The Matt Shea Experience

Republican State Representative Matt Shea

There was a time in the long, long ago when the politics of eastern Washington were moderate and relatively civilised. People there tended to be more conservative than they were in Seattle, but that was a pretty low bar. In any case, it was generally the case that politicians from either party could get a reasonable hearing.

Now, according to reports that emerged a couple of weeks ago, it appears that Washington state representative Matt Shea has moved from his normal position in the reactionary right wing of the Republican Party to the unhinged world of Biblical War proponents.

Granted, at this point that isn’t necessarily that a great distance to go politically. Still, the emergence of people like Shea in the “heartland” of the country is indicative of the direction of right-wing populism in the United States today.

Tom Foley represented the 5th District of Washington for 30 years, starting in 1964. The 5th District comprises the eastern quarter of the state, running from Chewelah and Kettle Falls in the north to Walla Walla in the south, and with its highest concentration of population in the Spokane Valley. If you tell people that you come from Washington, they generally assume that you’re from Seattle and start asking about rain and Orcas.

But the dry side of the state, east of the Cascades, is a whole other world, both climatically and politically. Much of the east side is semi-arid steppe in the rain shadow of the mountains. To the south, approaching the Columbia River, the land is shaped by basalt formations, the geologically unique channelled scablands, giving the landscape and almost Martian quality.

It’s farm country, producing apples, wheat, rye, peas, and perhaps the best regional variety of sweet onions in the world. The rhythms of life are shaped by agriculture, both in the cycles of planting and harvest, and the vicissitudes of international markets. When agricultural prices spiralled downward in the 1980s, a joke started to make the rounds in the wheat country.

A farmer wins $10 million in the state lottery. A reporter from the evening news comes to interview him and asks him what he’s going to do with his winnings. “Keep farming until the money runs out,” is the mordant replay. Agriculture is about uncertainty and externalities, and breeds a kind of conservatism that, at least in its more moderate varieties, was always a feature of the politics of the region.

Foley was a Democrat of the moderate persuasion. He was swept into office in the Democratic landslide on 1964, defeating a Republican incumbent of eleven years service. In three decades of service, he worked his way up through the congressional hierarchy, from chairman of the Agricultural Committee (1975), to Majority Whip (1981), to succeeding Jim Wright as Speaker of the House (1989).

The congressman’s support was instrumental in updating the Clean Air Act in 1990, but also had less creditable moments (his work on legislation that led to “don’t ask, don’t tell”) and he became more conservative as the years went on. From the progressive perspective, he was no great shakes, but he was a reliable, policy-oriented moderate Democrat who evinced a general aversion to anything that was politically outside the middle of the fairway.

Foley was beaten in 1994 by Republican George Nethercutt, a carbon blob whose record was devoid of any notable accomplishments. Foley was, as noted above, Speaker of the House at that point, and having lived there at the time I believe that a lot of people in the district simply assumed that Nethercutt would be the Speaker when he was sworn in. In any case, Nethercutt’s main campaign issue was term limits, something which he then conveniently forgot once he got into office.

Whatever else could be said about Foley, he was a true son of the Inland Empire. Born in Spokane, he attended Gonzaga University for three years before transferring to the University of Washington to finish his degree, subsequently earning a JD there as well. Nethercutt worked as a prosecutor before joining the staff of legendary Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson (often referred to in those days as “the senator from Boeing”).  Having done his time on the “soggy side,” he returned to the east and, with Jackson’s support, won election to the House of Representatives.

Republican Representative Matt Shea’s career is an odd sort of inverse version of this. He was born in Bellingham, a nondescript town up the coast from Seattle. He attended Gonzaga, before joining the army and serving in Bosnia in the late 1990s. He received a law degree from Gonzaga in 2006 and headed into politics.

Shea’s four terms in the state legislature have been marked by turbulence, including acting as character witness for a convicted embezzler, frequent angry outbursts, charges of domestic violence, and the claim that he’d had was “disarmed by his commander in Iraq and called in for a psychiatric evaluation for anger management problems.” This last claim was made by Shea’s estranged wife in the course of their divorce proceeding, and ought to be viewed in that light. On the other hand, it doesn’t seem particularly out of character with well-attested facts.

