Monday, April 18, 2005

I've been posting over at, and been meaning to cross post this entry here. Its about David Kemmis and "This Sovereign Land," one of my new most favorite books:

In the last chapter of “This Sovereign Land,” Daniel Kemmis makes the observation that Western Republicans have the inside track on the issue that will ensure political dominance for one party in the region: whether any political party can be seen as being the source of collaborative efforts that will eventually exert local and regional control over public lands in the West.

A cynical Republican will answer, “Of course it will be the GOP. Republicans, not Democrats, trust people to make their own decisions.” This is at least true to the point that national environmental groups don’t trust local collaborative efforts, but rather courts and the federal bureaucracy to do the right thing.

But, in the “Death of Environmentalism,” Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus, argue that the national policy focus of the current stock of environmentalists, rather than a broader focus on progressive issues, has backed enviro groups into a corner, making them a stale and unsuccessful special interest.

The same focus on national issues that has marginalized environmentalism today is the same focus that has kept them from trusting and recognizing the good in collaborative efforts.

Also, Kemmis fails to address to what point and for what reasons Western GOPers support cooperative efforts. I would argue that their support only goes so far as to use collaborative efforts as a battering ram against federal control of lands, not to supplement that control with local and regional control.

By removing the federal government from the scene, and not allowing any real control by local communities, governments and watershed groups to fill in the vacuum, the space would eventually be filled by commercial interests. Westerners still would not control their landscape, the control would have moved from Washington DC to New York City.

Also, what are the chances that the Western Republican Party could abandon their dependence on the Western Myth of self reliance over cooperation?

To really create a cohesive policy of the homegrown Western sovereignty that Kemmis talks about, you need a party of politicians that believe that good, purposeful government can do good things.

The really cool thing about this post is that Kemmis himself ended up responding. I didn't end up looking like a complete idiot, btw:

My argument in the last chapter of This Sovereign Land was not that Republicans had captured the inside track on small "d" democratic politics in the West, but rather that Democrats risked ceding that ground to Republicans if we didn't re-examine some of our basic operating assumptions.

I completely agree with Emmett O'Connell that the Republican commitment and track record in this arena is shaky and vulnerable, mostly because the GOP remains far more committed to serving its corporate supporters than to any fundamental empowering of ordinary westerners.

But, as O'Connell quite accurately points out, Democrats have also been prevented from fully embracing grass-roots western democracy by our own close identification with another set of interests. Clearly, one reason Democrats had lost so much ground in the interior West before 2002 was because the party label had become all too closely associated in all too many western minds with a particular brand of national environmentalism - namely, the zero-cut and cattle-free brand. The result was that, over the course of a decade or so, Democrats had essentially abandoned our populist base in the rural West.

But now there is good news on two fronts. First, western Democrats have begun to stake out a genuinely western (and at the same time genuinely democratic) position on public land and resource issues. Second, the national environmental movement has itself moved into a new phase of self-examination, with the publication and discussion of Shellenberger and Nordhaus's "Death of Environmentalism" paper. While that paper doesn't directly address western issues, it creates an opportunity for western Democrats to begin saying clearly that we not only value these extraordinary western landscapes that we inhabit, but we also value the communities that have been built on those landscapes and the ways of life that depend on them.

I won't extend this comment by developing that argument any further here, but I did take a stab at that last spring in a High Country News article (

It's exciting and encouraging to see all the discussion that's now occurring about rebuilding the Democratic Party in the West, whether on this site or among those who last year created Democrats for the West ( Keep up the good work!

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