Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Book Review: 'Red State Rebels: Tales of Grassroots Resistance in the Heartland' by Joshua Frank and Jeffrey St. Clair

Review by Joan McCarter
Blue Man in a Red State: Montana's Governor Brian Schweitzer and the New Western Populism 
By Greg Lemon, Foreword by former U.S. Rep. Pat Williams 
Two Dot, Guilford, CT: June 2008 
160 pages, $22.95
Red State Rebels: Tales of Grassroots Resistance in the Heartland 
By Joshua Frank and Jeffrey St. Clair 
AK Press, Oakland, CA: September 2008
Three new battleground state have opened up in this year's election: Nevada, Colorado, and Montana causing pundits and prognosticators every where to question the long-standing convention wisdom of the Republican lock on rural America. These two new books shed a little bit of light on the resurgence of populism in the mountain west, reflecting two opposing views of the movement: one from the inside, and one from the outside. (Note: Red State Rebels deals with all of rural America, not just the mountain west. In this review, I'm going to look just at the section pertaining to the northern Rockies, and will write a subsequent review of the entire book.)
Up until last month, Schweitzer's biographer Greg Lemon has been my editor at New West, on online magazine focusing on the interior west. A former political and environmental reporter, Lemon followed Schweitzer around for the better part of a year working on this biography, despite that fact that Schweitzer was rather dubious about the whole prospect. "I don't know who you think's going to by this thing," Schweitzer told him. Nonetheless, through dogged determination, Lemon got his story.
His occasional frustration in getting there periodically peeps through, and is something to which I can relate. Last fall I scheduled an interview with Schweitzer, expecting to have 45 minutes or an hour with the Governor to talk about how the West was shaping up in 2008. Three hours, and a personal tour of the state capitol, later, I'd heard about Montana's most famous stray dog, pine bark beetles, sagebrush, carbon sequestration, his family's immigrant roots, and the last few weeks of th Tester campaign. The man can dodge a question like nobody's business, and you don't even really notice it's been dodged until you go back to the transcript. But the getting there is fascinating and always entertaining.
Lemon's book provides an excellent sketch of the career of this unlikely Montanan, from his family's ranch near Geyser, to a Catholic high school in Colorado, to Libya and Saudi Arabia, where he headed up some experimental and innovative agricultural programs, and learned more about the middle east than arguably any other governor in the country--and understanding that has made him a vociferous opponent of the Iraq War. What drove Schweitzer to politics isn't entirely clear, His emergence from nowhere to seriously challenge Senator Conrad Burns in 2000 still has some Montanans baffled, but after that solid run, his taking the governor's seat in 2004 seemed to surprise few.
The book is most instructive, in my opinion, for political watchers and hopeful Democrats looking to the west for clues on how to turn this region Blue when Lemon gets down to the populist part of his portrait of Montana and the Governor. While Lemon is still focusing on the well-established paradigm of Gods, guns, and gays, he doesn't notice that Schweitzer has managed to put that stuff by the wayside with significant success. What's driving Schweitzer's political will is a deep-seated conviction to the common good.
"I'm always thinking. I like growing business; that's exciting. I like developing energy.... But how does it affect the last and the least? What can we do to make it better for those people who probably never will get to the front of the line? How can we make their lives better? How can we pull them along? How can we make them the most they can be? how can we make them build their self-esteem and self-respect? What more can we do?"
Out of that conviction comes a focus not on the distractions and the distinctions of politics that have been forced on us by the conventional wisdom--"wisdom" that far too many Democratic politicians have been willing to buy into for the past two decades. Lemon nails, almost unconsciously it seems, the heart of Schweitzer's success in Montana and a potential road map for Democratic politicians who are willing to heed it:
Middle-class families want someone who understands they have to work to jobs to raise a family while still trying to find some money to put aside in a retirement plan. And someday, if they're lucky, they would like to give their children money for college and maybe even a down payment on their first home. At a Democratic rally in D.C. in 2006, Schweitzer said, "Democrats will win elections when they figure out how to talk to those families."
These families don't want the government intruding in their lives, but they want good roads, good schools, social security, and health care. They don't mind paying taxes if the taxes are fair. They don't often think about the environment, but when they do, they think about how it would be nice to make it cleaner. They want the price of gas to go down and wouldn't mind buying an affordable hybrid car. They go to church but don't want people telling them what to believe. They get uncomfortable talking about abortion and gay marriage, and though they're important issues, they sure are tired of people arguing about them. They want the basic liberties of free speech and gun ownership, even if they don't hunt or carry a gun.
That's a pretty good summation of your basic Montana voter, and minus the gun issue (it really is different out here), I'd argue it's not too far off in describing the majority of Americans. Schweitzer has been able to bypass getting hung up on the label Republicans would impose on a Democrat by dismissing most of the hot-button issues and focusing on a strong populist agenda, one that includes a strong civil libertarian component.
Schweitzer's most likely Achilles heel is also the project closest to his heart: tapping Montana's vast coal fields in a visionary--though as of yet completely out-of-reach--coal-to-liquids program. Schweitzer's relentless push for this program, despite the fact that sequestration technology hasn't been developed, industry hasn't yet committed, and after a decade of drought, there's no water to do it, has been frustrating and disturbing to many Montana progressives I've talked to.
Which leads me to Red State Rebels, a series of essays compiled and edited by Jeffrey St. Clair, co-editor of CounterPunch, and Joshua Frank (the author of Left Out!: How Liberals Helped Re-elect George W. Bush).The mountain west essays in this volume focus almost entirely on the triumph of industry and developers over the common good in the northern Rockies, and the complicity of Democrats and national environmental groups in many of these decision. Schweitzer would do well to read St. Clair's essay, "Something about Butte" every time the coal companies come knocking.
Butte has gone from being the richest hill on earth to the world's most expensive reclamation project and the nation's biggest Superfund site. The only good paying jobs in town these days go to the supervisors of those charged with cleaning up the mess and to the medical technicians who routinely test the blood of Butte's children for arsenic and lead....
It's the oldest story in the West: privatize the profits, socialize the costs, the risks and the fallout. And then hightail it out of town.
Whether it's logging in Idaho, mining in Montana, drilling in Wyoming, or developing mini-Beverly Hills monster developments in Colorado, the grassroots environmentalists and just regular citizens profiled in Red State Rebels are becoming increasingly disillusioned with their governments, with their erstwhile allies the Democrats, and with the national big environmental groups, who have been all too willing to sacrifice one goal in hopes of gaining compromise in another. The essays chronicle the efforts of individuals and groups involved in the fight, too many of whom have abandoned the Democrats, summed up by an ethic quoted in the book from noted environmentalist David R. Brower:
"Every time I've compromised, I've lost. When I held firm I won. The problem with too many environmentalists today is that they are trying to write the compromise instead of letting those we pay to compromise do it. They think they get power by taking people to lunch or being taken to lunch, when in reality they are only being taken."
The outsider perspective provided in all of these essays is a critical one to heed for would-be (and existing) Democratic politicians in the West.It's at its heart a populist fight--the people and the land over the corporations and the developers who've had way too much weight on their side of the scale in the last 20 years. There's tremendous energy and anger out there in the middle, and it's growing faster in the West than just about anywhere else, fueled largely by the wasting of the last, best places we have.
As St. Clairs says, "In the West, we may at last witness, to paraphrase William Kittredge, a politics that is worthy of the landscape."

Editor's note: This review was originally published at the Daily Kos, which notes that its "content may be used for any purpose without explicit permission unless otherwise specified." The original page can be found here. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right. 

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