Guest column: In the West, a sense of optimism about the future

Guest Column by Bruce Babbitt

I am often asked, is the West red or blue? Republican or Democrat? The answer is neither. Even as the rest of the nation aligns by region into red, Republican South and blue, Democratic North, western states continue their maverick ways, switching from one color to the other.

Why these regional differences? History shapes our political culture. It provides useful perspective in these times when political leaders seem eager to frame every issue by what the Founding Fathers and the Constitution have to say about the appropriate role of the national government in our federal system.

In the South, the Confederacy lives on in a political culture committed to states’ rights and, generally, resentful and suspicious of the national government. The result is a resoundingly Republican region where, in 2012, Romney won almost every state, losing only Virginia and Florida by razor-thin margins.

North of the Ohio River — in New England and the Great Lakes region — history shapes our attitudes toward the national government and the meaning of the Constitution in a more positive way. The Puritans and their early religious offshoots were given to communal efforts, motivated by the vision of building that “City on a Hill.”

Northern history thus shaped a region more friendly to collective effort and the use of government, at every level, to shape the lives of citizens. In 2012, President Barack Obama, who identified with a more expansive view of national governance, won every state north of the Ohio River except Indiana.

Neither of these historical narratives, however, can tell us much about the West. We are too distant to have endured the suffering of the Civil War. And the Puritan civic influence in our history pretty much faded away as the nation moved west and the homestead movement died out in the arid expanses of the Great Plains.

Our Western historical narrative begins with a unique, defining event: the California Gold Rush. In the words of one writer, “The greed for gold, always endemic, burst out as a violent fever which swept North and South America, Europe, Australia, the Hawaiian Islands and the coast of China.” Within five years, the population of California soared from less than 10,000 to more than 1.4 million, and gold fever soon spread into Nevada and across the West.

These ’49ers came to strike it rich, leaving behind settled patterns of family and community, taking chances against the odds, and improvising in a region without government. In the process, they established many of the independent, libertarian attitudes that characterize much of the West today.

Ever since the great gold rush, natural resource questions have continued to dominate Western politics. Today, we quarrel over two issues: land and water. These issues take us in the West right back into the enduring debate over the proper role of the federal government.

It was Mark Twain who supposedly observed, “In the West, whiskey is for drinking and water is for fighting.” And we are still fighting over water as the West enters another prolonged drought.

Most of the water we drink and use for irrigated agriculture comes from large, federally planned and financed reclamation projects, without which the modern West could scarcely exist. Yet we continue to bite the hand that sustains us, denouncing federal control of our water resources even as we plead for still more flood control projects and drought relief assistance.

Westerners are equally schizophrenic when it comes to land ownership. We complain that the federal government is an overbearing landlord, owning more than 80 percent of Nevada, 40 percent of Arizona and a considerable portion of other Western states.

Westerners periodically strike back by stirring up another “sagebrush rebellion,” demanding that the federal government hand public lands over to the states. Yet — even when it comes to land — we are sharply divided, for the growing urban majorities in the West don’t really care who holds title to all that land, and increasing numbers believe that the national government is a better long-term steward of parks, wildlife refuges and the fabulous open spaces that define the West.

Forty-niners at heart, we go about our lives without paying enough attention to or expecting much from government. One result is that our political parties tend to be weak and susceptible to blowing this way and that under the influence of money and small groups of dedicated activists. As a result, we vacillate, voting Republican one year and Democratic the next.

What does draw us together together as westerners is a sense of optimism about the future. You won’t find much talk of American decline in the West. Times may be hard, but there is always another gold strike awaiting just over the next hill. We still take to heart the words attributed to Horace Greeley, “Go West, go West young man and grow up with the country.”