Montana Viewpoint: Political party power needs limits


April 13, 2023

I give an unapologetic sigh of relief that the Legislature’s attempts to send harmful—in my view—amendments to the Montana Constitution to the voters are in trouble. Before that became apparent, however, an opinion from former University of Montana law professor Rob Natelson made the editorial rounds. He made three criticisms of the Constitutional Convention of 1972 which are interesting to me. The first “…the decision to sit delegates alphabetically impeded the ability of the conservative or skeptical minority [for which I read ‘politicians’] to confer with each other.” Well, exactly.

Whether sitting alphabetically came through chance or design, (there is no authoritative explanation on record) it was good for Montana because it put people before politics, it allowed delegates to know each other as individuals rather than as political entities. However, as we know, whenever people get along there has to be a conspiracy at work.

I use this incident as preface to my thoughts on the dangers of political parties running every show in town, including the Party of which I was once state chair.

There is strength in unity, which I suppose is the basis for political parties, and that makes sense. But too often the cost of that unity is uniformity of thought and animosity towards those with different opinions. I mean real animosity. I have my opinions and often they differed from those of my party, and most of the time I kept my own counsel and went along with the crowd…in the name of unity. But sometimes I didn’t, and then I was given some heat—OK, a lot— but managed to live through it.

Unity is important to the political party and dissent, especially expressed publicly, is not welcome because it makes the party seem weak. People have allegiance to political parties for many reasons, some of them not particularly rational, such as belonging because your father belonged or because your party is for the working person although an analysis of how elected party members vote show that subjectively it clearly isn’t. One party attends to the economic needs of working people while neglecting their real or imagined fears and emotions while the other party courts the emotions and fears of working people without addressing their bread and butter issues.

People who openly express their differences with their political party, as one pro-life Democrat confided to me in the late 1990s, are “shunned”. This helps to homogenize party beliefs. That is not healthy in a civil society. What is important is diversity of opinion. Let me restate that; what is important is the acceptance of diversity of opinion. I think we have little of that in today’s political parties. Many local governments in Montana are elected on a non-partisan basis. In Sanders County we once elected the County Surveyor on a party ticket. Other than the fear that a Republican survey line edges off to the right or a Democratic survey line to the left I can see little difference in practice.

Oh, and the other two points raised by Natelson; “[No delegate] was experienced in constitution-writing.” and, “…sitting legislators were barred from running for election as delegates,” are easily answered. The experienced delegates from the 1889 Constitutional Convention were all dead, and, as any scholar of the 1889 Constitution will tell you, a person could not hold more than one office at a time. Still can’t. So, fifty-fifty and pick ‘em, they could be a legislator or delegate, but not both.

I long for political campaigns that present differing viewpoints on issues, presented calmly. Years ago, my sister and I were watching then German Chancellor Willy Brant explain to an interviewer why he favored one way to solve an issue over another. He understood the issue, he could explain it, and more importantly he could explain it so people could understand it. My sister, who had voted for American Independent Party Candidate (and segregationist) George Wallace, turned to me and asked, “Why can’t we have politicians like that?”

Well, why can’t we?

Montana Viewpoint has appeared in weekly and online newspapers across Montana for over 25 years. Jim Elliott served sixteen years in the Montana Legislature as a state representative and state senator. He lives on his ranch in Trout Creek.


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