A hard right in Idaho

by Ray Ring

(This editor's note accompanies an HCN magazine cover story on how right-wing emigrants took over North Idaho politics.)

In my 18 years in the Northern Rockies, I've visited Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, several times and watched it change. The town -- draped along the shore of huge Lake Coeur d'Alene -- has been dramatically resort-ified, in tandem with the rising fortunes of the nation's upper class.

I still enjoy the small public beach downtown for a dip in the lake; it's so clear that you can see eight feet down to the sandy bottom. Around sundown, I stroll around the main resort's creaking wood-planked marina maze, gawking at the captains and crews on the luxurious motorboats, as they pull in for the night or roar out toward the twinkling lights of shoreline trophy homes.

I like to imagine myself among them, at least temporarily -- a martini in one hand, the other throttling up a 400-horsepower engine, skimming my ego trip across the waves, like a modern but still doomed Great Gatsby. And I'd christen that motor yacht defiantly: The Climate Changer.

I've noticed other trends around Coeur d'Alene. The lake bottom, it turns out, holds toxic sediment from historical upstream mining, but to protect tourism, local businesses -- and their politicians -- have pressured the Environmental Protection Agency to downsize a proposed Superfund site designation. Other pollution threatens the aquifer. Developers have proposed yet more marinas, lake dredging for the big boats and a mansion heliport. There's one town beach I can no longer enjoy; the public lost access after a court battle with homeowners who insisted that it be private.

Of course, a tourist gets only a superficial glimpse, sometimes enhanced by an active imagination. HCN correspondent Sierra Crane-Murdoch makes a much deeper exploration of North Idaho in our cover story. Crane-Murdoch, based in Montana, visited the area three times this year and interviewed dozens of people about the fundamental political trend there: What had been a Democratic Party stronghold has become firmly Republican.

Perhaps surprisingly, transplants from California and other places are a key cause of North Idaho's political transformation. They're not the stereotypical "San Francisco-style" liberals that California is often pilloried for. Instead, they're conservatives determined to take over their adopted communities, to the point that they've drowned out other political voices at all levels of government.

What's happening in North Idaho is reflected elsewhere in the West and in Washington, D.C. More and more in our society and our politics, birds of a feather flock together. Liberals gather in echo chambers like San Francisco and Portland, while conservatives relocate to Colorado Springs and Montana's Bitterroot Valley. Behind locked doors, we view only the cable networks and websites that already support our views. That clustering makes it easier to ignore the other side's ideas, and harder to find middle ground on any issue. Most Americans claim to hate our growing polarization, but, as our story shows, it's hard to undo it -- particularly when we deliberately created it.

© High Country News