Big Sky Rebels
This is an excerpt from Red State Rebels: Tales of Grassroots Resistance from the Heartland.
You can go home again, but it might break your heart or turn your stomach. Even if your home is Montana. Perhaps especially here, where there is so much to lose.
No, Montana is not what it used to be. Corporate behemoths have taken over small family-owned farms, and public forests have been squandered and sold to the highest bidder. Poverty and racism run rampant. Native Americans are being corralled onto even tighter plots of land. But while things seem disheartening, voices of hope continue rumbling across the Big Sky Country.
With Montana, like so many other "lost cause" states, not fitting neatly into the Blue State/Red State dichotomy, even Thomas Frank would be baffled. Don’t get me wrong: this is still Republican country. Oversized SUV bumpers flaunt "W" stickers, and almost every Ford truck touts a yellow "Support Our Troops" magnet. There is no question that these flag-waving Montanans overwhelmingly voted for Bush in 2004.
Having grown up on the eastern side of the continental divide in Billings Montana’s largest city with a population exceeding 90,000—I know this area well. Dubbed America’s drug stricken "Crank Capitol" by Time in the late 1990s, Billings is nestled beneath the shadows of 500-foot sandstone cliffs. The snowcapped Rockies are due west. The mighty Yellowstone River cuts through the town’s south end. It’s searing hot in the summer and bitter cold in winter. A forty-minute drive to the southeast will bring you to the impoverished and desolate Crow Agency Indian reservation, which houses the memorial for the Battle of the Little Big Horn where General George A. Custer met his much-deserved fate. This land has a bloody ubiquitous history, the aura of which can be troubling for those familiar with its past.
Much has changed since I left Billings some years ago. An insipid Mormon temple has been erected on the outskirts of town near a glitzy country club. Wal-Mart, Home Depot, Barnes and Noble, Starbucks, dozens of tasteless eateries, and countless cookie-cutter homes have relentlessly extended the city’s boundaries. Once unique, Billings now resembles most any place you would find in these sprawling Xeroxed States of America.
Teenagers fill their weekends with beer, sex and cheap booze, remnants of which pepper the roads off the beaten path. Things are not much different for the slightly older crowd. You are just more likely to find these Generation Xers frequenting the local bars and passing joints back and forth in their pick-up trucks. Who can blame them? This is the rhythm of the new American dream, the anthem for surviving cultural homogeneity: do what you must to escape the mundane. Take two and pass.
A cursory glance probably wouldn’t reveal so much as a chirp of dissent in these parts. That is, of course, if you aren’t referring to the right-wing militiamen that have made Montana famous in the 1990s. But I am not talking about the tax averting Freemen, who stockpiled weapons and took on the Feds, or the chemically inclined Ted Kaczynski’s fetish for sending loaded love letters. I’m talking about a populist backlash that is fast gaining speed on these remote country roads.
Welcome to Montana.
Some things, like the volatile weather that can turn from rain to snow in minutes, rarely change out here. But there are aspects of life in Montana that the public can help determine. The Red State marker that the politicos and pundits have given to places like this is not etched in stone.
Just a few decades ago things on the Montana prairie changed, but sadly it was for the worse. Before the rightwing takeover of the state legislature in the late 1970s, this place was actually thriving with progressive politics. Take Democratic Senator Lee Metcalf, who was a staunch wilderness supporter during his tenure in D.C. and would likely be considered an eco-terrorist by today’s standards. On the heels of the great conservationist Bob Marshall, Metcalf became a relentless advocate for the wild, where he attempted to make Marshall’s public forest vision a reality. He stood up against timber barons, big oil, and land developers, rarely backing down. He cherished Montana for its ecological beauty, wildlife and serenity.
The truth is Montana has a long history of going against the traditional grain. Along with electing Metcalf, voters also sent liberal Democrat Mike Mansfield to Congress and the Senate nine consecutive times. Sen. Mansfield’s most enduring accomplishment came when he engineered the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 during his tenure as Senate Majority Leader. Using Senator Hubert Humphrey as his floor manager, Mansfield quietly rounded up the necessary votes and broke the Southern filibuster, which cleared the way for the passage of the monumental legislation. Although both Mansfield and Metcalf had plenty of glaring flaws, there is no question that they, compared to today’s corporate Democrats, were remarkable.
Of course, we can’t talk about progressive politics in Montana without mentioning Janette Rankin, whom in 1916 became the first woman ever elected to Congress. A social worker by trade, Rankin was a tireless defender of the underclass. She was also one of the first representatives to speak out against child labor practices in the early 20th century. But it was her opposition to war that led her to her most exceptional accomplishment: just four days after taking office, Rankin voted against U.S. entry into World War I. Violating Congressional procedure, she spoke out during roll call prior to casting her vote and declared, "I want to stand by my country, but I cannot vote for war!"
