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.