Where have all the mugwumps gone?

By Ben Olson
Reader Staff

“The first step in a fascist movement is the combination under an energetic leader of a number of men who possess more than the average share of leisure, brutality and stupidity. The next step is to fascinate fools and muzzle the intelligent, by emotional excitement on the one hand and terrorism on the other.”
— Bertrand Russell

In my U.S. Government class at Sandpoint High School, our teacher Terry Iverson used an interesting word for students who fell in the middle of the political spectrum: mugwumps.

The Great American Mugwump, who sits on a fence with his mug on one side and wump on the other. Courtesy photo.

The first week of class, he stood in front of us seniors, his round Gandhi-style glasses and mischievous grin twinkling as he eyeballed the fresh crop of young minds to argue with. Iverson argued in the Socratic method, asking intriguing questions to elicit responses beyond the typical monosyllabic teenaged dialogue of graduating seniors. He paraded in front of class, preparing us for the world of politics and government that existed outside our carpeted school walls. For many, it was their first exposure to politics.

“I want you all now to stand up and take new desks,” Iverson announced, summoning us from our seats with outstretched arms. “I want you to think about where you are on the political spectrum. Are you to the left? To the right? Are you liberal, conservative? How intense are you about your politics? Those who are more staunch will sit further up, those who are more wishy-washy will take the back rows.”

We all scurried about, filled with hormones and doubt, watching what our fellow students did.

I ended up somewhere in the middle row. Iverson’s eyes focused on me like a hawk.

“What do we have here?” he pounced on me and a few of the others in the center. “A bunch of mugwumps.”

“What’s a mugwump?” someone asked.

“I’m glad you asked,” he put a finger in the air. “A mugwump is someone whose mug is on one side of the fence and wump is on the other. Can’t decide what they believe, so they just perch there like a toad.”

“It’s not that we can’t decide, it’s just that I think identifying yourself as liberal or conservative by where you sit down is kind of dumb,” I said. His eyes drilled in closer on his target.

“Ah, a big mugwump this one,” he said to me. “You’ll sit here, right in front so I know who to yell at.”

And so it went, my first real foray into politics through Iverson’s U.S. government class. We covered all the basics, from the Declaration of Independence to important eras in politics, Congresses and presidents who bent and shaped the political makeup of the United States.

Throughout our year together, Iverson continually hammered me, along with others, when we disagreed with him on a point or impressed him with a counterpoint. 

It was these engagements with Iverson that led to my interest in the mechanisms of government and politics. It was a fascinating dance that we played to achieve something in the middle that appealed to the widest swath of people. There were bumps and diversions along the road, but we mostly tried to keep going straight and gain some ground along the way. I was always proud of my status as King Mugwump.

There was an actual Mugwump party, which split from the Republican Party in the 1880s to fight against party corruption, but Iverson gently stole the term and used it as a pejorative, lambasting noncommittal students who refused to stand up for their convictions. 

Iverson’s mugwumps might side with Republicans on fiscal matters, but also agree with Democrats on issues of human rights and social equality. They might talk equally with those seated at the far left or far right, hearing their points without immediately digging in their heels from word one. A mugwump might strongly believe in an issue, but they’re able to empathize with those who feel differently because their positions aren’t that far apart.

It was a simpler time then, when many of us were able to argue without anger. Many readers today might think I’m pulling their leg when I tell them that North Idaho regularly sent Democrats to the Statehouse prior to the mid-1990s, but it’s true though. We even had a Democratic Congress member as recently as the 2010 primaries.

The Democrats and Republicans were different animals back then. The so-called “Lunchbox Democrats” were more aligned with nuts-and-bolts issues like infrastructure, education and workers’ rights. The Republicans of that era were more interested in fiscal matters like tax cuts, budgetary matters and, to some extent, pursuing a more limited government. 

The “wokeness” of the left and the batshit crazy conspiracies of the right were evident to a degree, but only among those closer to the fringes of their respective parties, (to be fair, there is no equivalence between the actions of the far left and far right, because one seeks to correct past injustices while the other seems to only create new ones). In the past, though, most operated somewhere in the moderate middle: prime mugwump territory. 

