The Battle for the West

How could the Republicans boast about their liberal values and their record in government when public funds are currently being used to fill the black hole created by US banks? Most Americans are in sour mood, as rising energy prices reduce their purchasing power, already affected by the credit crunch and the wage freeze.

So the Republicans have decided to change the subject and talk about patriotism, authenticity and attachment to “traditional values”. Faced with Barack Obama’s life story and the prospect of a historic breakthrough, they came up with their own stories: Sarah Palin, mother of five, governor of Alaska, wife of a champion snow-machine racer; and John McCain, American hero, who bombed Vietnam and spent five years in captivity there. And a new slogan, “Country first”. (Does that mean the Democrats put country last?)

Four years ago, despite a poor economic and diplomatic performance (a recession and the disastrous war in Iraq), President Bush won a second term stressing his religious faith and playing on fears of terrorism, abortion and homosexual marriage. And he could always rely on the abiding – and frequently justified – public resentment of the intellectual, artistic and technocratic elite who generally support the Democrats.

This year, McCain may be acting the gentleman but his supporters on the National Review added an old spice to the Republican recipe which, they hope, has lost none of its sting: “After college, Obama has an affluent white girlfriend who loves and wants to marry him. She brings him to visit her family, who warmly accepts him. Obama is attached to the girl and respects the family’s deep cultural heritage, but he eventually dumps her because she is not black. He feels that if he marries her he will ultimately be assimilated into a foreign white culture, a fate that is unacceptable to him” (1). Such a ploy may work, even at a time of economic meltdown. Speaking about Obama at the Democratic convention in Denver in August, the AFL-CIO secretary-treasurer confessed to delegates from Michigan: “A lot of white voters… and quite frankly a lot of union voters believe he’s the wrong race” (2).

The senator for Illinois is said to be too cold, too intellectual, too foreign (and too popular with foreigners), too leftwing, too inexperienced, too black. Asked by a journalist why he isn’t further ahead in the polls given the unpopularity of Bush and his party, Obama responded: “The Republicans don’t govern very well but sure know how to campaign” (3). He seems to have decided not to complain but fight back. The financial crisis offers a good line of attack: McCain openly supports deregulation and just a short while ago the Republicans advocated that federal pension schemes should be privatised and quoted on the stock exchange.

The Democratic response is more tactical, more carefully targeted. The presidential election is being won state by state. Many, including some key states – California, New York, Illinois, Texas, etc – are already in one camp or the other. But the Republican West seems to be wavering. That is where Obama has chosen to fight.

It will not be an easy ride. Driving from Kansas to Colorado, you see an array of hoardings such as “Abortion stops a beating heart” or “Accept Jesus Christ as your saviour and you shall be saved, or regret it forever”. Kansas is of course famous for religious fundamentalists campaigning against Darwin being taught in schools – but you can argue that Kansas isn’t yet the true West (4). When you reach Bozeman, Montana, however, a baby on a blue background is still exhorting drivers to “Take my hand, not my life”.

Energy in blue jeans

Since 2005 Brian Schweitzer has been governor of Montana, a farming and mining state almost as big as California but with a population of less than a million. He is a ranch owner and irrigation expert, passionately interested in new sources of energy, and a rising star in the Democratic party. The New York Times calls him “a whirl of energy in a pair of blue jeans”. Obama invited him to speak on energy at the Denver Democratic convention in August. Mission accomplished: one highly entertaining speech, delivered in jeans.

The recipe for the governor’s popularity is very simple. The Republicans rely on the three Gs – God, gays and guns – to rally their own troops and saddle their opponents with a reputation for being a bunch of weird, unworldly atheists. Schweitzer thinks the Democrats should avoid joining battle on these issues. And do it by proving that they are as pious as the next man, that they have reservations about gay marriage, and are not in favour of gun controls. They should be quite casual about it, as though these issues were not really important or the answers were obvious. And then move on to subjects that are less comfortable for the Republicans: the economy, energy, the environment. Withdraw on one front, attack on the other.

