The Pete Simpson Forum

A Note From Pete:

It’s a new year and a new subject for the Pete Simpson Forum. However, last year’s theme, Wyoming’s political identity, will form our backdrop for this year’s discussions.

 So, this month it’s the economy — Wyoming’s economy specifically – and note I’m avoiding the old James Carville 1992 campaign tag on, because forum readers aren’t stupid. Far from it! We rely on your contributions and we encourage you always to join the discussion. That’s what makes the forum! And, it’s a good place to make your points and your ideas known and heard.

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Right now, Wyoming’s economy looks pretty robust, particularly compared with other states. I’m no economist; but, from a historical perspective that’s typical for us. When gas prices go up in Chicago, there are new jobs for Wyoming’s oil field workers in Midwest. Which is to say, we are an economy based on natural resources and when prices on the world market rise our economic outlook gets rosier. Of course, we have no control over world prices. So, the Wyoming economy has a cyclical, or, better yet, a countercyclical character – better when the resource is in demand and worse when it’s not. Like it or not, ours is a “boom and bust” economy and, like the old well driller says, we’ve had to get used to “chicken one day and feathers the next.”

 Right now, it’s chicken. Unemployment is almost half the national average. Per-capita income is 6th highest in the U.S. and the number of bankruptcy filings is nearly the lowest. Our home ownership rate is 73 percent, the ninth highest in America. But, we all know things can change – and they do. That’s probably why our political leaders are cautious about expenditures and insist on balanced budgets and reserve accounts at the state level.

 One of my professor friends from UW, former political science department head, Jim King, put together what I think is a pretty good summary of Wyoming’s political culture – cautiously conservative with a libertarian streak. But, when it comes to forging 21st century economic policies, David Wendt, president of the Jackson Hole Center for Global Affairs, suggests strategies that might run counter to our long held attitudes – about the role of government particularly. Put in a larger context, will our political attitudes promote or hinder economic growth and stability in a 21st century global economy? What do you think?


— Peter K. Simpson

Wyoming’s Political Culture: Our own but not unique

Guest Essay by Jim King 
— February 18, 2014

Among the challenges of teaching classes about government is getting students to recognize the influence of culture on political and governmental processes.

They know that politics in the United States is not like politics in totalitarian regimes such as those of Syria or the People’s Republic of China, or even in other democratic political systems such as Great Britain’s. What students frequently do not understand is that there are cultural differences within nations, as well as across nations, that affect governmental processes. This lack of appreciation for interstate differences in the U.S. is not limited to college students.

Several years past a reporter new to Wyoming had difficulty understanding why Governor Dave Freudenthal was opposing federal government policy concerning wolves in the Greater Yellowstone area. After all, this reporter remarked, the governor was a Democrat; don’t all Democrats favor national government policies over state government policies, the reporter asked? Of course, the situation was not as simple as national party ideology but involved the complexity of state political cultures. Governor Freudenthal’s policy on wolf management reflected Wyoming’s political culture rather than a national political party’s philosophy.

Political culture is important because it defines the role of citizens within the political system, defines the expectations of government, and sets the boundaries for acceptable public policy. Governmental decisions straying from what the culture defines as “acceptable” can result in the government losing legitimacy. In other nations, that could mean a coup d’etat or revolution that brings a new regime to power, such as we have seen recently throughout the Middle East. In the U.S., that means a change through the election process — “throwing the rascals out,” as a popular saying goes.

There are three notable aspects of the Equality State’s political culture. The first concerns perceptions of the role of government in society. Political scientist Daniel Elazar offered a theory of state political cultures based on dominant perceptions of the role of government, identifying three distinct state political cultures. First, a “traditionalistic” political culture emphasizes a hierarchical society, one where those at the upper-end of the social structure dominate government. The government’s role is seen as providing continuity in the social and economic sectors of society. States with “traditionalistic” cultures are found principally in the South and Southwest.

Second, a “moralistic” political culture views government’s role as advancing a public interest and providing public goods, that is, those goods and services most effectively delivered collectively. This political culture also embraces widespread participation in politics by the citizens and, as a result, states with this culture tend to have the highest levels of voter turnout. Most states with “moralistic” cultures are found in New England, in the Midwest, and on the West Coast.

Third, an “individualistic” political culture views government’s role as providing what citizens demand, rather than being an innovator. Private initiative and a market philosophy are hallmarks. Government’s role is to do what is necessary to foster private initiative, either by providing goods and services that allow initiatives to develop (for example, infrastructure such as highways) or by simply not imposing restrictions.

