There was a time you could tell someone you were from Idaho and the only response it would elicit would be something about potatoes or maybe the skiing in Sun Valley. I would know. I grew up in the southeastern corner of the state. My family has farmed and ranched there for six generations.
Mention the Gem State these days, however, and what you're likely to get is an earful about our lackluster pandemic response or Ammon Bundy, our iconic failed-rancher-turned-insurrectionist who continues to trespass the Statehouse, embarrassing everyone but his true believers. Someone should find Bundy a job away from the TV cameras. Driving up and down the state fomenting revolution might be fun and glamorous for him, but it's wearing thin with the rest of us.
While they're at it, they also might try doing something about another subject of state wonderment: our current Legislature. Things have gotten completely out of control there, especially now that the mostly Republican senators and representatives in Boise have gone all-in with the Idaho Freedom Foundation (IFF, homegrown) and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC, a gift from the Koch brothers) to take power away from the governor, the attorney general, cities and towns, local school boards and health districts — even the voters themselves. Their latest inspiration, introduced after a self-induced, two-week COVID recess, is a bill from Rep. Sage Dixon of Ponderay that gives any Idaho legislator who doesn't like a federal executive order or a federal court decision the ability to kick-start a local process to officially ignore it. For the historically minded, it's no less an assault on the Constitution than the siege of Fort Sumter and the South's secession from the Union.
Good luck if you're looking for a consistent message in all of this. It isn't there. IFF's so-called political philosophy isn't exactly the Magna Carta — more like a dog's breakfast of cobbled ideas about natural law, personal freedom, limited government and, of course, a nostalgic past. It sounds plausible if you listen unthinkingly to the words, but it's really a disturbing effort to restrict what we read, what we think about and what we teach in our schools — a cancel culture of ignorance and fear.
ALEC's role, no less insidious, is to give cover to our duped public servants with template bills that masquerade as local solutions to local problems, but in practice are bombshells designed to blow up democracy and clear the way for big money and corporate irresponsibility. My guess is it's only a matter of time before Wall Street cashes in on the brainwashing and comes after Idaho's water.
Unfortunately, IFF's agenda doesn't stop with ripping up the federal and state constitutions or genuflecting to outside money. It also pushes legislation on cultural topics like public art (they're against it), public television (against that, too), the racial theory curriculum at Boise State University (very much against that) and Powerball. I didn't even know Powerball was an issue in Idaho until the foreign policy wing of our Legislature reminded me that Australia uses a portion of its lottery revenues to fund responsible family planning in the commonwealth — something that is apparently not only antithetical to Idaho but also an urgent threat, as it is only 8,447 miles across the ocean.
So we dropped out of the lottery and gave up millions of dollars of needed education money. That we're last in the country in K-12 funding, right behind Mississippi, is shameful enough; pretty soon you'll be hard-pressed to find any Idaho high school graduate who can find Australia on a map. Meanwhile, the state's real needs — repairing and replacing roads and bridges, approving a state budget, resolving the aforementioned education crisis — go unattended.
IFF's so-called political philosophy isn't exactly the Magna Carta — more like a dog's breakfast of cobbled ideas about natural law, personal freedom, limited government and, of course, a nostalgic past.
There is some hope, though. The Mormon church, one of the guardrails that have restrained Idahoans from their more bizarre political impulses (the other two being a knowledge of civics and what used to pass for a Republican Party), recently weighed in on this lunacy. It came in the form of a stern civics lesson from Dallin Oaks — a former U.S. Supreme Court clerk, Utah Supreme Court justice and dean of the Brigham Young University law school, now a constitutional scholar and general authority of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. At the LDS general conference in Salt Lake City earlier this month, Oaks reminded that representative democracy is anchored by the U.S. Constitution, not by any man or any political party.
Oaks' message was neither remarkable nor radical to anyone who understands basic constitutional concepts like the separation of powers or the relationship of the federal and state governments. What made it remarkable and radical is that it came when it did, with the full weight of the institutional church behind it, at a time when IFF, ALEC and their Statehouse enablers are ramping up authoritarianism and threatening the Constitution's inspired principles. Church skeptics will disagree, but I think Oaks' exhortation could be as significant a development in Mormon country as the church's backing away from the John Birch Society in the 1960s or its 1890s campaign to divide every ward house into equal numbers of Democrats and Republicans so Utah could achieve statehood. It should be required reading for every Idaho legislator who thinks the Mormon faithful will always have his or her back.
Another good, though less political, sign is that the nights are staying cold here in the high country, which means last winter's light snowpack will slowly melt into the ground — good for the aquifer and the dryland grain crops — and not run off to the ocean in swollen streams and rivers. It's what I like about spring — a time to unburden yourself from the past and think clearly and cautiously, and with hope, about a better future.
Even in Idaho. ♦
Douglas Siddoway divides his time between Spokane, where he practices law, and Fremont County, Idaho, where he raises grain.