Editor’s note: Today WyoFile is pleased to announce the launch of a special project: “The Pete Simpson Forum.” Pete Simpson, a lifelong Wyoming resident who has been active in civic matters, has teamed up with WyoFile to initiate a conversation about what it means to live, work and play in Wyoming and how people from a wide spectrum can engage in respectful discussions about how Wyoming can best deal with a host of challenges and opportunities. The forum will be to invite people with different backgrounds to write about a particular topic. WyoFile will publish a pair of columns each month.

Introducing the Pete Simpson Forum

By Pete Simpson
— August 6, 2013

I had the privilege of teaching a class at UW a few years back. It was called Wyoming’s Political Identity.

Pete Simpson

There were ranch kids, “townies,” eggheads, ordinary Joes and Janes and always a couple of foreign exchange students. They were of every political stripe and from every social stratum. It was a “variety pack” of bright young people and it was a challenge every time. The class became a forum for discussing important Wyoming issues – from water and wolves to economic diversity and the environment as well as emotionally charged events like the Black 14 incident at the University of Wyoming and the killing of Matthew Shepard.

They also gave me the idea for this forum – to illustrate the value of civil discourse; to clarify stances pro and con, right and left and to find common ground. We’re going to invite thoughtful people from a wide spectrum of Wyoming folks – teachers, authors, professionals, political leaders, field workers and cowboys, oil men and roughnecks, home makers, students, ministers and those I’ve forgotten whom you can remind me of – to contribute their take on Wyoming questions and look for common ground with an opposite.

We’ll see how it works. And, we’ll start with the question: What is Wyoming’s Political Identity? And what basis is there for accord and common understanding among us? We’ll go from there every month.

I’d like to take a crack at that question myself.

What is Wyoming? A feeling? An artifice? A Verb; A Noun; An Adjective? A parochial device for blunting a persistent statewide inferiority complex?

Related story: Wyoming’s Political Identity by Sienna White

Whatever it is, is it unique in any way – different from its sister states? Dave Raynolds claims it is fundamentally different from its immediate neighbors in the following ways: Politically, we are not like Montana which sports a radical leftist, union-inflected past. Nor like Colorado, with its earlier hale and hearty, “Paint Your Wagon” mining history and its contemporary urban advantage. Nebraska, meanwhile, is still mostly farm and ag country as is South Dakota except for the anomaly of its gold mining and its touristy Black Hills. And Utah has carried the imprint of Mormonism from its beginning. So, Wyoming, according to Dave, is a self-selected, ideologically neutered society composed of those whose main characteristic is having been tough enough to stick it out while the rest of the world went by, through, around or over us, until only the worthier nuggets of humanity actually panned out and stayed.

But, does that mean all those other states aren’t a self-selected population? Mormons migrate toward Mormonism, Montanans grow militias now and then, Coloradans take on more of the “citified” folks and Nebraskans and South Dakotans worship at the Palace of Corn. But, Wyomingites are the quintessential cowboys and we tell ‘em with pride wherever we go that the bucking bronco on our license plate symbolizes who we really are deep down – independent, heroic representatives of the true West standing tall against decadent urbanism, corrupt federal and corporate officialdom and a political system so far removed from the founding fathers as to be unrecognizable and acknowledged mostly with contempt.

How now do we square the fact that in spite of our homogeneity (we’re almost ninety percent white, 80 percent Christian and over 70 percent Republican) we are finding ourselves more and more at odds with each other over social policies, the role of government and the state of family values while falling further behind in addressing rising domestic abuse, a suicide rate which is now the nation’s highest and the greying of our population, not to mention increasing inequality in the equality state?

Being at odds with each other now often means being adversaries on a personal level which makes “speaking out,” according to one observer, more of a personal hazard than in the past. In truth, Wyoming is not immune from polarization despite our libertarian “live and let live” life style; and, serious matters are more and more subject to ideological tests of one kind or another.

Related story: Wyoming’s political identity by Lawrence Woods

In class, the best results came once classmates felt safe; and, the safest environment was a semi-circular auditorium style room where they faced one another. In one class, the “four musketeers” on the right had to exchange with the three charming intellectuals on the left. The business major in the middle had to listen to the social worker down front – and so on. Not only was the discussion civil, it was energetic and it produced results – real suggestions for real legislation which were provided to the Wyoming legislature. Those students taught me a lot.