Schweitzer is no radical. But in a state where being governor has often meant being “the lapdog of industry” (to quote his Republican predecessor, Judy Martz), he takes an overtly independent line vis-à-vis the major economic lobbies, criticising the fortunes amassed as a result of the deregulation of energy, fraud, tax breaks for the wealthy and big business, and overpriced pharmaceutical products, which cost much more in Montana than over the border in Canada. He protests against the attack on public freedoms associated with the USA Patriot Act and opposes the war in Iraq (he spent seven years in Saudi Arabia as adviser on an irrigation project and knows the region).

But what about God, gays and guns? Schweitzer replied from his office in Helena: “I am a Catholic. We are a small proportion of evangelicals. Social issues don’t have a lot of weight here.” In fact, there are a great many casinos in Montana and the small towns usually host more bars than churches. And when Republicans start talking about “traditional family values”, one can respond that the best way to defend those values is not to go on offering such low wages to young jobseekers that they’re forced to leave home to seek their fortunes, away from their families. “We have what I call a salmon economy,” says Schweitzer; “all our young leave the state, and then they come home to die.”

‘We like guns’

And guns? That’s another matter. It’s a serious matter, and there is no avoiding it. The issue of guns must be itself disarmed. In the rural West, gun controls are regarded as an urban craze and any attempt to introduce them spells political suicide. See the Casper Star-Tribune on 28 August, most of whose Open Spaces section is taken up by an article titled “Anything’s possible” about an association of disabled people, each confined to wheelchairs after an accident, but keen to continue hunting. Corey McGregor, paraplegic cofounder of the association, Wyoming Disabled Hunters, is pictured with a dead bull horn at his feet.

Schweitzer is a member of the powerful National Rifle Association (NRA), with an A rating for his record on gun rights, compared with McCain’s C and Obama’s F, and he doesn’t beat about the bush when I tackle him on the subject: “Gun control in Montana is shooting at what you’re aiming at. We like guns; we like big guns, we like little guns, we like shotguns, we like them all. And women like guns too. It’s who we are.” Bob Raney, elected by state residents to oversee production and prices in the energy sector, confirms the governor’s thinking: “If you scare people by making them feel that someone is going to take their guns away, you’re going to lose. When it comes to guns in Montana, people won’t give an inch. The problems are different in the South Side of Chicago [Obama’s constituency]. But people here are not going to give up their guns to solve the problems of South Side.” Jon Tester, a farmer and Democratic senator for Montana since 2007, told the Billings Gazette that he had asked Obama for his views on this sensitive issue: “He told me, flat out, ‘I’m not taking your guns away, and don’t let anybody tell you that I will’” (5).

Billings is not Chicago of course. Eight policemen have been killed here since 1882. The last two in 1946 and 1989. Billings, the Big Sky State’s largest city, has been robbed of all charm by the invasion of Wal-Mart, Starbucks, Barnes and Noble etc. The day I arrived, what people were talking about most was a more common act of violence: a clash between a pack of hungry wolves and a bison in the Yellowstone National Park about 100 miles southwest of the town. As the bison is so much larger, the wolves have to wear it out; and to do that they must entice it into the snow where its weight will cause it to sink.
Montana is a quiet place (for humans at any rate) – so quiet that the mathematician and serial killer, Theodore Kaczynski (the Unabomber), took refuge there. This isolation is part of its charm for Americans in search of some peaceful, unspoiled spot (see “Trophy homes don’t cost us”). “They like safe communities,” says Schweitzer. “Here you can say: my kids, I don’t know where they are, they are playing somewhere. If you are in Los Angeles, Hartford Connecticut or Chicago Illinois, you don’t feel safe.”

But the weather is not like Los Angeles either. This region of mountains and windswept plains has been called the American Siberia (an exaggeration). But at the height of summer, hot dry days are punctuated by hailstorms and heavy snow falls quite close to the capital. The area has not yet been hit by the housing crisis, and it is different from Southern California in other respects too. A driver can cross great swathes of country, straight out of a Western, without a bleep from his cell phone or a fear in the world apart from falling asleep at the wheel or hitting a deer. The odd oil well still pumping, coal wagons a mile long, a few cows. Montana is a bit like a cross between the Far West and Switzerland, with Indian reservations.
Little Big Horn is just 30 miles from Billings. This was where General Custer and the 210 men under his command met their deaths on 25 June 1876 in a clash with a coalition of Cheyenne and Lakota – one raid too many. It was the Indians’ last victory: Crazy Horse surrendered a year later. The declared aim of the president, General Ulysses S Grant (1822-1885), was “to Christianise and civilise the Indian and to train him in the art of peace” but there was another motive at work. The time had come to exploit the region without having to trouble about the people who lived there.

