discovered that when it comes to budgets, the Rocky Mountain West actually wants the government to stop leaving it alone. Specifically, he found roughly three-quarters of Westerners polled by the General Social Survey believe government spends too little on domestic priorities. In fact, many Western incumbents are re-elected on pledges to bring more government money home -- a promise they largely fulfill considering most Western states receive more cash from Washington than they contribute. Meanwhile, Montana, Nevada and Arizona voters have passed ballot measures raising the minimum wage -- a government mandate if ever there was one.

The fairy tales are endless. Congressional debates imply that the West's most precious resources are oil and gas. But to many locals, the area's most valuable commodity is water.

Commentators have claimed Bill Clinton's 1992 victory in four Western states is not only proof of his political genius, but also of the region's devotion to Clintonism -- an ideology that sold out the middle class with initiatives like NAFTA. Somehow, everyone forgets that Ross Perot used a populist indictment of both parties' corporate sycophancy to take 1.4 million Western votes from George H. W. Bush.

But perhaps the biggest misconception is the belief that the West is a strange, Siberia-like realm -- square-state "flyover" country separate from the rest of America.

Sure, had you walked among the belt buckles and boots at Denver's annual Western Stock Show last week, you certainly would have seen some unique styles. But looking at the event's diverse crowd, chatting with National Guardsmen at a recruiting stand, listening to vendors and buyers haggle -- watching regular people be regular people -- you would have also seen that this place is just like the rest of the nation: complex and not easily stereotyped.

The candidates who understand that fundamental reality will be the ones Westerners reward at the polls.

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