The following is an excerpt from Red State Rebels: Tales of Grassroots Resistance in the Heartland just released by AK Press edited by Jeffrey St. Clair and myself. This is one of the essays I contributed. Find out more information about the book online at www.RedStateRebels.org.
You can go home again, but it might break your heart or turn your stomach. Even if your home is Montana. Perhaps especially here, where there is so much to lose.
No, Montana is not what it used to be. Corporate behemoths have taken over small family-owned farms, and public forests have been squandered and sold to the highest bidder. Poverty and racism run rampant. Native Americans are being corralled onto even tighter plots of land. But while things seem disheartening, voices of hope continue rumbling across the Big Sky Country.
With Montana, like so many other "lost cause" states, not fitting neatly into the Blue State/Red State dichotomy, even Thomas Frank would be baffled. Don’t get me wrong: this is still Republican country. Oversized SUV bumpers flaunt "W" stickers, and almost every Ford truck touts a yellow "Support Our Troops" magnet. There is no question that these flag-waving Montanans overwhelmingly voted for Bush in 2004.
Having grown up on the eastern side of the continental divide in Billings Montana’s largest city with a population exceeding 90,000—I know this area well. Dubbed America’s drug stricken "Crank Capitol" by Time in the late 1990s, Billings is nestled beneath the shadows of 500-foot sandstone cliffs. The snowcapped Rockies are due west. The mighty Yellowstone River cuts through the town’s south end. It’s searing hot in the summer and bitter cold in winter. A forty-minute drive to the southeast will bring you to the impoverished and desolate Crow Agency Indian reservation, which houses the memorial for the Battle of the Little Big Horn where General George A. Custer met his much-deserved fate. This land has a bloody ubiquitous history, the aura of which can be troubling for those familiar with its past.
Much has changed since I left Billings some 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 Noble, Starbucks, dozens of tasteless eateries, and countless cookie-cutter homes have relentlessly extended the city’s boundaries. Once unique, Billings now resembles most any place you would find in these sprawling Xeroxed States of America.
Teenagers fill their weekends with beer, sex and cheap booze, remnants of which pepper the roads off the beaten path. Things are not much different for the slightly older crowd. You are just more likely to find these Generation Xers frequenting the local bars and passing joints back and forth in their pick-up trucks. Who can blame them? This is the rhythm of the new American dream, the anthem for surviving cultural homogeneity: do what you must to escape the mundane. Take two and pass.
A cursory glance probably wouldn’t reveal so much as a chirp of dissent in these parts. That is, of course, if you aren’t referring to the right-wing militiamen that have made Montana famous in the 1990s. But I am not talking about the tax averting Freemen, who stockpiled weapons and took on the Feds, or the chemically inclined Ted Kaczynski’s fetish for sending loaded love letters. I’m talking about a populist backlash that is fast gaining speed on these remote country roads.
Welcome to Montana.
Some things, like the volatile weather that can turn from rain to snow in minutes, rarely change out here. But there are aspects of life in Montana that the public can help determine. The Red State marker that the politicos and pundits have given to places like this is not etched in stone.
Just a few decades ago things on the Montana prairie changed, but sadly it was for the worse. Before the rightwing takeover of the state legislature in the late 1970s, this place was actually thriving with progressive politics. Take Democratic Senator Lee Metcalf, who was a staunch wilderness supporter during his tenure in D.C. and would likely be considered an eco-terrorist by today’s standards. On the heels of the great conservationist Bob Marshall, Metcalf became a relentless advocate for the wild, where he attempted to make Marshall’s public forest vision a reality. He stood up against timber barons, big oil, and land developers, rarely backing down. He cherished Montana for its ecological beauty, wildlife and serenity.
The truth is Montana has a long history of going against the traditional grain. Along with electing Metcalf, voters also sent liberal Democrat Mike Mansfield to Congress and the Senate nine consecutive times. Sen. Mansfield’s most enduring accomplishment came when he engineered the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 during his tenure as Senate Majority Leader. Using Senator Hubert Humphrey as his floor manager, Mansfield 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 glaring flaws, there is no question that they, compared to today’s corporate Democrats, were remarkable.
Of course, we can’t talk about progressive politics in Montana without mentioning Janette Rankin, whom in 1916 became the first woman ever elected to Congress. A social worker by trade, Rankin was a tireless defender of the underclass. She was also one of the first representatives to speak out against child labor practices in the early 20th century. But it was her opposition to war that led her to her most exceptional accomplishment: just four days after taking office, Rankin voted against U.S. entry into World War I. Violating Congressional procedure, she spoke out during roll call prior to casting her vote and declared, "I want to stand by my country, but I cannot vote for war!"
During the rest of her term, Rankin fought for many political reforms, including civil liberties, women’s suffrage, birth control, child welfare, and equal pay among sexes. She was ahead of her time on nearly every issue. Sadly, however, Rankin’s vote against World War I sealed her political fate. Later, after much harassment back home for her war resistance, she was gerrymandered out of her Montana district. When she ran for a Senate seat, she was overwhelmingly defeated.
Like so many states, an electoral map does not do justice to what has actually taken place on the ground politically or historically. In fact, in 1992 Montana’s electoral points went to Bill Clinton as Ross Perot captured a quarter of the votes. And the contradictions are not much different in the so-called Blue States, where right-wingers run rampant and dominate state and local governments. One need look no further than Schwarzenegger’s reign in California or Bloomberg’s grip in New York City, not to mention the conservative Democrats who rule the roost in the Interior West.