In short, a familiar situation in the western states, where the multinationals have continued to strip them of their mineral resources, copper and coal, leaving a trail of devastation, toxic waste and occupational diseases. At Libby, in eastern Montana, 92% of the workers employed by the firm WR Grace died of asbestos-related lung diseases after working in the quarries for 20 years. As Bob Raney reminds us: “Montana has always been treated like a colony. They extract all the raw material and leave us the pits. They take the oil and run, leave broken communities behind.” Private wealth, public squalor, state bailout. Just like Wall Street.

A revival

But as the rest of the country is hit by high energy prices and moves into recession, the West has been experiencing a revival, particularly in areas where mining is the key factor in the economy. In Sarah Palin’s Alaska, for example, where a three-fold increase in oil revenues has provided a nice little $5bn windfall.

Wyoming is not doing badly either. As the country’s main source of coal and a major gas producer, it is building up surpluses almost as fast as it is opening up new areas for prospectors. The Democratic governor of Wyoming, Dave Freudenthal, says there are 30,000 pits in the state, one for every 16 inhabitants. Instead of making further tax cuts (income tax and purchase tax have already been abolished), the state is talking about providing higher education free of charge.

Wyoming, Idaho and Utah will certainly vote Republican on 4 November. Bush had a 40-point lead in these three states in 2004. But elsewhere in the West it may be a close-run thing this time. So it is no accident that the Democratic convention was held at Denver, or that Obama visited Montana five times between April and August. He beat Hillary Clinton hands down in the primary there. And this in a state with the fewest black people in the country – 0.43% of the population, compared with 13% at national level.

The Democrats are not all inclined to spend time and money trying to win the West. Many think it is a lost cause and it would be better to concentrate on Ohio, Pennsylvania or Michigan. Obama did not listen to them. Should the election be very close, he hopes to make up for any possible disappointment in the industrial Midwest by springing a surprise in Colorado and one or two little Republican strongholds in the rural west. “We don’t know where lightning is going to strike”, says Howard Dean, Democratic National Committee chairman and advocate of the “50-state strategy” of not conceding a single one.

This is a risky gamble. Ronald Reagan opened the way for 25 years of Republican rule in the Far West back in 1975 (6) by blaming the Democrats for “saddling our economy with an ever-greater burden of controls and regulations”, generating economic problems from “the destruction of jobs to choking off vital supplies of energy”. According to him, it would be better to consider the loggers’ interests and the future of the ranchers’ cattle, instead of preserving woodlands for owls or reintroducing wolves and bison to keep “environmental extremists” happy.

According to Andrea Peacock, a journalist and author of Libby, Montana: Asbestos and the Deadly Silence of an American Corporation, from Livingston not far from Yellowstone National Park, “the GOP [Grand Old Party] was successful because it is used to linking the Democrats and the environment, whereas in the minds of loggers and ranchers, to vote GOP was to save their jobs. Communities of loggers tended to see the environment as the enemy. Wolves and grizzly bears became a symbol of the federal government.”

Chambers of commerce, representatives of the mining industry and landowners encouraged them, claiming that the land should be used not “preserved”; they should not put up with regulations issued in Washington that took no account of local conditions, and that included speed limits and gun controls. All good stuff. Small farmers joined forces with big business; a new form of populism to deal with a new enemy.

In 1981 Reagan appointed James Watt, a Christian fundamentalist, as his secretary for the interior. Watt, a friend of Dick Cheney and like him a Wyoming man, had a simple aim: “To fight in the courts those bureaucrats and no-growth advocates who create a challenge to individual liberty and economic freedoms.” So his appointment was like putting a fox in charge of a henhouse. He also promised his constituents: “We will mine more, drill more, cut more timber to use our resources rather than simply keep them locked up” (7).

