Stringing up the Western sheriff

  • Ray Ring


Note: This is the editor's note for our Western elections guide. The other elections stories are listed at the end.


The people were angry about a political system that seemed hopelessly corrupt. Waves of immigrants were flooding in and everything felt chaotic. The economy soared and plummeted, driven by naked greed, profiteering businesses, and the manipulations of bankers and speculators. A distant national war darkened the mood. There was a terrible housing crisis.

Desperate voters elected a leader they hoped would bring change. Then they decided that he was the demon responsible for many of their troubles. So they rose up and -- without a reasonable weighing of evidence -- snugged a noose around his neck and hanged him from a downtown gallows.

Sound familiar? These events all took place in Bannack, a gold-rush camp that became the first capital of Montana Territory, in 1863 and ‘64. Yet the same description sums up the current political and psychological turmoil in many Western communities.

Today’s housing crisis involves home-mortgage schemes and foreclosures, rather than prospectors scrambling for shelter in tents, cabins, wagons and other crannies. The distant war is in Afghanistan and Iraq instead of Gettysburg and Bull Run. The noose isn’t an actual hemp rope, like the one in the hands of Bannack’s vigilantes, who strung up Sheriff Henry Plummer because they thought he secretly ran a gang of bandits. Instead, it symbolizes the attitude many people now have toward their perceived political foes.

The 2010 Tea Party movement, the many other alarmists on both the right and left, the smear ads and raging campaign speeches, the "talk" shows that are more about yelling, the cynical, smirking bloggers -- all encourage us to blame the other guy and his politics for our troubles.

This issue’s cover displays a provocative image and headline -- "Lynch-Mob Politics" -- to capture the mood during the countdown to the Nov. 2 elections. But our stories don’t dwell on extreme rhetoric and charges and countercharges. High Country News succinctly analyzes the races in 11 Western states, with an introduction providing Westwide context. In a sidebar, freelance writer John Dougherty -- a frequent HCN contributor -- offers an unusual firsthand account of his truly maverick run for a Senate seat in Arizona.

No other news operation provides this kind of regional elections coverage. HCN is not local, national or international. We are Western. Our elections package is for readers who are interested in the various Western states and the themes that define this region and set it apart from any other.

Because of the scope of the territory involved, our elections package is substantial -- more than 8,000 words. That’s another thing about HCN: We’re not afraid to run long pieces, because we’re designed for serious readers who want substance. And our coverage strives to be analytical -- avoiding the typical he-says, she-says superficiality -- because we’re trying to make some sense of what’s behind all the smoke and noise.


Other stories in our elections package:

Introduction: Lynch-mob politics

Arizona: Obama's curse?

California: Dope, eBay, pollution and moonbeams

Colorado: The West's true swing state

Idaho: How a Democrat wins in the Northern Rockies

Montana: Utility regs and clean energy up for grabs

Nevada: A hairy ride for Harry

New Mexico: Wolves, wilderness, drilling and Latinos

Oregon: Tea Party limbo

Utah: A Sagebrush Rebel headed for D.C.

Washington: Tea Party limbo #2

Wyoming: A popular governor gets mysterious

John Dougherty: How I ran for a U.S. Senate seat, and what I learned

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 [email protected].

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