Even though Wyoming, Montana and Idaho are considered inconsequential flyover states in the electoral map of America, court decisions involving redistricting, especially recent rulings in Pennsylvania, have huge consequences for the U.S. House of Representatives. Not long ago, I had a conversation with David Parker, a political science professor at Montana State University in Bozeman.
Todd Wilkinson: Are there any implications of redistricting for Montana, Wyoming and Idaho?
David Parker: Not immediately in the sense that Montana and Wyoming have only one seat in Congress, and Idaho only two. There may be implication for state legislative districts. Looking at Section 4 of Montana’s Constitution, there’s language suggesting you can’t discriminate based upon political beliefs while also guaranteeing equal protection of the law. Under that, I could see a lawsuit being filed to overturn seats that create an undo advantage for a party.
T.W.: There is talk that Montana may gain back another congressional seat. How do you expect to see those districts being set compared to, more or less, the old way of an eastern vs. west divide?
D.P.: Yes, I’d agree with that. And you’d get an Eastern seat which will be more conservative and a Western seat, which is more liberal. The big question would be where booming Bozeman might fall in drawing those lines.
T.W.: The widely held perception from the coasts is that spacious Montana is a “rural” state.
D.P.: Montana is an urban state, a state of small cities. It’s not as “rural” as one might think. Do rural counties have disproportionate influence? I’d say that rural counties in Montana receive far more federal and state assistance than they might like to believe. Is that influence? Perhaps.
T.W.: Both active U.S. Sen. Tester of Montana, a Democrat, and former U.S. Sen. Alan Simpson of Wyoming support campaign finance reform. Is “dark money” a problem?
D.P.: I think dark money is enormously problematic because it allows some individuals a grossly unequal voice in the political process and in a manner that distorts democratic procedures.
A group can pop up, drop a bunch of ads, and disappear. That creates a problem of accountability and it distorts the political agenda. And because there is not accountability, they can make outrageous, even false claims—and do so at the last minute in low information elections that can tip the balance.
T.W.: Why does the media matter?
D.P.: The media matters for two reasons. First, to create a record of facts upon which we can all agree. Second, to hold our elected leaders accountable to the people. A free and unfettered media is an important public check on tyranny.
T.W.: In what direction do you see the political make up of Montana, Wyoming and Idaho headed?
D.P.: That’s hard to say. I can’t see Wyoming becoming any less Republican or conservative. Montana is interesting. The rural areas are getting older and less populated, with the state’s growth in urban counties. The highest rates of birth are among Native Americans. This all suggests that that the state may trend more Democratic in the years to come, but much of that depends on migration pattern into the state and who is moving here.
The same might be said about Idaho, which has a growing and sizeable Latino population. The key question here, though, is what percentage of Latinos in Idaho are Mormon—which would make them more conservative, perhaps, than other Latino groups. Even then, I think I’d be hard pressed to say that Idaho will become a purple state soon.
T.W.: How connected are Westerners to public lands and where are the sentiments trending?
D.P.: Very connected. I don’t see that appreciably changing, particularly in Montana where people use public lands extensively. In fact, Westerners may appreciate it more as cities expand and population continues to rise globally.
T.W.: If you could wave a magic wand and by edict order changes to the political process, what would those changes be?
D.P.: I would require our executive officials to subject themselves to weekly questions from Congress much as they do in Great Britain. I would also require politicians to create policy briefs which honestly, and forthrightly, lay out the positive and negatives of the policies they pursue—and to anchor all of their policy decisions in empirics, rather than their hopes and prayers—or blind adherence to a particular ideology.
Todd Wilkinson, founder of Mountain Journal (mountainjournal.org), is author of “Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek” about famous Greater Yellowstone grizzly bear 399 featuring 150 photographs by Tom Mangelsen, available only at mangelsen.com/grizzly. His feature on the delisting of Greater Yellowstone grizzlies appears in the winter 2018 issue of Mountain Outlaw and is now on newsstands.