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Revisiting America's Purple Mountains

By Ryan Sager

In the current issue of The Atlantic, I lay out the core argument from one chapter of my forthcoming book, The Elephant in the Room: Evangelicals, Libertarians, and the Battle to Control the Republican Party. As some responses are popping up in various forums, I wanted to take the time to respond.

But first, since the article is not available online without a subscription, let me recap.

While after the 2004 election, plenty of people took note of the fact that a shift of 60,000-odd votes in Ohio would have handed the Electoral College to John Kerry, less remarked upon was the fact that a shift of a similar magnitude in the Southwest would have done the same trick. Fewer than 70,000 votes among Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico -- with their collective 19 electoral votes -- would have swung the election just as surely as Ohio's 60,000. And with George W. Bush having won by margins of 5 percentage points, 3 points and 1 point, respectively, these were swing states by any definition of the term.

In fact, it's looking more and more likely that the eight states of the Southwest and the broader interior West -- Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming -- are on their way to becoming the next great swing region in American politics. As the Republican Party tilts on its South-West axis, increasingly favoring southern values (religion, morality, tradition) over western ones (freedom, independence, privacy), the Democrats have been presented with a tremendous opportunity. If the Republican Party doesn't want to lose its hold over all of the West, as it lost hold of once-reliable California more than a decade ago, its leaders are going to have to rethink their embrace of big-government, big-religion conservatism.

Why? The interior West is not the South -- not by demography and not by ideology.

First, take religion. Generally, as progressive Paul Waldman points out in his new book, Being Right Is Not Enough, Republican strongholds have lots of evangelicals, Democratic strongholds have very few, and swing states are in between. By this rule of thumb, the Southwest fits neatly into the "swing" category. But so does the interior Northwest, which is typically considered more socially conservative and more solidly Republican. Evangelicals make up between 29 percent and 33 percent of the population in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming -- figures much closer to California's 28 percent or Maine's 26 percent than to Virginia's 41 percent or Texas's 51 percent.

Second, take the growth of the Hispanic population. It's no secret that the West is becoming more Hispanic, and Hispanics tend to cast their ballots for Democrats. Republicans made a lot of noise after the 2004 election about their inroads with this population, and initial exit polls showed Bush taking 44 percent of the Hispanic vote nationwide. But later, more careful reviews deflated that figure to 40 percent or less, with much of Bush's support clustered in Texas and Florida. What's more, whatever gains Bush has made among Hispanics seem to begin and end with him. Hispanic party identification consistently registers roughly two to one in favor of the Democrats, and hasn't shown any major swing toward the GOP under Bush. Continuing growth of the Hispanic population in the interior West is bad news for Republicans.

And third, take the growth of what might be called the ex-Californian population. The congested, generally liberal population centers of California are overflowing -- and as they do, it's as if a bucket of blue paint were spilling over the West. More than 400,000 Arizonans and 360,000 Nevadans were born in California. The thinly populated mountain West states are slowly taking on a left-coast character as well: as of the last census, 122,000 native Californians lived in Idaho (total population 1.3 million) while 47,000 lived in Montana (900,000) and 21,000 lived in Wyoming (490,000).

So, that's the demography. What about the ideology?

The interior West is a distinctive region there as well. While most public-opinion research released to the public lumps the Blue Pacific Coast in with the Red interior West (and calls the whole, incoherent mess the "West"), I asked the kind folks over at the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press to break out many of the questions from their 2005 political typology study so that the South and the interior West could be compared directly. The results are illuminating.

To give a small sample of the results recounted in my book: Almost twice as many people in the interior West say that religion is "not that important to me" as say the same in the South (30 percent versus 17 percent); both the Pacific Coast and the Northeast also hover at around 30 percent on that question. On gay rights, only 39 percent of southerners think homosexuality "should be accepted by society," while 53 percent in the interior West support tolerance of gays. (That figure bumps up to 60 percent on the Pacific Coast and in the Northeast.) Similarly, 53 percent of southerners think public-school libraries should ban "books that contain dangerous ideas," versus 44 percent in the interior West.