During the rest of her term, Rankin fought for many political reforms, including civil liberties, women’s suffrage, birth control, child welfare, and equal pay among sexes. She was ahead of her time on nearly every issue. Sadly, however, Rankin’s vote against World War I sealed her political fate. Later, after much harassment back home for her war resistance, she was gerrymandered out of her Montana district. When she ran for a Senate seat, she was overwhelmingly defeated.
Like so many states, an electoral map does not do justice to what has actually taken place on the ground politically or historically. In fact, in 1992 Montana’s electoral points went to Bill Clinton as Ross Perot captured a quarter of the votes. And the contradictions are not much different in the so-called Blue States, where right-wingers run rampant and dominate state and local governments. One need look no further than Schwarzenegger’s reign in California or Bloomberg’s grip in New York City, not to mention the conservative Democrats who rule the roost in the Interior West.
We’d all do well to abandon such divisive and inaccurate Red/Blue labels, and unite behind common causes.
Indeed some Montanans are.
Today, a fair portion of the population is pissed. And rightfully so. Montanans have suffered far too long under the boot of the conservative majority. Many years have passed since Metcalf and Rankin were in office. Most recently it was the cavalier Governor Marc Racicot, now a rising star within the Republican establishment, who used Montana as a stepping-stone for his own political trajectory. After Racicot left office in 2000, the state was faced with the putrid stench of Judy Martz, a frightful Republican corpse of a governor who bragged that she was the "lap dog of industry." Martz was then personification of John Sayles’ Dicky Pilager character in Silver City, an unsightly puppet for corporate interests and damn proud of it.
Ol’ Judy earned herself quite a rap sheet after her election in 2000. She shielded timber companies from litigation and supported deregulation as Montanans saw their electricity bills skyrocket. Much to the dismay of her voting base, she undermined public schools. Gouged taxpayers. Destabilized local business owners. Angered small farmers. Martz was a political train wreck, and Montana reacted accordingly. By the summer of 2004 her approval rating had sunk to a meager 30 percent, an all-time low. Without a wince of shame Martz opted not to run for reelection. A sensible decision—surely the wisest of her brief political tenure.
Sick and tired of Republican rule, many Montanans voted to replace Martz with Democrat Brian Schweitzer—a wealthy cattleman who has operated ranches across the state. A naturally gifted speaker, Schweitzer had almost defeated entrenched US Senator Conrad Burns, a popular Republican stooge who had ties to lobbyist Jack Abramoff back in 2000. And Montanans love Schweitzer because, like an honest cowboy, he shoots it straight.
"If I stay in Washington for more than 72 hours I have to bathe myself in
the same stuff I use when my dog gets into a fight with a skunk," he said after a visit out to D.C. a few years ago.
Running on a split ticket in 2004, Schweitzer picked moderate Republican State Senator John Bohlinger to be his running mate. Bohlinger was a pragmatic choice, as it is well known that John is just a donkey in elephant attire, bow tie and all. He simply swapped parties when he chose to run for state congress in a conservative Billings district in 1992. Bohlinger knew his constituents would vote Republican out of habit and a penchant for hating Democrats.
John Bohlinger was right and the Schweitzer camp capitalized on their collective ignorance under the banner of "bipartisanship." But Montana’s neopopulism isn’t about party loyalty. Instead it seethes with a true disgust for big government. A fair majority of Montanans don’t trust their elected officials—state or federal—and the higher up on the ladder you go, the more pessimistic things they’ll have to say about our broken system and the fools that run the show.
In 1999, when Schweitzer drove a batch of old-timers across the border into Canada to see how much cheaper pharmaceuticals were there, he made his mark with senior citizens. As Schweitzer explained in a radio address shortly after he was elected, "The purpose of those trips was to demonstrate the hypocrisy of Congress’ trade policies. They passed NAFTA, told us that it would be great for the consumers of the United States. We’d be able to have products and consumer products cross the border from Canada and Mexico, and the United States freely, and that we would find greater choice. And we have NAFTA and we’re supposed to have free choice for everything but medicine."
Not bad for a post-Clinton Democrat.
Since his January 2005 inauguration, Schweitzer has been vocal in his opposition to the Bush agenda. He even called for the return of Montana’s guard troops from Iraq so they could help battle wildfires, which raged in the summer of 2005. Schweitzer is not buying Bush’s call to privatize social security either. "Today we’re talking about Social Security, something that might happen 20, 30, 40 years from now," he said after a recent meeting in D.C. when U.S. governors spent an afternoon with the President, "But guess what’s really happening? … We’re cutting Medicaid. We’re cutting programs in the heartland."
But don’t get too excited; Schweitzer is no radical. He is cautious and pragmatic. He opposes gay marriage (though I’m told this is the case only because Bohlinger would have declined to be his running mate had he come out in favor of gay marriage) and wants to expand Montana’s private prison system, one of the state’s only growth industries. As the New York Times asserts," Schweitzer veers right on many economic and social issues: he … favors the death penalty and preaches about lowering taxes and balancing budgets."
