Billings, Montana -- It is sickening. Montana is not what it used to be. Small family-owned farms have been taken over by corporate behemoths. Public forests have been squandered and sold to the highest bidder. Racism is ever increasing. Poverty is rampant. Native Americans are being corralled onto even tighter plots of land. But however disheartening it all may seem, there are still voices of hope rumbling across the vast Big Sky.
Montana, for some anomalous reason, doesn’t clearly fall within the predictable Blue state/Red state dichotomy. We aren’t in Kansas anymore and even Thomas Frank would be baffled. Don’t get me wrong though; this is still Bush country, as anyone with one eye open can detect. “W” stickers are flaunted on oversized SUV bumpers. Yellow “Support the Troop” magnets have been slapped on most every Ford truck. There is no question that these flag waving Montanans voted overwhelmingly in favor of George W. Bush last November. Republicans here are a dime a dozen.
I should know, I grew up out here on the eastern side of the continental divide in Billings, which is the largest city in Montana with a population of 90,000-plus. Billings, dubbed America’s “Crank Capital” by Time in the late-1990s, is nestled beneath the shadows of 500 foot sand stone cliffs. The snow-capped Rockies are due west. The mighty Yellowstone River cuts through the south end of town. It’s searing hot in the summer and bitter cold in winter. A forty-minute drive southeast will park you in the impoverished and desolate Crow Agency (Indian reservation) -- which houses the memorial for the Battle of the Little Big Horn where the great Indian slaughterer General George A. Custer met his much-deserved fate. There is a bloody ubiquitous history about this land. The aura of which can be troubling for those who know its past.
Much has changed since I left Billings eight 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 Nobles, Starbucks, dozens of tasteless eateries, and countless cookie-cut-out homes -- all the destructive amenities that decorate our suburban landscapes -- have relentlessly extended the city’s boundaries. Once unique, Billings is now like most any place you would find in these sprawling United Xeroxed States of America. On the surface it is monotonous and dull.
Under the gleaming Red White and Blue greasepaint, however, Billings is pulsating with life.
Weekends for teenagers are filled with beer, sex and cheap booze. Remnants of which pepper the roads off the beaten path. Things are not much different for the older crowd. You are just more likely to find these Generation Xers frequenting the local pubs and puffin joints back and forth in their pick-up trucks: take two and pass. Who can blame them? This is the rhythm of the new American dream -- the anthem of surviving cultural homogeneity. Do what you have to do to escape the mundane. Luckily Ed Vedder saved me some years back when his band made a little album called Vs. But that’s a story for another time.
At a cursory glance one would be unlikely to detect any 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. But I am not talking about the Freeman who stockpiled weapons and took on the Feds, or that chemically inclined Kaczynski’s fetish for sending loaded love letters: I’m talking about an odd populist backlash that is gaining speed on these remote country roads.
A fair portion of the population is pissed. Rightfully so. Montanans have suffered far too long under the thumb of a conservative majority. First 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. More recently they were 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. Not unlike Arendt’s Eichmann or Rove’s Bush.
Ol’ Judy earned herself quite a rap sheet since her election in 2000. She shielded timber companies from litigation. She befriended deregulation as Montanans saw a huge increase in their electricity bills. She undermined public schools. Gouged taxpayers. Destabilized local business owners. Pissed off small farmers. Martz was a political train wreck and Montana reacted appropriately. Her approval rating by the summer of 2004 had reached an all-time low: a dismal 30%. Without a wince of shame Martz opted not to run for reelection. A sensible decision. Surely the wisest of her short career.
Sick and tired of Republican wrath, many rational Montanans voted to replace Martz with Democrat Brian Schweitzer -- a wealthy cattleman who has operated ranches across the state. Schweitzer is a naturally gifted orator who almost pulled off beating entrenched US Senator Conrad Burns, a popular Republican stooge, back in 2000.
Schweitzer ran on a split ticket this time around, picking moderate Republican state Senator John Bollinger to be his running mate. The choice of Bollinger was indeed pragmatic, 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. Bollinger knew his constituents would vote Republican out of habit. He was right, and the Schweitzer camp capitalized on their collective ignorance under the banner of “bipartisanship” in ‘04.
In 1999 Schweitzer made his mark with Montana senior citizens as he drove a batch of old-timers across the border into Canada to see how much cheaper meds were for the Canucks. As Gov. Schweitzer recently explained in a radio address, “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 Dumbocrat. Since his inauguration last January, Schweitzer has been vocal in his opposition to the Bush agenda, and has even said he wants Montana’s guard troops to return from Iraq so they can help battle wildfires this summer. 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," Schweitzer said after a recent meeting in DC when US 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 go kidding yourself; Schweitzer is more centrist than radical. He opposes gay marriage (although I’m told only because had he come out in favor, Bollinger would have declined to be his running mate) and wants to expand Montana’s private prison industry. Even so, there is no question that Schweitzer is a pleasant change of pace for Montana’s backward two-step, where Republican monsters have haunted the state for decades.
Schweitzer’s win wasn’t the only interesting development in the state last year. Montanans also voted in favor of medial marijuana and opposed banning gay marriage. No kidding. Despite what liberals claim, these Red staters may have some common sense after all. And compared to a “liberal” Blue state like Oregon, Montana sure as hell seems progressive. Over in Beaver land Oregonians nixed a medical marijuana initiative and voted to outlaw gay marriage. Go figure.
This isn’t even the best of it. The largest victory for Montana came when voters overwhelmingly shot down a mining initiative that would have returned the dreadful and polluting open-pit cyanide heap-leach mining to the state. 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 always polluted water and caused environmental destruction. Montana is used to it. Mines throughout the state have polluted streams, drinking water, killed off wild trout, desecrated the landscape and created enviro catastrophes that have cost taxpayers millions to clean up.
Yep, it is good to be back. There is a defeatist attitude still lingering out in Blue America. And it’s a downer. No doubt “blue” is an apt color to describe the dejected mood that paints our coastal states. Liberals are still weeping in their lattes over Kerry’s humiliating loss to Bush last November. Others can’t shake their denial and are convinced Bush rigged the whole thing. Sore losers, I say. Kerry got crushed because he couldn’t differentiate himself from W on the issues that mattered. Fortunately progressives out here in Montana, although a minority, have rolled up their sleeves and continued their work. The presidential election was not a deterrent. They stayed the course and never abandoned their issues, and won as a result.
Maybe Blue staters will realize this isn’t fly-over country after all. Looks like pompous liberals could learn a lot from these Red state dummies.
Joshua Frank, a native of Montana, is the author of the forthcoming book, Left Out!: How Liberals Helped Reelect George W. Bush, to be released in April by Common Courage Press. He can be reached at: email@example.com.
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