Sunday, October 24, 2010

"Backwards Thinking" in the Rocky Mountain West

Although we are fairly diffuse now, we who contribute fairly regularly to Rural Republic all share a connection to Eastern Colorado. So, we would naturally be interested in the Colorado gubernatorial race in just about any year. However, the way it has shaken out this year has garnered national attention... and it just got even more interesting, especially from the viewpoint of rural Americans.

Let me begin my brief recap of the campaign by pointing out that, while I am pretty invested in my long-held unaffiliated voter status (I think the hierarchy of both major parties smells about as rotten as a town with a packing plant, a sugar beet refinery, and a history of sewer problems), I was just about ready to declare myself a Republican this year in order to vote for candidates I was excited to support in both the U.S. Senate race and the governor's race. Before I could even get that far, though, the national and state "powers that be" within the party did some major field-clearing and swept both candidates out of their respective races. And that's where the problems started for the Republicans in what had been expected to be a great opportunity to reclaim the governorship.

You can read up further on the subject here or at other sources, but here's what happened in a nutshell: the anointed choice of the party turned out to be a serial plagiarist and, well, just a jerk. By the time all of this became clear, though, it was too late for anyone who wasn't already on the primary ballot to get in the race - and the only other person who hadn't taken the cue to clear out was Dan Maes, a complete political novice who has turned out to be a serial... well, to be kind, "exaggerator." Seeing a chance to beat Denver mayor John Hickenlooper (the Democrats' relatively weak candidate) slipping away, former Congressman Tom Tancredo sought to bluff whoever won the primary into agreeing to step aside so that the party could name a more electable candidate. If they agreed, he said, he would stay out of the race; if not, he would enter as a "third party" candidate, potentially splitting the conservative vote.

Well, Maes won the primary and proceeded to call Tancredo's bluff. It was generally assumed that having both Maes and Tancredo in the race would guarantee a Hickenlooper win... but Maes has continued down a path of historic self-destruction and Hickenlooper has failed to generate much statewide excitement. This has resulted in a situation today in which most polls show Hickenlooper with a lead over Tancredo just smaller than the margin of error (e.g., 44% to 40%), with Maes hovering in the 10% range.

Which brings us to two days ago, when National Review Online brought to light a 2009 interview in which Hickenlooper, when asked why the Matthew Shepard Foundation (named for a young, gay man murdered near Laramie, Wyoming in 1998) established its offices in Denver despite Shepard having no real connection to Colorado, said:

I think a couple things, I mean, you know, the tragic death of Matthew Shepard occurred in Wyoming. Colorado and Wyoming are very similar. We have some of the same, you know, backwards thinking in the kind of rural Western areas you see in, you know, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico.
Hickenlooper also went on to cite the vibrant gay (or "LGBT") community in Denver, but never, apparently, did he point out reasons such as the strong nonprofit and NGO network in his city, or the most obvious point that Denver is the political and economic hub for a multi-state region. His first, primary, explanation is that the entire region is populated with a significant number of people who subscribe to "backwards thinking" and, by extension, are only different in degree from the desperate meth addicts who killed Shepard.

Now, you might think that someone who embraces the nickname "Hick" and appears in one of his campaign ads dressed as a rodeo cowboy might have a certain fondness for rural Coloradans. However, these gestures have a certain sniggering, ironic quality to them - not unlike this or this. Upon further examination of Hickenlooper's background, it seems more likely that he neither likes nor understands rural people and the issues that are important to them.

As a child, Hickenlooper attended the all-boys' Haverford School, described by The Philadelphia Inquirer as an "elite private school." He then went on to undergraduate and graduate degrees from "storied" Wesleyan University. He later co-founded a controversial philanthropic fund that supports such groups as Re-create 68, and has said of former Obama "green jobs czar" Van Jones, "he is a rock star... he's bigger and better in life than what you've heard." He is, in short, a part of the "ruling class" outlined by Angelo Codevilla (and recently described here by Jon), surpassed only by people with names like Bush and Kennedy - and, perhaps, his former chief-of-staff and fellow Wesleyan alum Senator Michael Bennet, whose father has served as Assistant Secretary of State for two Democratic presidents, CEO of National Public Radio, and president of... Wesleyan University.

The kind of contempt Hickenlooper shows for many of his potential constituents is hardly unique. Barack Obama told a group of supporters in San Francisco during his 2008 presidential campaign that people in small towns in Pennsylvania, "like a lot of small towns in the Midwest" have grown frustrated by their region's economic decline and "they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations."

More than a century before that, William "Boss" Tweed of Tammany Hall infamy told the editor of Harper's Weekly, "I don't care a straw for your newspaper articles, my constituents don't know how to read." (He continued, "But they can't help seeing them damned pictures," referring to the political cartoons Thomas Nast had been using to criticize him.)

This time around, voters have a chance to prevent the election of someone who despises a large percentage of them. Leaders from both major parties acknowledge the importance rural voters play in statewide elections in Colorado; perhaps Mayor Hickenlooper's "bitter clinger" moment will be the impetus those voters need to demand a little respect.

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