From the roofless patio atop the extraordinary World Market Center, sixteen floors of swirls and triangles, pastel orange concrete mixed with shimmering glass, one can see a truly epic panorama of the American West. To the east is a Frank Gehry building, a curvaceous metal fantasy that houses a brain research center. To the south is the Las Vegas Strip, announced at its northern point by the soaring Stratosphere. Surrounding the center is the urban sprawl of Sin City. And surrounding that sprawl are the orange rock mountains. The sky, most of the time, is a brilliant blue; the air, desert dry.
Such was the visual backdrop to this year’s Project New West Summit, which brought together Democratic politicians and progressive advocacy groups from the Rocky Mountain West for three days of discussions, beginning October 16.
But despite the splendor of the view, the reality it encompasses is far from rosy. Nevada has roughly 14 percent unemployment, the country’s highest foreclosure rate, a cataclysmically low high school graduation rate, poor public health data and an array of other signs of an economy in deep distress. On the surface, the casinos are still thriving; below the surface, many laid-off casino employees and construction workers are living in destitution.
While Nevada is an extreme case, many of its problems are replicated to some degree throughout the West. Arizona’s housing market crashed almost as severely as did Nevada’s. New Mexico’s poverty rates are among the worst in the nation. Idaho’s wages are depressed. And so on.
In 2008, the economic malaise helped push much of this region into Barack Obama’s camp in the presidential election, and contributed to the Democratic victories in both houses of Congress. Increasingly urban—the combined population of Phoenix, Denver, Las Vegas, Albuquerque and Salt Lake City has grown by 38 percent since 2000, according to research carried out by University of Nevada in Las Vegas sociologists—and increasingly an ethnic pastiche, the interior West was no longer a reliably conservative voting bloc.
But in 2010, despite the urbanizing trends, that same malaise played to the Republicans’ advantage. With fewer people voting, and with those who did vote disproportionately allied with the GOP, Democrats in the region lost many Congressional seats and statehouses.
Although political leaders tout the region’s moderation and pragmatism—its resistance to extremes, its ability to negotiate workable budgets even in the face of partisan sparring—the Tea Party organized early and fiercely in the West. The anti-tax rebellions that have morphed into an anti-government monster also originated largely in the West, as have recent swells of anti-immigrant sentiment. (The Tea Party did, however, receive a bloody nose in Nevada, Colorado and Washington, where extreme GOP candidates fell to Democratic incumbents in 2010 Senate races.)
Yet amid the nastiness, many of the country’s most innovative environmental and water management measures are coming out of the West. Colorado, for example, recently passed legislation converting all state-run coal power plants to natural gas. Many of the region’s states have, via the initiative process, raised their minimum wages in recent years. Changing demographics are giving more power to cities and to progressive Democrats. And despite all the hardship there’s still a can-do optimism that’s fairly pervasive in the region. The historian Wallace Stegner once noted that the West is "the native home of hope,” and while that emotion has taken quite a beating in recent years, it hasn’t entirely vanished.