C. J. Box is a New York Times best-selling author. Although he has published some stand-alone novels, he is best known for his Joe Pickett series. The 17th Joe Pickett novel is scheduled for release next spring. These novels feature a Wyoming game warden who encounters all the stresses and dilemmas associated with big game hunting in one of America’s most rural states. The dilemmas that Pickett encounters provide some insight into red-state America and the angst felt by frustrated conservative Americans.
Based on my summer reading (I have only read through half of the Pickett novels thus far), I suggest that Box’s adventure novels begin predictably enough, in which the protagonist seeks and encounters a law-breaking antagonist. They also end predictably enough, as (usually) Pickett upholds the law and the necessity of punishment and legal consequences for breaking that law. Within the tale, however, the reader comes to understand the frustrations and constraints that have motivated the illegal behavior, situations in which the (usually law-abiding) antagonist has broken under the pressure of governmental regulation.
For example, in “Breaking Point,” a developer seeks to restore an old hotel, but encounters such a rash of EPA rules that he eventually has to forgo the project: “I honestly thought that removing the blight from the middle of a small town and building a business incubator in its place would be cheered on. I had no idea they’d throw every possible regulation and roadblock in our way.” Also, “These aren’t laws. They’re regulations you hide behind.”
Today’s gridlock in Washington, between the Republican-controlled Congress and the Democratic administration, has frustrated both the right and the left. The right has suggested that its duly elected representatives and senators have been ineffective in pursuit of its agenda. The left has enforced a growing number of executive orders, whereby it has managed to bypass the usual legislative powers of Congress. Except, “These aren’t laws. They’re regulations you hide behind.”
In reading Box’s novels, one gets the sense that the laws that guide life in rural areas need to be different from laws that regulate life in the city. Although such differences do exist, the reality is that growing sectors of our lives are being regulated from Washington. These novels suggest that most laws should be handled at the local and state level; too many issues are being regulated from Washington. “Government closest to the people governs best” (from “Breaking Point”). “We used to be a people who had a government. Now it’s the other way around” (from “Nowhere to Run”).
On a personal level, several years ago I sat down with a bank official and told her I wanted to close out my mother’s account. I had handled her estate, and the job was finished. I wanted to remove the last $100 and close the account. She told me that, because of some wrinkle associated with federal banking regulations, I was not allowed to close out the account. This was the first and only difficulty I had encountered in the entire process. So I looked her in the eye and asked her what she would do if she were in my place. She said she would write a check for $99.99, leave a penny in the account, and then forget about it. Seriously?
There is a large sector of American society that is asking Washington to get out of the way. Donald Trump has benefitted from this frustration, as these rural conservatives applaud his antiestablishment rhetoric. This sector, however, is a minority in America, and might not be successful in the current election cycle. Indeed, there is reason to think that their time has passed. Our country is continually more urban and more moderate.
Nevertheless, it seems foolish to ignore the larger point. The status quo is not working. Instead, we are allowing our infrastructure to crumble, while we regulate and spend ourselves into bankruptcy. As a character in one of Box’s novels puts it: “You know how you used to see those RVs on the road with bumper stickers that read, ‘WE’RE SPENDING OUR CHILDREN’S INHERITANCE’? That always used to piss me off, just because of the attitude. Now every car in America should have that bumper sticker. Thieves like my father are stealing from me and my children” (from “Nowhere to Run”).
I am still undecided on how to vote in November, but I have learned more about the conservative American experience from reading C. J. Box than I have from listening to any debates or watching any commercials. America is facing critical issues, well beyond the gaffe of the day or the latest legal misstep. I thank Box for sharing his Wyoming experience.
Dr. Gary L. Welton is assistant dean for institutional assessment, professor of psychology at Grove City College, and a contributor to The Center for Vision & Values.