Wyomingites take pride in the fact our state is different than everywhere else. We treasure our slower pace of life, our wide open spaces and the familiarity that comes with small-town life. “Wyoming is what the rest of the country used to be,” is a common sentiment here. But in at least one respect, Wyoming is becoming a lot like the rest of the country. In a state that has long prided itself on civility, we have become increasingly polarized. That polarization has seeped into our politics, but also our lives. And in doing so, it threatens the very nature of who we. It wasn’t always this way. We’ve long embraced the frontier ethic of live and let live. We idolize the caricature of the noble cowboy, who not only does the right thing, but performs the job with class and respect. Our politics were the same way. In other states, campaigns have dirty tricks, cheap shots and heaps of negativity. But for a long time, there was an understanding here that disagreements could be settled with civility. Unfortunately, that civility is being replaced more and more by polarization and divisiveness. During the legislative session, we saw lawmakers try to shut down the nomination of gubernatorial appointees, not because they weren’t qualified, but because their politics differed – sometimes by only a little. This represented a dramatic change in the decorum of the Wyoming Legislature, which has traditionally appointed nominees as long as they possessed the ability to do the job. Then came a bitter primary, which saw Republicans attacking one another with a vigor that suggested they were mortal enemies rather than members of the same party. Instead of focusing on policy, some campaigns devolved into name-calling and worse. A person who didn’t share the same views was now a traitor and worthy of scorn.
This polarization has wormed its way beyond politics and into other parts of our lives. Social media has become a game where the goal is to degrade and insult, rather than to discuss and debate. Now, there is only one right way of thinking about a subject. Reasonable people, it seems these days, can no longer disagree. If we let this continue, we’ll lose an essential part of what it means to be a Wyomingite. We’ll become like other states, where rancor and discord are the rule rather than the exception. The ethos of civility will be pushed aside in favor of something much coarser. But it doesn’t have to be this way. In fact, it hasn’t always been this way. We can make a conscious decision to look to the past as a way to move forward. Let’s remember how many challenges we’ve overcome when we’ve remained civil with one another. Let’s return to that way before it’s too late.