The political right and left are stuck in polarizing myths

Neighbors in a small Colorado town are splintered, but neither are correct.


Forrest Whitman is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News. He writes in Salida, Colorado.

Folks in my small Western town are divided: die-hard right-wingers on one side and so-called progressives on the other. But both appear to support those “deregistering” from the list of eligible voters for fear of federal intervention in what is a state right. 

I see the hard-right folks in Safeway carrying pistols. The progressives hang out in my favorite coffee shop with The New York Times. Both are likely influenced by the myths of the Old West, either consciously or unconsciously. And both are dropping off the voting rolls at an alarming rate; somewhere around 3,000 have deregistered in Colorado so far.

Neither group wants President Donald Trump’s voter fraud commission to know anything about them. They don’t want it known that they’re registered to vote, or what party they belong to, and they clearly don’t want to have their Social Security number put in some insecure database. Both are alarmed and suspicious that the Trump administration’s commission is really designed to suppress voter turnout.

I know some of the “hard right, anti-federal” folks. They tend to have “Don’t Tread On Me” decals on their trucks. They often sport a T-shirt that says proudly, “I’m the NRA.” It’s a small town and we tend to know one another. Usually, we can all be cordial at break time at a city council meeting.

Neighbors in Ouray, Colorado, a different town than the author's, live in close quarters between mountains.
Paxson Woelber/Flickr

I should put “usually” in quotes. We did have a fistfight after a council meeting last month. And, yes, we did have dog droppings put in the mayor’s car after another hot meeting. That’s the usual small-town stuff. It gives the local paper something to write about besides street closures. But some kind of deeper national fear is going on lately. It helped elect President Trump, and it is not leaving our small town alone.

Why carry a gun to buy lunch at Safeway? Last week I lifted my head up from the sweet corn bin to be faced with a big gun on a big gut below a big belt. I smiled, and the gun’s owner sort of grunted at me in return. Folks do still smile at each other in our one grocery store. That’s a small-town reflex. But why the gun?

This is not just about old guys “carrying,” either. In the parking lot the other day, I followed a woman out and realized that I had seen her around town a few times. We exchanged a quick smile, but she was also carrying a gun on her belt.

I sometimes think these local gun wearers are living out a Western fantasy created about the decade after the Civil War. Owen Wister’s novel The Virginian helped do that. The cattle drives, the railroad end of the line and the rough mining towns were real. But gun-toting cowboys and shootouts on the town’s main street were rare.

In fact, cowboys rarely owned a six-gun because they cost $100, well above a cowboy’s reach. Even the marshals in mining towns in Colorado seldom carried guns. Looking back through the pages of the Central City Register Call, I see pictures of the marshal keeping the peace with no gun visible. He relied on his prestige in the community, not his gun.

My progressive friends who are deregistering now may be relying on another myth. That’s Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. That narrative says that Washington, D.C., can solve most problems. Yet local groups and even state governments were all a part of the 1930s era of the New Deal. Rallying the economy required a complex and many-faceted approach to help people get back on their feet.

As the Trump administration works to dismantle that New Deal safety net, we all need to fight back. One way these days is to deregister, opposing any vote suppression that this commission might be interested in achieving. And thank goodness for our Western tradition of independent county clerks. Some have refused to cooperate with the commission, which has little reason for existing other than pacifying a president who can’t believe that his opponent lost while still winning some 3 million more votes than he did.

Meanwhile, it would help if the region moved past its lively myths. Neither the cowboy myth nor the FDR myth helps much these days. What does help is to keep talking to each other about how important it is to vote, and to keep watching what our elected officials do in Washington. They need us to keep a close eye on them.

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