Montana Politics

Polls and Pope


With such a plethora of information available a few clicks away, it is becoming easier and easier to get a little learning for oneself. But as Alexander Pope reminds us –

A little learning is a dangerous thing;
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring:
There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
And drinking largely sobers us again.

A shallow drink from the internets tells me that Democrats had majorities in the House and Senate, and support from all the national polls, for reversing the Bush tax cuts, creating a universal health care system, etc. Since they didn’t, they are spineless corporate whores because despite majorities in congress and majorities of Americans supporting liberal positions, they can’t force their agenda through. This is good rhetoric for raising money and rallying the troops, and so is attractive terminology for front-line activists. Indeed, it may have its purpose in that way.

But drink deeper and you’ll notice a few things. First, it takes less than a quarter of the US population to earn enough Senators to paralyze the Senate, and that quarter is concentrated in conservative states. Thus, national polls are irrelevant when it comes to what to expect in the Senate.

Second, the breakdown of letters in the Senate is also misleading. The electoral gains Democrats made in the Senate before the most recent elections made them seem more powerful than they really were. What it comes down to is this – a Democrat like Jon Tester or Max Baucus is not bound to follow national polling, but the opinions in his or her own state. When Democrats seem spineless, in most instances they are merely representing their constituents. Before 2010, there were 9 Republicans representing Blue states, but 23 Democrats representing Red states. What does that mean? Democrats were under much more pressure to moderate their positions than Republicans in their home states, the only place that matters. Again, lending itself the the impression that Democrats don’t stand for anything, when in fact they are standing for what their constituents generally believe in, not their national parties or national polls.

The lesson? It’s easy to get big-picture analysis at your fingertips. However, sometimes the big picture isn’t as relevant as what’s going on in our back yards; especially when our backyard is as poorly covered by the national media as ours is. It doesn’t matter how many protest votes we cast against moderate Democrats, and it doesn’t matter how many Republicans we elect to punish Democrats for being too lukewarm. Montanans believe certain things, and while we as progressives can fervently hope that their beliefs will drift further in line with ours, we should nonetheless be understanding when our politicians vote to represent the voters within their jurisdictions, not what pollsters say is popular on a national level.

About the author

The Polish Wolf


    • Yeah, I live in Helena, have since fifth grade. I’ve lived in Montana for something like 90% of my life. I’m not going to claim I know everything about the attitudes of Montanans; like anyone, I know mostly a certain kind of people. I currently work in the school district, primarily with at-risk kids; previous to that, I worked in custodial, food service, and landscaping, so maybe the people with whom I’ve worked, as well as my family, aren’t a fair cross section of Montana society, but there are definitely attitudes there that are much more conservative than I think many progressives realize or take into account.

  • It’s complicated because we all tend to focus on elections. From an environmental standpoint, for instance, the same interests that worked through Conrad Burns and Max Baucus are now working through Jon Tester and and Max Baucus. In other words, turning Burns out of office did not change the underlying battle of corporate interests who are smart and wealty and savvy against organized environmental groups who are smart and savvy. That election did not matter.

    It’s all about organizing, and I don’t mean holding signs and shouting slogans. It’s about education, use of the legal system, and applying pressure on those who happen to hold office, either party. It takes effort and smart people. People who misbehave, like Tester, Baucus, and Burns, need to feel the sting of angry constituents. But Democrats do not punish Democrats who misbehave, and that is a large part of the problem.

    In that sense, the Democratic Party apparatus is counterproductive, as it assumes the role of opposition. But all it does is absorb energy without results. Organizing, which is hard work and for which smart and dedicated people are needed, must be done outside that party.

    And it is starting. Fingers crossed, we might finally be seeing some real opposition to power. I agree with your analysis, Pogie, that a small percentage of voters (17% by my tally), can elect 41 senators and block agendas, but you need to look deeper, in my opinion. While what you say is true, why is it so? Democrats could change it, but they don’t. Why not? Tester could have voted to limit or even eliminate the filibuster, but he did not. Why? do you have polls of Montanans who favor it? Why?

  • Mark –

    I agree that change is frustratingly slow, and that the differences between Jon Tester and Conrad Burns are not as great as many had hoped. But I think it’s unnecessary to look for shadowy special interests who manipulate both of them in order to explain their basic similarities. The explanation must start with – they were elected by the same people. Montana didn’t change radically when Tester was elected, Montanans were just waking up to the fact that Conrad Burns was a particularly terrible senator. He did not lose his job because he was too conservative, he lost his job because he had already promised to quit, because he ran his mouth offensively, because he took money from Jack Abramoff, and because he was linked to an administration whose gross failures were starting to be realized. Tester knows that – he knows he can’t be Bernie Sanders and get elected, he knows he can’t even be Harry Reid. Hell, I don’t know how liberal his personal beliefs actually are; they might be just a shade more liberal than most Montanans.

