What if the Tea Party ruled? Imagine a land, let’s call it Glennbeckistan, where white, patriarchal, religiously zealous, Tea Party-type patriots hold a super-majority in both houses of the legislature, sit in the governor’s mansion, and control most local governments. It’s a place so out of sync with the rest of the nation that states’ rights and even secession are always on the agenda. It’s a place where gun-ownership trumps all other rights, climate change is considered an insidious socialist conspiracy, and a miscarriage can be investigated as a potential crime. Welcome to Utah.
Our rightwing red-state legislature just finished its annual 2010 session. So-called message bills challenged the federal government’s right to govern federal lands, enforce gun controls, legalize abortion, and mandate health reform. In addition, Utah’s lawmakers cut the education budget, raised tuitions, and slashed services to the disabled. In fairness, state legislators across the nation, faced with disastrous drops in revenue, have likewise slashed social services and balanced budgets on the backs of the poor. In Utah, however, they also shelved pensions for public employees. That they could take such draconian action is instructive—organized labor is weak here, unions being another manifestation of creeping socialism. Utah’s history of labor organizing, or grass roots and civil rights organizing for that matter, is anemic compared to most of America. This is the place, after all, where IWW radical Joe Hill was arrested and executed.
Although Utah may be unique in some ways, Republican leaders here want the rest of the nation to be more like us. In fact, a survey of the 2010 Utah legislative session could be considered a trailer for a movie the national Republican base would like all Americans to star in. This movie would be for the Tea Party movement what Avatar is to tree huggers.
Hot-Tubbing With a Naked Fifteen-Year-Old
Before we get to this movie’s best scenes, let’s identify some of the actors: The posse that goes after the bad guys—the black-hatted Obamacrats — are easy to identify. They wear white hats (and skins). They also wear their superior principles like shiny badges, and they claim to be the underdogs in this script, even while acting like schoolyard bullies. And the bad guys? In our state, they’re nowhere in sight unless you’re looking at Glenn Beck’s chalkboard.
Demonizing opponents is a creative activity for the posse and paranoia comes in endless variations, so the bad guys could be tax-and-spend liberals, illegal immigrants, gays (or at least those following”the gay agenda”), non-Republican blacks, federalists, socialists, environmentalists, pornographers, feminists, or those nature worshippers who believe in evolution. The cast of evil-doers changes each year. So this year, for example, immigrants and gays got a break. Proposed bills to scuttle Salt Lake City’s new nondiscrimination ordinances were shelved until a future session of the state legislature—the Utah-based Mormon church is already catching enough flack for its support of Proposition 8 that banned same-sex marriage in California. Further antagonizing the national gay community just now was deemed unwise. Immigrants were beaten up enough in last year’s session.
The good guys are easy to recognize because they’re the ones constantly telling the audience how good they are. Sadly, as is so often the case with holier-than-thou-heroes, there are visible stains on the white hats. In fact, the 2010 session was bookended by scandal. As the doors opened, Sheldon Killpack, the State Senate majority leader and an outspoken proponent of tougher drunk-driving laws, was busted for… drunk-driving. He promptly resigned.
On the last night of the session, Kevin Garn, the House majority leader, dramatically stood before packed chambers and declared that years earlier he had shared a hot tub with a naked fifteen-year-old and then paid her $150,000 to keep quiet. He could no longer”live a lie,” he insisted, and so was confessing and apologizing—as it happened, right after the young woman reneged on that deal and went public. His colleagues were”shocked,” but gave him a prolonged standing ovation anyway. Apparently, they find honesty inspiring, even from pedophiles. Hey, at least he wasn’t a polygamist.
So the white hats are a bit soiled, but by now that’s an old story—hypocrisy seems to be the evil twin of self-righteousness. Recent examples are too numerous to list.
Perhaps the most outrageous legislative move the posse made this year was to turn miscarriage into a crime. State Representative Carl Wimmer’s bill was admittedly directed at a very specific case of miscarriage. In 2009, a woman who had been abused by her boyfriend and feared his reaction if he discovered she was pregnant paid some dirt bag $150 to beat her up so she’d abort.
The crime was as rare as it was horrific and didn’t need its own bill. A rational person might reason that if the woman had access to affordable healthcare, including abortion, or if she had alternatives to living with an abusive partner, she might never have taken such drastic measures. Not Representative Wimmer, who was frank about his desire to challenge and”whittle away” at Roe v. Wade. Every year some Utah legislator takes a shot at limiting abortion or making women who get abortions feel guilty and scared.
The bill was, in the end, amended to ensure that only a woman who repeated the specific act that generated Wimmer’s concern could be prosecuted. Lawmakers, however, seemed oblivious to the fact that, although only a self-arranged, beating-induced miscarriage could land a woman in jail, all women who miscarry are potentially subject to investigation. If you miscarry in Utah, you’d better be sure you have an alibi ready. So much for keeping the damn guvmint off our backs.