Wyoming clearly has an “individualistic” political culture. Wyomingites have an independent streak: we do it on our own. The “foster private initiative” mood is strong. A few years ago, I attended a presentation by a leader of the state Legislature where the role of government in Wyoming was discussed. One of the examples he used of a local government exceeding its authority was a county government that rented space on the county fairgrounds for people to store their recreation vehicles (RVs, boats, snowmobiles, etc.) with goals of providing a service and increasing revenue without having to raise local taxes. This legislator’s position was that the county was taking business away from private enterprise and therefore was acting outside bounds of government responsibility. To the legislator it did not matter that the county government was providing a service that was not available; there was not a storage lot in the area before the county open the fair grounds for recreational vehicle storage. The senator’s view was that someone might want to open a storage lot in the future and that person would face unfair competition from the county government.

Second, few will be surprised that there is a distrust of the federal government among Wyoming’s residents. In a pattern similar to those found in other states, state government is trusted far more than the national government. For example, a 2012 survey of Wyoming residents conducted by the University of Wyoming showed 70 percent trusting state government to do what is right “just about always” or “most of the time” but only 19 percent similarly trusted the national government. Although the percentages vary slightly from year to year, this pattern of greater trust of state government has been seen in surveys of Wyomingites over the past four decades. Part of this is a function of geography and distance.

“Commentators often blame inaction within the national government as blatant partisan politics, but these conflicts reflect earnest efforts to represent different constituency interests and policy preferences far more than maneuvering for partisan gain.”

We are more familiar with public officials from our state and believe they represent our interests better than do elected officials from other states. Wyomingites believe their U.S. senators understand better the problems and needs of our state than do the senators from New Jersey. Of course, the people of New Jersey think their senators represent their interests better than do the senators from Wyoming. Commentators often blame inaction within the national government as blatant partisan politics, but these conflicts reflect earnest efforts to represent different constituency interests and policy preferences far more than maneuvering for partisan gain.

Since Wyoming’s individualistic political culture defines government’s role as fostering private initiative, it is easy to see how outside governmental regulation — whether it is introduction of wolves, restrictions on snowmobiling in Yellowstone, limiting resource development on public lands, whatever — is resented. Yet the relationship between a state and the federal government often is complex.

In the 1990s politicians from this region began speaking of a “War on the West.” The rhetoric usually portrays national politicians as out of touch with the “uniqueness” of Wyoming and the other western states. Western states are viewed as being victimized by the national government. However, a study of government spending conducted a few years ago showed Wyoming ranking seventh among the states in total federal government expenditures in the state. Salaries paid to employees and other expenditures associated with Yellowstone, Grand Teton, Devil’s Tower, Warren Air Force Base, many national forests, and a host of other national government facilities make significant contributions to Wyoming’s economy.

Another aspect of the role the federal government plays in Wyoming concerns federal lands. Wyoming has an abundance of natural resources, many of them located on land owned by the U.S. government, that are used by various sectors of the economy. The petroleum, mining, and timbering industries all use federal government land to one extent or another; many ranchers graze their livestock on land leased from the federal government. Observers from regions of the country where federal land is uncommon consider this a form of government subsidy, an argument Wyomingites dispute. Nevertheless, this demonstrates the complexity of federal-state relationships.

The third notable aspect of Wyoming’s political culture is its conservative ideology. UW’s biennial public opinion surveys show the state’s residents opposing gun control (63 percent against, 30 percent for), supporting an amendment to the U.S. Constitution to permit prayer in public schools (58 percent for, 40 percent against in 2004), opposing affirmative action (54 percent against, 39 percent for), and opposing general legalization of marijuana (69 percent against, 23 percent for in 2000) but favoring medical use of marijuana (73 percent for, 18 percent against in 2000).

An important difference between Wyoming’s conservatism and conservatism elsewhere in the U.S. — particularly the South — is that Wyoming’s conservatism has a “libertarian” streak. Classic “libertarian” philosophy opposes government regulation of people’s lives, reflecting Thomas Jefferson’s philosophy that “government is best that governs least.” To illustrate, consider two issues prominent in contemporary debates: gun control and abortion. Wyomingites oppose gun control because it involves a governmental restriction on personal activity (possessing and using firearms); this is a standard conservative position. But Wyomingites are also fairly liberal on the question of abortion. The exact numbers vary slightly from poll to poll, but the general numbers have been fairly consistent over the years: around 10 percent oppose abortion altogether; 35 percent support abortion in cases of rape or incest; 15 percent support abortion for other “clearly established” reasons; and 40 percent accept abortion as a matter of personal choice. This distribution of opinion actually shows Wyoming’s population to be slightly more liberal on the abortion issue than the U.S. population as a whole. Again, individual preference is respected over a governmental restriction. Note the similar majorities favoring individual preference over a restrictive law imposed by government on the issues of prayer in public schools, affirmative action, and medicinal marijuana.

