Reaganomics, Election '08, and the New American West

We live in a changed world – of NRA Democrats and environmentalist Republicans.
Crosscut archive image.
We live in a changed world – of NRA Democrats and environmentalist Republicans.

Here's a question for you: Does Ronald Reagan represent Western politics? Yes or no? Is he a true cowboy, or did he just play one on TV? And what relevance does Reagan's legacy hold in today's political environment?

These are the questions that stumped me recently when my comp subscription of American Cowboy Magazine arrived in the mail. Now, granted, I am not their target demographic. I got on their mailing list because I happened to share a trade show booth with them last year and someone picked up my card and started sending me the magazine. I generally don't read it. The content doesn't interest me. I do look at the pictures.

It's big on celebrity covers – from Tom Selleck to Toby Keith to Sam Elliot, you get the idea. This issue came with Ronald Reagan, holding a cowboy hat, dressed in red-white-and-blue cowboy shirt, looking young and healthy and not at all senile or dead, staring out at me, hat held over heart. "Who Speaks for the West?" the coverline asked me.

From a Western politics standpoint, Reagan helped to push forward policy in the West that would, in short, bring much of the West's vast public land holdings back into private hands. His appointment of the James Watt as secretary of the interior in 1981, while meant to shore up support for the so-called Sagebrush Rebellion, which argued that the vast acres of sagebrush land held no recreational value and should be opened to commercial interests, only served to polarize ranchers and environmentalists. The National Resources Defense Council called Watt one of the most "intensely controversial and blatantly anti-environmental political appointees" in American history.

What American Cowboy ignores in its questioning of who speaks for the West in election '08 is the greatly changed, largely bi-partisan and populist political culture that has emerged over the past couple of decades. Yes, you can't deny that it has to do with the influx of "modem cowboys," wealthy trophy home buyers, generation X-ers looking for quality of life and lots of recreational activities. Call it the "pinking" of the West, but the Rancher and the Environmentalist can be friends. In fact, lots of times, they're the same guy (Montana Gov. Brien Schweitzer). The examples come in myriad forms: New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson fought hard to save the sagebrush-covered, inhospitable land in Southern New Mexico called Otero Mesa from drilling. This was no random act of environmentalism – Richardson had to know that he'd be going against the very interests that had filled the state's coffers with its largest budget surplus in history, allowing Richardson to cut taxes and give teachers raises, among other things. Like many Western politicians, Richardson, Schweitzer, and even Janet Napolitano of Arizona, all Democrats, are seeking a balance between land protection and land exploitation. The Sagebrush Rebellion, indeed, heralded forth more moderate and understanding policies – without unspoiled public lands many Western states' economies would be, well, up a creek.

So if you divide the world into two quadrants, Democrats and Republicans, well then, yes, the West is missing its own Ronald Reagan. But the thing that's missing from this discussion is such party demarcations have become outdated, and no more so than here in the Rockies. Indeed, both Western Democrats and Republicans frequently go outside of party ideology to support what they believe the majority of their constituents want.

Call it the era of the NRA Democrat or the Environmentalist Republican. Whatever you do choose to name it, because in politics we do need names and sound bites and "tags," what the West represents in this (very long) political season is not Reagan-style, pro-business, pro-deregulation-at-all-costs brand of party line politics, but a much less simplistic version – one which takes into account that at the heart of Rocky Mountain Politics a broader view of public lands as not just resources to be exploited, but which also feed our economic growth and our lifestyle. If we were still operating under Reaganomics, those American Cowboys would have a lot fewer acres on which to ride.


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