Tom Power - November 05, 2012
The Origins of the Anti-Government Politics of the Mountain
The Origins of the Anti-Government Politics of the Mountain West
Many political observers of the Mountain West have commented on the irony of Westerners’ active hostility toward the federal government and the Western states’ reliance on massive federal subsidies. Federal policies and dollars support water and energy production and delivery systems in the West, provide livestock forage at a fraction of its market value, and give away for free federal copper, gold, silver, uranium and other metal ores to whoever finds them, without even asking for the royalties any private landowner would demand and get.
The federal government subsidized the railroads, highways, electric and telephone systems. The federal army was used to clear the indigenous people off of the productive agricultural and mineral lands so that European Americans could take possession of those valuable lands almost for free. The federal government shares the royalties it collects from federal energy resources fifty-fifty with state governments. In the past it did the same with revenues from federal timber harvests.
Some observers have speculated that it is because of this dependence on federal largess that Westerners, in a pique fueled by embarrassment over that dependency, have lashed out at the government hands that feed and care for the West.
But the contradictions actually go deeper than this. The anti-government sentiment often is aligned with a raw commitment to market driven private enterprise which nicely dovetails with a minimal government ideology. But even this does not fit with how European-Americans actually came to inhabit the West and build prosperous communities in those wildlands. On the vast lightly settled Western landscapes where nature ruled in harsh and arbitrary ways, settlers had to cooperate with each other in very complex ways and build government-like institutions to protect their lives and livelihoods. Besides a small numbers of “mountain men” who prided themselves on their independence and anti-social sentiments, most Western settlers had to cooperate with each other or fail or even die.
That complex cooperation began with the wagon trains carrying settlers across the continent’s midsection. Complex contractual agreements among the participants created the equivalent of temporary governments to run the wagon train, enforce rules, and punish rule-breakers by expulsion or, even, execution. The social setting was very far removed from an “every person for themselves” social context.
Miners had to create institutions to respect and protect their mineral finds in a setting were there was no government yet. Farmers had to create rules governing and enforcing the use of the scarce water in the arid west. Ranchers had to come to agreements about how common grazing lands would be used and how they would collectively reclaim their animals at the end of the grazing season. These settlers initially were operating in a setting without government and proceeded to create the necessary social institutions that only later got folded into state constitutions and laws. Those settlers realized that such government-like institutions were central to their survival and prosperity.
Despite Hollywood’s depiction of the West as being settled by lonely male misfits with a penchant for violence and an aversion to community and government, that is not how European Americans settled the West. Instead, we created productive and stable social, legal, and cultural institutions to help govern our collective lives.
That still leaves us with the question of why, despite this social commitment to each other and the clear ability to cooperate, the West is still the hot bed of anti-government rhetoric.
A good part of the answer to that almost certainly lies in our past history. Many of the European-American settlers of the West had been on the losing side of our Civil War. They literally put their lives on the line in opposition to federal authority in the South. But that open rebellion against governments, religions, and other social institutions they did not consider their own can be traced back to dissenters and rebels in the British Isles. The Scotts, Welsh, and Irish were in active rebellion against various English overlords for a millennium. The splintering of Christianity into small self-governing sects in the sixteenth century, each of which rejected the established Church at the cost of personal persecution, added to the distrust of and hostility to central institutions and authority. The Mormons had to struggle to survive the attacks by their religious opponents who often were backed by the state and federal governments. The federal government was not exactly supportive of Utah becoming part of the Union.
In short, our nation is largely populated by folks who fled cultural and political settings that did not serve their needs and aspirations or, for Blacks, were snatched away from their homes and made slaves by a hostile government. That did not keep us from creating social and political institutions to serve us in our communities. But it has left us with a suspicion of such institutions the further their locus is from our homes.
That is the curse that leads us to be deluged every election year by cartoon-like attacks on social and political institutions that portray us as fiercely independent loners who have to continuously fight back against overbearing governments. Instead of working together to improve those social and political institutions, we fight with each other over whether such institutions have any legitimacy at all.
At the end of each of these political seasons it is hard not to ask whether a nation of 300 million inhabiting most of an entire continent can cooperatively take care of ourselves and the land we inhabit while periodically engaging in this primitive, misleading, and divisive charade.