For several months last year, Wyoming’s conservative political discourse focused on the sexualization of children. Specifically, voices on the far right concentrated on a few library books that they said were inappropriate for teenagers who are not mature enough for frank depictions of sex, gender and other matters.
Flash forward a few months and many of these same voices are now fighting an attempt to establish a minimum marriage age in Wyoming. Wyoming is one of only eight states without one, and now permits about 20 underage marriages a year. Last year, for example, a 32-year-old man married a 16-year-old girl. You would think a group so invested in stopping the sexualization of children would want to prevent such situations. And yet the Wyoming Republican Party has pushed to defeat the bill, maintaining that parental rights are at issue. Apparently, library books can sexualize our children but not marriages to adults.
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Politics, by its nature, is full of contradictions and inconsistencies. But what we’ve seen this year in the Wyoming Legislature is example after example of pure hypocrisy. From those who demand local control only when it suits them to those who cite the Constitution while seeking to weaken its protections, what seems only to matter is the ends, regardless of the means of obtaining them.
Consider what had been a bedrock value of Republicans — local control. We’ve heard time and again that the closer the government is to the people, the better. And yet, many of the lawmakers who claim the mantle of local control and small government are happy to toss it aside when it suits them. Far-right conservatives tried to block local communities from setting their own rules on whether to allow rodeos, with one even saying “sometimes it just makes sense to handle it from the top.”
Similarly, we’ve seen a handful of hard-line conservatives support multiple attempts to take away the right of small business owners to decide for themselves what health and safety rules they want to set in their own businesses. These lawmakers rail against big government, but also want government to say, for example, that an immunocompromised store owner couldn’t tell her patrons that mask wearing was a requirement of entry. (And, of course, those patrons would have every right to take their business to another store if that was unacceptable to them.)
These same lawmakers also rolled their eyes at assertions that requiring a teenage victim of sexual assault to carry her rapist’s baby morally requires them to provide health care for that victim once she’s delivered the child. Life is precious until it’s not, apparently.
Finally, we’ve seen lawmakers who tout their allegiance to the Constitution brush off concerns that legislation will likely violate it, as long as they think the legislation’s ends are justified. It’s notable that all of the House members who are lawyers raised concerns that a sweeping abortion bill would violate the constitutional separation of powers by giving the legislative branch more domain over the judiciary. And when they did so, they were lectured about fear mongering and not having enough courage.
So why so much hypocrisy? When you’re convinced that you’re right, the ends will always justify the means, even if it requires inconsistency at every turn. If you believe that you are protecting your values, why not limit the rights of others to set theirs? If you believe that you are saving lives, why not erode the Constitution in defense of them? But governing with a constant belief in your own righteousness is folly. It’s not the path toward a better or freer state. U.S. Supreme Court Justice Learned Hand once said, “The spirit of liberty is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right.” Rejecting the absolutist attitude that begats hypocrisy should be something our leaders strive for.