Health Reform and Climate Change Banned
It looks like that woman will wait a long time for access to health care. Legislators passed a bill aimed at preventing Obamacare, as it is popularly known here, from coming to Utah without their explicit permission, no matter what the U.S. Congress does. They made it clear that if Utah’s citizens are required to buy insurance, the state will challenge the federal government’s right to mandate that in court. Opposition to health care reform is a centerpiece in a broader”states’ rights” campaign that even includes the weather.
So anti-climate change resolutions passed despite pleas from Brigham Young University and University of Utah professors to heed an overwhelming scientific consensus on the subject. Representative Mike Noel, a rancher, was successful in convincing his colleagues that global warming is just a hoax. They called on the Environmental Protection Agency and Congress to avoid carbon dioxide regulation until”a full and independent investigation of climate change science” is conducted. Give them some credit: language was stripped from the resolution accusing global warming advocates of”conspiracy” because, hey, they don’t want to come across as nuts.
Another resolution called on Governor Gary Herbert to pull Utah out of the Western Climate Initiative, organized by a group of governors concerned about how climate change might affect fragile Western ecosystems. Then the posse passed another bill to protect utilities and energy producers from potential lawsuits claiming damage from greenhouse gasses. And they warned those pesky professors to shut up, too.
We Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Wolves… or Stinkin’ Rangers Either
Legislators also tried to ban wolves. There is little evidence wolves have migrated south from Idaho or Wyoming into Utah—but they might. And if they do: bang! The lawmakers were actually using the assault on the (prospective) wolves to aim at another Big Bad Wolf, the federal government, which reintroduced the dang critters up north, protects them, and obviously cares more for the animals, fish, and reptiles on the endangered species list than it does for real human beings with guns and jeeps that will be more or less useless if pointy-headed Beltway types are allowed to boss the good people of Utah around. Advised by their lawyers that their wolf bill was clearly unconstitutional, they turned it into a strongly worded letter to the Interior Department instead.
Another bill challenged the power of federal law enforcement on roads running through federal lands, like our newest national monument, Grand Staircase Escalante. Local commissioners are still ticked off at President Bill Clinton for declaring a monument in southern Utah and so locking up large coal deposits owned by a foreign corporation that wanted to dig it up and send it to Asia.
And if telling forest rangers to take a hike wasn’t enough, yet another bill aimed to take over federal lands altogether, wielding the right of eminent domain. They know many consider that one laughable, but they’ve vowed to fight for it all the way to the Supreme Court, if they have to. Some $3 million was designated for lawyers in a year that saw education budgets slashed. You can look forward to oil derricks in national parks if they win.
Each region of Tea Party Nation has its own peculiar reasons for feeling oppressed. Westerners complain that they are bullied by big, distant bureaucracies like the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service that oversee most of their open lands. Law enforcement on public lands is intermittent and timid. Under Bush, the federal agencies kowtowed to local politicians. Nevertheless, rangers are right up there with the IRS on the posse’s most-wanted list. Oddly enough, Utahans did not object when, during the Cold War era, the military bombed, poisoned, and irradiated their vast land holdings in the Great Basin Desert.
Mr. Browning’s Holiday and the Ghost of Patrick Henry
It’s only right in a culture that celebrates guns for John Browning, the inventor of the automatic rifle, to get his own holiday, especially since he was born in Utah. State lawmakers originally intended to make his holiday the same as Martin Luther King’s—so they’d feel better about taking the day off, I suppose. Knowing that would cause controversy, though, they finally moved the date. In a more substantive show of support for gun owners, they just officially declared that guns made in Utah were not subject to federal regulation. So there. That one is also headed for the courts. (After all the lawyers are paid, we’ll be lucky if we have funds left over to pay teachers, but at least we have our priorities straight.)
Utah’s states-rights advocates even have their own caucus now. They call it the Patrick Henry Caucus, and they have a website with videos extolling their own patriotism and love of liberty (unless you miscarry, are gay, or enjoy the idea of a future benign climate). Also featured is a Glenn Beck interview of Representative Wimmer, a self-described”9/12er,” who proudly declares,”no doubt we’re going to add to that terrorist watch list.” It isn’t clear if he is talking about the potential actions of the caucus’s most militant supporters or if he wants to label his opponents as terrorists. Another featured video shows Beck interviewing a Texas state legislator who describes a project to pass “sovereignty” legislation and, like Utah, declare federal gun control null and void in the state.
The Ghost of Lester Maddox
The last time we witnessed such a hyperbolic states’ rights rebellion, it was led by strident segregationists like George Wallace and Lester Maddox. As Alabama’s governor, Wallace blocked the integration of the University of Alabama, and Maddox, who was later elected governor of Georgia, closed his restaurant rather than serve black customers. Back then, states’ rights was clearly a cover for shameful racism. Maddox was not a constitutional scholar—he ran a fried-chicken joint. Advocating states’ rights was the means to resist federal mandates to integrate restaurants, swimming pools, and schools. Is today’s talk of states’ rights and secession a response to the integration of the White House?
