Today’s guest post is from long-time blog favorite Mary Ann. You can read other posts from Mary Ann here and here.
Mormon anti-government sentiment is typically chalked up to a psychological complex from government-sanctioned persecution in the 19th century, but it doesn’t adequately explain the anger against the federal government currently festering in the American West. The long-term relationship between private citizens and the federal government in this region is like a tense relationship between a tenant and a landlord.
Why I Hated My Landlord
A couple years ago we moved into a rental. The house perfectly fit our needs: family-friendly neighborhood, well-respected schools, decent commute, and relatively low rent allowing us to save for a down payment. When we’d been looking it was a landlord’s market, which meant slim pickings and high competition. I was horrified when I first saw the condition of the house, but my husband pointed out that most of my concerns were cosmetic. A little elbow grease would fix it right up, he said. There was another prospective tenant ahead of us in line, but she was insistent that the landlord fix several issues before she’d move in. The property manager told us that if we were willing to accept the condition of the house as-is, the landlord would pick us over her. There was a very low probability we would find something better, so we agreed.
I figured if the landlord hadn’t cared about the poor maintenance from previous tenants, we’d have some latitude to work with. I was wrong. It seemed that every minor change we made caused problems. Items that had never bothered my previous landlords suddenly were mortally offensive. For example, replacing small fixtures that didn’t work was apparently not okay, and we had to promise to put back the non-functional fixtures at the end of our lease. I wasn’t wild about the stuff they did either. The improvements and quick fixes they did were of questionable taste and questionable quality. The landlord sometimes felt the property management company was too expensive, so she’d send her husband over to fix stuff without any notice. Every little thing over the course of the two years just reinforced the truth: This might be my home, but this is her house. I knew that I technically didn’t have a right to say what should happen with the house, and it was frustrating. The insecurity led to a sort of paranoia – “Fantastic. What’s she gonna do this time?” I never actually met my landlord or even talked with her on the phone, but I knew I disliked her intensely. When I left it was hard to leave the neighborhood, the schools, and the ward, but it wasn’t hard to leave that house. I desperately wanted my own house, where I could have the final say in what happened in my home.
Life in the West
In Angela C’s “Are Mormons Anti-Modernists?” post at By Common Consent, MattG referenced Colin Woodard’s American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America. Woodard’s book is a variation on Joel Garreau’s 1981 The Nine Nations of North America. Each book argues that to truly understand the political conflicts in this country, you need to understand how people in different regions vary in their experiences and ideologies. While each uses different terms to describe the culture of the American West (“Far West” in one, “Empty Quarter” in the other), the geographic boundaries are almost identical. In each case the region covers the Great Basin, Rocky Mountains, and Western Plains. It encompasses just about the entirety of the old Mormon state of Deseret.
Woodard theorizes that “Far West” libertarianism and suspicion of large institutions (including the federal government) is due to how the region was tamed. The harsh, sometimes inhospitable climates “could be made habitable only with the deployment of vast industrial resources: railroads, heavy mining equipment, ore smelters, dams, and irrigations.” These were directed either by large corporations on the coasts or by the federal government. “The Far West’s people are often resentful of their dependent status, feeling that they have been exploited as an internal colony for the benefit of the seaboard nations.”
Garreau’s description of the “Empty Quarter” goes in a slightly different direction, but he also cites environmental factors and a general feeling of helplessness: “It’s incredibly rich in energy resources. It has dozens of times more energy than the Persian Gulf will ever dream of. And it is, in fact, very empty. Very few people live here, and as a result it is politically powerless. This is the last “colony” of the nine nations. The idea is that we are going to chew this up and spit it out to get us into the next century. But there is one hitch. This is also the place that has the last great stretches of wilderness and quality-one air; so, if we chew this up and spit it out, we can kiss the Rockies goodbye. And of course there is a political context to that too, because there are a lot of people who don’t want to see that wilderness despoiled.”
The Government as Landlord
The federal government still controls a significant portion of the American West. It owns about half (46.9%) of all land in the Western United States. The federal government also owns 61.2% of Alaska (Alaska is included in both Woodard’s “Far West” and Garreau’s “Empty Quarter”). In the remaining portion of the lower 48 states and Hawaii, the feds only own 4% of the land. Westerners have little say in many ways with what happens in their lands. The insecurity, that feeling of being pushed around by entities far away, very much contributes to a sense of paranoia that fuels libertarian angst. The anger becomes even worse when a powerful government official in Washington D.C. single-handedly destroys the livelihoods of many Westerners. I’ll share two examples.