In other words, while the interior West is just as fiscally conservative as the South, it is clearly more socially libertarian. (Other hints on this front include medical marijuana laws out West, resolutions against the Patriot Act passed by legislatures out West and a rebellion against the No Child Left Behind Act by Colorado and Utah.) And as the Republican Party embraces the big government it once fought against, and increasingly stakes its political fortunes on cultural hot-buttons such as gay marriage and flag burning, libertarian-minded voters are up for grabs.

Democrats have noticed. Markos Moulitsas, proprietor of Daily Kos, says he is writing a book on "libertarian Democrats" and has made it clear that he sees the Mountain West as a key opportunity for the party. Liberal political science professor Tom Schaller has written a book, Whistling Past Dixie: How Democrats Can Win Without the South. His short answer: by winning the rest of the West.

Honing a Democratic message out West that appeals to disaffected, libertarian-minded Republicans won't be easy. Issues like guns, the environment and the longstanding association of Democrats with big government will all be roadblocks.

Nonetheless, signs of a possible Democratic resurgence in the West have been slowly accumulating since 2000. In 2004, Democrats took over both chambers of the Colorado legislature and sent the Democrat Ken Salazar to the U.S. Senate to replace a retiring Republican, Ben Nighthorse Campbell; Salazar's brother John also won the open U.S. House seat in Colorado's Third District, which was vacated by a Republican.

That same year, Montana elected its first Democratic governor in two decades: Brian Schweitzer, a rancher who flaunted his love of guns. Democrats won four out of five statewide offices in that election and also took control of Montana's house and senate. Counting Schweitzer, Democrats now hold the governorships of four of the eight states that make up the interior West; in 2000, they held none. New Mexico's Bill Richardson and Wyoming's Dave Freudenthal each replaced two-term Republican governors in 2002, the same year that Janet Napolitano became the first elected Democratic governor of Arizona since the 1980s.

While it's possible to read too much into victories at the state level, something certainly seems to be happening throughout the West. The Republican Party rode to power as the South realigned, first at the presidential level in 1968 and 1972 and then at the congressional level in 1994. But if it ignores its libertarian problem out West, it risks catalyzing another geographic realignment on par with that which brought it to power -- starting up in Montana and running south.

The responses and objections to this argument I've met with have taken a number of forms in a number of outlets, but here I'd like to respond primarily to an article by Patrick Hynes, titled, "Hurting the Ones You (Ought to) Love," which appeared on the Web site of The American Spectator. Hynes's article was both the most thoughtful response I've seen and the one that touched on all the major points.

Not all Californians are Blue.

I'll take this somewhat minor point first. While I list ex-Californians as one of three major factors in the "purpling" of the interior West, the objection has been raised that some, or even most, of the migrants out of California could be from Red parts of the state.

While some of the migrants are certainly from Red parts of the state -- how could there not be at least "some"? -- one of the principal drivers of in-migration seems to be the high cost of living (particularly housing costs) in urban (read: Blue) parts of the state. Demographer William Frey of the Brookings Institution identifies Hispanics and young "Generation X types" as a large part of the outflow, along with middle-class white suburbanites (not exactly fire-and-brimstone religious types).

What's more -- and this is an admitted guess -- it seems likely that even the Reddest parts of California are significantly more socially moderate, on average, than the South.

Libertarians are politically worthless.

Hynes writes that "libertarians are an unorganized, thinly populated, and dispersed lot, making them politically useless."

Agreed. But we're not talking about libertarians, as such. If we were, Republicans would have nothing to worry about. What we're talking about is a strain of cultural libertarianism -- a leave-me-alone ethos -- that is much more strongly represented in the interior West than in the South. And we're talking about voters, millions of them, who might not call themselves "libertarians," but who nonetheless believe that the Republican Party no longer stands for the principles that made them affiliate with it in the first place: small government, federal restraint, fiscal responsibility.