Proponents howl with indignation when that charge is made, but the Tea Party crowd that hurled racial epithets at a civil rights icon and spit on a Black congressman the day before the big vote on healthcare reform made mincemeat of such claims of innocence. Clearly, some of them see health-care reform as a scheme to make white taxpayers pay for services to blacks. Their resentment taps into old hatreds and fears from the days of Maddox and Wallace. Let’s hope that it doesn’t also tap into the old violence and terror that went with them.
Usually, however, the prejudice is subtler. For several years, Utah’s lily-white legislature defiantly insisted on opening its session on Martin Luther King Day, which they refused to call by its name (substituting”Civil Rights Day” instead). There are no powerful black leaders here in our state, where African Americans were excluded from the dominant Mormon church until 1978, and our miniscule population of African Americans is not a significant voting block, so politicians who disdained Dr. King felt unconstrained. And unguarded: last year, Representative Chris Buttars stood on the floor and denounced a bill he opposed as a”black baby—a dark and ugly thing.”
The states’ rights movement here is also rife with”Birthers” who understand that saying Barack Obama can’t be president because he wasn’t born here is a more socially acceptable stance than saying a black man cannot be president because he is… well, black. If you take Birthers at face value—that their complaint is constitutional in nature and not merely bigoted—then it is fair to ask: Were they also outraged in 2000 when George Bush lost the popular vote, tied in the Electoral College, and won by one vote among Supreme Court judges appointed by his daddy? No, at that time they were counseling Democrats to be good losers and quit whining. The question is: If not racism, why the double standard?
There was little talk of secession in this session of the legislature, but the rural newspapers and talk-radio shows that fan Tea Party sentiments in the state regularly entertain the notion that we should go our own way. Such talk is delusional. Utah is a net recipient of federal largesse. We can’t pay for our kids’ education by ourselves; we certainly couldn’t afford all those dams and pipelines that bring us life-giving water. Forget about maintaining the highways that run over a vast horizon. Most rural communities have fire stations, water tanks, community centers, and medical clinics made possible by federal grants. Utah’s economy is wedded to jobs generated by Hill Air Force Base. Why, then, so much animosity towards the hand that feeds us?
Because feeding from that hand radically contradicts our cherished image as independent, self-reliant, freedom-loving cowboys who don’t need stinkin’ handouts. We are proud to embody an American way of life that is seen mostly in the rear-view mirror, John Wayne westerns on Netflix, and in our own imaginations. The worst thing you can call a cowboy is a”welfare rancher,” especially when it’s true.
Coming Soon to a Theater Near You
Utah’s legislators are self-conscious about their image. For example, a bill sponsored by Chris (“Black Baby”) Buttars a few years ago to force the teaching of creationism was killed, not because his colleagues didn’t share his anti-evolution beliefs but because they feared more ridicule. After all, our Mormon majority has already suffered the embarrassment of Jon Krakauer’s best selling Under the Banner of Heaven and an ongoing, less than flattering television series, Big Love, about modern day polygamy.
Although it’s easy to scoff at the state’s buffoonish legislators, it would be a mistake to look at their shenanigans, outrageous as they are, and think: it can’t happen here. Maybe not all of it, but if the Republican base and its Tea Party allies can get their hooks into your state or local government, some of it will come your way, too. Utah, after all, is where the right wing shows its hand. Right-wing jihadis get their training in Glennbeckistan and then march off to places like California to battle gay marriage.
Guess where polluters will go if Utah exempts itself from environmental laws that the rest of the country decides are reasonable to protect your health? If Utah-made guns are exempt from federal regulation, guess where guns will be made? And that’s the idea—to create”nullification sanctuaries” where congressional laws and presidential directives cannot be enforced. Asserting state rights is not simply a way of pursuing regional independence and expressing differences, it is a means of avoiding and undermining the national consensus on any number of important issues.
States-rights legislators are not shy about their long-range goals. Representative Keith Grover said of the 2010 session,”It doesn’t end at midnight.” Members of the Patrick Henry caucus have already contacted lawmakers in Nevada, Montana, Wyoming, Texas, Arizona, and Virginia to trade ideas and strategies. South Dakota and Wyoming have also declared their gun-makers exempt from federal law, and Oklahoma’s legislature will also try to block health-care reform.
Better pay attention: tea-hadi warriors from the Republic of Glennbeckistan could be coming soon to a legislative theater near you.
Chip Ward puts up with Utah’s distorted political culture because his state is drop-dead gorgeous. A TomDispatch regular and former organizer and librarian, he is the author of Canaries on the Rim and Hope’s Horizon. To catch Timothy MacBain’s latest TomCast audio interview with Ward discussing what can be done to fight the excesses of Tea Party-ism and its tea-hadis, click here, or if you prefer to download it to your iPod, here.