Example 1: In the early 1970s, President Nixon used executive powers to impose wage and price freezes in an attempt to combat rising inflation. Associated with that was the elimination of tariffs on oil and meat imports to drive down prices. Those actions were catastrophic to the cattle ranching industry, a major force in the West. The beef industry calls it “The Wreck.” It caused a severe crash in the cattle market and dramatic herd reduction. My family was directly affected. My grandpa was a newly retired cattleman, an excellent businessman with solid investments that would fund a well-earned retirement. The collapse in the cattle market nearly bankrupted him. Despite returning back to the workforce, he never recovered financially. On a wider scale, Nixon’s actions galvanized an emerging libertarian movement, and drove a young Ron Paul into politics.
Example 2: In September 1996, President Clinton used executive powers to designate 1.8 million acres of southern Utah as the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. The announcement came at the Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona. It was a complete shock to Utahns. Utah’s governor and congressional delegation had only received 24 hours’ notification of Clinton’s imminent declaration. Legal challenges were worthless; the Supreme Court has always supported the president’s nearly unlimited discretion under the Antiquities Act. Environmentalists were thrilled that a proposed coal mine on the designated land was blocked. Many Utahns could only see the lost economic opportunities. Almost two decades later, the anger is still strong. An Idaho newspaper interviewed residents of Escalante, Utah, in 2014 in anticipation of a possible national monument designation in that state: “It’s just a d— poor deal,” said 85-year-old Arnold Alvey, a lifelong Escalante resident. “I can’t see that we’ve gained one d— thing. All it’s gained for us is a bunch of these federal marshals in here, telling us we can’t go here, we can’t go there.”
It could be water rights or property rights. It could be about environmental concerns prioritized over local industries. It could be the frustration of being part of a tourism industry dependent on federal lands, with partisan bickering in Washington D.C. governing your fate. It could be the perceived nuisance of getting federal permission to use land your family has accessed for generations. It could be the fear of government officials taking away your private property. Whatever the reason, many Westerners feel they’ve lost control over the lands they call home.
They hate their landlord.
 The 11 Western States in that statistic: Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming.
 An act of Congress in 1998 finally compensated the state of Utah for the mineral rights and trust lands lost (lands designated to help fund public education).
So this reminds me of the reintroduction of wolves into Idaho. Maaannnnn there is still so much local animosity and hate over that move. People in DC calling the shots who have no idea what it’s like living in “river of no return” – type wilderness.
I agree there’s a very strident “free-range survival of the fittest” mentality out West born from the homesteading/pioneering founders. Moving from wet to east coast was a shocker. We almost got CPS called on us a few times bc we let our daughter play out in the yard all by herself without supervision. It’s a different world out there. (of course….I preferred living there, too. so?)
This post hits the nail squarely. I will add that it’s not just rural land-use issues to play, because in Western states, the cities and towns are ringed by federal land. I’ll repeat an example of this I placed elsewhere yesterday:
When 87% of a state’s land is federal property, as is the case for Nevada, then every major land-use issue is a federal matter. There have been efforts over the last few years to build a new campus for UNLV on the north end of the Las Vegas valley. Of course, the proposed site is federal land; there isn’t any other kind. De-federalization of any land requires an act of Congress, so a necessary step in moving the campus is plying a bill through House and Senate committees. Pahrump, another valley 60 miles to the west, is going through the same thing for a community college campus. The cities of Las Vegas and North Las Vegas have their own bills in the works to add 660 acres to Las Vegas and 645 acres to North Las Vegas. There was something of this sort going on for some land development north of Mesquite. All of these land-use issues, which would be complicated decisions with many interests to be balanced in any state, always in Nevada have the added complication of being federal issues subject to a national political process. On the national level, the needs or wishes of UNLV, let alone the Great Basin College Pahrump Campus, are very unimportant, and it is not a good thing that they have to be presented to the U.S. Congress, and then mixed into all the national politics of passing bills.
