No matter what they say, Westerners don't fit the stereotype

 

As good Americans, we not only endure a presidential election, but we also tolerate the analysis that emerges afterward.

This time around, the right-thinking pundits couldn't accept the simple fact that the 2000 presidential election was one of the closest in history. Instead, they looked for a mandate for the winner, and found one in acreage.

As Mark Steyn explained in the Dec. 4, 2000, edition of the conservative National Review, "677 counties voted for Gore, 2,434 for Bush," and "the Gore counties cover 580,134 square miles, the Bush counties, 2,427,039 square miles."

He seems to think that the U.S. Constitution starts with "We, the townships and sections of the United States," rather than "We, the people of the United States ..."

Steyn went on to discover a geographic pattern. Gore carried states in the Northeast, around the Great Lakes, and along the Pacific Coast. The interior, where we live, is part of "a big Republican ÔL' running down the Rockies and sweeping through the South."

This also came to the attention of another conservative publication, The Wall Street Journal, which on Jan. 19 published an article by a staff reporter, John Harwood. He wrote that our L-shaped Republican zone is part of a nation "split not by economics or politics so much as by culture. On one side is the America Mr. Bush already identifies with: mainly rural, religiously observant, devoted to traditional notions of marriage and morality. On the other is the group he is reaching out to: largely urban, secular, tolerant of feminism and gay rights."

While this reads well, and fits nicely with common stereotypes about how traditional virtues thrive in the hinterlands, it has one big problem with the Mountain West. It doesn't fit.

Start with the "rural" part of the Bush political domain. According to the Census Bureau, 79.9 percent of all Americans live in one of the country's 256 standard metropolitan statistical areas.

But in many of our states, the urban percentage is even higher: 87.6 percent in Arizona, 85.7 percent in Nevada and 84.0 percent in Colorado. At 77.1 percent, Utah comes close to the national average.

And besides, if rural means "Republican," why does America's most rural state, Vermont (only 27.7 percent urban) keep electing socialists and independents?

So we're not especially rural. How wholesome are we in other respects?

The most recent available statistics for church membership are from 1990, so they're not all that recent. But then, 52.7 percent of Americans belonged to a Christian church or attended one regularly.

The only Western states that exceeded the national average for church membership and attendance were New Mexico (58.3) and Utah (79.6) - both founded by religious colonists.

As for the rest of us, it's a wonder that we don't see more missionaries on our doorsteps, because we're about as heathen as Americans get. Only 50.4 percent of Idahoans and only 47.6 percent of Wyomingites belonged to a church or attended one regularly. In Montana, it was 42.7 percent; in Arizona, 41.1 percent; in Colorado, 37.8 percent; in Nevada, 29.6 percent.

Nor is the Mountain West a zone of stable marriages. The American average in 1997 was 3.3 divorces per 1,000 population. None of our states is below that average, not even Utah, which had 4.4 divorces - 33 percent higher than the national average - per 1,000 residents. Our other states range from 4.6 in Montana to 10.4 in Nevada.

The West leads the nation in drug-arrest rates, and the federal Drug Enforcement Administration recently announced that Colorado leads the nation in marijuana use.

Colorado voters did pass the anti-gay Amendment 2 in 1992, but history says the Mountain West is "tolerant of feminism," in that women first voted in Wyoming in 1869, and the next states to adopt female suffrage were Colorado, Utah and Idaho.

The Mountain West does vote Republican in national elections. There's no argument about that.

But those East Coast pundits need to find another explanation for our voting patterns inside the vertical part of the Republican "L." We are less rural, less religious, and less "devoted to traditional notions of marriage and morality" than the rest of America. It's time for them to find another stereotype.

Ed Quillen is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (www.hcn.org). He lives in Salida, Colo., where he writes two op-ed columns each week for the Denver Post and publishes Colorado Central Magazine (www.cozine.com).

Copyright 2001 HCN and Ed Quillen

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