Maybe, in a small way, this forum can become a safe place where we can talk without rancor about our identity and the issues facing us. Solving problems through discussion means civilly with an open mind and the willingness to walk in another’s shoes. That does not mean “PC.” It means simply empathy and a willingness to look for common ground. It has been the genius of American politics to find that common ground because it’s the only place where anything of real importance can get done.

We’ll start with one of my students. They’re used to this exercise. So, this week I’m presenting a comment from Sienna White, a Cody girl entering her second year at Case Western Reserve Law School studying international legal ethics – and, along with it, some thoughts from a Wyoming author and friend of long acquaintance, Milton L. Woods, former VP of Mobil. Let’s see what comes of the conversation. I’ll be interested in what you think and look forward to hearing.

Dr. Peter Kooi Simpson is a University of Wyoming professor emeritus who taught political science for more than 12 years. A University of Wyoming basketball player and veteran of the Navy, Pete earned his doctorate in history from the University of Oregon. He later worked in administration at Casper College and Sheridan College and chaired the University of Wyoming Foundation. The son of Governor Milward Simpson and the older brother of Senator Alan Simpson, Pete served as a state representative from 1981-1984, and ran for governor against Democrat Mike Sullivan in 1986. Pete and his wife Lynne are active supporters of the arts, having collaborated on numerous theatrical productions throughout their lives. He lives in Cody.

Editor’s note: Please comment on these columns: let Pete know what you think, and whether you would like to be invited to contribute to The Pete Simpson Forum (send a note to Simpson via editor@wyofile.com). Thank you in advance for your participation! Columns are the signed perspective of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of WyoFile’s staff, board of directors or its supporters.

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Pete Simpson

Dr. Peter Kooi Simpson is a University of Wyoming professor emeritus who taught political science for more than 12 years. A University of Wyoming basketball player and veteran of the Navy, Pete earned...

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  1. Wyoming has been truly blessed with outstanding political leadership over the years. Why is this? With mostly small towns and no big cities, the electorate has a more personal knowledge of the candidates. If they don’t actually know the candidates, they typically know someone who does. This enables voters to sift through the chaff and sort out people of good character. Usually the best candidates are elected to serve on the locally elected boards, in the court houses, the legislature, and the top five state offices. Another reason our political system seems to work so well in Wyoming is that our legislature is a citizen’s body comprised of people from all walks of life who spend most of the year at home pursuing their chosen careers. They bring a broad base of knowledge from which to deliberate as opposed to career politicians who are primarily concerned with getting re-elected. Our leaders usually make decisions based on what’s best for the state, not what’s best for them.
    Wyoming people are typically not extremists but people who agree to disagree and find workable solutions. In small towns, we tend to fry our fish with everyone else in town regardless of their political biases. It’s hard to demonize the very people you know and see often on the street. Have you noticed that the extreme survivalists and hate mongers just don’t gravitate to Wyoming but like Idaho and Montana better? We just don’t have as many crazy people as some other states… maybe it’s because it’s hard place to survive. The crazies just don’t hold up.
    I believe our political identity is one of compromise. Mineral production has been tempered with high severance taxes. The revenue the State brings in via the mineral industry is used for education and scholarships for the next generation. A tremendous amount has also been socked away in the Permanent Mineral Trust Fund. Both very wise uses of the money generated from extraction. It also makes our property taxes low, a reasonable sales tax which exempts groceries, and no state income tax. Our infrastructure is sound because of visionary leadership. I think it’s because we often actually know the people we place into leadership.

  2. What an interesting forum this may become! Pete Simpson brings to the table not only a gift of encouraging people toward personal development, but projects to the front of the line the attributes of scholarship, decency and kindness that must be a part of any discussion of our identity, political or otherwise. He is qualified to lead a discussion on the “political” as well as the “otherwise”. I hope our composite “selfs” can meaningfully add to the effort. We are off to a great start!

  3. I mentored Sienna when she was in Cody High School. graduated early , blew thru NWC faster than they could keep up with her, then graduated UW way early. Brightest chickadee I ever met. I’ve kept up with her since, her solo vagabonding of the tough countries of Eastern Europe,…who else do you know that has couch surfed Moldava ? Then New Zealand, and more Europe. Sienna’s inborn dedication to resolving social and environmental issues by actually working at them is incredible. Really working. She did much to restore my faith in the younger generation and left me with some semblance of real hope. She must be all of 23 by now.

