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Contemporary Politics of the Rural West


I am fascinated and horrified by the entirety of what is happening to the United States, but for both life and research reasons, I am especially interested in how this is all playing out in the rural West, which is usually too far for the Cleetus Safaris to get to (lot cheaper to drive to Allentown and find the loud old guy at the diner), but occasionally they do get out there and sometimes actually come up with interesting things. For example, there is an attempt to create a National Heritage Area in the Great Falls area in Montana, which is basically a National Park Service-guided program to collect a bunch of local sites under local control to promote tourism. But among the far-right in the Treasure State, such things are now anathema, like getting COVID shots or admitting that Joe Biden won the election. So it’s crazy town out there.

In the summer of 2020, as pandemic shutdowns closed businesses and racial justice protests erupted on American streets, Rae Grulkowski, a 56-year-old businesswoman who had never been involved in politics but was alarmed about what was happening to the country, found a way to make a difference.

The connection to the turbulence of national politics might not have been immediately clear.

Ms. Grulkowski had just heard about a years-in-the-making effort to designate her corner of central Montana a national heritage area, celebrating its role in the story of the American West. A small pot of federal matching money was there for the taking, to help draw more visitors and preserve underfunded local tourist attractions.

Ms. Grulkowski set about blowing up that effort with everything she had.

She collected addresses from a list of voters and spent $1,300 sending a packet denouncing the proposed heritage area to 1,498 farmers and ranchers. She told them the designation would forbid landowners to build sheds, drill wells or use fertilizers and pesticides. It would alter water rights, give tourists access to private property, create a new taxation district and prohibit new septic systems and burials on private land, she said.

None of this was true.

Yet it soon became accepted as truth by enough people to persuade Montana’s leading Republican figures and conservative organizations, including the farm bureau, Gov. Greg Gianforte and Senator Steve Daines, to oppose the proposal and enact a state law forbidding the federal government to create any heritage area in Montana. It is a ban that the state has no authority to enforce.

It gets much worse from there.

Politics in the rural west is now nothing but blind, incandescent rage at any number of groups that supposedly are conspiring to destroy their way of life. Reality is completely meaningless. The irony of it all is that if anything is destroying rural living, it’s the capitalism that these people claim to love.

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