Montana Voices: Cheers for Forward Montana’s work to rejuvenate democracy

By Chuck Tooley

In a national survey of 4,000 high school and college students and 100 in-depth interviews conducted by political science professors Jennifer Lawless and Richard Fox, young Americans were found to feel completely alienated from politics.

In their book “Running from Office,” Lawless and Fox report that the mean-spirited, dysfunctional political system that now characterizes American politics has wrought long-term, deeply-embedded damage on U.S. democracy and its youngest citizens.

Chuck Tooley

In an effort to encourage Montana’s younger population to participate in their government, Forward Montana has built an organization that addresses issues of concern to those aged 16 to 34. They have shown how important voting is and how it is possible to have influence on elections. Of the 8,712 people Forward Montana has registered to vote, 82 percent actually cast their ballots at election time.

In addition to voter registration and voter mobilization, Forward Montana develops leaders—graduating 59 interns and 13 fellows in 2016—and hosts events to stimulate conversations about our democracy. One recent event was a panel discussion in Billings about the U. S. Supreme Court during the time that Judge Neil Gorsuch—now Justice Gorsuch—was going through confirmation.

Open to the public and attended by folks from ages 20 to 60, the event presented three panelists: Eileen Sheehy, retired government and journalism educator; Eran Thompson, civil rights activist; and Allie Hay, of Planned Parenthood Advocates of Montana.

Panelists addressed the role the U.S. Supreme Court plays in our system of checks and balances and talked about which Supreme Court cases have affected their lives as individuals.

Sheehy saw the character of high school newspapers change from vibrant forces for community and conversation to being subject to restriction by administrators. As a journalism teacher, she felt this infringed on rights of students that were established by the Tinker decision, but students, like most Americans, have not pushed back. This has affected journalism broadly because so many great journalists cut their teeth in high school journalism programs.

When the Hobby Lobby decision came down, Hay saw how a Supreme Court decision could impact her personally, as a young woman making the transition into the workforce, by threatening coverage of birth control.

Thompson noted the impact that former Chief Justice Earl Warren has on his life because of Warren’s strong stand on Brown vs. Board of Education, a decision that formed the basis for the civil rights movement—largely on the idea that laws could be challenged under the authority of the 14th Amendment.

Panelists engaged fully and productively with participants before the discussion was brought to a close by identifying issues the Supreme Court may be addressing or re-addressing in the future. These issues include dark money in political campaigns, laying out congressional districts fairly, preventing the suppression of voting, and reinforcing the dignity and worth of each human.

I commend Forward Montana for arranging a community discussion of a public policy issue important to Montana citizens. Stay in touch to learn of more forums being planned in communities across the state.

Chuck Tooley is a former mayor of Billings and was moderator of the Supreme Court panel.