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Montana Voices: Montana again at the crossroads of democracy and oligarchy

Leland Buck

In the larger picture of American politics, Montana is rarely seen as a state of great importance. Our small, rural population places us near the bottom in number of seats in Congress, or electoral votes. Yet our state has contributed greatly to the nation with notable American leaders like Jeannette Rankin and Mike Mansfield.

But our history is also one replete with battles between interests of mining and ranching, and control of our political systems by corporations and their wealthy owners. This history should teach us to value political pluralism, inclusion and balance. Montana’s constitutional history is filled with struggles over Indian voting (a key factor in the delay of ratification of our constitution and statehood from 1884 to 1889), and women’s suffrage which eluded us in 1889 and didn’t become law until 1914. Less than two years after Montana gave women the right to vote, we elected Jeanette Rankin the first woman in the country to federal office. This history shows our values, our belief in the voices of our people, and in the power of our democracy over the interests of oligarchs.

The Montana I know is a place not only of open spaces, but one of open voices. Montanans, in my experience, are thoughtful and proud. We consider ourselves independent and free, yet are always happy to come together when the community calls. When asked who we are, you’ll always hear “Montanan” before other descriptors, because this big, wild place defines us more than anything.

Our current political climate is trying to change that. It’s trying to divide our communities, and stifle the independence and freedom that has been a defining principle of our state’s culture.

I am perplexed by what I see happening in this state. We have a race to fill our single seat in the U.S. House of Representatives with an incumbent candidate who refuses to meet with or talk to constituents openly and who violently attacked a member of the international press. He is being praised by our president for his criminal and unstable behavior. We have a former congressman now running the Department of the Interior who is facing numerous investigations from within his own department and from a growing count of ethics panels. Most Montanans I know wouldn’t hire people with that work history to bale their hay, yet these figures have risen from our state on a great wave of power politics to high national offices.

I respect good conservative voices, though I haven’t heard many in recent years, either here in Montana or in the larger American body politic. What I’ve seen of the new conservatives isn’t conservativism, rather a shift to oligarchy. Montanans need to revisit our values, rethink our conservatism, and start promoting better candidates who advocate for the things we cherish: independence, community, wide open spaces, hard work and prosperity. We need candidates who foster innovation to make our state stand out in the new world economy without sacrificing our identity. Above all, we need representatives committed to Montana, not their party, and certainly not their own aspirations for power and privilege.

Many are saying that the 2018 election is the most important one of our lifetimes, and I’m inclined to agree. But I disagree on the points most people cite to justify that statement. For me this election is not about political party, for I’ve long since given up believing either represents American values. This election is all about power, and that terrifies me.

Oligarchs fear freedom, they fear accountability, and they fear democracy. They seek to destroy what they can’t control; that’s why we’re seeing gerrymandering, that’s why we’re seeing voter suppression, and that is the only reason Trump is praising Gianforte’s deplorable body-slam. This election in Montana is not about Democrats vs Republicans, its about oligarchy vs democracy.

My greatest hope in 2018 is that through this electoral process, Montanans will make choices that reflect our values, history, better balance power, and return it where it belongs, with the people, with democracy.

Leland Buck writes from Missoula.