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Moneyed Politics: Wild West Edition
Economic development in the Western states comes at a cost.
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Sacramento, California - August 18 2015: A sign for Central Pacific Rail Road in Old Sacramento State Historic Park. Courtesy of Shutterstock
America’s story is one of economic development. The tale is about an expansion that displaced and robbed native peoples.
A laissez faire corrupting force is habitually enabled within the nation from time to time. It’s a force that threatens the health and well-being of our citizens and our environment. At the same time, it is intricately connected to the political corruption we experience.
In a more positive sense, this force can be understood and recalibrated towards developing ways to secure and revitalize our natural environment.
In American Nations, Colin Woodard describes the founding of America’s Far Western interior as a colonization by economic giants and federal interests - including the moneyed motives behind the Central Pacific Railroad. He also describes elite designs around the mining booms in Nevada. As the corporatization of this and other trades occurred, power brokers in the budding population of California began to take control of the neighboring state legislature. This coordinated with the freight rate manipulation of the railroad monopolies, like Southern Pacific, who made sure to seat their own interest in the Western state legislatures as well.
Woodard also reflects on the influence of Anaconda Copper in Montana. The company virtually controlled the entire production process of industrialized mining. The results were company towns, distorted economies, and squeezed labor markets.
Despite corporate control, a large swath of land is owned by the federal government. The two entities often worked hand in glove to exploit the newcomers of this region.
Internally, corporate control over Far Western politics and society was disturbingly thorough. In the late nineteenth century and early twentieth centuries, Anaconda Copper literally ran Montana, buying off judges, local officials, and politicians in both parties and, via the “cemetery vote,” controlling the state’s elections. Its politicians in turn delivered rules, regulations, and tax policies that enriched Anaconda and its executives.
What is cemetery voting?
Ernie Dumas explains from the perspective of an Arkansan:
Along with private and public hostility, there were hyperbolic and offensive marketing campaigns to entice homesteaders. Advertisements would often promote more fertile farmland than actually available and reinforce stereotypes justifying the harsh treatment of Americans of color in these regions. Woodard also points out that a climatology phenomenon allowed for flawed beliefs to proliferate like: “rain follows the plow” and “As population increases, the moisture will increase.”
By the latter part of the century, a lot of these theories were proven wrong as economic panics and price hikes (many around transporting goods of course) made even more worthless the increasingly and naturally un-farmable land. Those Americans driven out West on these flawed predictions were unequivocally burdened with the consequences of economic ruin - many moving back eastward.
Elko, Nevada is a town founded by one of the “Big Four” railroad magnates, Charles Crocker. He named the town out of fascination for the local elk population. Elko (today with a population of over 20,000 people) was a stop on the Central Pacific section of the Transcontinental Railroad. Railroad agents sold lots for $300 to $500 in 1869. Copper ore was discovered in Battle Mountain and before one knew it, there was a railway going to the town.
As time went by, the railroad ownership has shifted. To compete with Northern Pacific, led by money man Jay Cooke and a lobby to monetize tourism at Yellowstone and Yosemite National Parks, the “Big Four” at Central Pacific (Leland Stanford, Collis Huntington, Mark Hopkins, and the aforementioned Charles Crocker) acquired rail lines in California and organized Southern Pacific as a landholding company. The company leased the Central Pacific line after years of building railways connecting Deep Southern swamps to the arid deserts of the Southwestern regions.
It goes without saying that the impact of corporate money in our politics is deep-seated. America’s expansion was fostered by an entrepreneurial spirit that simultaneously challenges and creates elite classes that operate in an economically exploitative manner. This group could set the price for transporting goods on independent and small competition. This cabal could also buy numerous parts of the overall production process of a market. Thus, limiting the amount of competition. These major abuses in the Western regions were a factor in fostering a renewed economic populism within the American nation. Even if the movements crystallized differently based on regional taste and cultures.
Finally, Woodard reflects on how privatized colonization and federal overreach have inspired a corporate libertarian ethos in this region. Some libertarians might describe themselves as subscribing to a seemingly oxymoronic kind of corporate populism that is, first and foremost, built out of an antagonism for the federal government. Every organized and large entity has a hidden agenda far worse than the agenda they present in public. Some tend to rationalize that the most evil deed a corporation can do is reap destruction in search of profits. Since markets aren’t eternal, this brand of toxicity is justified. On the other hand, they argue, the federal government can be utilized for a number of nefarious purposes that are hard to be undone.
One can acknowledge the validity of some specific concerns. One can also point out that cultural bias and income disparity - driven by corporate practices - played into libertarians aligning themselves with a homogenous corporate elite. The bloated, multi-faceted, and multicultural governing bureaucracies were successfully framed by right-wing political forces (alongside private interests) as hostile to entrepreneurs and people with socially conservative political views.
Reflecting on modern libertarianism, Woodard writes in 2011:
The cartels have since made a comeback, in large part by backing political candidates who serve their interests while attacking the Far Westerners’ other historical enemy: the federal government. Where the government was concerned, the popular majority long ago developed a concise agenda: get out, leave us alone, and give us more money. They want dams maintained on the upper Columbia but no regulations protecting salmon. They want Washington to keep providing $2 billion in irrigation subsidies but not to try to prevent them being used to exhaust the last of the region’s great ancient aquifers. Many of the Far West’s senators and congressmen receive most of their campaign donations from interests outside of the region and have become among the most reliable champions of the external industrial corporations at work there.
Our elected officials have the propensity to matriculate towards moneyed incentive structures. That is politics in the modern era. But, campaign finance reform means making elected officials less reliant on their lines of funding and more responsive to the public. Reforming this outgrowth of our modern political evolution would not be perfect. However, it would produce much worthier candidates.
A new political energy is sweeping across America. It is aware of the way speculators and robber barons divided and co-opted labor movements in the past. Learning from this history also means bringing the regional cultures of America together and appreciating the different ways they interpret policy and populism.
The grand unifier is our environment and how it impacts our perspective. Colin Woodard connects to the nature of the American lands beyond the 98th meridian (and how they were nearly uninhabitable) in explaining the influences of big corporations and big government in the Far West. It also meant denying refuge to the people who were forced there through prior policies and aggression.
Most importantly, a renewed focus on our natural environment can help develop a communal intuition for sustaining resources while rebuilding biomes and ecosystems. America’s topographic beauty is awe-inspiring and needs preservation. That is also populism because it reflects a basic care for the improvement and safety of our collective habitat while raising awareness for people subjected to environmental harm based on their income bracket.