Part of Pete's Context


Pete Simpson 2


I had the privilege of teaching a class at UW a few years back. It was called Wyoming’s Political Identity.

There were ranch kids, “townies,” eggheads, ordinary Joes and Janes and always a couple of foreign exchange students. They were of every political stripe and from every social stratum. It was a “variety pack” of bright young people and it was a challenge every time. The class became a forum for discussing important Wyoming issues – from water and wolves to economic diversity and the environment as well as emotionally charged events like the Black 14 incident at the University of Wyoming and the killing of Matthew Shepard.

They also gave me the idea for this forum – to illustrate the value of civil discourse; to clarify stances pro and con, right and left and to find common ground. We’re going to invite thoughtful people from a wide spectrum of Wyoming folks – teachers, authors, professionals, political leaders, field workers and cowboys, oil men and roughnecks, home makers, students, ministers and those I’ve forgotten whom you can remind me of – to contribute their take on Wyoming questions and look for common ground with an opposite.

We’ll see how it works. And, we’ll start with the question: What is Wyoming’s Political Identity? And what basis is there for accord and common understanding among us? We’ll go from there every month.

I’d like to take a crack at that question myself.

What is Wyoming? A feeling? An artifice? A Verb; A Noun; An Adjective? A parochial device for blunting a persistent statewide inferiority complex?

Whatever it is, is it unique in any way – different from its sister states? Dave Raynolds claims it is fundamentally different from its immediate neighbors in the following ways: Politically, we are not like Montana which sports a radical leftist, union-inflected past. Nor like Colorado, with its earlier hale and hearty, “Paint Your Wagon” mining history and its contemporary urban advantage. Nebraska, meanwhile, is still mostly farm and ag country as is South Dakota except for the anomaly of its gold mining and its touristy Black Hills. And Utah has carried the imprint of Mormonism from its beginning. So, Wyoming, according to Dave, is a self-selected, ideologically neutered society composed of those whose main characteristic is having been tough enough to stick it out while the rest of the world went by, through, around or over us, until only the worthier nuggets of humanity actually panned out and stayed.

But, does that mean all those other states aren’t a self-selected population? Mormons migrate toward Mormonism, Montanans grow militias now and then, Coloradans take on more of the “citified” folks and Nebraskans and South Dakotans worship at the Palace of Corn. But, Wyomingites are the quintessential cowboys and we tell ‘em with pride wherever we go that the bucking bronco on our license plate symbolizes who we really are deep down – independent, heroic representatives of the true West standing tall against decadent urbanism, corrupt federal and corporate officialdom and a political system so far removed from the founding fathers as to be unrecognizable and acknowledged mostly with contempt.

How now do we square the fact that in spite of our homogeneity (we’re almost ninety percent white, 80 percent Christian and over 70 percent Republican) we are finding ourselves more and more at odds with each other over social policies, the role of government and the state of family values while falling further behind in addressing rising domestic abuse, a suicide rate which is now the nation’s highest and the greying of our population, not to mention increasing inequality in the equality state?

Being at odds with each other now often means being adversaries on a personal level which makes “speaking out,” according to one observer, more of a personal hazard than in the past. In truth, Wyoming is not immune from polarization despite our libertarian “live and let live” life style; and, serious matters are more and more subject to ideological tests of one kind or another.

In class, the best results came once classmates felt safe; and, the safest environment was a semi-circular auditorium style room where they faced one another. In one class, the “four musketeers” on the right had to exchange with the three charming intellectuals on the left. The business major in the middle had to listen to the social worker down front – and so on. Not only was the discussion civil, it was energetic and it produced results – real suggestions for real legislation which were provided to the Wyoming legislature. Those students taught me a lot.

Maybe, in a small way, this forum can become a safe place where we can talk without rancor about our identity and the issues facing us. Solving problems through discussion means civilly with an open mind and the willingness to walk in another’s shoes. That does not mean “PC.” It means simply empathy and a willingness to look for common ground. It has been the genius of American politics to find that common ground because it’s the only place where anything of real importance can get done.

We’ll start with one of my students. They’re used to this exercise. So, this week I’m presenting a comment from Sienna White, a Cody girl entering her second year at Case Western Reserve Law School studying international legal ethics – and, along with it, some thoughts from a Wyoming author and friend of long acquaintance, Milton L. Woods, former VP of Mobil. Let’s see what comes of the conversation. I’ll be interested in what you think and look forward to hearing.

-- August 6, 2013



Milton Lawrence Woods is a Wyoming author, lawyer, former vice president of Mobil, and a long-time friend of Pete Simpson’s.