The Red West vs The Red South
[This post has been cross-posted from Not a Potted Plant. Because a conversation has started over there, I will close the comments here and direct you there for discussion.]
In a conversation about national and regional politics, Greginak (which I know is meant to be Greg In Alaska, but I continue to internally pronounce Grejinack) awesomely makes the following delineation between the Red South and the Red West:
I can speak for red state Alaska where I live but i’ve traveled all over the West. There is much more of a libertarian streak in the rural mountain west then in the deep south. The south in general is much more religious. Its more acceptable to be pushy and overtly conservative Christian. In the rural west there is significant a “just leave me alone” feeling even if some of those people are also religiously conservative and not tolerant of any difference.
The West is far more based on natural resource use so in some ways there is an acceptance of gov action for conservation and management. Of course many feel that management should be solely focused on helping ranchers, farmers, etc be more productive.
People in the West can be easily stereotyped, just like everybody else. They are not all conservative at all. A good friend of mine from rural Nevada grew up ranching in a town of of a few hundred. She told me there a handful of male couples who lived together up in the mountains. Everybody knew they were…wink wink nudge nudge…and were fine with it.
The West has far different historical baggage then the South. The South has the confederacy and jim crow and KKK. ( yes those things were not all just the South, but that is still what they carry). The West has the treatment of Native Americans which was evil in its own right. However the West has a lot of glorious myths of westerns and cowboys they can treasure. The West in many ways is symbolic of newness, natural beauty, escape, freedom and all that is new and good as opposed to the East. But some of the things it is symbolic of is also true. The West was pristine and the place for adventure, while the East/South was old, full, built up and citified.
Many Westerners moved here within the last generation or three where many Southerners have roots going back 100-150 or more years. To a degree many in the West see the country east of the Mississippi the way Americans in general see western Europe. The eastern half of the country is the old homeland in the distant past but the West is the clean fresh home where everybody can get rich on The Big Rock Candy Mountain. Lots of people moved to the West because they thought they could get rich on gold or oil or to find room to farm or ranch that they couldn’t afford in the East/South.
Warning: egregious generalizations ahead. I hesitate to do it because both the West and the South are diverse regions, but it’s hard to have the conversation without some degree of generalization.
The West does, I believe, have a libertarian streak, though it’s some part libertarian and some part communitarian… in generally good ways for both. His story about the gay couple doesn’t surprise me. Even in the Mormon part, there were gays and while I didn’t envy them, there was a lot more tolerance than I would have guessed (particularly among the non-Mormons, but even a lot of Mormons were uncomfortable when my former employer fired their legal counsel for being gay and the LDS Church itself supported anti-discrimination law in Salt Lake County). A majority of Montanans support legal recognition of same-sex couples and the numbers for gay marriage are shifting rapidly. The news on that front is pretty bad in Idaho and Utah. Wyoming is at a stalemate wherein those seeking to expand or more formally restrict gay marriage are being stymied.
Montana has machine gambling at virtually every convenience store in the state. The last brothel in Montana was shut down in the 1980’s – prior to that, everyone agreed to look the other way. Montana also experimented with medicinal marijuana with a plan that arguably proved to be too liberal. Wyoming was the first state to allow women to vote and the first state to have a female governor. Nevada is… well… Nevada. New Mexico loved Gary Johnson. Utah and Idaho remain two of the great exceptions to this streak, largely due to the Mormon influence. And Arizona, of course, has a lot of anxiety at the moment regarding immigration.
One of the things I appreciate about the West, however, is the communitarian streak it has out here. Back in the South, there are contracts on top of contracts dealing with the allocation of firefighting services. The little suburb (East Oak) in which I was raised was too small to have its own fire department, so it contracted out with next town over (Rotterdam). Rotterdam and East Oak then both had a separate contract with much large Phillippi in order to handle any overflow. When the fires struck Orion County in Tennessee and were left to burn, I understood exactly what had happened, why, and shrugged it off as the way that things work. Out here, everyone assists everyone much more freely with or without contracts. This isn’t due to an inherent nobility, but because a fire over there poses a huge threat to over here. It’s in everyone’s best interest to work together.
