The West is just another ethnic voting bloc

  • Cartoon: Why Congress Will Remain Republican

    Signe Wilkinson

WASHINGTON, D.C. - Oh, you folks think you're so different out there, do you? All these seminars and conferences about the Old West and the New West, the changing West, the future of the West, the culture of the West, even the sovereignty of the West. From the intellectuals in the universities to the anti-intellectuals in the wise-use movement, you fellas seem to think you're in another country.

Well, take a look at the election results. You know how you voted?

Pretty much like Americans, that's how. Americans with a Western twang, perhaps, but Americans nonetheless.

Granted, a quick look at the electoral map might inspire the conclusion that, politically speaking, there are two Americas. The larger part is split asunder, almost like Pakistan. One half takes up the nation's entire northeastern quadrant except for a little blob in the middle which is Indiana. The other half takes up the entire Western sliver, with a bit of a dogleg poking eastward. That's Democratic America.

Below that northeastern quadrant, and in the 800 or so miles between it and the Western sliver, is Republican America. Yes, there are a few Democratic outposts in the areas of Republican hegemony, and vice versa, but the map does seem to indicate a country beset, or blessed, by regionalism.

Maps can be deceiving. The exit polls show that Bob Dole and other Republicans won most of the South and the Rocky Mountain West mostly because those two parts of the country have more of the kind of folks who voted Republican no matter where they lived.

To illustrate: Dole won in Colorado and Montana largely because he got the votes of most middle-income and upper-middle income white Protestants. But he got those votes in the Northeast, too. The difference is that white Protestants (of all income levels) dominate Utah, Idaho, Montana and even Colorado far more than they do Ohio and Illinois, or for that matter Arizona, New Mexico and Nevada, where Clinton won.

Maybe the best strategy for Democratic activists in the Rockies, then, would be to convince a lot more Catholics (53 percent for Clinton, 38 percent for Dole), Jews (79 percent for Clinton, 16 percent for Dole) or people of no religion at all (54 percent for Clinton, 34 percent for Dole) to move into the area. Even better, attract a bunch of black folks, 84 percent of whom voted Democratic.

You're just like the rest of us in another important respect: Fewer of you voted than in 1992, or in 1988, or, in the case of Montana, ever. By the only meaningful standard - percentage of voting-age population - turnout fell in all 50 states, according to the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate. For the most part, voter turnout in the Western states was higher than elsewhere, but lower than it used to be.

Now, the more difficult question is - who were those non-voters who came to the polls in 1992 but stayed home this month? Any answer here can be no better than educated conjecture, but the most educated conjecturer in this regard, Curtis Gans of the aforementioned committee, conjectures that they were "likely to be some combination of the young and the poor," two groups who were far more likely to vote Democratic this year.

Had they voted, would Clinton had carried Colorado and Montana, would Democrats have held the House seat in Montana and taken the Senate seat in Colorado? Maybe, maybe and probably not, but that's not the point. The point is that much the same could be said of Maine and New Hampshire, where turnout fell and Democrats lost close races.

But, I hear you say, is not the West uniquely torn between those who would extract natural resources for profit and those who would preserve nature? Maybe. In the first place, the cleavage is not unique to the West; similar arguments rage in New England, the West Coast and parts of the Midwest. And while the two sides are most vocal and occasionally violent in the Rockies, their stand-off does not necessarily determine elections.

True it is that throughout the region, Gans tells us, the folks who favored Clinton's "policies on land use and natural resources' voted overwhelmingly for him, while those who opposed those policies voted Republican. But in most states, the balance was held by those who had no strong opinion one way or another. They went Republican by comfortable margins.

As ever, the winners are the guys who appeal to the middle.

The exit polls also demonstrate that even on this important regional concern, Western opinion is not monolithic. In the two biggest states - Arizona and Colorado - a healthy plurality favors Clinton's policies. This helps explain why the president won Arizona and came close in Colorado.

In the smaller states, the anti-Clinton faction has the plurality, though only in Utah, where many are no doubt smarting over the designation of the Escalante-Grand Staircase National Monument, did a majority oppose the president's Western land-use policies.

Still, to demonstrate that Westerners did not vote solely as Westerners does not justify the conclusion that many of them did not vote partly as Westerners, and it would be absurd to deny that in much of the West the middle-of-the-road voter has turned against the political faction which would protect nature through government and law. The evidence is not confined to federal elections. Only two of the nine Rocky Mountain states have Democratic governors, and Republicans dominate most of the state legislatures. The "War on the West" sentiment was not as powerful this year as it was in 1994, but neither has it gone away.

This raises the intriguing question of what happened to all those newcomers, the refugees from California who escaped crime and traffic to luxuriate midst the mountains and the streams. Don't they love nature?

Yes, but many of them also love low taxes, a balanced budget and Republican social values. Furthermore, to be blunt about it, some of them moved to get away from their fellow citizens of darker hue. This is not an attitude which inspires voting Democratic.

Before the environmentalists among you get too gloomy, though, here are two comforting thoughts. First, the election results nationwide mean that there will be few if any sweeping initiatives out of this Congress. Crusades are out.

Second, perhaps middle-of-the-road Westerners have not turned against the environment so much as they have turned against environmentalists. To no small extent, American political attitudes are reflections of tribal loyalty. If I may be permitted some outrageous stereotyping, when it comes to natural resources, the battle pits the tribe which drinks white wine and listens to folk music against the tribe which drinks domestic beer out of cans and listens to country songs.

As a martini drinker who favors opera and Charlie Parker (rarely at the same time), I speak here with complete objectivity, and in that spirit recommend that people anxious to preserve nature consider changing the way they strut their stuff. Too many people dislike their tribal folkways, and by extension some of their policies.

And don't dismiss that idea of seducing a greater variety of the citizenry to relocate to your region, especially to the smaller cities and towns where the charm does not quite compensate for the homogeneity. In addition to the political impact, this could do wonders for the over-all ambience - the music, the food, the language.

The rural and small-town West is already wonderful, what with nature's bounty, friendly folks and a civilized pace of life. But think how much better it would be if you could also hear some funky blues and get a good cheese blintz.

Jon Margolis writes about the West and capitol politics from a safe distance - Vermont.

High Country News Classifieds