More American oil from American soil

The Republican platform is not quite so crude now, but high energy prices encouraged them to take much the same line at their convention: “We simply must draw more American oil from American soil.” Especially as, according to McCain: “We are sending $700bn a year to countries that don’t like us and some of that money ends up in the hands of terrorist organisations” (8). Republicans also caution against “the doomsday climate-change scenarios peddled by aficionados of centralised command-and-control government.” A group of promoters in Colorado, the Free Market Alliance, is broadcasting publicity accusing the Democratic candidate for the Senate, Mark Udall, of opposing drilling in the state: “Just how much are you willing to pay for a tank of gas? Udall was born in a wealthy family, he can’t understand how much high prices hurt working families.”

But, as ecological issues become increasingly important and mines deface the landscape, and wealthy pensioners and nature-lovers move west in search of peace and quiet, space and a second home, these arguments are beginning to lose their appeal. People are beginning to think less about jobs in mining and more about parks without fences and derricks, and clean streams with plenty of trout. “There are several issues that have moved the entire West toward the Democrats,” says Pat Williams. “If one was to state a single reason for this, it would be the environment. Democrats have been, for the most part, for protecting the environment. Republicans, for the most part, have been for mining, drilling, and blasting the landscape, extractive development. Republicans went too far, the greed was too real and the destruction too prominent. Also, since the 1980s there has been an enormous influx of population, many coming for the amenities of the place, the serenity of it.”

These resources are threatened by the energy boom and the sale of great estates to private buyers. Areas in Wyoming where there used to be antelopes and jackrabbits, areas where animals grazed, are now covered with derricks. Access to streams and forests is barred by private properties. Yet local Republicans are as keen as anyone else to have what Walt Gasson, director of the Wyoming Wildlife Federation, calls “the places that they hunt, they fish, the place they park their campers or put up their tent, the place they take their horses. The places they get to get their boots dirty and their souls clean.”

It is no longer bad news for the Democratic candidate when electors vote for the man “who will do the least damage” – a familiar phrase in Montana. Because electors include ranchers who need water, fishermen who are afraid climate change will kill the trout, hunters who are looking for land and game. Their interests coincide with the ecologists’ and progressives’ interests more often than they would like to admit (9). In the interview with the Billings Gazette quoted earlier, Senator Tester made this pointed comment: “Obama will protect access to public lands and hunting areas… McCain is talking about selling them.”
‘We are Democrats who cut taxes’

Clearly the Republican message no longer has the impact it used to have; witness the recent election of Democratic governors in five out of eight western states. All these states were Republican in 2001. Schweitzer, a notable example of this local earthquake, hopes that some of its fallout will reach the White House: “We are Democrats who cut taxes, attract businesses, protect the environment, and they like that. So, if you like the way things are run in Montana, and you don’t like the way things are run in Washington, that may help the national ticket for Democrats.” But the “help” will have to be substantial and the damage to Republicans devastating: Bush won in the Big Sky State in 2004 with 59% of the vote.

Schweitzer does not say so, but there is more than one way to “cut taxes”. Here too, rather than tackling the anti-tax brigade head on – at the risk of causing everyone who hates the tax-man to unite against him – he has turned the Republican line to his own advantage. In Washington, under Bush, tax credits were progressive. In other words they were deliberately designed to favour the wealthy. But in Helena, they were the same for all: a $400 rebate to each resident homeowner, regardless of income or home value. And the measure was accompanied by better arrangements for collecting taxes from the big businesses that had always found some way of evading them. The old Republican anti-tax coalition was blown to bits. Schweitzer was delighted: “People are getting our message. They get that if we let the out-of-staters and the rich guys off, then that means taxes here go up” (10).

The experience of fiscal “populism” favouring the well-off and unbridled “development” leaving a trail of damage was reinforced by a third lesson: the effects of deregulating energy. Utility deregulation, launched in 1997 under the aegis of Republican governor Marc Racicot, a close friend of the president, turned out to be a disaster for Montana.

The story of California being subjected to price hikes, Enron (a major enterprise bankrupt and thousands of shareholders ruined), happened in Montana too (11). In the words of Steve Doherty, chairman of the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commission: “Montanans didn’t think that wide deregulation was a good idea when our utilities were cut in small pieces and some profits were made. It was the beginning of the end of Republican rule.”