As we travel further and further from those somewhat moderate days before the red wave of the 1990s, Idaho has since turned into a fever swamp of ideological quicksand. Where have all the mugwumps gone?

Looking at the slate of candidates who have thrown their hats into the Bonner County and District 1 legislative races, the mugwumps are few and far between. 

Scanning through some of the Republican candidates, I see a rogue’s gallery of extremists hoping to brand their narrow ideologies as normal. There’s a candidate who was sentenced to jail for pointing a weapon at federal agents during the infamous 2014 Bunkerville standoff in Nevada; an abortion abolitionist who spearheaded one of the two lawsuits that tried (and failed) to take down the Festival at Sandpoint because of its no-weapons policy; a gun store owner from California; a person who traveled to Washington, D.C. for the rally on Jan. 6, which culminated in an attempted insurrection to thwart American democracy; and the leader of a local militia who lurked around downtown Sandpoint after a Black Lives Matter protest, armed and garbed in battle dress to stave off a fictional “Antifa” invasion.

Taking a wider view at Idaho gubernatorial candidates, we have an anti-government activist who orchestrated an armed takeover of a federal wildlife refuge in 2016, a cowboy pastor who also led the charge in the failed gun lawsuits against the city of Sandpoint and another who just made the national blooper reel for doubling down after speaking at a white nationalist conference.

It’s one hell of a group of candidates, to be honest — one of the strangest groups of extremists vying for normalcy that I’ve seen in all my 41 years living here.

As the adage goes, if you toss a frog in a pot of boiling water, it’ll hop out immediately. Put the same frog in a pan of cold water and slowly warm it to a boil, and that frog will stay in the pan until you’re eating frog legs for dinner.

By getting involved with electoral politics, these extremists are attempting to normalize their abnormal views — watering them down to the point where we don’t bat an eye when someone says or does something objectively offensive, inappropriate or downright illegal. They hope that by attaching themselves to the ever-important “R” on the Idaho ballot, they’ll slip into office and begin slowly turning the dials further to the right. 

Some argue that the state of Idaho needs to keep tilting further to the right because the Democratic Party is skewing further to the left. This is yet another gaslighting tactic to encourage Republicans to stick to the party line, no matter how bizarre it becomes. The truth is that the Idaho Republican Party has bifurcated between the old guard — which still includes a few mugwumps — and this loud batch of angry fanatics who believe they can convince us that their hardline views are normal. They aren’t, nor will they ever be.

The French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre spent some time in his book Being and Nothingness discussing good-faith actors and bad-faith actors. Those acting in good faith are sincere with their intentions. They employ fair, honest rhetoric to argue their points, regardless of the outcome of the interaction.

Bad-faith actors are essentially liars who know they are lying, but also believe their untruths because that’s what it takes to convince others. As Sartre put it, “I must know that truth very precisely, in order to hide it from myself the more carefully.” 

Bad-faith actors have infiltrated Idaho politics. With their gaslighting ways, they pass resolutions restricting the teaching of certain history because of “critical race theory,” though many are unable to define what CRT actually is. They pass restrictive voting bills, claiming it’s to keep our elections secure, though there still has never been any evidence of widespread, intentional voter fraud. 

The real reasons behind these and many other actions are more nefarious, but they can’t come out and say the quiet part out loud. Not yet, at least.

If they were good-faith actors, they’d argue against critical race theory because it makes them uncomfortable with their own history as white people. They’d argue that stricter voting laws were needed to ensure the Republican Party stays in the majority, no matter who gets disenfranchised in the process.

Beware the bad-faith actors. They may have an “R” next to their name and use the correct buzzwords of conservatism, but in truth they are just trying to bring Idaho closer to fascism out of fear that some semblance of balance might actually exist in this state.

The best path forward is the way of the mugwumps. They’re still out there. They’re just by nature not as loud and angry as the radicals on the left and right. Better to vote for a moderate in a different party from yours than an extremist pretending to be something they’re not.

One of the most important tenets of our democracy that I learned from Iverson’s class is the system of checks and balances that keeps our country from swinging too far to one side or another. The best checks and balances exist with you, the voter, to ensure extremists stay on the fringes where they belong.

This is an opinion article by Ben Olson. His opinions are his alone and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Reader staff.

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