    But to argue he’s not an improvement over Burns, and not a better choice than Rehberg, is just silly. Their differing approaches to the wolf situation provide a good example of this – it was clear to everyone that Montanans wanted something done about wolves (Rob and I disagreed at the time as to whether this was a real issue). Both Tester and Rehberg tried to ‘solve’ the problem. Tester’s solution dealt with the actual issue – the fact that the law (passed by congress) prevented de-listing wolves in two states who had adequate protection plans in place as long as Wyoming refused to cooperate. We can go on forever about whether the EPA was right in their conclusion that MT and ID wolves were safe populations without the ESA, whether slipping the rider in at the last minute was ethical, but it put in policies that were not apocalyptic for wolves but satisfied local populations whose frustration was threatening to erupt into full-scale nullification, a development that would have been catastrophic for federal environmental policy in general.

    Rehberg’s solution? Much like his approach to National Monuments, he decided to make up a problem and then solve it the worst way possible. Remove gray wolves from the endangered species list entirely, even in states were they were clearly NOT safe from local extinction. That’s a big difference, and it got him some support from groups here in Montana, but it was a foolhardy policy.

    Tester will perform the will of the people, even when the people are ill-informed, and try to temper it with a bit of centrism. Rehberg will take the will of the people and pull it as far right as he can get away with (fortunately, he historically hasn’t actually accomplished much of anything this way, probably for the best). So, while the differences may not be dramatic in the grand scheme of things, the choice is certainly clear.

  • I think we are talking by one another. I happen to believe that Baucus and Tester are third-rate people, and Burns second-rate, in that he was a nice guy who insisted that his staff answer mail and had the guts to face his critics head on. One step further – Burns, though limited intellectually, wanted to do the right thing. I respect him.

    But none of that matters. The power that functions behind the scenes is focused, organized, and effective. It is not voters. Voters are mostly busy, ill-informed, indifferent, and trusting. Jon Tester knows his constituents are not paying attention, so that he can take his Wall Street money, run some feel-good ads, and get re-elected. So the driving force behind him is access toWall Street money. if he misbehaves, someone else gets it.

    He’s not important. It is far more useful to think about issues, focus, education, and direction. Elections are a distraction in our current environment, and not useful. In this dysfunctional system, you might be right that Tester is better than Rehberg (I don’t agree), but my point is “So what?” That’s not where the game is being played.

  • I overlooked you being the author of this post, PW. I assumed Pogie even as he commented aooboce welcoming yo back. Oops.

  • Mark –

    That’s what you don’t understand. It does make a difference. Wolves are no longer protected in Idaho and Montana, but they are protected in states where they are in danger of extinction. Openly gay men and women can now serve in the military. The stimulus passed and people had jobs. There is a real difference between Rehberg and Tester, and those votes have real effects on real people. Perhaps you are in a position in your life where they don’t affect you, but for some of us these policies are more than intellectual abstractions.

  • I have simply lived long enough to understand that elections do not bring about change. Only organized effort matters. Elections are sideshow. I can easily take any number of issues and say that this or that happened or did not hapen because of an election outcome. Not provable, of course, but I doubt that Burns would behave much differently in the face of concerted ground organizing than Tester, and that both assume that they can get away with stuff when no one is paying attention. Voters are not organized, are ill-informed, uneducated, busy, unfocused. They do not matter.

    • Mark, you do need to learn to be specific. Anyone who survived the Montana legislature of 2011 (which would be all of us) know quite clearly that voting brings change, and it definitely matters. It was organized effort which foisted the Tea Party on the state and the country. You may not like how the organization took place or was funded, but that is beside the point. It was *voting*, elections, that turned that organizational strength into policy.

      And here is where, yet again, you contradict yourself. You write:

      “Voters are not organized, are ill-informed, uneducated, busy, unfocused. ”

      I mean no more insult in this than you leveled at anyone else, but it is you who are “not organized, are ill-informed, uneducated, busy, unfocused”. Tea Party voters in 2010 were well organized, well informed (as they see things), and extremely focused. In fact, most Republican voters are and have been for some time. That you’ve missed that does not concern me about them. They focus that will through voting, and have gotten what “the organizers” wanted. You are welcome to claim that ‘that wasn’t the kind of organization that works for you’. Fine. But it does work, and it works damned well. These ‘organizers’ may have awful intent, but they knew what tool would work, and that was what you say ‘doesn’t matter’. They have gained power for 30+ years because voting does matter. In a representative democracy, it’s the only tool that gets the job done (save violence, but that’s not under discussion here.)

      For the record, your ‘oldster’ bit is truly tiring. How long you’ve lived means nothing to how much or what you understand. Sarah Palin’s strongest support was among folks older than you. Do I really need to clarify further?

  • Hmm it seems like your site ate my first comment (it was super long) so I guess I’ll just sum it up what I had written and say, I’m thoroughly enjoying your blog. I as well am an aspiring blog blogger but I’m still new to the whole thing. Do you have any helpful hints for beginner blog writers? I’d genuinely appreciate it.

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