By Douglas Siddoway
There was a time you could tell someone you were from Idaho and the only response it would elicit would be something about potatoes or the skiing in Sun Valley. I would know. I grew up in the southeastern part of the state. My family has farmed and ranched there for six generations.
Mention the Gem State these days, however, and all you get is a roll of the eyes and a lecture about our loopy drift toward extremism and our fetish for politicians whose only credentials are posing for photographs with a Bible and a gun. It makes for good late night comedy, but it’s pretty depressing if you’re the type who reads books rather than burn them.
I realize we’re not alone. All of the rural western states suffer this malady in one form or another, and not a few others—most of them lying east of the 100th meridian—are a lot further down the road to political perdition than we are. But that doesn’t make it any more tolerable.
What makes Idaho’s brand of political idiocy especially dispiriting is the way it blew in and took hold without any of us sensing what it would look like when it got here—the same despair that catches in your throat when a hail storm wipes out your grain crop or a pack of coyotes kills your herd dog. Almost overnight we went from grousing about the chicken at the Lincoln Day dinner to sitting in disbelief as one party ascendant after another insisted that classroom readings of To Kill A Mockingbird would turn us into communists. And if that weren’t insulting enough, our deranged lieutenant governor is now giving pep talks to the Hitler-inspired, pro-Putin crazies at the America First Political Action Conference.
We didn’t give enough thought to the formative causes of this madness, to be sure—shrinking margins and technological advances in the ag industry that commoditized production and turned small farmer-owners into sharecroppers; decades-long underfunding of public education; an exodus of our best resource, our kids, to careers in urban areas; the steady influx of out-of-staters who increasingly saw Idaho as a refuge from immigrants, taxes, liberalism, government, people of color, gays and lesbians, whatever they disliked about contemporary America.
Maybe we were too naïve in thinking it couldn’t happen here—that these hateful and misinformed newcomers would somehow come to understand, maybe even want to emulate, the Mormon-inspired communalism that transformed the southern half of the state from sagebrush desert into an agricultural mecca—what Wallace Stegner describes as the most successful example of socialism in the United States. Or maybe we were just too ignorant of the outside forces that motivated them to set up camp here, defile our heritage and trespass on our beliefs.
Whatever the reason, what we got and are now grappling with, from one end of the state to the other, is an Idaho Freedom Foundation-orchestrated mindset that is as self-centered as it is dark; a worldview that rejects the social compact and disdains cooperation; an ugly political aberration fueled by secretive outside money that shamelessly ignores truth and promotes the craven, anti-democratic thinking of those seeking power. It’s the exact opposite of who we thought we were and what we thought we stood for—a chilling reprise, really, of the fascism and totalitarianism that once gripped western Europe and is now fomenting the murder of innocent people in Ukraine.
The evidence is clear as a bell. Easily half of the bills introduced in the current Idaho legislative session don’t even take a stab at addressing the state’s real problems, only float words like liberty and freedom in front of an airbrushed American flag to censor educators from teaching honest history (and public television for airing Sesame Street), strip school boards and municipalities of local control, suppress voting rights (this in a state where people of color make up a scant portion of the population), decriminalize private militias, ignore health science, gut responsible land use planning and, well, you get the picture. Authoritarianism is always an easier sell than goodness, diversity and the free exchange of ideas. As I see it, it’s only a matter of time before Wall Street cashes in on this lunacy and comes after Idaho’s water.
You’d think Idaho’s voters would have concluded by now this is not a good thing for a state whose economic survival, and a big part of its funding, come from outside customers, suppliers, potential employers and taxpayers who are scratching their heads wondering whether we’re stable and smart enough to be a good business partner. Maybe they have, maybe they haven’t. Only time will tell.
In the meantime, we persevere, send our checks and give our moral support to outfits like Take Back Idaho (www.takebackidaho.com) and pray for a better snowpack in the hills. If you’re so inclined, consider joining the fight to send the Idaho Freedom Foundation’s extremists in the Statehouse packing. Enough is enough.
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Douglas Siddoway practices law and raises wheat and barley in Fremont County, Idaho.