The Blinders of Madison County

Rick Davis BYU-Idaho Humanities ProfessorRick Davis- Humanities Professor, BYU-Idaho

Tim Grieve had an interesting column in Salon about “The reddest place in America,” Madison County, Idaho, home of BYU-Idaho. Some of the quotes from members of the faculty at BYU-Idaho caused my jaw to drop. For example:

As BYU-I English professor Dawn Anderson tells me, it’s important to understand that most voters in Madison County are Mormons, and that “everything of a political nature” has to be understood in that context.

“The climate surrounding faithful membership in this organization is not always conducive to challenging authority,” she says. “People here are reluctant to openly criticize the president and his administration, even if they privately disapprove of his job.” And many of them don’t disapprove, even privately. “After 20 years of teaching Mormon students, I’ve learned that the majority of them have little knowledge of issues outside the Republican platform. They only know that Democrats are lesbian baby-killers.”

Those critics of academia who believe all college professors are liberals should listen to Rick Davis who is (ironically) BYU-Idaho professor of Humanities.

One of Anderson’s BYU-I colleagues, a conservative professor of humanities named Rick Davis, offers a different sort of testament to the appeal of the area and the politics of its residents. Davis has lived in a lot of different places, he says, and he knows that people are different all over. Even Mormons are different. Davis contrasts his neighbors with Massachusetts Gov. and potential GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney. Romney is a “Boston Mormon,” notes Davis, not to be confused with “Rexburg Mormons,” who, he says, are “so red that you just bleed.”

Davis is definitely a Rexburg Mormon. I ask him about his thoughts on George W. Bush, and he launches into an explanation about how much worse off we’d all be if Al Gore had moved into the White House six years ago. “Oh, heaven help us,” he says. “No leadership, zero, which is the way Clinton was, too.” Clinton got away with a lot because the press is so liberal, Davis insists; Bush is “damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t” because people just don’t understand that we could all be at the mercy of nuclear-armed terrorists if the United States doesn’t prevail in Iraq.

People in Madison County? They get it, Davis says. He’s been around, after all, and he’s come to understand that “anything that’s cosmopolitan is liberal, and anything that’s small is conservative.” But why is Madison County so overwhelmingly conservative? “There’s more Mormons here, and they’re better educated,” he says. “We have a very high education level in this town, a very high income level in this town. Now, that equates with being conservatives. We’re fiscally aware of where the money comes from, and that it doesn’t grow on the great tree in Washington. We don’t have any welfare state in this area at all. We don’t have blacks in this area to speak of. We’ve had them, and they’ve come and gone. Not to say they were driven out; they’ve just felt uncomfortable because there aren’t enough of them — like you and me moving to Montgomery, Alabama.

I wonder why he talks about welfare and then immediately mentions blacks? I guess blacks are all on welfare, aren’t they? “Blacks weren’t driven out, they just felt uncomfortable…” This is the language of covert racism that so frequently infects small insulated communities like Rexburg. Of course, as Grieve points out, Davis is wrong about Rexburg Mormons in terms of both education and income.

Davis may overestimate Madison County’s standing on the income and education fronts. According to 2003 data from the U.S. Census Bureau, the county’s median income is substantially lower than the median for Idaho or for the nation as a whole. Its educational accomplishments are pretty average: 24.4 percent of the county’s adult residents have at least a bachelor’s degree — a number that’s exactly equal to the national one. As for Madison County’s racial breakdown, Davis is pretty much spot-on.

Grieve concludes his article by noting that, even though the citizens of Madison county are content to keep their blinders on and obey authority, Republican support in the rest of the state is starting to show signs of weakness. He mentions the tight race between Grant and Sali as well as Mike Simpson’s hypocrisy in supporting Sali, who he once threatened to throw out of a window.

All in all, a thought provoking article well worth reading.

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5 comments

  1. With the comments that Mr. Davis has made, I do not doubt why there is still prejudice and fear in this nation. I work at the same university and if anyone cares to hear from me, please understand that he does not speak nor hold the same feelings and judgement mentioned in this article. I am disgusted at his remarks and embarrased to read them.

  2. Whoops, let me change my comments, I meant to say that others do NOT share his feeling and he does NOT speak for the university nor does any others from the university share his opinions or ideas.

  3. Dphip,

    Thanks for your comment. I appreciate your point. If fact, I regret the implication in the post that Davis represents the whole University or the citizens of Madison county. I live in Idaho and have had to put up with comments from those outside the state who say things like, “Oh, you folks belong to the Aryian Nations, don’t you?” So, I know what it is like to be “painted with the same brush.”

    In fact, I am guessing that Professor Davis is a nice guy who is not aware of the full implications of his words. I called it “covert” racism because it often lurks below the consciousness of the person holding the belief. I imagine Professor Davis would be shocked to hear that someone thinks he holds racist views. It is often difficult to see how our words and attitudes might be taken by those who are different from us. For a couple of years, I lived in a community like Rexburg where I was one of a few in the community who were not LDS. Like the blacks Davis talks about, I felt “uncomfortable” simply because the good people in that community made assumptions (prejudgements, if you will) about me and treated me differently when they found out that I was not LDS. I also know that Davis’s ideas are not held by all, or even most, Mormons. It would be hypocritical of me to claim Davis’s words stereotype blacks and then do the same to Mormons. I thought Grieve’s article was interesting because it was obviously written by someone whose perspective is quite different from most Idahoans. I think we can learn alot about ourselves by seeing how others perceive us.

  4. I’m from L.A. and I’ve known Rick personally for many years. No question, he has strong opinions, and sometimes he should better qualify statements, but he’s far from racist.

    I’ve never heard a racist comment depart his lips and I have no reason to think these two comments (welfare and blacks) were tied together in his mind.

    One thing about Rick is that he’s commonly divisive in communication; mostly out of a passion for debate. I’d see him taking both sides of an issue and presenting extremes in either case in an effort to make his point and to get people thinking. Sure, he could have distanced those two comments, but I doubt he even considered that people might in appropriately connect the two statements. It’s a mischaracterization to think he views blacks as being welfare recipients, etc.

    Seems like people are just looking for an easy target and unfairly ascribing context to his comments in an effort to create evidence to support their view of the world.

    Rick’s no politician and he doesn’t aspire to “political correctness”, but a racist…common!

  5. Wow, this really isnt a big deal. Pleeeeaaase spare me! There are MUCH bigger problems of racism going on in America, and probably even more problems in the black community against white people, Ive been there, and it gets alot worse that E. Idaho, specifically Rexburg! Atleast you never feared for your physical well being even your life because you were a different color while in Rexburg. Also, consider the fact that black communities across the board are more poor and less educated and……commit more crimes compared to the general population of America. Now is that racist or a FACT? Are we too afraid to call a fact by what it is… a FACT? I LOVE people like you who are offended at every drop of a pen… not.

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