Montana is a land of stunning natural variety — grassy plains and snowcapped mountains, Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks, crystal streams full of glittering trout and one of America’s largest Superfund sites — but perhaps its most abundant resource is self-awareness. I have never lived in a place where so many people’s shirts said what state we were in. Montanans live within a kind of paradox by which they regard their own home as exotic. Nicknamed the Treasure State, it is more commonly called the Last Best Place or Big Sky Country. Both epithets are constructed in the negative: “Big Sky” refers to the general absence of tall buildings, and the “Last Best Place” implies a fallen world outside its borders. It is tempting to dismiss this attitude as provincial, but it seems most popular among the many coastal expatriates who experience Montana as a respite from the lives they left behind. To native and transplant alike, Montana is the only place that isn’t everywhere else.
This dubious conviction becomes most powerful during campaign season, when politicians across the state fall over one another to show how intensely Montanan they are. Kathleen Williams, the Democratic candidate for our single seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, recently hit the trifecta when she released a campaign ad that has her fishing, expressing admiration for Ronald Reagan and firing a shotgun within the first 12 seconds.
“The Washington playbook says I shouldn’t tell you I voted for Reagan when I’m running as a Democrat,” she says, wading a stream. Before the viewer can process this claim, the camera cuts to a shot of her loading a 20-gauge in front of a barn. The same playbook, she says, insists “that I can’t be a proud gun owner and support background checks on gun sales.” After a quick clip of her shooting a clay pigeon, we’re in an office, where she literally rolls up her sleeves to deliver the line, “They say I talk too much about working with people of all political stripes in Helena to reduce taxes.” One imagines her driven mad by this criticism, a shut-in forced to retreat from an angry mob that blames her for bipartisanship and low taxes, but Williams reassures us. “I don’t care what Washington thinks,” she says, “in Montana we do things our way.” By now she’s holding a beer in a bar. “I bet they think I shouldn’t have a beer in my ad, either.” In appearing with a beer on camera, Williams joins such political outsiders as Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, Elizabeth Warren and Chuck Schumer.
From a certain perspective, it is odd that a Democratic candidate for Congress would build her advertisement around the message that she loves Reagan and hates Washington. At the same time, it is utterly bland and familiar — standard fare if you live in the Mountain West or, increasingly, anywhere else with more livestock than people. Montana is a kind of Champagne region for intensely folksy political advertising, having perfected a signifiers-over-substance approach that has pervaded the nation.
Very little polling is done here; national firms track the federal and gubernatorial elections, but information about voters’ opinions on particular issues is hard to come by. Montana State University, Billings, conducts an annual survey of about 500 respondents, but its results are released in October, when messaging strategies are already settled. As a result, candidates fall back on what little they know for sure: Montanans overwhelmingly support access to public lands, particularly for recreational activities like hunting and fishing. Williams is especially strong in this area; she moved to Helena in 1995 to take a research-analyst position with the Legislative Environmental Policy Office, and she was the executive director of a nonprofit association of fish and wildlife agencies. In a different politics, this experience — closely related to the one issue pollsters are sure Montanans care about — would be the focus of her campaign. In 2020, though, the false image of the real Montanan is too powerful.
Folks around here do things a little differently, except when pandering season hits and folks start acting eerily the same. During a special congressional election in 2017, for example, both candidates released ads in which they took up arms against electronic devices. The Republican, Greg Gianforte, shot a computer dramatizing his opponent’s putative plan for a national gun registry. His opponent, the country musician Rob Quist, shot a TV playing one of Gianforte’s ads. “For generations, this old rifle has protected my family’s ranch,” Quist said before throwing down on the appliance, which was sitting on a ridge alongside some cans. This contest, which ended with Gianforte’s attacking the reporter Ben Jacobs the night before the election and then disappearing until he was declared the winner, might be remembered as the dumbest in Montana’s history.
But there is still time. Williams’s opponent in the 2020 race is the Republican Matt Rosendale, who made national news in 2014 when he fired a gun at a drone in a campaign spot he produced during the Republican congressional primary. It was a rare display of multi-issue pandering, but he pronounced the word “drone” with such a thick Maryland accent that it became the subject of an entire article on Slate. Oddly, the Wild West image of Montana tends to be sold by local consultants to campaigns whose candidates mostly come from somewhere else. Williams was born in California; so were Gianforte and Senator Steve Daines. Since Montana’s two congressional districts were consolidated into one at-large seat in 1992, half of its six representatives were born outside the state. Clearly, the voters of Montana are open to foreign governance, but the belief that they want a caricature of themselves prevails. And so Williams is on her second campaign to be sent to Washington, a place she says she cannot abide.
This situation would seem peculiar were it not happening at scale everywhere else. The Montana experience — in which cultural signifiers and put-on grievances eclipse policy — is one we have all been going through, steadily, for the past few decades and violently in the last few years. American politics has become more aesthetically sophisticated even as it grows frustrated by its inability to identify shared values or solve collective problems. There are historical precedents for what happens to a democracy when it gets more invested in its own mythology and less patient with its own political process, and those precedents are not good. Perhaps soon, we will reach the terminal stage of lifestyle politics and discover what lies beyond it. Or maybe folks around here will learn to do things a little differently — whether we’re ready to or not.