Schweitzer’s win wasn’t the only interesting development in the state since the turn of the century. Montanans also voted in favor of medial marijuana. Despite what liberals claim, these Red Staters may have some common sense after all. And compared to a "liberal" Blue state like Oregon, where citizens nixed a medical marijuana initiative in 2004, Montana sure as hell seems like they are on the cusp of change.
Brian Schweitzer was just the beginning of the political change happening here. Montana’s newest U.S. Senator is not exactly the type of Democrat you’d be likely to see backslapping New York City fat cats on their way into an elaborate fundraiser for Hillary Clinton. In fact, Jon Tester, who was elected to the Senate in 2006, isn’t your typical Democrat. He’s almost not a Democrat at all. In fact Tester ran his campaign against Senator Conrad Burns on just that platform. He was tired of the scandals and dishonesty that engulf our national politics and professed that the polluted Beltway could use a little Montana house cleanin’.
Voters agreed, and Burns was defeated in one of the tightest races in state history.
An organic farmer by trade, Tester, a former state legislator, ran his family’s homestead just outside Big Sandy in northern Montana, where the winter chills can chatter your teeth as early as mid-September. Sporting a Marine drill sergeant buzz cut, Tester is essentially an NRA approved populist with libertarian tendencies who vowed he’d redeploy troops from Iraq as well as repeal the PATRIOT Act. And although nobody would consider Tester an anti-globalization activist, his position on international trade is more in line with the protesters who shut down Seattle in 1999 than with the Democratic Leadership Council.
On a "Meet the Press" broadcast shortly before he took office, Tester even addressed the most evaded issue in national politics: poverty.
"There’s no more middle class," he asserted to Tim Russert, "the working poor aren’t even being addressed. Those are the people who brought us here [to Congress] and they need to be empowered. It’s time to show them attention … We have to use policy to help that situation."
In a debate in September 2006, Conrad Burns attempted to paint Tester as wimpish on terror. "We cannot afford another 9/11," Burns chided. "I can tell you that right now, he [Tester] wants to weaken the PATRIOT Act." To which Tester bravely countered, "Let me be clear. I don’t want to weaken the PATRIOT Act. I want to get rid of it."
Tester built his campaign from the ground up, shunning support from nationally known Democrats like John Kerry and Hillary Clinton, as he knew they’d rub Montanans the wrong way. Instead, the nearly 300 pound farmer who lost three fingers in a meat grinding accident as a child, drove around the state so he could chat face-to-face with his potential constituents.
Fortunately for Tester, he’s used to bucking the system. His first foray with the Washington Consensus came in 1998 when he ran for the Montana legislature because he was outraged over the huge energy hikes that had resulted from the state’s deregulation of the power industry. And he’s been speaking out against policies that pit working folks against the corporate class ever since. Tester even occasionally touts renewable energies and a livable minimum wage.
Still, like Montana’s current governor, Tester isn’t an ideal politician, if there is such a thing. While he may remain strong on some issues, he is weak on a many social justice issues, such as the death penalty and gay rights. Nevertheless, Tester’s campaign and personal appeal may serve as a winning blueprint for left-leaning populists out here in the Interior West. Indeed Brian Schweitzer used the exact formula to become Governor two years earlier.
Yet, Jon Tester’s win wasn’t even close to the biggest triumph for the state. The largest political victory for Montana came when voters overwhelmingly shot down a mining initiative in 2000 that would have returned the dreadful and polluting open-pit cyanide heap-leach mining to Montana’s hills. Big mining companies put up millions to raise support for the bill, but Montanans didn’t bite. Environmentalists and the public won outright.
Open-pit cyanide heap-leach gold mines have forever polluted water and left environmental destruction in their wake. Montana is used to it. Throughout the state these vast toxic pits have poisoned streams and drinking water, killed off wild trout, desecrated the landscape and created environmental catastrophes that have cost taxpayers millions to clean
Still, the greatest change in Montana isn’t happening in the electoral arena. It is taking place on the ground where a plethora of movements, from environmental causes to anti-corporate organic farming, are coming to a head. Election Day hoopla is only a shadow of the real activism going on. These agitators know that ultimate victory requires enduring many, many losses and years of protest before cultural changes are reflected in policy and ultimately, their daily lives.
There is a dreadful attitude still lingering out in Blue America where folks put the majority of their energy into electoral politics, anticipating that change can only happen within the confines of the voting booth. And it’s a downer.
No doubt "blue" is an apt color to describe the dejected mood that still paints our coastal states even with the Democrats in power. Fortunately, progressives, libertarians, anarchists, and others out here in Montana, although a tiny minority, have rolled up their sleeves and continued their work. Elections are never deterrents. They have stayed the course, never abandoning their issues, and are slowly winning as a result.
Maybe liberal Blue Staters will realize this isn’t "fly-over country" after all, and borrow a page from these Red State dummies.
JOSHUA FRANK is the author of Left Out! How Liberals Helped Reelect George W. Bush (Common Courage Press, 2005), and along with Jeffrey St. Clair, the editor of the brand new book Red State Rebels: Tales of Grassroots Resistance in the Heartland, published by AK Press in July 2008.