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Conservatism, defying party definitions, may boil down to independence

Sip a cup of coffee in any cafe from Searchlight to Jackpot, and before you ask the waitress for a refill you’re likely to hear something about conservative politics in Nevada.

The Silver State is chock full of people who love to talk about conservative politics and our libertarian traditions. Given the slightest encouragement, they’ll chatter from daylight to dark about the glories of the U.S. Constitution and the importance of smaller government. Stick around for a slice of pie, and you’re bound to hear the Founding Fathers quoted on everything from states’ rights to sourdough starter.

With so much conservative pontificating going on, you’re forgiven for thinking Nevada conservatives are all the same. They’re not. And you don’t have to search far for examples of variations in the breed.

With the Nevada Republican Party in an ongoing dustup with rising-star Gov. Brian Sandoval, these days even a simple definition of conservative is hard to pin down.

Negotiate this Rubik’s Cube of Republicanism, and I’ll pick up the check:

Are longtime Republican voters conservative? Does the state party represent the real Nevada conservatives, or the kind imported with the help of Super PAC money?

Surely Sandoval considers himself a fiscal conservative, but would other members of his party agree? Are followers of the tea party movement in its many manifestations truly conservative, or something more extreme?

Nevada was once known as a land where conservative Democrats roamed free and actually won elections. Do such creatures still exist outside the glass cases of the state museum?

Those questions swirled around my head recently in Elko as I watched a crowd containing plenty of Nevada conservatives flow through the Pioneer Saloon. They weren’t in town for a state political convention or candidate’s forum, but had converged from ranches throughout the region to catch the roped rhyming at the 30th annual National Cowboy Poetry Gathering.

During a break between shows, longtime gathering official, author and academic folklorist David Stanley reminded me about the true nature of some conservatives on the range. It’s a belief system that transcends political affiliation. In fact, it just might reject strong political ties all together.

“I think they’re conservatives in the best sense of the word,” Stanley said of the ranchers. “This is not knee-jerk conservatism, this is not Tea Party or Rush Limbaugh or anything like that. It’s based on experience and an ideal, and it’s deeply embedded in the idea of conservation: conserving natural resources, conserving land, conserving timber, conserving in most cases wild animals — with the possible exception of wolves. Ranchers today are in it for the long haul. They want to pass along their land, their allotments, their stock and their traditions to their children and their grandchildren.”

With pressure from government and big business, maintaining that way of life is increasingly challenging.

“The life of the family rancher gets more and more difficult all the time,” Stanley said. Even though beef prices seem high today, the cost of everything from feed and fertilizer to power equipment — everything is against the small-scale family rancher or farmer. Everything is slanted towards large-scale operations. And that makes it very difficult to maintain those traditions, because agri-business doesn’t give a hoot about these ideals.”

It turns out the riding, roping, and branding are the easier parts.

“It’s very difficult because of many issues: tax rates, financing, the cost of land, the pressure of condo and resort developments, ski resorts and ranchettes, and sheer population pressure,” Stanley observed. “The politics is a very practical one. I think we should be cautious about generalizing too much because I know plenty of cowboys who are anti-war pacifist liberals, and I know plenty of cowboys who are extremely patriotic, military veteran conservatives. But what they do have in common, I think, is being told what to do. And their antipathy to that. It doesn’t matter whether the Tea Party or the Democratic Party or the Republican Party is trying to organize people in lock step, they’re going to resist that with every bone in their body.”

I think it’s time Nevada heard more from that kind of conservative — the independent kind.

Nevada native John L. Smith also writes a daily column for the Las Vegas Review-Journal. Contact him at 702-383-0295 or at jlnevadasmith@gmail.com.