Your first example is more revealing than you realize. The key policy change was not the wage and price freeze, but the elimination of beef tariffs. That’s called “letting the market work without government interference” and libertarians like Ron Paul are supposed to be in favor of that. But it worked against the interests of cattlemen so they got mad at the government for not interfering. That’s the way it always goes. People don’t really want the government to leave them alone–they want the government to help them and are mad because they perceive the government to be helping somebody else instead.
Last Lemming, you make a good point. While many on the right end of the political spectrum believe that the market should operate without government interference, they still feel betrayed when they perceive the government working against the interests of it’s own citizens. It’s a contradiction.
REP. GREG WALDEN (R.OR) ADDRESSES OREGON STANDOFF, HAMMOND INJUSTICE, GOVERNMENT OVERREACH
Excellent portrayal of the Western point of view. Garreau’s book has been one of my favorites.
It’s been a long time since I lived out there. But I remember dinner table conversations where my father complained about, among other things, the formation of the River of No Return Wilderness. “It’s elitist,” he said.
Westerners like to think of themselves as rugged individualists. But nobody could live out there without dams and irrigation. Little, pioneer-built dams constantly broke. Only government and the power companies had deep enough pockets to build dams that worked.
Howard, thanks for sharing that. It’s a fantastic summary of the issues feeding into the current standoff.
On the libertarian aspect – people feel that one government official should not have the power to single-handedly decide policy that drastically affects the lives of American citizens. President Obama using executive powers to push through progressive agendas is not helping allay those concerns. According to the constitution, Americans are supposed to have a say in what happens through their locally-elected officials. As the above video testifies, those elected officials have very little power to control what federal agencies do in their constituencies.
On the idea that governments should act in the best interests of the citizens – people are invested in their communities and feel strongly about how they should be managed. Like John pointed out, Nevadans have to appeal to Congressional process in order to push through projects that are clearly of only local concern. Federal agencies understandably act in accordance with the priorities of Eastern leaders, and those priorities are not always aligned with the priorities of local Western citizens and local governments. There is a serious mistrust of outsiders, especially representatives of the federal government. In the Cliven Bundy standoff a few years back, he and his allied militias refused to recognize the authority of the federal government, though they recognized the authority of state and county officials. Ultimately it was the county sheriff who was able to mediate an agreement between Bundy and feds.
One of the points that the Oregon rep made in the video was the extreme devotion the people have to the United States, proven by the number of citizens involved with the military (those looking in from the outside see that as a contradiction, since they’re fighting the feds). Among more politically conservative communities, military service proves that you’re a team player, willing to lay down your life for fellow citizens. It’s proof you’ll defend the freedoms and liberties the founding fathers established. Same ideology that feeds into the Tea Party.. People look to the military uprising of the American Revolution as an example of what lengths some people must do to overthrow an oppressive regime. The more oppressed Westerners feel by the federal government (heavy-handed overreach, restriction of civil liberties), the more they look to something like the American Revolution as a solution. It’s a bad situation.
I agree that you hit the nail on the head. We in the West do hate the landlord, and like your “previous” landlords who didn’t care about small changes, we can only “use” our federal lands, or make small changes, until the landlord notices & throws a fit.
You’re welcome Mary Ann. Here’s another.
The Truth About The Oregon Rancher Standoff
I can understand the general gripe, but if the federal government “owns” the land, then the federal government (and all that entails) and not locals have the right to say how the land is used. We don’t have a ton of federal land in my state, but where we do (National forests, national wildlife refuges) I notice that people who own land around these areas use these as their personal playgrounds, and get miffed when the Feds interfere with their fun (or livelihood as the case may be.) I sympathize with western landowners, but the bottom line is when we do a title abstract and trace it back to the beginning, we all got our property from the sovereign — the federal government. Perhaps the time to have fought the Fed over it’s ownership of large areas of land was when the state sought recognition. I have bigger complaints about uncompensated government “takings” like the limitations put on private land use vis a vis the Clean Water Act (think wetlands mitigation.) My personal opinion is that if it’s important enough to all of America that the government keep me from developing my 100 acre tract because it’s “wetland”, then I ought to be compensated for my inability to use it for it’s highest and best use.
…if the federal government “owns” the land, then the federal government (and all that entails) and not locals have the right to say how the land is used.