Not for all of them, it seems. Racicot moved on to a highly lucrative career as a lobbyist, funded by the big companies he had looked after when he was governor. Another useful lesson, as the indignation aroused by these proceedings provided an outlet for public discontent. While the Republicans continue to blame “environmental extremists” and their Malthusian theories for delivering America over to the outrageous prices of imported oil, a few Democrats are finally daring to call into question the political friends of the speculators who manipulate the price of natural resources. Does anyone seriously think energy prices – which are no longer regulated – would fall if the US produced more energy? Before privatisation, the price of electricity in Montana was the lowest in the region; now it is among the highest.

A Texan speculator, Republican TD Boone Pickens, made a fortune from oil. He is not the only one but he gets a lot of attention. Turn on the radio or TV and there he is, banging on about a new energy policy. Millions of Americans must know it all by heart: “The big debate in Washington is about drilling or not drilling. I say: drill, drill, drill. But the debate misses the point. Either way, we’ll still be dependent on foreign oil and on the way to the largest transfer of wealth in the history of the world.” And the answer: “Replace foreign oil with natural gas produced in the United States. And that’s why I paid for this message.” He paid $58m dollars. Money well spent too: his company BP Capital has investments in natural gas.

Pickens’ message refers listeners to a website (12), which has more news: “North Dakota and the Great Plains States [a vast area comprising 10 states, including Texas, Kansas, Colorado, Wyoming and Montana] are home to the greatest wind energy potential in the world – by far.” Precisely. Pickens hopes the wind will provide 20% of US electricity supplies in 10 years’ time, compared with 1% today. Leaving more gas for cars.

The wind power industry got off to a shaky start but it has picked up. Production increased by 45% last year and firms like JP Morgan have invested $4.4bn in the sector. The only problem with it – reminiscent of the US’s current financial problems – is that it is heavily dependent on state handouts. And it is likely to collapse if the tax concessions dry up (13). This problem does not affect small wind turbines, and artists and politicians are mad about them. TV star Jay Leno, who is trying “to find green solutions to garage problems”, has installed one at the location where he keeps his 105 cars and 80 motorbikes. These dinky little wind turbines cost a lot and produce hardly any electricity but the jet set love them. French designer Philippe Starck has plans to introduce an “elegant” plastic turbine in Europe.

Back in Helena, there are several miniature wind turbines on the governor’s desk, which looks like a display case for new forms of energy. A few miles down the road, full-size turbines are waiting for the wind to start blowing.

Translated by Barbara Wilson

(1) Michael Gledhill, “Who is Barack Obama?”, National Review, 1 September 2008.
(2) Quoted in the Casper Star-Tribune, Casper, Wyoming, 28 August 2008.
(3) “Sixty Minutes”, CBS, 31 August 2008.
(4) Definitions vary, depending whether the West is taken to mean all 25 states west of the Mississippi, including Alaska and Hawaii, or only the 13 west of Colorado (Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, Idaho, Utah, Arizona, Nevada, Washington, Oregon, California, Alaska and Hawaii).
(5) Jennifer McKee, “Tester endorses Obama on gun ownership issue”, Billings Gazette, Montana, 29 August 2008.
(6) In the states on the coast (California, Oregon, Washington), Republican rule ended in 1992. Obama should have no problem winning them.
(7) Quoted by Lou Cannon, Ronald Reagan, Perigee Books, New York, 1984.
(8) Quoted in U.S. News and World Report, 1 September 2008.
(9) See Christina Larson, “The end of Hunting?”, Washington Monthly, January 2006.
(10) Quoted by David Sirota, who has a chapter on the subject in his book The Uprising, Crown Books, New York, 2008.
(11) See David Sirota, op cit.
(13) Kent Garber, “A mighty gust from Texas”, US News & World Report, 1 September 2008.

SERGE HALIMI is the director of Le Monde Diplomatique. His article appears in the October  edition of this excellent monthly, whose English language edition can be found at This full text appears by agreement with Le Monde Diplomatique. CounterPunch features one or two articles from LMD every month.





Serge Halimi is president of Le Monde diplomatique