We live in a time of the horse-whisperer. Even some hard-bitten Wyoming cowboys celebrate the horse-whispering approach as the way to go in training horses.
It wasn’t always this way. I remember back in my horse-wrangling days it was the Wyoming cowboys who were of the “make-’em-or-break-’em” school. In contrast, my mentor believed in building a horse’s trust by gradually introducing it to new experiences. But he was from back East.
Nowadays in Wyoming, horse-whisperers have inspired an enthusiastic following, and are even sought out by management consultants and leadership trainers. But when it comes to politics, Wyoming sometimes seems caught in a time warp.
As pointed out by Dustin Bleizeffer in a recent article in Wyofile, Republican candidates for statewide office derided those who believe climate change is real as “softies” who do not understand hard economic realities. Last summer, Republican members of the state Legislature proposed a measure subjecting welfare recipients to the indignity of drug-testing.
In terms of national politics, in the 2012 election Wyoming went for the candidate of the party that took almost every opportunity to belittle women’s concerns, blaming them for fetuses conceived in “legitimate” rape. It sided with the party that in some states would have required women to undergo an invasive vaginal procedure before having an abortion. The candidate of the Republican Party blamed immigrants for being here – no matter how they had arrived or how long they had been here – suggesting that “self-deportation” was the way out.
In retrospect, this harsh and derogatory style of politics probably started going out with another Wyomingite, Vice President Dick Cheney, and his comrade-in-arms, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Remember Cheney’s statement, “Energy conservation is an individual choice, not a public policy”?
Remember Rumsfeld’s “You go to war with the army you have, not the army you might want or wish to have at a later time?”
However, in fairness, a tone-deaf approach to politics in this state is not unique to Republicans. We’ve heard a lot of criticism lately of the state Democratic Party for its poor showing in local and statewide elections. But the party is only partly to blame for its own failings.
It was Gov. Dave Freudenthal, after all, who declined to make a personal investment in mentoring the next generation of party leaders. Though an admirable political leader in many respects, when it came to encouraging new voices in the party, a horse-whisperer he was not.
Just because people mean business, doesn’t mean that a crude, “no-nonsense” approach always works best. What usually works best is an approach which is deferential to the concerns of those involved. If people have different religious views, respect them. If people stumble along the way – an unwanted pregnancy, the loss of a home – find what is needed to help them get back on their feet. People have life stories. Part of the job of a political leader is to listen to them.
The recent election tells us that the future of the political arena is likely to belong more to the sensitive, new age horse-whisperers than to the macho bronco busters of this world. Like horses, people are more likely to respond to those who seek to understand and encourage them, not to break their spirits. Let’s hope that the age of the horse-whisperer is here to stay.
David Wendt is president of the Jackson Hole Center for Global Affairs.