So the land isn’t *owned* by the people IDIAT? It’s *owned* by the federal government? Then who *owns* the federal government?
I think there is a significant constitutional question of Federal overreach and States rights that is generally in play here. In the case of the Hammond family (see photo) it appears the US government is attempting to acquire their land in a morally bankrupt way.
I have to keep reminding myself that the US is huge, when I read news reports like these, and the situation is more akin to us in the UK facing restrictions from the EU, which many do protest (sea fishing quotas would be an example) rather than protesting national government. Thanks for this perspective Mary Ann.
IDAIT, farmers in the EU are compensated by way of subsidy for maintaining such habitats (recent mention in this article which looks at wetlands more widely: http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/jul/20/swamp-power-how-the-worlds-wetlands-can-help-stop-climate-change), though it also indicates that different arms of EU regulation can work against eachother.
IDIAT, you’re correct that it is technically federal land. However, how that land is governed directly affects the surrounding citizens: they have a vested interest. If the federal government messes up, the locals have to pay. In the case of the government shut down a fews years back due to partisan bickering, many state governments footed the bill to keep national parks and monuments open. They couldn’t afford to sit on their hands and eat the losses. Kind of like when a tenant gets evicted by the bank because the landlord wasn’t paying the mortgage. It’s the landlord’s responsibility, but their mismanagement has devastating consequences for the tenant.
Just be sure that you don’t move into a neighborhood with a strong Homeowners Association. Having “the final say in what happened in my home” remains elusive for a lot of us.
I can’t cut down a tree without permit, or have more than two chickens in my yard, and any pets must be fenced or leashed.
I will confess outright that I have little sympathy for the occupiers given 1) that they belong to the Bundy clan that is still stiffing the American taxpayer more than $1 million for their federally subsidized grazing, 2) that they are behaving lawlessly by taking over property that doesn’t belong to them and recklessly threatening with their weapons, 3) that they have disrupted the lives of the citizens and operations of the surrounding area, and 4) left their homes and businesses (at least some non-ranch related) in other states to insert themselves into the fight of parties that didn’t invite and don’t want their interference.
In the larger question that may, indeed, warrant some discussion and adjustment between all levels of government, the land is not “technically” federal. It is legally and absolutely federal which is to say held in the joint interest of the American people. As such it provides water sheds, unpolluted air, balanced ecological systems, tax revenues (when people pay for the rights they contract for, Cliven), recreation and jobs for those locally and centrally who maintain them.
If something is neglected or mismanaged or the extension of service privileges are not dealt out equitably the courts are the place to seek redress. And cry me a river about the neglected fly over-ers who think the DC government is too remote for them. They, per capita have far more influence in Washington than the rest of us and that is why we have the government that we have when Americans can vote in real numbers for Democrats and get a GOP House and Senate that create “safe” seats that are impregnable.
It has been federal land since before some of the Western areas became states. It does not become the prize of reversed eminent domain to anyone who can see over their fence to land that hasn’t been overgrazed yet. Coveting something doesn’t make it available — there’s something about that in the Ten Commandments — taking it is a theft of the property and services of the American people in toto.
Mostly, god save us from the whiners in the appropriately named Malheur Wildlife Reserve and the Masters of Tacky from Las Vegas being the last word on the uses of the American taxpayers’ property.
Fair points Alice and Naismith.
Look, the system *can* work, but people on both sides need to feel like they’re being listened to. When you have people who feel that those in charge are ignoring important concerns, they feel a need to talk louder and louder until they can get the attention of those at the top. Whether it’s through standoff or marching on Temple Square, people will go to extremes that many in their community find objectionable.
My point is that this isn’t a *Mormon* thing, even if some use Mormon doctrine to justify their position. This is a *Western* thing.
