Simpson Forum: Wyoming’s political identityBy Sienna White — August 6, 2013
Being raised by two scientists produced myriad unsurprising, but often laughable, results, and this upbringing drastically impacted the way I view the world. My family has been known to share our favorite unique genetic anomalies over the dinner table, to discuss the outcomes of dihybrid-cross Punnett squares at holiday gatherings, and to identify commonly seen fauna and flora by their scientific names in everyday conversation. This science-centric background made me inherently skeptical of the validity of graphs and statistics, given the ease with which they can be manipulated and the frequency with which they are misrepresented. I mention this because the question of Wyoming’s political identity is usually answered with numbers.
- 576,412. According to the 2012 census, the population of Wyoming is 576,412 people.
- 90% white and 80% Christian. Polls have found that about 80% of Wyomingites consider themselves Christian, including an 11% Mormon minority, while the remaining 18-20% don’t consider themselves religious.
- 1964. This was the last time Wyoming elected a Democratic Presidential candidate and it was one of only eight times that’s happened since Wyoming was granted statehood.
- 2nd. Wyoming has the second highest average elevation in the U.S., after Colorado.
- #1 and #2. Wyoming is the number one producer of coal in the United States, and is ranked second for total U.S. energy production. Wyoming’s natural resource commodities include coal, natural gas, coal-bed methane, crude oil, uranium, and trona.
It’s easy to look at those familiar numbers and conclude Wyoming’s political identity is obviously extremely conservative, and largely Republican. Because the data strongly supports that conclusion, the conversation usually ends there. Thus, Wyoming is classified as a radical right-wing state with a wealth of coal mining and natural resources.
I, however, argue that this generalized classification of Wyoming’s political identity is inaccurate and unrepresentative of the state where I was raised. Statistics are often used as an easy way to answer tough questions, an end in themselves, much to the detriment of the objective of science and statistics – which is understanding. Wyoming is a complex, diverse, anachronism of a state, and I believe the question of Wyoming’s political identity, both static and evolving, defies single sentence classification.
Allow me to preface my thoughts on our political identity with the disclosure that my love for Wyoming is absolute and unconditional. My parents haven’t locked their front door since before I was born, I learned to drive in an ancient, grizzled pickup truck while my parents threw hay bales in the back, and I was six years old before I saw an escalator for the first time at the Denver Museum of Natural History. There is no better place in the world to grow up, and I’m always conflicted when I tell people how great it is – I’m proud of where I come from, but I don’t want a stampede of outsiders moving in!
Despite this unfaltering loyalty, it’s abundantly clear to me that our state is facing quite a few tough conversations that can’t be avoided any longer. The cognitive dissonance I feel toward the place that made me who I am is significant, and I’m often unable to describe, let alone resolve, the feeling of discomfort that results from holding two conflicting beliefs. Our state has innumerable positive one-of-a-kind qualities, yet we also maintain more than our share of backwards, archaic, and outright discriminatory views. The Millennial Generation, even in Wyoming, tends to be far more liberal than our parents – so we face the challenge of balancing the Wyoming values we grew up with, and the social progressive movement many of us relate to. This evolution is a component of Wyoming’s political identity that cannot be ignored. To complicate things further, Wyoming endures the juxtaposition of a politically conservative majority, with a country that loves reading headlines exaggerating the extremism of that portion of our population. Wyoming’s political identity is riddled with success as well as failure, radically conservative political statements and progressive victories.
In 1998, Matthew Shepard was brutally murdered in Laramie, Wyo., and it became the United States’ most infamous gay hate crime. The horror of what happened that night breaks my heart, but I can’t help wondering why the 30 fatally violent hate crimes that were committed against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender victims in other parts of the United States last year alone didn’t receive remotely comparable news coverage. Those deaths were certainly no less grisly or tragic, but people love to read news stories that reinforce pre-existing stereotypes, and none of those murders took place in a state like Wyoming.
