This article is adapted from Laura Flanders’ new book, Blue Grit: True Democrats Take Back Politics From the Politicians (The Penguin Press).
An odd thing happens on the way to an American election. For months politicians talk about the importance of voters, voting and the power of majorities. Then on election night–wham–suddenly the only person who matters is the candidate. Thanks to media that cover elections as if they were races, all the attention goes to the horses; there’s little left for the people in the stands. Consider what happened in the wake of the Republican rout in the 2006 midterm elections. Just days after election night, the Sunday-morning TV talk shows were in full gallop, training attention away from the hordes of people and the organizing that had just flipped both houses of Congress and focusing instead on the few politicians who might be expected to run for President.
The brighter the spotlight on the candidate, the dimmer the darkness that falls on everyone else. Take Montana. The first Democrat to win the governorship in sixteen years, Brian Schweitzer, sparked breathless talk about a “Montana Miracle” when he won office in 2004, the same year that Democrats gained power in both chambers of state government after twelve years of GOP dominance. The national public heard more about Schweitzer’s bolo tie and boots than they did about his politics–but no matter, when his protégé Jon Tester pulled off a nail-biter win in the Senate two years later, Democratic hopes rose even higher. Maybe the Montana magic will rub off and herald Democratic victories across the West.
When the Democrats hold their national convention in Denver in 2008, Schweitzer and Tester are bound to be headliners. “The future is wearing a turquoise bolo tie wrapped around the open collar of a blue-and-white-striped button-down dress shirt,” began a typical article on Schweitzer in Salon. Tester, an organic farmer with a big frame and a flattop haircut, has stimulated similar style-over-substance talk. But the big men are not all that’s going on in the Big Sky state. To talk about a one- or even a two-man miracle is to ignore what’s really interesting about politics in Montana. As two local feminists, Judy Smith and Terry Kendrick, put it in their essay “Revisiting the Montana Miracle,” “rather than a miracle [what happened in ’04] was closer to a perfect storm.” As I discovered during my travels out West last spring, what’s been happening there may indeed have lessons for national Democrats–but not if the analysis stops with the candidates.
The day I arrive in Missoula, in March 2006, I meet a bright, blond athlete named Betsy Hands. As we drive around town, Hands tells me she is a former Peace Corps volunteer and environmental scientist who spent years in various African countries and once led wilderness trips for Outward Bound. She is program director at homeWORD, a community housing organization that helps low-income women and families buy affordable homes. She’s also a competitive telemark skier and, oh yes, she’s running for office, a seat in the State Assembly. “Somebody’s got to step up, and why not me?” Hands tells me cheerfully. It’s an attitude I hear a lot in this state.