Two interesting issues in the news lately illustrate these aspects of Wyoming political culture. The first is same-sex marriage. Opinion polls in Wyoming regularly show opposition to same-sex marriage when survey respondents are asked simply if they support or oppose the policy. However, a July 2013 survey by Public Policy Polling offered Wyoming respondents three options: supporting same-sex marriage, supporting civil unions, and opposing legal recognition of same-sex couples. With three options, Wyoming public opinion divided quite evenly: 28 percent supported gay marriage, 36 percent supported civil unions for same-sex couples, and 32 percent opposed gay marriage. Advocates of both positions can “spin” these results to their advantage. Supporters of same-sex marriage will point out that 64 percent of Wyomingites favored gay rights in the form of either marriage or civil unions, while opponents will point out that 68 percent of Wyomingites disapproved of same-sex marriage. Both of these interpretations are truthful, with the former reflecting a libertarian version of conservative ideology and the latter reflecting the social conservative ideology found in other regions of the United States.

The other prominent recent issue is health care reform. National opinion polls indicate public support of certain elements of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act — commonly called “Obamacare” — such as prohibiting insurance companies from denying coverage because of a pre-existing condition or from dropping coverage if an insured person becomes seriously ill. However, the core element of the program, requiring everyone to have health insurance, is strongly opposed, nationally and in Wyoming. For example, UW’s 2012 survey of Wyomingites showed 66 percent disapproving and only 25 percent approving the health care law. Opposition generally focuses on the law’s mandate that everyone obtain health insurance, which many see as impinging on individual freedom. Thus, public opposition to the PPACA reflects Wyoming’s individualistic political culture, distrust of the federal government, and libertarian brand of conservatism.

Wyoming’s political culture is not unique but similar to the cultures of other states in the intermountain region. The individualistic political culture described by Daniel Elazar either is dominant or has a substantial influence in many of Wyoming’s neighbors. The leading political ideology of many states of the region leans toward the libertarian element of conservatism, although a strong dose of the social conservatism commonly associated with this side of the political spectrum is also evident. Wyoming cannot claim a unique political culture any more than it can claim that no other state has landscapes of mountains and prairies. Yet each state’s political culture has its idiosyncrasies. To be a successful politician in Wyoming requires an understanding of how the various elements of political culture weave together. And, to be able to forge beneficial policies affecting Wyoming’s economy and its people, they may need to assess the role played in Wyoming’s political culture by the forces of change in the 21st century.

— Jim King is a professor of political science at the University of Wyoming.

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  1. Too bad Wyoming does not have a state income tax, after all how much longer will it be able to milk Fed lands for the insiders in WYO, who play at State GOV

  2. History will only ask what kind of personal culture “may/shall” inflict unnecessary suffering on so many of its most un-fortunate, POLITICS BE DAMNED.

  3. Dear Pete Simpson,

    I am enjoying the interesting and thought-provoking essays on your WyoFile forum! As you might expect, I’m not always in agreement, but they do pose interesting questions and gets one to thinking about big issues.
    Old friend and UW colleague Jim King made some interesting points in his essay last week. While I don’t doubt that political theorists might be able to put Wyoming and other states (and lots of politicians) into little boxes, I think it’s a stretch to say that Wyoming can be so easily classified as “libertarian” and conservative. For instance, might Dave Freudenthal’s position on wolves have more to do with the fact that Dave grew up in ag country in Hot Springs County — not that he would be particularly libertarian to hold this position?
    By the way, Gov. Freudenthal’s initial election was much like fellow Democrat Mike Sullivan’s win when the majority Republicans split and, thus, allowed for their standard-bearer to lose. I’d not say it was a result of ideology — or even particularly on political issues. In the past, we’ve had lots of elected officials (from both parties) who were hardly libertarian and yet won against formidable opponents who more closely held that ideology, but may have suffered from splits within their own party ranks. Would any of us historians apply the label of libertarian to, say, Francis E. Warren? Joe Carey? Or the Democrats Kendrick, O’Mahoney, McGee, Roncalio? All managed to chalk up regular electoral victories in Wyoming against (usually) formidable opponents, many of whom were more libertarian and/or conservative.
    I’m reminded of what someone told me, long ago, about why it was that even though Sen. Malcolm Wallop wasn’t terribly popular when he ran the last time against John Vinich, he won “because, as deeply flawed as Malcolm was, Vinich was more so.” No splits in either party that election, but it came down to what Wyoming politics usually comes down — the one ultimate fact (I believe initially coined by you brother Al or, at least, attributed to him): “Everything in Wyoming is political except politics. Politics is personal.”
    Anyway, you’ve heard my comments on the unique ability of Wyoming voters to reject ideology and party in favor of personal politics, but I thought I’d write and thank you again to doing this and keeping us all thinking and debating (with civility) our unique political past and present.

    Phil Roberts

  4. The dominant theme of Wyoming politics, especially regarding the federal government, is “give us more money and leave us alone.” Hardly characteristic of individualism.


  5. Harkening back to my first hour of the first day in Professor John T. Hinckley’s ” Wyoming Politics and Government” course at Northwest College in Powell, circa 1971.

    The first words out of the good professor’s mouth are what I remember most to this day , quote: ” Anyone who thinks he can teach you a damn thing about Wyoming politics and government is a damn fool…” , endquote.

    Yup. Still true.