There's an argument to be had about whether the Democrats can capitalize on this libertarian sentiment -- and my hope is that they don't, that the Republicans find their way back toward the small-government ground they once held. But just waving your hand in the air and saying, "We don't need the libertarians," isn't a response. It is, in fact, dangerously close to a non-sequitur.

Republican losses in Colorado should be blamed on libertarians, not Christian conservatives.

I'm admittedly no expert on Colorado politics. But here's someone who is: the former Republican minority leader in the Colorado house, Joe Stengel. His take, in an interview on NPR, right after the 2004 elections: "Our party has basically made the party platform 'guns, God, and gays,' and that wasn't a winning message this election cycle when we should have been talking about jobs, the economy and health care."

Relatedly, a number of big donors put on a huge push for local Democrats in 2004. One of those was Tim Gill, founder of Quark. Gill got involved, by his own account, after a bill was introduced in Colorado making it illegal to discuss homosexuality in public schools, except in the context of disease.

The libertarian-inspired Taxpayers Bill of Rights did contribute to a fiscal crisis in the state, but the Democrats' line of attack was that instead of dealing with that fiscal crisis, the Republicans wasted their time on the issues like the Pledge of Allegiance and the liberal biases of college professors.

Also, Hynes claims that businessman Pete Coors lost the Senate race to then-Attorney General Ken Salazar despite being a social moderate. But while Coors was more moderate than his primary opponent -- who was seen as far too socially conservative to be electable statewide -- he changed his company's insurance policy during the campaign not to cover abortions and supported an anti-gay marriage amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Meanwhile, Salazar ran in something of a western-Democrat mold, keeping significant distance from the Kerry campaign, asking groups like the Sierra Club to stay out of the race, supporting the death penalty and attacking Coors as too aligned with drug companies. While I'm not sure this race proves anything on its own, Salazar does seem to fit the mold of the new pitch Democrats are tying to hone throughout the region.

Libertarians want to destroy the Republican Party.

How to put this ... It's not our first priority. But neither is keeping the Republican Party in power. And, for the record, social conservative don't typically consider keeping the Republican Party in power their first priority either. Political parties aren't an end, they are a means.

Just as the Republican Party is only of use to the Religious Right to the extent it implements socially conservative policies, the Republican Party is only useful to libertarians to the extent it limits the size of government and implements fiscally conservative policies.

It used to be that libertarians and social conservatives considered themselves aligned against a common threat, an all-consuming central state -- a federal government bent on sucking up tax dollars and imposing the social policies of coastal elites on the countryside. Now, however, social conservatives have decided that so long as Republicans are in charge of the federal government, they are happy to extend its reach as far as it will go.

And thus it is social conservatives who have become bent on purging worthless libertarians from the GOP's ranks, not the other way around. It's not that libertarians are particularly fond of social conservatives. Quite the contrary. But the old fusionist bargain -- social-conservative ends (strong families and communities, religious freedom) achieved through libertarians means (a small government) -- was broken by the social conservatives who have bought into big-government conservatism. Libertarians would go back to the old bargain any day of the week.

Hynes and other social conservatives may consider the libertarian part of the Republican Party, as he writes, "rather like a ball and chain." But if that's all libertarians are, why weren't they severed from the rest of the party years ago? Why did Reagan call libertarianism the "heart and soul of conservatism"? Why was Goldwater the hero he once was to the conservative movement?

Because to millions of Americans -- millions of Republicans -- libertarianism represents the best of what conservatism stands for: freedom, self-reliance, tolerance, federalism and free enterprise.

We don't want to destroy the Republican Party. We want to save it from itself.

Ryan Sager (rhsager.com) is author of “The Elephant in the Room: Evangelicals, Libertarians, and the Battle to Control the Republican Party.”

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