Matt Shea hosts a bi-weekly radio show (Patriot Radio) on the far right American Christian Network. He has either founded or worked with a number of radical conservative groups, such as the Coalition of Western States (COWS) and ACT! for America. The former is an organisation pushing the privatisation of all public lands, in the context of which Shea and others sought to act as negotiators for the militia members occupying the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. The latter is an overtly Islamophobic organisation that has been classified as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Shea has described the SPLC as “the most dangerous organisation in this country.” He did this in the course of a public spat with Spokane County Sheriff (and fellow Republican) Ozzie Knezovich, who had accused Shea of “dangerously dividing people” for propounding conspiracy theories about law enforcement. Knezovich believed that these had been partly to blame for a series of death threats made toward him and his deputies.

At this point, it might be well to recall that the Inland Empire has had more than its share of far-right extremism. Northern Idaho was for long a hotbed of Christian identity activism, and it was not by coincidence that Richard Butler’s Aryan Nations organisation decided to locate its headquarters in a compound outside the northern Idaho town of Hayden Lake.

This group spun off violent extremist splinters such as The Order and the colourfully named The Covenant, the Sword, and the Arm of the Lord. But those groups were generally viewed as marginal. The alarming thing about Mark Shea is that he doesn’t seem ideologically that far from them and that that fact hasn’t stopped him from being elected to public office on four separate occasions.

It was recently reported that Shea has participated in a number of podcasts over the last few years in which he has given voice to a belief that the United States was becoming “balkanized” and that civil war was an imminent prospect.

Shea has, apparently, on several occasions rehashed the idea of creating some sort of white homeland in Pacific Northwest, a favourite talking point of the Christian Identity community since (at least) the 1980s. He also seems to have, while holding public office, engaged in discussions about conducting surveillance and “psyops” against liberals and people on the left.

One of the great ironies of Shea and the people whose conspiracy theories he amplifies is that the conspiracy that is proposed simply heaps together everything that they fear. According to this way of thinking, the United States is in danger from an alliance of communists and ISIS activists dedicated to destroying American society and instituting Sharia law. The fact that the communist and Islamist projects are fundamentally at odds simply doesn’t come into consideration.

The obsession with communism is particularly instructive. The fear that Islamists will take over the United States is xenophobic and overblown, but it makes certain kind of sense given the media environment. There active Islamist organisations in the world and their activities are the subject of saturation coverage of the “if it bleeds, it leads” variety.

But communism is another matter entirely. The collapse of actually existing communism in 1989 was only the spectacular final moment of the disintegration of communism as a political force in the decades after the Second World War. One would have thought that the deadness of the movement in practical terms would encourage people like Shea to look elsewhere to find effective bêtes noires.

But one would be wrong. There is a spectre haunting the American right, the spectre of communism. But this spectral communism acts as a sort of object petit a to the radical right: an unattainable object of desire that allows the right to constitute itself.

For the radical right, it is important to have a term of abuse for people who are alien to the cause, yet white. And so, when Shea refers to the moderately conservative local paper, the Spokesman-Review, as the Socialist Review, he is activating a trope meant to facilitate the articulation of a chain of right-wing equivalences.

Shea and people like him are alarming, but they are symptomatic. The fact that their political views have moved sufficiently into the mainstream that someone like Shea can spend more than a decade in public office indicates the power of the hegemonic order than the right has managed to establish.

The transition from the moderate conservatism of the 1980s to the hegemony of people who live in fear of an Islamo-communist takeover makes apparent the success of the long march through the institutions undertaken by elements of the radical right in the last two decades.

This is an outcome of democracy. And for those who talk of radicalising democracy, the question as to what might be the basis of which to oppose this particular mode of radicalisation is increasingly posing itself.   

Screenshot courtesy of The Spokesman-Review. All rights reserved.