For the longest nights of the year, there is no better place to be than on snow-crusted ground, staring up at Montana’s big empty sky. Democrats across rural America must know the feeling, this Christmas week, of looking into a black void and feeling so very alone.
There is a chance for the pulse to quicken – a flash of the northern lights, perhaps, the distant howl of a wolf – in that utter darkness. And there is hope for a party spurned in the wide-open spaces of the country, as well. Meet Steve Bullock, the newly re-elected Democratic governor of Montana.
Donald Trump took Montana by 20 percentage points – a rare win for celebrity-infatuated megalomaniacs in a state whose voters can usually smell the type from a hundred miles out. But once again, Democrats won the governor’s office and did it with votes to spare. Bullock’s Mountain State secret sauce is something national party leaders should sample during their solstice.
A week after the election, Bullock went deer-hunting with his 10-year-old son. This doesn’t mean Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey should start shooting Bambi near the Meadowlands. But the cultural thing is a wash for Bullock. As a Montana native and a graduate of Columbia Law School, he has a foot in both coastal elitism and prairie pragmatism.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Sacramento Bee
“Every morning my wife and I drop our kids off at the same public schools that we went to,” he said.
Public, that’s key. As in public land – the great shared turf of the American West. Public health, which the governor expanded in this poor state. Simple stuff, grounded in the nontoxic populism of the past.
So when the Trump administration starts taking away people’s health care, trashing public schools with a church-lady billionaire as education secretary or colluding with a Congress that wants to offload public land, Montana can offer a resistance playbook.
I asked the governor to give some specific advice to fellow Democrats.
“Show up,” he said, noting that Barack Obama was at the Fourth of July parade in the hardscrabble Montana mining town of Butte in 2008.
That year, the black community organizer from Chicago came within 2 percentage points of winning a state with one of the smallest black populations in the nation. To Hillary Clinton, on the way to fundraisers with tech millionaires, Montana was flyover country.
Had she gone to Great Falls or Glendive, she would have seen that struggling white people desire the same things that struggling people in diverse urban areas want. Bullock brought Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion to his state – a literal lifesaver to thousands, forcing Republicans to defend the indefensible. He attacked Republican calls for tax cuts as budget busters and community-killers. And in a state where hate groups still pop up like poisonous mushrooms, he was a champion of Native American sovereignty and gay and lesbian rights.
“It’s not about identity politics,” he said. “It’s about trying to bring everybody up.”
That’s the theme. Everybody. Not just the “emerging demographics,” charted on many a Democratic PowerPoint. Vice President Joe Biden, that son of Scranton, Pennsylvania, sounded much like Bullock, but his fellow Dems didn’t listen. Perhaps they’re listening now.
“I mean these are good people, man!” Biden said on CNN this month. “These aren’t racists. These aren’t sexists.”
A former Iowa governor, Tom Vilsack, tried to remind Democrats that rural America is about 15 percent of the population – larger than the Hispanic vote.
Democrats shouldn’t need a translator to learn how to speak to these lost constituents. Franklin Roosevelt, a bit of a dandy from Hudson Valley wealth, knew the language. It’s about lifting up those left behind. And taking it directly to those who obstruct progress.
Bullock didn’t abandon people whose paycheck is dependent on coal. Nor did he make false promises about coal roaring back. Even coal plant owners acknowledge that their days are numbered as the free market turns to cheap natural gas to generate power, and as the world turns away from it for self-preservation.
With the Trump presidency, truth will be a commodity more precious than the gold lining his throne in Manhattan. He no sooner won the Electoral College than he started the Trump era with a big lie, saying he’d achieved “a historic electoral landslide.” For the record: His victory ranked near the bottom, 46th out of 58 presidential elections.
But it was historic – no president has ever lost the popular vote by a larger number, almost 3 million votes. And yet half of Republicans believe that he won the popular tally.
As we say goodbye to a dreadful year, one that should be bound up in chains and dropped into the Missouri River, Democrats should not forget that they have the majority on their side on almost every major issue. It’s time they got reacquainted with the millions of other people who make up that majority.