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Oklahoma’s panhandle moves even further to the right as their way of life is threatened

Oklahoma is one of the most conservative states in the union, having gone for the GOP in every election since World war II except one, Lyndon Johnson’s overwhelming landslide victory. It’s one of only three states where every county went red, and even the closest race was decided by more than 10 points. To say Oklahoma is one of the Republican Party’s safest strongholds is an understatement — it would take a major shift both nationally and locally to change that.

 

Yet, even within The Sooner State there are areas even further to the right than the rest. One such area is the Panhandle, at the extreme western edge of the state. This highly rural area is composed of three counties, and the total combined population of the area is under 30,000 — more than one-third of whom live in Guymon. In two of the three counties Trump won by 9 to 1 or better, and his weakest showing was still a 65 point spread, not coincidentally this was one of Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson’s strongest county showings nationwide.

The panhandle has long been caught between different regions and nations. It lies at the crossroads of the south, the west, and the midwest and reflects the spirit of all three in many ways. It has alternately been part of the Spanish Empire, Mexico, the Republic of Texas, the Arkansas Territory, and the Indian Territory before finally becoming a state in 1907 when the United States gave up all pretense of respecting treaties with Native Americans. This betrayal was especially egregious, however, as Oklahoma had been designated as permanently belonging to native groups, and it was the endpoint of the Trail of Tears atrocity.

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Trail of Tears memorial at the Cherokee Heritage Center in Tahlequah, Oklahoma

By that point, much of the state had already been seized and given over to farmers and ranchers, and many Native groups within the territory actually supported statehood, hoping they would finally be afforded some legal protections. This unfortunately backfired, as 30 years later the federal government moved to reinstate the full sovereignty of many tribes, but now they resided within a state’s borders, and the feds couldn’t interfere within its boundaries.

Black history within the state also has been a mixed bag. As a territory, it served as a destination for freed and escaped slaves wanting to start their own homesteads and farms, thanks to its southern location but being not yet a state during the 19th century. Some of the most prosperous black communities in the nation were in Oklahoma, and the culture thrived But the region became a hotbed of Ku Klux Klan activity shortly after statehood, and race riots and violence became fairly commonplace, including the infamous Tulsa Riot, which killed hundreds and caused millions of dollars in damage to the once thriving black neighborhoods..

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The Little Africa neighborhood burns during the 1921 race riots

In the intervening years, the Dust Bowl devastated farms and ranches in the state of people of all races, and the state’s demographics became whiter and whiter — a trend that did not stop until heavy hispanic immigration began in earnest to Oklahoma in the 1970s. This whitening, combined with the party shift that occurred following the Civil Rights Act in the 1960s, pushed Oklahoma decidedly into GOP hands, where it has remained ever since. The economic reliance on oil drilling, agriculture, and blue-collar jobs in general has solidified their rightward trajectory, and the Democrats’ push to eliminate fossil fuels in the name of environmentalism has not gone well here. Additionally, the people of Oklahoma are staunchly conservative on social and scientific issues — the schools here still push back against the teaching of evolution, to say nothing of climate change. Even the fact that fracking has turned Oklahoma into the earthquake capital of the nation has not changed their mind on drilling — jobs and faith are more important here than science and environmental concerns.

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The Dust Bowl hit Cimarron County in the panhandle particularly hard

In the panhandle, fossil fuel extraction and agricultural jobs are the drivers of the economy. Any and all regulation from the federal government can lead to job cuts, and those job cuts can be devastating when there aren’t any other options around for work. For the residents here, this is much more important than abstract concerns about possible future calamities to the environment — they need to earn a living now and put food on the table. Additionally, concerns about immigrants taking jobs for less than Americans will do them for here aren’t just theoretical, it can and does happen.

Lying where it does at the crossroads of Texas, New Mexico, Kansas, and Colorado, drug trafficking also take places through here. Legal marijuana in Colorado can make its way across the border on its way to Texas’ big cities as well as Oklahoma City, Tulsa, and the rest of the south, and all manner of illicit drugs find their way here from Mexico on their way north and east. Homemade drugs such as meth are also prevalent throughout the region, and curtailing these activities is a major concern for residents of the region.

Taking all of these factors into account, it isn’t difficult to see why Donald Trump’s emphasis on shutting down illegal immigration and promising blue-collar jobs, especially in energy, resonated well in the panhandle. His victory, while overwhelming, was hardly shocking. With a small population far from the halls not only of the federal government but also their own state’s often feels ignored and taken advantage of, so finally feeling as though their concerns have been heard has been a major cause for celebration.

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An oil well in Oklahoma

No matter how well President Trump’s policies do nor how successful his presidency is, this is one region where the GOP will not likely lose any ground in the near future. For as long as they feel that their way of life is attack — be it by environmental shackles on industry, social attacks on their religion, or drugs and immigrants taking their future — they will gravitate toward the party who listens to them and pushes back against the movements threatening their way of life.

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