Village Idiots…

Naturally, since I write for an Idaho newspaper, a good deal of my commentary focuses on the state where I lived for more than 40 years and whose politics I’m been observing closely for just as long.

But today’s subject: the reactionary, ideological forces of the modern conservative right fighting new “culture wars” is a national phenomenon, playing out in Republican dominated legislatures from Florida to Iowa, Montana to Kansas.

The Florida Legislature, for example, has passed a bill calling for a survey of the political beliefs of public college and university professors in that state. You can’t call that even thinly disguised McCarthyism. One critic asks, “Could this information potentially be used to punish or reward colleges or universities? Might faculty be promoted or fired because of their political beliefs?” Of course it’s an effort to intimidate.

In Montana Republican lawmakers are headed for the showdown with the state’s judiciary after all members of the Montana Supreme Court were subpoenaed by a legislative committee and told to appear and bring records related to a separation of powers and policy dispute.

Iowa’s Republican legislature wants to outlaw talk of “diversity” and proscribe what subjects can’t be taught in public schools.

And in Idaho the worst, most anti-education legislature in memory is slashing and burning its way through a COVID interrupted session. Frankly, much of what the GOP-controlled legislature has been doing is appalling.

The late, great Texas journalist Molly Ivins was both an astute and acerbic observer of political stupidity and a world class wit. She was fond of saying as Lone Star state legislators annually gathered in Austin to abuse their constituents that suddenly “many a village is without its idiot.” 

Once wonders what Molly would have made of the village people who gathered in Idaho’s Statehouse since early January. 

In 45-plus years of observing the annual convocation of the 105 most self-confident bumblers in Idaho, I’m left to conclude that the present legislative fiasco tops – or bottoms out – every other reckless, disgusting, ill-informed and damaging legislative session in modern memory. Just when you think they can’t possibly go lower, they go lower. 

Idaho voters are clearly not sending the best people to Boise. To paraphrase a famous American: they’re sending their cranks, the science deniers, the destroyers of public schools and higher education, the self-proclaimed experts on absolutely everything. And a few of them are nice people. 

The crappiest legislature in modern times is clearly a product of Idaho’s down the rabbit hole one party politics where the most outspoken cranky local conspiracy theorist is able to appeal to the narrowest band of likeminded Republicans, and low and behold they are suddenly lawgivers. As the old joke goes, yesterday many of them couldn’t spell legislator, today they are one. 

The narrowness, ignorance and grievance of the Idaho Legislature has been appalling

Consider just a partial list of what the anointed few of Idaho legislative politics have done recently in the name of 1.8 million of their fellow citizens: 

  • After being forced to shut down the legislative session for two weeks because of a COVID outbreak that many lawmakers deny or ignore – during the hiatus they kept paying themselves, of course, with your money – they approved legislation to prohibit mask mandates by local officials. “This is a matter of our personal rights and our liberty,” said Republican Representative Karey Hanks, the bill’s sponsor. The Associated Press’s Keith Ridler noted the obvious, that Hanks, whose public health expertise consists of having been a school bus driver, was contradicting “virtually all public health experts… cited information she has that masks aren’t effective in preventing disease.” It seems worth noting that Hanks has twice been elected to the legislature by simply putting her name on the ballot. She’s never had an opponent. 
  • Not liking Governor Brad Little’s wimpy and often ineffective leadership in battling the deadly virus that has now claimed the lives of 2,000 Idahoans, Little’s fellow Republicans voted to further limit his and future governor’s powers to deal with emergencies
  • Unhappy with Republican Attorney General Lawrence Wasden, a truly exemplary public official who has repeatedly attempted to protect the legislature from its own hubris and save your money from being wasted on senseless litigation, the legislature tried to gut the AG’s authority to represent certain state agencies and then settled for merely slashing his budget. Wasden had the audacity to refuse to join a spectacularly undemocratic lawsuit – Texas idiots, again – seeking to overturn the presidential election. That angered certain of the knuckle dragging caucus and because grievance is their guiding principle, they lashed out. 
  • This legislature’s attacks on public schools and higher education have truly been unprecedented. A bill to fund Idaho teacher salaries died this week after a nonsensical debate about “critical race theory,” a Fox News staple that no one in the legislature can define. As Betsy Russell of the Idaho Press wrote, the teacher pay legislation went down “after debate that focused alternately on whether Idaho values and wants to pay its teachers, and whether ‘critical race theory’ is somehow being promoted in Idaho’s public schools because the state funds teacher professional development.” What an absolutely horrible message to send to thousands of teachers who have had the most trying year imaginable. 
  • The legislature’s blindly ideological assault on higher education prompted University of Idaho president C. Scott Green to go public in an effort to address “misinformation and half-truths” that he said profoundly threaten the state’s colleges and universities. Green put a fine point on the problem when he wrote to Vandal alums and business leaders: “There is a troubling void of voices in the legislature standing up for the principles of critical thinking, the pursuit of knowledge, and the ability of students and faculty to explore ideas, examine the facts, and come to their own conclusions.”
  • Having disposed of education and pandemic concerns, legislators devoted hours of time and untold amounts of your money this week to discussing a clownish idea to create an expanded state of “Greater Idaho” by sweeping in vast acres of eastern and southern Oregon. This idea has precisely nothing to do with public policy, but is grievance driven political performance. “Greater Idaho” will happen when pigs fly, but hey it’s entertaining to blather about stuff that fires up the rubes back home. 
  • And last buy not least, lawmakers are working to make it virtually impossible for citizens to mount an initiative campaign to create a law at the ballot box. This despite Idaho’s history of having created some of the state’s most important public policy through initiatives, including expanding Medicaid, mandating campaign finance disclosure and limiting residential property taxes.

One guesses it’s mighty difficult to tell anything to people who are happily confident in their own ignorance. What these legislators think they know they’re confident of. What they don’t know they can’t be bothered with. 

For the rest of the good people of Idaho – and particularly for those in the business community – who care about a competent government, who don’t believe public school teachers and college professors are engaged in a vast Marxist conspiracy to indoctrinate children with dangerous ideas about diversity and actually want a better education system that fuels a better economy there is only one question: How far down this rabbit hole are you willing to go? 

If you think the collection of dunces and nitwits who have taken over state government have gone as low as they can possibly go think again. They haven’t. If you like this legislature your task is easy: keep sending your local nincompoop to Boise. If you’ve got some concerns about what’s happening there is an alternative course. 


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