We're not all Right in Idaho

  • Steve Bunk


A March Gallup poll probably surprised no one when it determined that Idaho, Utah and Wyoming rank among the five most conservative states in America. The trio came in second, fourth and fifth, respectively, putting them in the archetypal company of Mississippi, which was first, and Alabama, third.

Being a conservative in a blue state or a liberal Democrat in a conservative one is a lot like being gay. It's acceptable, or becoming more so, and nobody's likely to hang you for it, but if you're smart, you'll keep your orientation to yourself when you're among strangers. It's always a bit of a strain to live among a majority who are viscerally opposed to many of the ideas that make such obvious sense to you.

The problem, of course, is that it's so hard to convince other people to change their minds. If you spend enough time surrounded by people whose political and philosophical leanings differ sharply from yours, it's inevitable that you end up making friends with your so-called "enemies." At that point, you'll probably have to admit they're not all stupid or raving mad, or even ignorant. When you're exposed over time to such people and realize they aren't just caricatures, you're forced to reassess.

Once you've breached the protective barriers of contempt -- no matter whether you're liberal or conservative -- you have to try to understand your neighbors. How could your new friends be so wrongheaded? How did they become what they are? What happened to them?

Alas, you've stumbled upon an eternal mystery, with a solution so far unknown to psychology, genetics, sociology or theology. You just have to accept your friends for who they are. Better stay away from politics: Don't talk about taxes, or health care, or education, or governmental regulation, or the poor, the rich, the new mining project, global climate change, religion, evolution, abortion, sex or drugs. You can still talk about rock 'n' roll, though. And football.

It's understandable that you might want to seek out an enclave of like-minded folks, if you can find one. In Idaho, where I live, there's essentially only one place for liberals. It's the city's first suburb, which began to grow in 1878, a few blocks north of downtown Boise.

It's called the North End, and its legislative district voters haven't elected a Republican in 15 years. Many North End homes lie within a historic district, which means, among other things, that these houses boast a lot of creaking floorboards and boxy bedrooms that would probably appall those who favor newness in their accommodations. But from this neighborhood, you can ride a bicycle or walk into town, and that's make-or-break for most liberals who fuss over fumes. The neighborhood's iconic business is a co-op grocery store full of latter-day hippies. The local newsletter prints stories about running and biking in the North End's foothills, or it describes how a dance company is renovating a disused church for its headquarters.

When you go to a North End party, you can expect to hear liberal-flavored conversation; the word  "Obama" is not an epithet here. You might also hear the views of conservatives unfazed by where they are, but their voices tend to resound less impressively within the walls of the stronghold. It's not unusual to hear liberals in the North End proclaim that some of their best friends are conservatives, although that doesn't mean these friends don't deplore each other's views, albeit silently.

You could be forgiven for fantasizing that the liberals were originally bused to Boise in order to integrate the city, but that an administrative mistake was made and they were accidentally all assigned to the same school, where they're a majority. "Hooray," they say, huddling together for relief from the strangeness around them. Both liberals and conservatives in Boise sometimes say: "We two sides don't understand each other; that much is clear. Yet here we are living together, within the structure of all our unwritten rules about what can and cannot be discussed. Isn't it interesting?" Yes, though sometimes all that trying so hard and determination to be tolerant can be excruciating.

At least we have one thing in common: our love for where we live and our fierce, though often opposing, views about how to protect this place. Nobody's giving up; nobody's leaving. If nothing else, I think that's a good start.

Steve Bunk is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He writes in Boise, Idaho.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at betsym@hcn.org.