Guest Post: American Politics Needs a Mark Twain

By Underwood & Underwood -, Public Domain, Link

Reactions to the Trump election and aftershocks like Gianforte’s win suggest that Americans are still navigating new political norms. Norms of politically acceptable rhetoric and behavior have shifted tremendously nationally, and, it seems, also in Montana. Given that rules are a small part of human interactions and expectations of elected officials, norms are very important in guiding the fundamental qualifications of candidates.

Political violence in America – from Gianforte to other protest groups (mostly right, but also left) – is at its highest level in my lifetime and legitimized by candidates like Gianforte and stoked by the rhetoric of the Trump administration. Violence represents a simplistic thinking in response to complex issues – that we accept simple responses to complex problems is not a problem of a lack of education or a suddenly dumb America.

No, we can think of simple responses as a function of a lack of a desire to simple understand the other side in any other terms than they simply hold a different (incorrect) opinion.

Those differences of opinion have emerged from our own echo chambers, as we all know. Social media provides us an opportunity to connect with all sorts of people, but, we squander that opportunity. In a twitter-driven political climate, there is simply very little nuance or attempt at interpersonal communication mark twain politically – something we might do in person. So, when we do engage strangers electronically, we do so in very simple terms.

Oh – you thought I meant, that “Mark Twain”? While I do like Samuel Clemens, we are in a golden era of political satire that even he would be proud of, so, we’ve got that covered.

No, I mean we need to take a moment to collectively figure out if the way is safe before we head on full throttle. “Mark Twain”, as most people know, refers to the safe depth for steamship navigation on the Mississippi River.

Honest political conversations are a kind of political marking – a depth sounding to see how far apart we are, to make sure that we aren’t too far apart politically for the whole damn American experiment to go belly up.

Given what I’ve seen in conversations on social media and in other places, we are very far apart indeed on our interpretations of reality. We have fundamental disagreements of what is simply acceptable behavior in candidates, and that is troubling.

Of course, it wasn’t always so. I worked as a field coordinator for a gubernatorial campaign in 2000; a friend of mine on the speech team worked as a field coordinator for the opposing campaign. We actually became closer as the campaign went on – even though it was a nasty fight (they all are) and a close election, we often checked in with each other. Hell, we even roomed together for a bit! Nationally, the same thing has happened – as members of congress are asked to come home every weekend, they have little chance to just simply hang out with the other side at a bar in Washington. To build that trust. To mark twain for safe sailing.

Of course, safe sailing doesn’t mean smooth sailing nor does it mean that we’ll agree on the destination. But, that’s politics.

Montana Democrats, in particular, and Republicans have always had to work in a political environment in which people actually have a strong allegiance to state parties, but the national party can be an anchor.  As the parties have polarized and demographic shifts have hit the state  – retirees and suburban flight from CA, WA, and OR – the state has become more conservative.  The national Republican Party has become much more conservative than the national Democratic Party has become liberal.  The nationalization of the Montana voter base from out of state conservatives coupled with the ideological shift in the Republican Party has led to national Republican Party interests are closely aligning with MT state Republican Party interests.  However, at the same time, MT Democratic Party interests have also deviated from the DNC – in fact, the most Montana Democrats shrink from the DNC.  DNC, please DNC [Do Not Come].

The nationalization of Montana politics via the much more conservative Republican party coupled with out of state conservatives trying to make Montana conservative like them rather than conservative like it was has really created divisions in the state. This is unfortunate because Montana has always been a purple state with good, healthy competition and norms of political decency enforced through our constant interaction as citizens. There was a time when an event like Gianforte’s handling of the DC reporter would have instantly disqualified him from office: because that’s not the Montana way – not since the time of the Copper Kings.

Norms are driven by shared experiences and open dialogue. Norms are commonly understood, but, deceivingly complex. It is only in a normatively, not politically, divided climate that a New Jersey billionaire could somehow represent Montana’s interests.

A statewide and national lesson from the Montana election is that we have stopped communicating – stopped marking the collective boundaries of acceptable behavior – and we are in danger of running aground because of it.

If you appreciate an independent voice holding Montana politicians accountable and informing voters, and you can throw a few dollars a month our way, we would certainly appreciate it.

