It’s time for the rural West to put up or shut up

Essay by Ellen Miller

Politics – June 1995 – Colorado Central Magazine

Newt Gingrich has riled people again, which isn’t real news. What is news is that maybe a Washington beltway politician might be getting a glimmer about the rural West. His remarks came recently on a network talk show and he put out the remarkable theory that Westerners don’t like or trust the federal government.

No foolin’, Newt. And no foolin’, all those commentators and other politicians out there who expressed varying degrees of shock that he could say such a thing. Of course the rural West doesn’t like the government.

What pervades the rural West is a sense of wanting to be left alone. Where we fail, as other Americans do, is in demanding goodies from the government without being willing to pony up for them.

Examples abound, but my favorite is tough-on-crime sentiment. Poll after poll shows support for the death penalty, longer sentences for felons, and extra time added should a gun be used in the crime. But mention that the local sheriff needs more deputies and the local district attorney needs to hire more prosecutors, and the county needs a new jail, and the judges are so overworked that they need relief — and just watch the public sentiment. Do people rally forth with cries to the county commissioners for higher taxes to increase spending on law enforcement? Who’s kidding whom?

A lot of this feeling does stem from our innate distrust of government, at any level. And contrary to the panic after the Oklahoma City bombing, beefing up the FBI with mostly unspecified police-state powers isn’t the answer. Gingrich is right on that score: don’t fuel the paranoia. As it is, there are district attorneys in the West who categorically refuse to participate in joint investigations with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration or the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms.

BUT NEWT WENT TOO FAR when he said the West’s distrust of the government was also a “genuine fear.” Just because you don’t like something doesn’t mean you’re scared of it.

Westerners don’t trust the federal government in large part because the feds are so much part of life out here. Hardly anything happens without federal involvement. Everybody has a favorite horror story about some fed acting stupidly, usually at great cost to the taxpayer. At the same time, we all know the feds as our friends and neighbors. The West’s wrath at the feds isn’t focused on the buddy next door who works for the BLM, but on the faceless bureaucrats farther away, in Denver or Washington.

We also know that the most stable part of the Western economy is the federal payroll. In some communities government (federal, state, local, special districts) provides a quarter or more of the employment, at far higher wages and benefits than most private enterprises offer. And the feds pay best of all.

Still, it’s nice to see the subject come up for discussion in Washington. It remains to be seen if our congressmen and senators can make our case and do so rationally. If we in the West want to romanticize ourselves as being independent and responsible, we’ve got to put up or shut up. Federal abuse of our civil rights is a real danger, but so is toadying up to the federal cookie jar without regard to the consequences. Nobody has repealed the rule that “He who pays the fiddler calls the tune.”

We don’t have to fear the government. We just don’t have to trust it. Here’s hoping Newt and his playmates can tell the difference.