Minority Rules 

A last-minute civics lesson from Montana's leading pundit

Shameful, but true: If trends continue, most people won’t even bother to vote this November. Despite the hundreds of millions of dollars spent on state and national political ads, most folks hit “Mute” at the first sign of political commercials.

We have a non-participatory democracy masquerading as “the voice of the people,” and our so-called leaders wind up in office by garnering the hearts of mere fractions of the general populace. The question we should be asking ourselves as we review this trend is, “Why, in what is supposed to be the world’s leading example of a free country, do so few care so little with so much at stake?”

The same ennui that afflicts national politics is rife here in the Last Best Place (or, economically speaking, just Last Place). The stagnant political ponds of Helena have shown little imagination in either methods or message. Like the nationals, they poll first, then mold their candidates to fit the results. Consequently, as is painfully evident, since the polls show people are concerned about their kid’s education, the leading message this campaign season is “education.” O’Keefe is for education.

But so is Martz. So is Keenan. So is Rehberg. So is everyone else. Why?

Because that’s what the polls say voters want to hear.

But of course, “education” is not the answer to every question.

Education won’t stop extractive industries from trashing the state, won’t bring lower freight rates to grain farmers, won’t stop people from hating gays and lesbians, and won’t bring endangered species back from the brink of extinction. Yet, for most of this campaign cycle, those issues have taken a far back seat, as candidates hide behind the great generalization of “education.” And because all the candidates are for education, it becomes meaningless as a decision-making criteria for voters.

While education has been the most over-used campaign camouflage, coming in a strong second is the “Montana solution” to federal issues. Everyone is for “Montana solutions” to the tough questions of what to do with the Missouri River Breaks, the millions of acres of roadless lands, or snowmobiles in Yellowstone National Park. But no one seems to be able to tell us how they would work.

When Congress passes laws governing federal lands and waters, they do so by the interaction of all the representatives and senators from all the states. We have, in total, three representatives to Congress—two senators (just like every state) and only one representative (thanks to our small population). So, let’s say Keenan or Rehberg, or Schweitzer or Burns, follow through with their plan for a “Montana solution” to these federal lands issues. Do they think that just because they ask a handful of Montanans what they want to do with the Breaks or the Park or the forests that everyone in California and New York and Michigan will just go along? What about those folks who maybe think Montana’s Republicans are giving away their national treasures to oil, gas, timber, mining and cattle interests? After all, these lands belong every bit as much to them as to any of us—we just happen to live here.

And what do you think all the industry lobbyists with the bottomless expense accounts are doing while this is going on? Can anyone really be so naive as to think the true power of Washington is going to sit on the sidelines and say, “Hands off! This solution was crafted in Montana—you know, the state with one congressman! We can’t change this, no sir!” Of course not.

Our congressional candidates should just be honest with Montanans and leave the rhetoric behind. What they can do is hold scoping hearings here, craft what they get into a bill, introduce it, and then hold field hearings on the legislation in Montana.

But that’s it as far as Montana’s input to the “solution” goes. Every other senator and representative has just as much right to represent the wishes of their constituents. Whatever we come up with here will be subject to all the manipulations of the national legislative process. The bill will be introduced, heard in committee and amended in both houses. And then the president will get to veto it, just like Reagan did to the “Montana solution” wilderness bill in 1988. If the candidates for the House and Senate want “Montana solutions,” they should run for the state Legislature—since the only place “Montana solutions” get passed is in Helena.

Rhetorical generalizations like “Montana solutions” and “education” have turned off a lot of voters because they don’t mean anything. The one good thing about Election 2000 is that the whole circus rolls to a stop in less than a week. So here’s my Election 2000 advice: Turn off the TV and go hunting, go fishing, spend time with the family or just go to the bar and pound a few pints with your friends. Come Tuesday, join the minority and go vote. And don’t worry about missing anything important between now and then—you won’t.

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