It Takes a Movement

If the current revival of progressive politics were the civil-rights movement, the role of Rosa Parks would be played by Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer. Every child in America learns each February the story of how Parks one day decided that she just wasn't going to take it any more and refused to move to the back of the bus. And from that spontaneous act of courage, the civil-rights revolution was born.

But behind Parks, there was a movement that kids never hear about. There was her summer spent studying nonviolent resistance at the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee, and the many people organized and ready to support the first person in Montgomery to defy segregation. Americans prefer stories of courageous individuals, forgetting the movements that make such courage possible.

Which returns us to Schweitzer. For a governor in his second year running the seventh least-populous state, Schweitzer cuts a large national figure compared to other successful red-state Democratic governors (there are 12, believe it or not, and as of May, their approval ratings averaged 59.2 percent). To his many champions, Schweitzer epitomizes the “Fighting Dem” and is credited with the “Montana Miracle” of 2004 in which Democrats took control of state government. Today, they have a good shot, with nominee Jon Tester, of taking back the U.S. Senate seat held by Conrad Burns.

Schweitzer is revered for his swaggering personal qualities -- his straight talk, populist tone, and willingness to challenge both the oligarchs of the right and the perfectionist interest groups of the left. Hostile Takeover author David Sirota, a recent Montanan, calls him “the sharp tip of the spear, ripping through the thin veneer” of Democratic complacency. Markos Moulitsas Zuniga and Jerome Armstrong, in their recent book Crashing the Gate, argue that Schweitzer won and carried other Montana Democrats with him by consummating “a complete divorce from Montana's progressive groups.”

Recently, however, some Montana progressives have come forward to challenge the Schweitzer-centric myth. They like Schweitzer, but they think the way the story is being told is misleading and even dangerous. Crashing the Gate is a great book, and I share the view that a certain kind of interest-group politics is dead. But the Schweitzer skeptics have the facts on their side.

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In “Revisiting the Montana Miracle,” a short paper circulated last year, Terry Kendrick and Judy Smith, longtime activists in Montana women's groups, point out that Schweitzer chose a Republican state senator as his running mate “in an effort to take the political parties out of the campaign.” Rather than divorcing the party from the interest groups, he put visible distance between himself and the party.

A second memo, “An Analysis of the Montana Miracle,” by political consultant and labor organizer Don Judge, shows that Democratic success in legislative races did not come on Schweitzer's coattails. Rather, Schweitzer succeeded in Republican districts, where he outpolled losing Democrats, but he did poorly in seats that Democrats won.

Two success stories intersected in Montana in 2000 -- Schweitzer's ascent, built mostly on his own personality and largely independent of party, and the effort to rebuild the Democratic Party and progressive capacity. The 2004 election was the fourth in a row in which Democrats gained legislative seats, a success that Judge attributes to careful candidate recruitment and targeting of races.

Nor were progressive interest groups entirely held at bay. Ballot initiatives in 2004 drew progressive voters to the polls to keep a ban on cyanide-leach mining and to permit medical marijuana. The vote margins on those initiatives exceeded Schweitzer's in all but a few counties. Finally, progressive interest groups registered 42,800 new voters between the primary and general election in 2004, and the vast majority of them actually voted.

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So maybe the focus on Schweitzer is incorrect. But what makes it dangerous? The Montanans argue that if the methodical work they've done to rebuild their once-progressive state is neglected, they could lose everything they've gained. Politicians with Schweitzer's natural talent come along rarely, and real political success depends on building a lasting movement that can support not only candidates who don't need that support, but also the many who do.

Schweitzer boosters like Moulitsas and Sirota salute him and Tester for understanding grass roots as well as “net-roots” politics, in contrast to the elitist, big-money politics they despise. What they sometimes overlook is that the grass roots themselves have to be tended, and candidates alone can't do that work.

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