Former Gov. Racicot: Return to civility needed to save democracy

Former Montana Gov. Marc Racicot

Warning about the decline of American democracy, a former Montana governor and Republican National Committee Chair is calling for a return to civility and asking citizens to insist their representatives be of good character, regardless of party.

“I don’t want to be preachy nor pretentious, and I certainly am not full of nothing but gloom and doom. But I seriously think we are seeing the fabric of Montana torn apart and the nation torn apart because we are not proceeding with each other as neighbors and political adversaries in a way that reflects the decency in the notion of fidelity,” said former Gov. Marc Racicot.

For the inaugural Spring Mansfield Center Dialogue broadcast online by the University of Montana Wednesday night, Racicot spoke with retired Lee Newspaper reporter Chuck Johnson on “Resuscitating the American republic: Fidelity to one another, the cause of freedom and the country’s future.”

After receiving his law degree from the University of Montana, Racicot went on to serve as Montana’s attorney general from 1989 to 1992 and governor from 1993 to 2001. Pres. George W. Bush nominated him for the Republican National Committee Chair, where he served for almost two years.

The dialogue was partly inspired by comments Racicot had made in December to the Montana Taxpayers’ Association. There, he expressed his growing concern about the decay of democracy, a form of government he describes as “delicate,” and the need for a return to fidelity, as expressed in loyalty to one’s nation, state, community and all the provisions of the U.S. Constitution. He denied the assertion that he was speaking out because he wants to run for office.

“My heart is heavy. I’m saddened by what has happened to us. As a consequence, I simply have to try,” Racicot said. “I’m pleading with people to gather together and change the way we’re doing business.”

An important factor that’s been lost over the past decade or more is moral character, especially in leaders. Racicot is saddened by the inability of legislators and congressmen to even listen to each other, let alone treat each other with respect. Quoting Sen. Mike Mansfield, Racicot said people, especially politicians, need to respect the rights and thoughts of others and seek accommodation when possible.

“It all begins with each of us, as members of this union, setting expectations and requiring of those who represent us – in every forum we can within the bounds of civility and good sense – to live up to those expectations,” Racicot said. “We need to focus upon trying to draw all the agencies and mechanisms of government back into an arena that is exemplified by decency, thoughtfulness, and respect for one another.”

It was a lack of character that prompted Racicot to refuse to support former President Donald Trump. Racicot said he’d had been troubled about Trump as a candidate throughout the 2016 primary season as the lack of character became more evident. It wasn’t an easy choice to withhold support, and Racicot received blowback from fellow Republicans. But he said it was “a serious matter of conscience” for him.

“Character is the lens through which any leader determines the path to be followed. It’s the lens through which they make decisions,” Racicot said. “If there is not the kind of character that reflects fidelity, and contrary to that, reflects this impulse and passion to secure power for its own sake, then I couldn’t support any candidate that reflected those characteristics.”

Racicot pointed to the Internet and social media as contributing to the lack of civility. It encourages a kind of communication that’s “awkward, thoughtless, poisonous and mean,” because it’s fast and impersonal. People don’t have to look each other in the face as they fling vicious comments at people they don’t know.

That’s why it’s important for candidates to engage with the public in campaign debates and public meetings and why people should go to government meetings and forums instead of commenting online.

“There’s a spiritual quality to a meeting with another human being. There’s something that creates a veil of respect to be accorded one to the other, even when they disagree. That doesn’t happen with the internet,” Racicot said. “The Internet communications are edgy, they’re instantaneous, they’re full of regret when they are passed all over the planet and repeated over and over again. As a consequence, they’re so antiseptic, and they leave people so barren and so raw and create so much noise that nobody can separate fact from fiction.”

Racicot said campaign contributions and the ramifications of the Supreme Court’s Citizen United decision have worsened the situation.

When Racicot ran in 1992, $2 million was spent on Montana’s gubernatorial campaign. Almost 30 years later, that amount skyrocketed to $25 million. In total, $335 million was spent in 2020 on Montana’s political campaigns.

That kind of money, combined with a reliance on the Internet, separates candidates from the people and encourages poor character, Racicot said. Candidates have come to believe they no longer have to personally engage with their constituents. As a result, fewer bother to show up to meetings, debates or forums, whereas Racicot debated Democratic candidate Dorothy Bradley 32 times during the 1988 attorney general’s race.

“It makes candidates lazy,” Racicot said. “By lazy, I mean they rely on these typically short and brutal advertisements over the Internet and television to incise the opposition and to virtually set about to destroy what it is they have in terms of credibility.”

He called on Congress to act to change the Constitution to reverse the Supreme Court’s decisions and get money out of politics. But he cautioned that Congress isn’t going to do anything until the public demands change.

He urged schools to do more civics education. He also said some federal regulation of the Internet might be able to encourage more truth in advertising.

Finally, he said politicians need to stop demonizing one other and acknowledge what is admirable in each other. For example, it wasn’t helpful to have political parties censuring their own as the Republican Party has done with Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming for leading the investigation into Trump’s connection to the Jan. 6 insurrection. Or as the Democratic Party has done with Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona for refusing to back the second infrastructure bill.

“They’re being censured by their own parties for following their conscience. That kind of expectation we have to condemn,” Racicot said. “They should be respected for following their principles, even if you don’t agree with them. But setting out a system of punishments and rewards for those who only meet the company line, which is typically set by a relative few within the party, is simply not acceptable.”

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at lundquist@missoulacurrent.com.