I grew up in a Wyoming town of 5,000 people. It wasn’t (and still isn’t) a big town by Wyoming standards, but neither is it particularly small. The entire state has fewer people than Portland, Oregon.
I loved growing up in Wyoming. Wide, open spaces, with beautiful mountains, deserts, forests, and rivers, with almost no people around anywhere. It was a wonderful place to be a kid who likes to wander.
But its politics, as you may have heard, are increasingly extreme.
Semi-trucks and right-wing radio
For much of my youth, my parents shirked day care and instead had me ride with my dad during the day in the semi-truck he drove everyday between an oil refinery in southern Montana and multiple gas stations in Wyoming. This was—I’m almost certain—illegal, as he’d always have me hide under the dash when we had to go through weigh stations.
I distinctly remember Rush Limbaugh on the radio on almost every trip. So that’s what I grew up listening to.
It wasn’t all bad. I mean, it was probably toxic in many ways, especially chemically. But my dad was competent and (mostly) kind when I was really young, and he would buy me happy meals and let me run the refinery’s analog loading machine (it looked like something out of Lost) that filled the trailer with climate-changing carbon fuel.
That was a typical Wyoming childhood, from what I could tell. Fossil fuels and right-wing politics were and are pervasive in that state, and every child is inducted into that way of life as the default.
People in Wyoming especially despise the federal government in general and environmental regulation in particular. Which is ironic. Many of the towns and jobs in that state only exist because of the federal government (and, ironically, environmental regulations). Let’s cover a few.
Ag and oil (Big Horn Basin)
My hometown literally only exists because of the federal government. I grew up in a desert, and yet it’s a thriving farming community. Why? Because in 1904 the (federal) Bureau of Reclamation authorized and built the Buffalo Bill Dam, near Cody, Wyoming. Besides producing power, the dam and resulting irrigation projects brought water for irrigation to an otherwise arid basin. My hometown literally wouldn’t exist otherwise.
The building of this dam followed previous federal incentives for private irrigation projects (namely by way of The Carey Act), but those private efforts failed, resulting in direct intervention by the federal government.
My own mormon grandfather supported a family of 12 (my mother is one of 10 kids) by working for a power co-op originally funded by—you guessed it— the federal government via the New Deal’s Rural Electrification Act.
Before my father hauled me and the region’s gasoline around in a semi, he worked in the oil fields north and south of my hometown. Those oil fields are (of course) on Bureau of Land Management land, which is (of course) federal land.
I won’t even mention federal subsidies and Land and Water Conservation Fund grants the state benefits from. Because there’s just too much federal support to mention everything.
Vacuuming every day (Gillette)
When I was young, Gillette, Wyoming, had the only 50-meter (Olympic-sized) swimming pool in the entire state, and because I and my sister both swam, we were in Gillette a lot. Like four times a year. Gillette is…an underwhelming place (by contrast, relatively nearby Sheridan—at the base of the Big Horn Mountains—is stunning), but Gillette is among the most economically vibrant towns in the state.
Why? Coal, and lots of it. Where is this coal? Largely on federal land, of course.
One of my mother’s 8 sisters lives in Gillette, and so we would stay there during our many trips. I distinctly remember my aunt asking us to vacuum every day in exchange for staying there. It turns out when you live in the coal capital of the U.S., there’s coal dust everywhere.
Coal capital of the U.S. (thanks feds!)
How did Wyoming become the coal capital of the U.S.? Because of federal environmental regulations, namely amendments to the Clean Air Act that limited sulfur emissions from burning coal. Wyoming’s coal, relative to that from other U.S. states, was already low in sulfur, and consequently Wyoming coal production exploded. Wyoming continues to dominate the national coal market to this day, thanks to an amendment to a federal environmental regulation.
Look, I love my family and friends in Wyoming, and I love the incomparable beauty of that state. But the people are largely hypocrites, who lean into a political and cultural perspective that actively ignores uncomfortable truths. Here are just a few more…
- I grew up 10 miles from the Heart Mountain Relocation Center (essentially a concentration camp for U.S. citizens of Japanese descent during World War II), and heard exactly nothing about it in school.
- The state is effectively socially subsidized by fossil fuel revenue, largely drawn from federal lands and supported by federal subsidies and grants (and, in the case of Gillette, environmental regulations). Schools, social services, infrastructure…almost all derive from federal support in some way. State funding is distributed almost socialistically (do you think people in Wyoming would consider themselves socialists?), through collective disbursement from the state government.
- Wyoming has 2 senators, just like every other state. For a state that doesn’t want to be controlled by the federal government in any way (and yet owing almost their entire existence to it), they seem comfortable wielding wildy disproportionate power over the rest of the country, having as they do the smallest population in the U.S. and equivalent power in the senate to any other state.
- Don’t even get me started on wolves and Yellowstone National Park. The tourism money flowing into Wyoming from Yellowstone National Park is staggering, and yet Wyoming’s anti-federal stance is perpetually hostile to the very existence of Yellowstone, much less the federal government’s management of it (which is, of course, the whole premise of the National Park System).
Even so, Liz Cheney’s landslide primary loss was, while expected, still shocking. Liz Cheney is among the most conservative politicians to occupy a house seat, and represents all of the willful ignorance I mentioned above.
But it’s not enough to be conservative now. You have to be anti-democracy. Because, after all, Wyoming doesn’t exist in its current form in a true democracy, and they probably know that.