Wyoming is “The Equality State” and although we may have granted women the right to vote at least in part due to a minimum population threshold for statehood, we proudly take credit for being the first state to elect a female governor. Our Equality State status was publicly called into question in light of Matthew Shepard’s murder, and it appears we face another harsh reality check. Studies indicate that on average, women in the U.S. earn about 77 cents for every dollar a man does, creating a wage gap of 23 cents. The most recent research, based on 2011 data, found that in Washington, D.C., women earn 90.4 cents, narrowing the gap to just under 10 cents. But in Wyoming, women earn 66.6 cents for each dollar a man does, bringing the wage gap to 33.4 cents.
As I mentioned, knowing where data comes from is imperative, so my initial conflicted reaction to the not-so-equal state of affairs surrounding Wyoming’s gender wage gap, was that the data couldn’t possibly represent the whole picture. In 2011, Casper, Wyo., was named one of CNN Money’s nine fastest growing boom towns in the United States with rapid economic growth rooted in mining and natural resources. I hypothesized that gender segregation by industry had to be skewing the state-wide wage gender data. Disappointingly, I was wrong. Women are paid significantly less than men across the board, including those working in Education and Health Care, and 26 percent of female headed households in Wyoming live below the federal poverty line.
Alarmingly, Wyoming law also punishes those guilty of animal abuse more harshly than it punishes those guilty of domestic violence and child abuse, and we have one of the highest domestic violence rates in the country.
Despite Wyoming’s notorious “keep the government out of our business” attitude, it’s interesting to note that Wyoming receives more federal tax dollars per capita in aid than any state but Alaska. Our federal aid, per capita, is more than double the U.S. average yet we vehemently oppose any mention of regulation by the federal government. This opposition extends to issues as varied as federal gun regulation, which we embarrassingly attempted to nullify preemptively through state legislation in 2013, to the listing and monitoring of endangered species.
We are lucky enough to have the state-funded Hathaway Scholarship, created by the legislature in 2005, with a $400 million permanent endowment — the income from which gives all Wyoming high school grads the opportunity to receive full-ride scholarships to the University of Wyoming. In contrast, Wyoming was one of the states that filed suit against Obamacare opposing legislation that would allow those same Wyoming Hathaway scholars to remain on their parents’ insurance plans and have access to affordable healthcare.
The federal government began subsidizing agriculture in 1933, and farm aid programs have been criticized for encouraging troubled farmers to take “bigger-than-prudent risks,” yet Wyoming received $758 million in federal agriculture subsidies between 1995 and 2012. There is an inherent contradiction between calling for smaller government and condemning the national budget deficit, but accepting significant federal aid – yet Wyoming certainly maintains both positions simultaneously.
So in answer to the question: “What is Wyoming’s political identity?” Well, it depends.
Wyoming is a breathtakingly beautiful, complex, complicated, incongruent place with a political landscape as varied as the geography and weather. Snowstorms during Cody’s Fourth of July Parade have happened on more than one occasion during my lifetime. I watched Republican and social conservative, Pat Childers, whose daughter is a lesbian, give a truly moving speech opposing a proposed “defense of marriage” addition to the Wyoming constitution in our House of Representatives. I walked across the stage at my graduation from the University of Wyoming with a class of more young women than young men.
As a Millennial raised in Wyoming, I oppose our far-right social conservatism and our frequent disregard for environmental sustainability, but I will always have a bucking bronc on my license plate. So, I think this is a pivotal moment in Wyoming’s history, and we have the opportunity to choose what we’re going to stand for. Will we be the location of the Libertarian Free State Project? Will we be the most conservative state in the nation? Will we be known for our gender discrimination and failure to provide constitutionally guaranteed equal protection? Or will we successfully broaden our definitions, without watering down our Wyoming values, and remain the Equality State?
Wyoming has a population of half a million people – not a very large statistical sample. Our population is not one that readily lends itself to inclusion in correlative data or recognizable statistical trends. Wyoming’s political identity in the 21st century is yet to be determined, but the unquestionable common denominator among Wyomingites, and the reason I know we’ll survive the tough conversations ahead, is the value we place on integrity – a good start for any conversation.
This column appears as part of WyoFile’s Pete Simpson Forum, a project to stimulate civil dialogue on issues that matter to Wyoming. 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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