Questioning Conservatism 

A new group of political activists is gathering steam in the Bitterroot, raising questions as to what, exactly, these hard-line Republicans are all about

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Progressive groups paint a far darker picture of Celebrating Conservatism than just third parties and split votes. Fear and intimidation are mainstays of far-right strategy in the Bitterroot, and some believe this group is just the latest example.

To Bill LaCroix, coordinator for the Bitterroot Human Rights Alliance (BHRA) and McAdam's liaison in Ravalli County, Celebrating Conservatism represents a resurrection of former radical militia thinking in the area. LaCroix has lived in the Bitterroot for 30 years and considers himself pretty middle-of-the-road in matters of politics. But he's witnessed firsthand the Bitterroot's past brushes with radicalism and doesn't want to see history repeat itself.

"It's been around for quite a while," LaCroix says. "It's evolved for sure into a more virulent form, because it never gets called for what it is. We're not having a real discussion about what's going on."

LaCroix attended Mack's speech with Celebrating Conservatism and visited the group again when McLamb was scheduled to speak. He says each time he's experienced a troubling level of intimidation, and he now favors attending with fellow BHRA member Pam Erickson. Safety in numbers is his thinking, especially when a large number of attendees are packing heat.

"Carrying guns downtown is a hostile act," LaCroix says. "I don't see how they can say they're trying to bring in all kinds of people when they're carrying guns to show what they would do to people that disagree with them...If you want to have a public discussion, maybe we should discuss what planet we should have it on first. That's kind of where it's at. They're not speaking what they mean."

Docteur says she would happily arrange a debate between McAdam and Mack if both parties were willing. But those on the left find it difficult to debate or even approach members of Celebrating Conservatism. McAdam has yet to hear Docteur's offer, but believes it isn't as easy as just having a chat.

click to enlarge The latest speakers to appear before conservative meetings in Hamilton often criticize President Barack Obama for steering the country closer and closer to socialism. They promote a serious shift to the right, favoring states’ rights over federal intrusion. - PHOTO BY ANNE MEDLEY
  • Photo by Anne Medley
  • The latest speakers to appear before conservative meetings in Hamilton often criticize President Barack Obama for steering the country closer and closer to socialism. They promote a serious shift to the right, favoring states’ rights over federal intrusion.

"We went through this back in the '90s," McAdam says. "Initially we'd get into these situations back in 1990-91 where people would say, 'Will someone from the Human Rights Network come and debate John Trochmann of the Militia Montana?' In order to have a debate, there has to be some sort of agreement on what the facts are. When the world views are so different—in this case they're very conspiracy oriented and definitely have this view of the world of this imminent invasion and all our freedoms being taken away—there's just not common ground for us to sit down and say what can we agree on."

From what LaCroix has witnessed at meetings of Celebrating Conservatism, he isn't optimistic about reasonable discourse either. And that factors into his very definition of the word "conservative."

"If I can't talk and reason with someone who disagrees with me, they're not a conservative," LaCroix says. "They are, in this context, the extremists that we're worried about. They're fearful, they're uninformed, they're opinionated, they're aggressive, looking for a fight. It would be like talking to a drunk in a bar. Why do that? A conservative is somebody who's sober when you're talking to them, in a political sense.

"What's disconcerting to me is not what these people do," LaCroix continues. "It's that they get away with it...Where's the consciousness that that's not okay? They're talking insurrection."

Those with a skeptical or critical view of Celebrating Conservatism don't intend to tromp individual rights. They simply question any activity that seems on the surface to oppose civilized discourse.

"Everybody's entitled to their own opinion, I suppose, but we as a country...despite disagreements, differing opinions and differing philosophies, we've ultimately grown by people talking about their differences, arriving at a solution or direction, and willing to do what I would call public discourse with some amount of respect," says John Meakin, chair of the Ravalli County Democratic Central Committee. "My problem with the group, as an example [of right-wing thinking], is that they aren't willing to engage in any discourse. They're against change, they're against regulations, they're against government. That fringe attitude, as far as I'm concerned, is not something that's going to help this country or this county go anywhere."

Back in Hamilton, around 10 p.m. on Oct. 6, the meeting breaks with a short artistic film on the origins of the "Star Spangled Banner." The lights come up, revealing more than a few tear-streaked faces. The crockpots and cake pans slowly disappear as people head to their vehicles.

The evening's featured speaker, John McManus, greets attendees next to a table near the door, striking up the occasional conversation. Celebrating Conservatism is just one of many such groups he's seeing spring up across the country, and he applauds Docteur's efforts

"The enthusiasm and the passion is matched wherever I go," McManus says. "There were a few more [people] here. But I spoke to 10,000 people in Minnesota last year at the Ron Paul rally."

click to enlarge Members of Celebrating Conservatism linger at a booth operated by the John Birch Society, a historically anti-communist group that uses conservative-based community gatherings across the country to recruit new members. - PHOTO BY ANNE MEDLEY
  • Photo by Anne Medley
  • Members of Celebrating Conservatism linger at a booth operated by the John Birch Society, a historically anti-communist group that uses conservative-based community gatherings across the country to recruit new members.

There's been little discussion of specific issues in national politics at tonight's meeting, other than some of McManus' critiques. Docteur says instead of getting weighed down in discussions that could drive a wedge between members of the group, they're sticking to common ground. That means supporting the Second Amendment, upholding the Constitution and empowering unknowledgeable locals. In other words, a whole lot of rhetoric from men like Mack and McManus.

"We're trying to dispel the ignorance, because the fear comes from ignorance," Docteur says. "If someone knows their rights and they're actually in the Constitution, why not exercise it?"

Celebrating Conservatism may be drawing negative attention, but Docteur subtly suggests that the questions surrounding the group's activities aren't all bad. First, she says the group doesn't want to stir up trouble in promoting a shift to the right, then she implies it does.

"All we're trying to do is not to be rebellious, although in order to make a stand you have to be rebellious or be perceived as being rebellious because people won't notice, they just won't," Docteur says. "So we're not going to be quiet about that anymore."

The local members of Celebrating Conservatism don't seem to care what progressive groups or Republican politicians think about their meetings. Instead, the attendees appear focused on the issues at hand. The federal government? Tone it down. State sovereignty? Build it up. The rhetoric is thick, but their worries over the direction America is headed are genuine.

"Liberty," says Cathy Hackett, when asked what issue she considers the most important in national debate. "When we have our liberty back, we can concentrate on the little stuff."

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