I majored in Anthropology/Archaeology at BYU. Most of the work that came to us was in southern Utah. For our field school, we camped for two months just outside the city of Escalante. Every day we drove into the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument as far as the BLM would allow, and hiked our equipment in the rest of the way to excavate some pit-houses. We were allowed to do that because of government funding due to the creation of that monument just a few years prior. I also participated in many other archaeological surveys in southern Utah – all paid for by government entities. When locals found out why we were there, there was immediate suspicion. We were the enemy. Our leaders, though, always had an ability to diffuse tension. Many had grown up in central and southern Utah, and once they started sharing stories about hometowns and common connections you could see people visibly relax. Even though we were there working for the government, we were suddenly not outsiders and they were more willing to give us space. Other members of the crew could also blend more easily – being from a small oil town in northeastern Utah, or from a rural town on the Western Slopes of Colorado. We were all Mormon, but that wasn’t enough. I was in a bit of trouble cause I’m a city girl, but even I could get some credibility if I mentioned one grandpa was a cattleman and the other was a miner. Even better, that some of my ancestors settled and were buried in southern Utah.
Essentially, we had to prove that we weren’t outsiders to gain any traction. People trust others when they are confident that they will be understood. When decisions are being made without local input, when outsiders have the ability to change the economic prospects of an entire community on a whim, people get angry.
If local leadership had more say in what happened on government land, locals that citizens know and trust, there would be a lot less frustration and angst. That’s why it took a local official to diffuse the Cliven Bundy situation. And that’s why it’s important that local officials diffuse the standoff in Oregon.
Howard #11 – Sure we the people own it. In fact I have my own bed at the White House.
So you’re bunking with Michelle?
Btw, I’m really hoping at least one other person is enjoying the irony of many in the bloggernacle declaring legitimate concerns of a group becoming invalidated by the inappropriate nature of their protest.
I wonder when those Westerners will show some empathy and problem solving assistance for people in urban areas. Or for ethnic people. There are simmering problems, not the least of which are sensible gun regulation that have been out of control for decades and reasonable access to affordable health care in the interest of public health. But those with the most representation in the country have been more interested in the creation of a rigid and counterproductive Tea Party having a strangle hold on our government than solutions to save live sand make a basic quality of life sustainable for the largest populations in the country.
In the end, while I’m in sympathy with your objectives, Mary Ann, there are more than one or two perspectives on what’s required. I don’t see that Western land rights are the highest priority. And I think there’s an unjustified sense of entitlement (ironically enough) that’s in the way of a productive national conversation, for one thing, and another question about the sustainability of a business model that can’t be maintained by the proprietors’ own resources.
And, with respect to honoring local officials but reserving the choice about which officials to dismiss, were you serious? Because the essence of a valid election is NOT that we bind ourselves to the officials of our personal peccadillos in a lawful society.
alice please support your absolute certitude and outright dismissal, it sounds to me that you’ve been drinking the political Kool-Aid.
“Btw, I’m really hoping at least one other person is enjoying the irony of many in the bloggernacle declaring legitimate concerns of a group becoming invalidated by the inappropriate nature of their protest.”
I don’t see the irony. I have no problem with most peaceful protests, including when I disagree with the protestors concerns. I do not consider a protest to be peaceful when the protesters are armed and make public statements calling for law enforcement to stay away so that no one will get hurt.
Being armed isn’t illegal (yet) it’s protected by the United States Constitution
Being armed is not illegal (except in some cases), but being armed and saying someone could get hurt to keep law enforcement away is a threat using passive voice. I don’t know if they are trespassing or breaking any laws for that matter, but I’m certain that law enforcement has as much a right to be there as they do.
Yes, I agree with #24 Rockwell.
I don’t agree with the nature of the protest. My desire is to help people understand the angst in the West that could lead people to these types of actions.
I used the term inappropriate for a reason. Propriety is determined by what is acceptable by the community. Illegality is one aspect, but there are legal forms of protest that certain communities also find objectionable.
I bring up the comparison to the OW march for two reasons:
1 – When people decide to protest, they often choose a manner of protest that makes sense to them. While they feel that they are communicating in a rational manner, they are not always aware of how their actions are received by their target audience. Often there are two different cultures at work, and the form of communication ends up overshadowing the message itself. An armed protest evoking the spirit of the American Revolution is offensive to people who associate guns with murderous rampages and fringe lunatics. Similarly, a protest evoking the spirit of progressive civil rights movements and anti-Vietnam demonstrations is offensive to people who see the progressive liberal ideas of the 1960s and 1970s as the source of moral decay in today’s culture.
2 – There is no way an Eastern human rights lawyer could ever garner sympathy in a region and church dominated by long-time conservative Westerners resentful of Easterners forcing their priorities and beliefs on them.