WINTER 1997 Montanan - Volume 14, Number 2
Capitol at Night by R.F. Morgan of Helena, former curator of the Montana Historical Society.
by Pat Williams
To most of us, Montana seems basically the same, unruffled and unhurried, much as it was when we were children growing up here under the Big Sky. We are comforted by the sameness within our 147,000 square miles because we like Montana the way it is.
The Rocky Mountain Front still rises up before us, and the six and a half million acres of our wildest lands remain much the same as they were for the original inhabitants and for the explorers Lewis and Clark. The waterways that run through Montana are still channels of actual water, mostly free of foreign substances. Our big blue skies seem clear and clean over most of our towns and cities. With a few exceptions, the skylines of our cities remain lovely and low, punctuated only by the steeples of our churches. Our automobile traffic has not yielded to gridlock. Though some are straining, our schools have not suffered the seam-busting chaos of urban overcrowding.
To those of us who have lived here all, or most, of our lives, the old place looks about the same. And yet we Montanans know different; we feel the rumblings of change.
Our politics, all politics, are shaped by change and modified by history's chisel. Earthquakes, floods, riots, war, scandals and economic recessions transform our perceptions of the comfort and safety of our lives. Political change is also caused by more subtle changes in our lives-increasing unemployment, alarming results from national student achievement tests, a break-in in the neighborhood. Our collective responses to these events make us bolt in new directions, and our collective demands can dramatically rearrange the nation's politics.
Interestingly, it is often easier to recognize change on a national level than it is to define it in our own city or state. National political change is often the accumulation of the various local tides and swells, which build to the more visible crashing of political waves on the national shore. Former House Speaker Tip O'Neill wisely perceived the starting place of all national politics with his widely noted remark, "All politics are local."
The Winds of Change
During the past twenty years in Montana we have witnessed many changes, and our responses to these changes have reshaped our opinions and our politics. To understand why and how our politics differ today from those of two decades ago, we must recognize these changes . As they flow into the political process, they are sorted into pressures that bring about legislative and administrative modifications that strive to reflect the collective will of the people.
Our population growth, more talked about over coffee than observed on our streets, is nonetheless a dramatic one. In 1980 Montana residents totaled 787,000. The Census Bureau now estimates that by the end of this decade the state's population will be in excess of 950,000. A million people? "Where are they?" we ask.
The subtle nature of this change is perhaps hard to see in a land so high and wide. Many of our population increases have been swallowed in the wrinkles of our western mountains. More noticeable are the recent developments spreading out across the river valleys in the east.
In both eastern and western Montana, the new growth is much discussed, but in a casual and unconcerned manner, much as we discuss an approaching winter storm-inevitable but passing. But this storm of people will not recede, and we will not return to the serenity of days twenty years ago when there were only six of us for each square mile.
One half of the "new" Montanans are folks who have returned to the state. Only one-third of the newcomers are seniors. Most of the rest are under forty-five. The age of these young new Montanans has had a considerable effect on the political landscape. They came of age during the Reagan era, and thus their thinking was shaped by the politics of the early and mid-1980s. They do vote, but they tend not to identify with either the Democratic or Republican party-instead their voting tends to swing between the two.
On issues, they are conservationists in matters of the environment and conservatives in matters of public spending. And, like their counterparts in urban areas, they receive their news from the television. It is clear that television advertisements, including political advertising, are critically important in their process of selecting among the candidates.
Their continuing immigration, along with a national trend toward increasing environmental concern, is profoundly affecting our state. In large part because of these new Montanans, Montana, along with the entire Northern Rockies, is moving from an extractive society to a conservation society. Although Montanans recognize that sustainable extractive industries are important for Montana's future, they also understand that the state's future lies in far greater economic diversity than marked our past. Our economy, as University of Montana Professor Tom Powers has noted, is resilient: it is transforming, not declining.
During the past twenty years, polls measuring support for environmental policy have found an increasingly strong Montana bias for strong conservation measures. For example, polls taken last August, prior to the rush of campaign spending on I-22, the Clean Water Initiative, showed that people who had lived in Montana for fifteen years or less supported the initiative by a margin three times greater than the support provided by native Montanans.
This trend toward strong environmental policy has been verified by numerous polls taken by neutral parties as the state has grappled with what to do with its wilderness areas over the past twenty years. Montanans, most notably those who have recently arrived or returned, consistently support legislation to provide ultimate protection for much of the state's remaining wild lands.
New Political Preferences
One of the most notable changes of the past decades is that Montanans, and most noticeably newer Montanans, are marginally favoring Republicans. Montana used to have two members in the U.S. House of Representatives, so of the five top elected officials-two U.S. senators, two congressmen and the governor-four were usually Democrats. We lost a House seat in 1988, so we now have four top elected officials. Republicans control three of those four positions. Although Democrats were elected to the three remaining statewide offices-superintendent of schools, attorney general and auditor-Republicans also retained majority control of both houses of the Montana Legislature.
Three areas of Montana are noticeably changing the state's political complexion: Butte and Anaconda, Flathead County and the reservations.
Butte and Anaconda, historically havens for the state's Democrats, remain so, but the raw political clout of those two cities has been greatly reduced. Twenty years ago the mining and smelter cities accounted for 7.6 percent of the state's voter turnout. In the last election, that was down by about one-fourth to only 5.7 percent of the state's turnout.
During those same two decades, Flathead County rose from 5.7 percent of the total state voter turnout to 8.2 percent in last November's election.
And, during the past five years, there was an astounding increase in registration and voter turnout among Montana's Indian people. The increases were evident on each of the seven Indian reservations and among urban Indians as well. Several reservations showed gains of more than 50 percent in both voter registration and turnout.
Statewide, Montanans registered to vote in increasingly large numbers-an astounding 90 percent of those eligible to vote actually registered. The relatively recent motor voter laws have undoubtedly contributed to much of that total, and that high registration is also, perhaps, responsible for our declining voter turnout totals. For example, in the 1976 election year, 74.6 percent of the state's eligible voters went to the polls. Last November that had fallen to 70.6 percent. However, the number of Montanans voting increased during those twenty years by 77,886 or 23 percent.
Interestingly, 93 percent of that increase occurred in seven counties: Ravalli, Flathead, Gallatin, Lake, Missoula, Lewis and Clark and Yellowstone. All but one of those counties is in western Montana, and that, in turn, has affected political direction and policy.
The Far Right
For these past two decades, we Montanans have been centrists. But recently we have a growing polarization on the far right. From the Christian Coalition to the Militia of Montana, the state's more conservative elements are increasing their political strength, which may also account for the conservative trend among Montana voters.
At the polls, according to analysts, the far right votes on the basis of their fears rather than on the basis of their hopes. For example, when asked about the basis for their electoral choices, a majority of those on the far right indicate that they voted "against the opposition." They are increasingly impressed by negative campaign advertising.
The eighth legislative assembly of the Montana Territory gathered in Virginia City, January 5 to February 13, 1874.
The far right has been increasingly effective during the past two cycles, electing candidates of their choice to the Montana Legislature and providing considerable assistance to Republican candidates for both the U.S. Senate and House.
The changes in the composition of Montana, and events both large and small, have reshaped our politics during the past two decades. Voter alliances have shifted to the right, pure voter turnout numbers are shifting from eastern to western Montana, and preferences have moved from both political parties to the more unaligned independents. Our economy is less and less dependent on extractive industries, thus changing our political responses to conservation efforts. Change? Yes, and folks, we ain't see nothing yet.
Former U.S. Representative Pat Williams joined the UM faculty in January 1997.