  4. I think it is important to remember that the Federal Government encouraged the settlement of the western lands, the cutting of our forests and the mining of our minerals. They blatantly gave away those resources and created a society that thinks they are entitled to use the lands in this state as much as each chooses. While there have always been those who are good stewards, there are also the greedy and self-centered. .
    The citizens of this state and country have never been paid adequately for the resources on our public lands. Since our state contains over 50% public land, it is outrageous that exploitation without adequate reimbursement continues.
    Labor too has been exploited with a high rate of on the job injury. While in the past there were powerful unions to protect the laborers and subsequently a strong democratic party along the I-80 corridor, now membership in both has dwindled.
    I would like to hear a conversation about why others think this has happened. I think part of it is the divisive issue of abortion that led many fine democrats to become re-publican. Here in Carbon County many jumped the ship on the issue. It seems strange that members of the party that cares about the little guy, joined the party that cares about big business.

  5. Thanks, Pete for getting this underway. I used to bedevil my wife Lisa, by noting to her that the Cowboy State symbolism she cherishes is at least partially misplaced, as our state was built side by side with miners. Congress passed the Pacific Railroad Survey bill in 1853 and coal was found by the earliest visitors. The Union Pacific was fueled by coal mined in Reliance, Superior, Rock Springs, Hanna and the other coal camps that dotted the route.

    So, when you think of Powder River, Let ‘er Buck, you should also have in mind those earliest miners and immigrants (Rock Springs is proudly the City of 56 Nationalities) and their families, who built our great state with a pick and shovel just as surely as the cowboys did with their horses and lariats.

    And lest we forget, we are of course home to great oil fields, Teapot Dome amongst them, that fueled Wyoming’s growth. For all of the noise regarding energy development, it has been with us for a century plus and pays the bill.

    Finally, it is at least arguable, if not the overriding truth, that the influence of second homes, 40 acre ranchettes and endless consumptive sprawl has impacted our great open spaces as much as mineral development.

  6. Interesting that the man whose grandfather played such a large roll in shaping the state of Wyoming would want to start this conversation. The cattle barons took control long before the JC war. They were also operating large in the western part of the state before statehood. Murdering anyone who got in their way. It is one of the main reasons we are the least populated state. Those same families then evolved into the coal, gas, oil empires that are today destroying this state. Greed and lust for power is what sets Wyoming aside from all others. And they are now eating themselves from the inside out . It will be interesting to see what is left of this beautiful state when the energy companies get through with it.

  7. When I first moved to Wyoming in the early 1970s there seemed to be a strong conservation ethic that was not confined to the “lefties.” Ranchers came together to form organizations like the Powder River Basin Resource Council, to protect Wyoming’s clean air, clean water and open spaces. Longtime residents rallied to protect and preserve the buildings and sites that represented Wyoming’s history. Now it seems that people who believe in conserving our resources (both built and natural) are marginalized and mocked as tree-huggers and hysterical preservationists. I’m curious if others have noticed this change, and have thoughts on what it’s all about.

  8. Pete, I do believe your on to something. Using today’s technology to communicate well written ideas with a great spell checking capabilities may bring about some perspective of great interest. And I have to agree with Paul Robison those kind of undeveloped rants belong on TV not in a forum that require more thought.

  9. Thank you. I wish to follow this discussion. Somewhere I missed the schedule of events? My husband accuses me of skip reading. Maybe so. donna

  10. Wyomings “political” identity began with the Johnson County War of 1893. Lest we forget, the JCW began with the Wyoming Stockgrowers Association recruiting, equipping, and deploying a mercenary army, mostly Texans, to murder small ranchers, cowboys, farmers, alleged rustlers, and even the Johnson County sheriff, for daring to claim part of the range for their own. Of course, the Stockgrowers had the close collusion of the state governor and at least one senator.

    Then the Stockgrowers mercenary army bungled the whole thing and required the US cavalry to bail them out.

    Seems the Wyoming political identity is the lust for power but not quite getting there. That is, the political identity is political incompetence–and the more money involved, the more incompetence.

    This is the basis of our libertarian inclinations.

  11. An interesting concept, the forum. However hopefully comments like “we are not like Montana which sports a radical leftist, union-inflected past,” won’t exactly be the norm. I would hardly qualify Montana’s as filled with “radical leftists” and overrun with unions. Indeed, Southern Wyoming’s U.P. workers have a fine union history that goes back before the founding of the state. But I suppose that was back before the shifts of the 1970’s that resulted in a registered Republican advantage of 70% for the state.