Finding Colorado on the ideological map

Colorado, it seems, is an island of sanity, a gleaming jewel in the middle of flyover country. We have the poles of Colorado Springs and Boulder a mere 100 miles from one another. Our state contains both the beauty of a Telluride and the, um, industrial magnificence of a Commerce City. We’ve got great beer and legal weed, and we’re managing it and making money off it. We still have the pull from the right (personhood, anyone? How about gun-driven recalls?) and the left (renewable energy mandates, gun control) with a split legislature and a centrist, biz-focused governor. We’re a purple state, a “battleground” state in electoral parlance, a red state in nomenclature and partly by political persuasion; a blue state by dint of our skies (well, usually) and our liberal enclaves.

We’re no Texas, where gun ownership may soon be mandated starting at birth and military exercises are viewed as potential government takeovers. (Hey, I thought Texans liked big guns and gas-guzzling vehicles?) But while we don’t have Louie Gohmert, arguably the dimmest bulb in a very dim Congress, Colorado Springs voters did put Gordon Klingenschmitt in our state House, a demon-fearing gay-hater who apparently once tried to exorcise a woman out of lesbianism. I think even Springs folks are embarrassed about that one, like the absent-minded aunt who brought a six of Blue Moon horchata to a party in the Highlands (“I thought you’d like it!”)

On the corruption scale, we don’t come close to New York, where “indicted” is becoming as common a marker of political identification as party affiliation. Nor are we Wisconsin, where labor foe Gov. Scott Walker hopes to parlay his war on the middle-class into a bid for the White House.

Crazy Florida, wacky North Carolina, loony California, sleazy New Jersey, backwards Kansas and socialist Vermont: Political labels like this stick, despite all the other wonderful things these states have to offer.

So who are we? It’s been interesting to see Colorado portrayed in the mainstream media over the past two years, largely due to the legalized marijuana issue. Lazy journalists mount their stories on a frame of Cheetos and ski-bum references, then home in on all the negative aspects of legal weed then can sniff out. As a result, those who might take these reports seriously are left with an impression of our state that’s skewed and inaccurate. But how are we doing all this high-tech stuff, remaining one of the fittest states in the union and posting impressive job growth if we’re all sitting on the couch baked out of our gourds quaffing crates of craft beer?

It’s a mystery, to some. For Coloradans, we shrug it off and go about our business. Our split personality gives us plenty to chew on internally without having to worry much about what Anderson Cooper thinks of our weed shops. After all, this is a state that passed anti-gay Amendment 2 back in 1992, then turned it around a dozen years later. You can’t buy liquor, wine or full-strength beer in most supermarkets or convenience stores, but you can get an ounce of high-quality pot any day of the week. And pistol-packing, diesel-truck driving cowboys are about as common as Subaru-driving surbanites, who’d as soon buy a gun as they would a can of Spam.

We’re starting to fascinate the beltway press and the rest of the mainstream media. This square state in the middle out there somewhere, somehow is untangling some of the things bedeviling the rest of the country. Sure, we’ve got fracking junk all over the place, but we’ve put in place some tough measures to keep the oil & gas industry somewhat in check, and we’re having big, noisy discussions about it. It’s a logical outcome in a state that’s got lots of valuably, burny stuff under ground alongside a lot of people above ground who have strong opinions about clean water, air and public safety. Yes, we say, we need some of that burny junk to run the show until we get flipped over to renewables, but you guys can’t just go nuts going after it.

Some Coloradans are embarrassed by the whole legalized marijuana deal, and I get that. It’s a big change, pot has plenty of silly baggage and adding another vice to the list of things you can buy legally may not be great for everyone. But one need only consider the stunning number of people sitting in jail all around the country for non-violent drug offenses to recognize that the war on drugs is a futile, regressive and illogical response to managing these substances. Coloradans considered it and arrived at the sensible conclusion that throwing someone in jail for smoking or possessing a bag of pot made no more sense than locking up Dad on his way home from the liquor store.

It’s our libertarian yet practical side that led to legal weed, and as I assure those who still say they’re mortified by the whole thing: just wait. As other states join in, the Cheech & Chong jokes will die down and the day will soon come when future generations say “What? Pot was illegal? People back then knew it’s way safer than alcohol, right?”

To those future questions I hope Colorado will likely have a hand in answering I’d add:

  • Wait … every single home had a lawn?
  • Anyone could buy a gun and as many bullets as they wanted?
  • You fueled the entire society by digging stuff out of the ground and burning it?

If those sound a little left, add your own questions simply by imagining stupid things you see today that you hope will be gone sometime in the future. The point is that progress is the best thing that comes from civilized society and politics. In many states, critical discussions about moving forward are supplanted by ongoing efforts to roll back things like voting rights, reproductive rights, environmental gains and same-sex marriage. It’s tough for typical Coloradans to look at that and say “way to go!” — even those of a more conservative persuasion see folly in allowing ideological opinions trump individual rights. It’s difficult to imagine these states representing the part of the Union that’s going to lead us into a better future.

Colorado, still far from perfect, nevertheless does a better job functioning as that working lab of democracy, where wildly divergent views on all matter of subjects are hashed out and mostly decided. While it was disappointing to watch the recent state legislative session unfold like a spinoff of our deadlocked U.S. Congress, there’s real hope that voters will shuffle things again in 2016 and that we’ll continue to move forward.

If I could set  someone down in any place in Colorado, I know I could stump them nine times out of 10. They might think Limon is Nebraska, or that Grand Junction is Utah or that Lamar is Oklahoma. Our mountains are iconic, but they don’t define the whole state. Skiing’s big, but not everyone does it. Pot’s in the news, but we haven’t yet replaced all of our public drinking fountains with vaporizing stations. And while we may have political extremes in Boulder and Colorado Springs, around the state there are more unaffiliated voters than Democrats or Republicans.

So who are we? More than anything, I’d say a work in progress. Unwilling to wallow in the past, cautiously — and sometimes messily — moving toward better things.  Our common love for our state tempers some of our worst impulses, and our purple persuasion allows most voices to be heard.

Throw in a heap of natural beauty and this square state is indeed “Colorful Colorado.”

Published in the Denver Post


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