Rising Citizen Backlash to Bad Policies and Poor Governance

It’s no surprise Montana’s Republican politicians were feeling their oats after sweeping every statewide office in the last election. But their arrogance in the Legislature, combined with some very serious incompetence in governance, has sparked a backlash among Montanans.

What’s worth noting is that unlike the rest of the superheated political arena where everything seems to be painted in terms of R vs D, red vs blue, the uprising against the Republican officeholders has everything to do with the policies they are enacting, not the letter behind their name.

The list is long and growing, but last week saw public school superintendents from the state’s largest school districts take the unprecedented step of sending a letter of no confidence to the Superintendent of Public Instruction, Elsie Arntzen, due to a number of actions, policies, and complications from a vast 90% turnover in staff at the Office of Public Instruction. They were joined by a similar letter from superintendents from four county school districts only days later saying “it’s time we voice our dissent.”

Given that the education of our children is one of the primary responsibilities of government, you can bet things must be really bad “on the ground” for so many varied rural and urban school districts to do what has never been done in Montana’s history. And no, it didn’t mention political party affiliation but concentrated on Arntzen’s utter incompetence in governing and her seeming lack of understanding that church and state are separate under the Montana Constitution.

In a similar move, a number of wildlife, conservation, and hunting organizations and individuals have decided they, too, need to protest what’s going on with the privatization of the state’s public wildlife — namely, elk. In a well-penned column that hit print late last week they clearly state that Montana’s prized elk are “not to be owned and sold by private interests” and denounce efforts to “make Montana more like Texas, where wildlife is a commodity.”

Citing both the Legislature’s efforts as well as Gov. Greg Gianforte’s appointees to the Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commission as problematic, they urge that “our elk management must return to being for all Montanans, not just the wealthy.” To that end, they are forming a coalition to develop “a citizens elk management proposal” and urge concerned citizens to join the effort at montanaelk.org. Again, there is no mention of political affiliation, it is the policies that are the problem.

While politicians like to keep the populace divided as they play their two-party game of “us versus them,” it is apparent the public is growing increasingly disgusted with the resulting policies that affect their lives, their children, and their love of Montana’s public wildlife. Indeed, this is the same game the last president played so often until the public had the opportunity to remove him from office — and did just that.

One might think Montana’s latest batch of officeholders might heed such signs as critical to their political future, which they seem to care about more than the future of our state and its citizens. They might also note that the growing backlash has nothing to do with their political party, but is firmly focused on the impacts of their policies on the diverse and dearly held values of Montana’s population.

Yet, as detailed in a great editorial in the Daily Montanan last week, the silence from the governor, attorney general, and superintendent of public instruction is deafening. Despite pitiful attempts to dodge accountability, their policies and failures at governance cannot and will not stand against this growing, nonpartisan citizen backlash.

George Ochenski is a columnist for the Daily Montanan, where this essay originally appeared.