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About the author

Chris Koski

Chris Koski is a professor of Political Science at Reed College and a County 7 ex-pat.


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  • Excellent column, Chris, and I appreciate you posting here. One point you make that I have to question. I’ve seen it raised a number of times, recently, and it’s that the influx of out-of-staters — particularly from California, Washington and Oregon — tend to be made up of conservatives. A look at Gallatin County, and Bozeman in particular, would indicate otherwise. Gallatin County used to be considered a swing county (actually leaning right). In the last few election cycles it has voted Democrat. It’s also the fastest growing county in Montana with many of the new residents coming from other states. This would suggest that these immigrants lean left, in my opinion.

    I bring this up only because heading into the 2018 election cycle, Democrats need to figure out a winning strategy and where to focus their resources. I’m not sure where recent arrivals fit into this paradigm but we need to know who we’re dealing with.

    • Hi Pete – indeed, this influx goes both ways – which is to say that both the Democratic and the Republican party at the state level are more reflective of national trends in politics – and polarization – than before.

      I’m a Flathead County native and I can tell you that the influx there, as well as Ravalli County, has been decidedly conservative.

      I hope I also don’t seem like a nativist, of course – I’m just, like you, trying to sort out ways that Montana can retain its roots of political discourse.

      A good example of this is the issue of gun control. In general, I don’t recall gun control as a partisan issue in the state much before the Obama presidency. Most people have guns and that’s pretty much that. Over time, as the national debate over gun control has shifted away from simply defending against future interventions to a debate that attempts to increase access to guns, the state has seen its relative consensus regarding firearms become part of a national conflict.

  • I live in Lake County and have witnessed most of the out of state people moving here in last couple years are from Texas or Arizona as other mentioned states. Many are retired military and very conservative. They vote straight GOP and are big Trump supporters and don’t want to pay any taxes for schools or county levies. I also have friends that live in the next county to west Sanders. That county use to vote democratic but is very red with most of their new residents coming from Washington and very anti government. Flathead county continues to get more red except for area around Whitefish. I wonder if Gallatin is getting more blue or do those people that live there know Gianforte and just don’t like him as he didn’t do well there in November election or the special.

  • I think you’re reading too much into it. Just look at America as a whole, where Barack Obama did well for himself personally, but left the Dems in shambles. From Local and State legislatures, to Governorships, to the Congress, the Dems have the lowest representation ever. Why wouldn’t Montana show the same trend?

    • ” …left the Dems in shambles?” First, here’s a link to the ratio of Republicans to Democrats in Congress over the years:

      As you can see, this certainly isn’t the lowest representation “ever.” The pendulum swings back and forth, Eric, and it’s starting to swing the other way. Quist, despite his baggage, lost by 6 points. In a race for the same seat seven months earlier, Juneau lost by 19. Donald J. Trump is partly responsible for this outcome and it’s only going to get worse for Republicans under Trump’s “leadership.”

      I would add that if allowed a third term, Obama would have beaten Trump.

      • Eric, I think the issue is not whether Montana votes for a Republican – after all, the seat has been Republican since Williams – or that America votes for Republicans – the House has been controlled by Republicans every Congress since 1994 except for the 110th and 111th.

        And, you’re right that more of the state legislatures are controlled by Republicans than before – this is part of a national strategy on the part of the Republican Party.

        However, the difference is in how conservative Republicans are and how that national strategy has created a more homogeneous, more conservative Republican Party on the local level. It is this more conservative party that has eschewed local political norms in Montana and changed the culture of discourse around politics. Certainly, Democrats have nationalized their own brand of reactionary, shrill politics – but the broad acceptance of political violence on the right is disturbing.

        And…I fear it will rub off on the left.

  • Since Obama took office in January 2009, according to figures from Ballotpedia.

    Democratic U.S. Senate seats fell from 55 to 46. Their share of the House plummeted from 256 seats to 194. Republicans still control both chambers going into the next session.

    Democratic governerships also became a rarity during this eight-year period, slipping from 28 to 16.

    The Obama years, which saw the rise of the Tea Party as well as a new movement form around Trump that is still being defined, coincided with a loss of 958 state legislative seats for Democrats.

    What other word would you use to describer the Dems nationwide? I chose the word “shambles” – but if you have a better one I’ll surely look at it .

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