A Response to James Pogue’s “Inside the New Right’s Next Frontier”
The American West is undergoing an accelerating economic, cultural, and demographic shift. In Arizona, Montana, Idaho, Colorado, and Wyoming, hedge fund managers, crypto-homesteaders, and apocalyptic city-state entrepreneurs are buying up every available piece of land to LARP like extras on the set of Yellowstone. Mainstream media is beginning to notice. James Pogue’s recent piece ‘Inside the New Right’s Next Frontier: The American West’ in Vanity Fair follows Isaac Simpson’s ‘There’s Gonna Be a War in Montana’ and tracked similar themes: natives’ rejection of coastal monoculture, the inability to compete economically with wealthy migrants, and fear of natives becoming a servant class for newcomers. As a result of these trends, anti-growth sentiment has become a central issue in the American West. Although born of resentment, the underlying dynamic is people’s innate desire for their own space and identity; the United States is being crushed by a joyless, media-driven monoculture that people want to escape from. Distinct regional variations were a key feature of America’s older, more pluralistic society, and these variations are being permanently erased.
Let’s say I had the ‘misfortune’ of being born in Bisbee, Arizona, which has become a hotspot for transplants and hippie Boomers. I’d attend Bisbee High School (ranked a ‘C’ letter grade by the Arizona State Board of Education) and then make a decision to leave to attend college or begin working. If I want to work in Bisbee, I won’t make much – the median household income is $41,094 (2021 data) – and the main jobs requiring a 4-year degree are those tied to county services as Bisbee is the seat of government for Cochise County. The median home price was $317,000 in January 2023. Without inheriting property or a commercial business, the lack of economic activity and mobility intertwined with a poor education infrastructure guarantees that people raised there aspiring to the middle class will be forced to leave. A nearby larger city, like Tucson, still offers some respite though housing prices are $100,000 higher than they were a year ago and have continued to increase even in the face of higher interest rates. The economic trend is directionally opposed to young natives who have few or no assets, and is still continuing. The outcome is that critical life choices (living and raising a family near parents or extended family) will never be available to them.
To illustrate the point further, my wife and I took a day trip several months ago to Patagonia which has a lower median income than Bisbee ($33,077 in 2020) and where listed home prices are a median of $569,000. Eating an early lunch at the Wagon Wheel Restaurant in town, we overheard the waitress (proudly raised in Patagonia she said) speaking to a customer about how she couldn’t afford her rent in the city any longer and was moving in with her niece in Nogales. This isn’t New York City or San Francisco or Aspen or Jackson Hole: this is Pata-fucking-gonia in Southern Arizona.
There are people who are benefitting from this growth. The local real estate agent obviously enjoys the hot market. Local business owners have a steadier and wealthier clientele. Those with land or property can offload a significant tax burden by selling it. I cannot count the instances I’ve seen where ranch land passed between generations in a will and it was up on the market before the rancher’s body was cold. This isn’t sabotage; it’s economic opportunity that most people would jump at if in the same situation. Generations of families who led subsistence lives now can finally make a step-function improvement on the economic ladder.
But the cultural aspect to many natives is more crushing than the economic factor. Perhaps I am biased, but I believe the American West is the most unique and incredible region in this country. A limitless expanse in all directions, massive and wondrous, a richness of history tied to the spirit of a land and a people who suffered incredible hardship to build on it. When you’re bound to the land, to see it turned into another iteration of the playground of entropy that has decayed liberal cities across the country evokes a visceral reaction.
The Left is now so captured by national politics that a leftist in San Francisco is indistinguishable from a leftist in Shamrock, Texas. They cannot form an opposition to the Monoculture. For this reason, the Right, which is more decentralized, has assumed that role. I once could find common cause with environmentalists to oppose growth, but there are far fewer real environmentalists these days. Environmentalism has been hijacked by climate change and hitched to other issues, including uncontrolled immigration from the Global South.
Reactionary politics is a natural response to the sense that one’s culture and identity is being erased. The countryside isn’t emptying out, as in many rural areas in Europe, it’s being specifically targeted, invaded, and altered to fit the personal preferences of people who have no connection to where they’re living. One profile in Pogue’s article that stood out was by Julie Fredrickson who tells of growing up in Boulder, Colorado and now living in Montana (via New York City). Although she recognizes she isn’t a native, she dismisses being an interloper since she grew up in the American West. The statement stuck with me because it would be akin to me comparing my hometown to Albuquerque, New Mexico. To draw a 450-mile diameter circle on a map (the distance from Boulder to Montana) and insist “I’m from here” is absurd. The natives see that and assume the worst.
Still, it is the local beneficiaries of the new growth in the American West who have enabled this. Housing developers, local real estate investment firms, and car dealership moguls love growth and they make up a significant portion of campaign contributions to our local politicians. I often tell the story of Arizona’s brief flirtation with anti-growth populism: the 1986 election of Evan Mecham to the Governor’s office which strangely united members of the John Birch Society with the Audubon Society and ended with Mecham being impeached and removed from office after running afoul of Chamber of Commerce Republicanism. Any serious opposition to growth will be met with overwhelming force.
Is there a political solution? A way to turn the tide in Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming? (I hold no hope of such a turn in Arizona or Colorado.) Perhaps, but only if the natives in those states can form a political block that forces the state government to prioritize their needs. This means becoming more insular but it should be clear that this reflects a positive social and political culture in the state. Resentment, while a powerful motivator, needs to be channeled into a platform that does not alienate the local power brokers. Their families, businesses, and homes must also prosper under a more localist regime.
People need to own their space. Local culture, derived from the history of a locality, should be promoted. Statues should be built to pioneers and founders, vernacular architectural aesthetics should be developed, school curriculums molded around the immediate surroundings. Controlling immigration from the rest of the United States is critically important to empower economic and political activity for native residents. Because it’s impractical and illegal to prevent people from moving between states in the United State, we should take a page from the wealthy liberal playbook and make our states more like gated communities with prohibitive zoning laws to keep non-locals out.
Scholarships to state colleges should be made available to children born and raised in the state and caps placed on the number of out-of-state (and international) students. Technical colleges can be located in areas where education is underserved; apprenticeships should be state-subsidized to promote training (or retraining) of blue-collar workers. Large companies can be offered tax benefits for hiring workers who live within a certain defined geography. Regulatory barriers to farmers and ranchers taking their products directly to market can be eliminated. Extractive industry, with strict environmental controls, can be reinvigorated. Tax policy can be updated to enact additional taxes on real estate for out-of-state buyers. Out-of-state investment firms should be banned from purchasing residential property or forced to be minority shareholders with a local firm. Taxes on land can be progressively reduced as it passes between generations to incentivize future generations to hold on to family property. Smart and targeted policy changes can open a path for multi-generational roots to flourish.
It is said that change is commonly gradual and then it happens all at once. As America becomes more atomized, more divided, and yet as culture becomes more homogenous, the elements of the West that can retain a semblance of sovereignty will remain beacons for all of us in remembering the frontier spirit of this nation.