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.

Brad Purdy
Brad Purdy
May 25, 2011 08:51 AM
I somewhat agree with Mr. Bunk, but as a 53 yr old, lifetime North Ender whose family has lived here since the 1930s, I have a slightly different perspective. Re: Boiseans' "fierce," "common" but "opposing" "views about how to protect this place, the reality is that today's North End folks are largely the only ones who care about protecting the local environment. Boise conservatives typically live here for reasons that have little to do with the environment, aside from huntin' fishin' and 4-wheelin'. They hate or don’t understand intrusive government, gun laws, taxes, crime, traffic jams, and sorry to say this, but folks of different persuasions or ethnicities. Boise, bless its wonder bread heart, fits the bill pretty well. But Boise also happens, as many national magazines have noted in recent years, to be one of the premier western outdoor sports cities in which to reside due in no short part to the proximity of the mountains against which the North End sits. But the North End has changed radically in the past 20 years, and continues to change. The "latter-day hippies" frequenting the Co-op, a place I like but can no longer afford, are increasingly wealthy, luxury car driving conservatives who live in high-end mansions built on top of once beautiful foothills overlooking the city and displacing much of the critical low elevation wintering grounds for wildlife such as deer and elk. I've served on the board of, or been fully involved in, most every non-profit organization dedicated to preserving the local environment and other traditional North End values, some of whom have had modest successes in their respective endeavors, but as Mr. Bunk notes, Idaho is the most conservative western state and the few democrat legislators elected by North Enders, try as they might, have little or no clout in the Idaho Legislature. We currently have a City Mayor who is somewhat sympathetic to North End values (an historical exception), but mayors come and go and in the end, development dollars, city and county planning & zoning commissions, and pro-development laws, rule supreme throughout the city and county. The once wonderfully undeveloped Boise foothills, though having received some protection in the past decade, continue to be heavily developed with devastating consequence including the closure of recreational trails, flora & fauna habitat destruction, and highly visible scars on what were once gorgeous hills leading to a city skyline made up of mountains, not buildings. In my opinion, by the year 2030, that skyline will mostly be dominated by houses and streets due to a complete lack of foresight in the 50s-70s when the land desperately needed protection but most Boiseans simply lacked any foresight. Even my Goldwater-Republican father lamented in the 60s about the inevitability of the Boise foothills someday looking like the hills backing Oakland, CA. Worst of all, some younger North Enders today seem to lack any land use ethic at all. For instance, local mountain bike organizations, and/or their operatives, have been instrumental in opposing wilderness designation in pristine mountain and desert regions less than an hour and a half drive from Boise. Many of them illegally "cut" trails into nearby pristine areas so that they can ride their mountain bikes wherever they please. Many other North End newcomers are out-of-staters with high ideals and trust funds who, ironically, moved here for the same reasons that conservatives do. It’s a great place to raise kids. Many of those idealists ultimately move up to the very high-end, hilltop homes I speak of. Yes, the North End is a liberal bastion of sorts (considering that the Idaho Legislature often has the highest republican to democrat ratio in the nation) consisting of people who generally care about the environment and other social issues, but they are akin to the squeak of a mouse in a pride of lions. Oh, and when it comes to watching what I say in mixed political company, I've never bothered. To hell with what anyone else thinks. Boise is not a town for the politically faint of heart, as Mr. Bunk notes. History has shown us, if nothing else, that agreeing to disagree guarantees the status quo in a politically lopsided place like Boise. Re Mr. Bunk's musing as to "what happened" to ultra conservatives to make them the way they are, and how North Enders came to congregate in the oldest part of town, the truth is that Boise conservatives have always been the way they are and when I was growing up here, there were plenty of conservatives in the North End. Governor Don Samuelson who wanted to strip mine the stunning White Cloud Mountains and Harry Morrison, founder of international development giant Morrison-Knudsen, both lived in the North End). In those days, housing here was cheap and outdoor recreation had yet to become so popular. To fully understand the North End, Boise, and Idaho in general, I strongly suggest reading Anthony Lukas' epic history of Idaho "Big Trouble." All of the issues raised by Mr. Bunk are given critical context in Lukas' work.
Steve & Cilla  Garvan
Steve & Cilla Garvan Subscriber
Jun 05, 2011 06:17 PM
Well, Sandpoint/Bonner County,northern Idaho is pretty diverse.. some liberals, some progressives, a whole bunch of mostly independent-minded citiozens, some conservatives. It seems that most peopole just want to live their lives-without either what might feel like too much government "interference" or too mush government but infrastructure is also important to them. Seems that most folks around northern Idaho-especially Bonner & Boundary County just want to live,enjoy the astounding natural beauty, relative quiet, sparse population & sense of community that pervades & sustains.Thats always worked for me- whether in New England, NY,SC, Colorado or here.