Billings, Montana -- There is a lot to be said for nowhere. Snow is falling with the glimmer of the Crazy Mountains in the distance. A frigid wind cuts through my thin jacket. I notice that ice is beginning to form on the brim of my hat as I race to my warm car. My body heat has melted the fallen snow, and now the moisture is fast turning to ice. It was warm out earlier in the day and I thought I could get this little hike in before sunset, but this storm -- which will soon turn into a blizzard -- has darkened the Big Sky. Welcome to Montana.
Some things rarely change out here, the unpredictability of the weather being one. There are, however, aspects of life in Montana that the public can help determine. The Red State label that the politicos have given to places like this is not etched in stone. Things can and do change.
Indeed things out here changed a few decades ago, but sadly it wasn’t for the better. Before the rightwing takeover of the state in the late 1970s, Montana was thriving with progressive politics. Take Democratic Senator Lee Metcalf, who had a strong environmental record during his tenure in DC and would likely be considered an eco-terrorist by today’s standards. On the heels of the great Bob Marshall, Metcalf became a relentless wilderness advocate; where he attempted to make Marshall’s vision a reality. He stood up against timber barons, big oil, developers, and rarely backed down from a fight.
Truth is Montana has a long history of voting against the conservative grain, which shows just how ridiculous the Red State/Blue State distinction truly is. Along with voting for Metcalf, Montanans also elected liberal Democrat Mike Mansfield to Congress and the Senate nine consecutive times. Perhaps Sen. Mansfield’s greatest accomplishment came while he was serving as Senate Majority Leader where he engineered the passage of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964. Mansfield, using Senator Hubert Humphrey as his floor manager, quietly rounded up the necessary votes and broke the Southern filibuster, which cleared the way for the passage of the monumental legislation. Although both Mansfield and Metcalf had plenty of flaws, there is little question that when compared to the Democrats of today, they were remarkable.
Of course we can’t talk about progressive politics in Montana without mentioning Janette Rankin, who in 1916 became the first woman ever voted to the US Congress. A social worker by trade, Rankin was a tireless defender of the underclass. She was also one of the first elected officials to speak out against child labor. But her opposition to war led her to her most remarkable accomplishment. Only four days after taking office Rankin voted against US entry into World War I. She violated Congress protocol by speaking during roll call prior to casting her vote, where she boldly announced, “I want to stand by my country, but I cannot vote for war!”
During the rest of her term in Washington, Rankin fought for many political reforms including civil liberties, women’s suffrage, birth control, child welfare and equal pay among sexes. But Rankin's vote against World War I sealed her political fate. She later was gerrymandered out of her Montana district, ran for a Senate seat, and was overwhelmingly defeated.
This brings us back to the Red State/Blue State dichotomy. With a brief look back at Montana’s progressive political history, it is clear that Red States do not fall within the conservative preconceived boundaries. An electoral map does not do justice to what has actually taken place on the ground politically or historically. The contradictions are not much different in Blue States where right-wingers run rampant and dominate state and local governments. One needs to look no further than Gov. Pataki in New York or Gov. Schwarzenegger out in California. We’d all do well to abandon such divisive and inaccurate Red/Blue labels, and unite behind common causes.
Even with the recent small victories last November (see Part One in this series) it is not likely that Montana will be hailing its progressive past anytime soon. The right-wing still has a stranglehold in the Big Sky country. But it is important to recognize the few victories, and follow their winning formulas. If things are to change likeminded citizens will have to come together and fight for the issues that matter most to them. Because, unlike the weather, political winds can be directed by we the people.
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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