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Big Sky Rebels

It is sickening. 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 vast Big Sky.

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. Conservatives here seem to be a dime a dozen.

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 “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 United “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 an utterance 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 Freemen whom 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 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 devotee 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 quiet serenity.

The truth is, Montana has a long history of going against the traditional grain. Along with voting for Metcalf, Montanans also elected liberal Democrat Mike Mansfield to Congress and the Senate nine consecutive times. Perhaps Sen. Mansfield’s greatest 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 legislation’s 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 social justice 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 much of the 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 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 days 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 in the 90s. In 2000 the state was faced with the putrid stench of Judy Martz, a frightful Republican corpse of a governor who even admitted that she was the “lap dog of industry.” Martz was the 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 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. Pissed off 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 short 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 orator, Schweitzer 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 a good 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 DC 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. 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, or as many folks call them out here: “Dumbcrats.”

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. It is about disgust for big government. A fair majority of Montanans don’t trust the government-state or federal-and the higher up you go, the more pessimistic things they’ll have to say about our broken system.

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 Montana senior citizens. As Gov. 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 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 much more conservative than he is radical. 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 industry. 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 over the last few years. 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 cutting edge.

***

Gov. Schweitzer was just the beginning of the change happening here. Montana’s newly elected 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 fund raiser for Hillary Clinton. In fact, Jon Tester, who was elected from to the US Senate in 2006, isn’t your typical Democrat. He’s almost not a Democrat at all, or at least not the kind we’re used to seeing run around Washington these days. In fact Tester ran his campaign against Senator Conrad Burns (R-Mont.) 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.

A State Senator and organic farmer by trade, Jon used to operate his family’s homestead just outside Big Sandy in northern Montana where the winter chills can chatter your teeth as early as mid-September. When I say he’s not really even a Democrat that may be a bit of an understatement. Tester is essentially an NRA approved populist with libertarian tendencies who said he’d redeploy troops from Iraq as well as repeal the PATRIOT Act (he’s done neither of course). 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. At least Montanans believed in what they were voting for, even though Tester has yet to deliver it.

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 confessed 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, former Sen. Conrad Burns attempted to paint Tester as weak 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 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. He event supports renewable energies and a livable minimum wage.

Still, Tester isn’t an ideal politician in the least, if there even is such a thing. While he may remain strong on some issues, he is dead wrong on a many social justice concerns, 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 four years ago.

Tester’s win wasn’t even close to the biggest victory 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 the state. 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 mines have forever polluted water and left environmental destruction in their wake. Montana is used to it. Throughout the state mines have polluted streams and drinking water, killed off wild trout, desecrated the landscape and created environmental catastrophes that have cost taxpayers millions to clean up.

Despite these alleged party victories, the greatest change in Montana isn’t happening in the electoral arena. It is happening 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 winning requires enduring many, many losses and years of agitation before cultural changes are reflected in policy and their daily lives. Montana’s changing tide isn’t the result of election-year activism, or the Dumbcrats, but of a growing concern for the welfare of the state’s community and natural environment.

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 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 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 co-editor of DissidentVoice.org, and author of Left Out! How Liberals Helped Reelect George W. Bush, and along with Jeffrey St. Clair, the editor of the forthcoming Red State Rebels, to be published by AK Press in March 2008. He can be reached through his website, BrickBurner.org.

 

 

 

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JOSHUA FRANK is managing editor of CounterPunch. His most recent book is Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, co-edited with Jeffrey St. Clair and published by AK Press. He can be reached at joshua@counterpunch.org. You can troll him on Twitter @joshua__frank

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