Idaho View: Idaho democracy: July 3, 1890 — March 29, 2019

Idaho View: Idaho democracy: July 3, 1890 — March 29, 2019

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Idaho democracy died after a long illness on Friday, March 29, 2019.

It was 128 years old.

Idaho democracy was born on July 3, 1890. Listed on the birth certificate was its honorary father, President Benjamin Harrison, who signed the statehood act. Its honorary mother was Abigail Scott Duniway, who helped lead the state’s successful drive toward women’s suffrage.

Idaho’s honorary godfather was President Abraham Lincoln, who created the Idaho territory in 1863.

As a youngster, Idaho democracy occupied a home filled with energetic, progressive and populist causes.

In 1892, Idaho’s first presidential election, voters chose Populist candidate James Weaver over the GOP and Democratic nominees.

By 1896, it became one of the first states to extend women the right to vote, 24 years before the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified. That same year, Idaho was audacious enough to reject both major political parties, enabling Henry A. Heitfield of Lewiston to become the only Populist member of the U.S. Senate from a Western state.

By 1912, Idaho democracy declared its people sovereign by embracing the agenda espoused by the Progressive Party ticket of Theodore Roosevelt and Hiram Johnson by asserting the right of the voters to pass initiatives, referenda and to recall elected officials from office.

Four years later, Idaho democracy chose America’s first elected Jewish governor, Moses Alexander.

During its adolescence, Idaho democracy flourished as it was courted by both political parties. Republicans prevailed in the 1920s. The state then veered Democratic during the New Deal era of the Great Depression.

As it matured, Idaho democracy flirted with the conservative Republican presidential nominee Barry Goldwater before finally consummating the philosophical union with Ronald Reagan’s Republican revolution. But it maintained enough political dexterity to elect Democrats to the governor’s office through a string of six elections and a Democrat to the U.S. Senate through four campaigns. It periodically ousted Republican congressmen, including one during Reagan’s re-election landslide in 1984, and dumped the GOP majority in the state Senate in 1990.

But things took a turn for the worse in 1994 when Idaho’s democratic arteries began to thicken and harden with the arrival of one-party rule. Democracy was further compromised in 2007 when Idaho’s Republican Party began acting like a machine by refusing to discipline then-U.S. Sen. Larry Craig, who broke his promise to resign while in the midst of a gay sex-sting scandal. The rise of the Tea Party in 2010 undermined what remained of the state’s political independence when voters took out their anger at President Barack Obama by defeating any Democrat in sight, down to the county clerks.

And by 2011, a frail Idaho democracy suffered another blow when the dominant Republican Party closed its primary elections.

Occasionally, Idaho democracy would rally.

In 2012, voters stood up to their political elites at the ballot box by repealing a series of anti-teacher education laws the GOP-led Legislature adopted in deference to then-state schools Superintendent Tom Luna. (Of course, they turned around and re-elected the same lawmakers who adopted the Luna Laws.)

Democracy also made a show of strength last fall when voters used the initiative process to repudiate their Legislature’s long-standing intention to abandon some 62,000 low-income Idaho adults who did not qualify for Medicaid coverage.

But a fragile Idaho democracy was no match for legislative retaliation this year. Shutting out the public voice first in the Senate on March 22 and then in the House on March 29, lawmakers essentially repealed the initiative process, the last vestige of popular rule.

When the democratic pulse faded away in the Legislative chambers, it was time to administer last rites.

Preceding Idaho democracy in death were:

Mutual respect among voters and elected officials; competitive politics providing real choices to ticket-splitting voters who put the person ahead of party and political checks and balances.

Moderate Republicans and lunch bucket Democrats who were not afraid to coalesce, much to the consternation of their party leaders.

A strong disgust for radical fringe groups, such as the John Birch Society on the right and Students for a Democratic Society on the left.

Faith in the future, a penchant for facts and reason, an appreciation for straight talk and courage.

A powerful political center of pragmatic, problem-solvers.

Survivors include:

Contempt among the elected officials for the people, voters who lost their ticket-splitting skills by siding exclusively with Republican and GOP lawmakers who can serve in office for decades without genuine competition.

Hyper-partisanship — and its cousin, the Bedke Rule.

Ideological purity and tribalism.

Acquiescence to clandestinely funded special interest groups and lobbies.


An onimpotent party base leaving behind the political center as a no-man’s land where one can expect to be machine-gunned by his own side.

Although mourners are plentiful, no memorial services are planned. — M.T.


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