One of the largest differences, as Greg notes, is the comparative history and lack thereof. The South is mired in a bloody history going more than a century back. The degree of racial conflict then and now drives its policies in ways that aren’t inherently racial. There are tensions that are hard to understand (and saying “Those f’ing racists” does not qualify as understanding). The Southern identity is tied to specific things. Though there is a bloody history out here, too, but the effects are different for a plethora of reasons.
One other major difference is religion. Both are overwhelmingly Christian, of course (especially if we put the LDS church under that tent), but it plays out differently because the nature of it all is more diverse out here. Last cycle, there was a candidate who had a compelling “Born Again” story to tell. From prison to a community leader. In the South, this would have been central to his campaign. Here, though, it was more of a line in his biography when his opponent tried to make hay out of his criminal record. He more-or-less responded that he found Jesus and has lived in service to the community ever since. Let’s move on.
There is a greater Catholic presence here than back in the South. Even the conservative LDS Church jams the disrupt the consensus that the South has in the Southern Baptist Church and comparatively like-minded evangelical sects. Idaho is pluralist, Montana is majority-protestant (barely) but divided between Mainline and Evangelical (with a significant number of Catholics and more than a few Mormons). Wyoming is divided along similar lines, though with a mildly larger Mormon population. It’s hard to pinpoint Nevada’s religious diversity without taking into account its Hispanic population. Point being, though, people populate the West from all over and brought their religious traditions with them. The South is more unipolar, and it shows.
So, with these various differences, why do they vote in lockstep? Primarily because, despite the differences, they do tend to see themselves having more in common with one another than with the urban coasts. Well, with the South the focus is on the North and in the West it’s more on the two coasts more specifically, but it tends to hold true. Politics makes for alliances and I believe the alliances influences political preferences (I believe this about more than the two regions in question).
If the US were to ever split up, though, I would expect the regional-political map of “Jesusland” to very much be South vs West with a few wildcards here and there (Utah, for one, and maybe Arizona). I would also expect the West to be more liberalish. Not just more liberal than the South, but more liberal than it is now. The opposition to the coasts would likely take the edge off a lot of the conservatism that exists out here.
I sound like a Western partisan, I suppose. Though I was raised in the South, my relationship with it is complicated and a lot of my fondness for the South comes from my upbringing and knowing it well enough to get by. The West was a much more instant fit. Leaving home (even my relatively moderate urban/suburban corner of the South) kind of lifted me of a certain weight I hadn’t even realized was there. I don’t actually fit in all that well in the precise town where I live, but nonetheless a lot better than I would in a town of similar size and situation in the Deep South (we’ve more or less eliminated it from consideration, barring a special circumstance).
Hopefully this doesn’t come across as Dixie-bashing. Like I said, it is saddled with a history and a bum legacy that makes it what it is and makes the path to progress down there more difficult. The west is a place of new beginnings and always has been. As someone who is prone to self-reinvention, that has a very particular appeal to me. As an awkward guy, the “take you as you come” attitude out here (at least in comparison to most places) is something I will always appreciate about this place, regardless of where we end up.
Addendum: I meant to add this in there, but one of the things that people think of when they think of Idaho or Montana are militias and more specifically white separatist militias. It’s worth emphasizing the “separatist” part, though. One of the allures of this area is that there is a lot of space where they can basically set up their own colonies. They remain, for the most part, segregated. Montana has the distinction of having set up the third black studies program in the country and the first outside of California. Also, Utah and Eastern Idaho may be the most genuinely color-blind places I have ever been. This is a big of a mixed bag, of course, because a lot of that is related to ingroup/outgroup and the LDS Church. But how surprised was I when Idaho elected a Hispanic congressman and Utah nominated a black woman? Not surprised at all.