Montana’s largest cultural export: Inane Campaign Ads
Montana is a land of breathtaking natural diversity – grassy plains and snow-capped mountains, Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks, crystal clear streams teeming with glittering trout, and one of America’s largest superfund areas – but perhaps the most abundant resource is self-awareness. I have never lived in a place where so many people’s shirts said what condition we were in. Montans live in a kind of paradox that they consider their own home to be exotic. It is nicknamed Treasure State and is more commonly referred to as Last Best Place or Big Sky Country. Both epithets are constructed negatively: “Big Sky” refers to the general absence of tall buildings and “Last Best Place” implies a fallen world beyond its limits. This attitude is tempting to dismiss as provincial, but it seems to be the most popular among the many coastal migrants who experience Montana as a respite from the life they left behind. For locals and transplant recipients, Montana is the only place that isn’t everywhere else.
This dubious belief becomes strongest during campaign season, when politicians across the state pounce on each other to show how intense they are in Montana. Kathleen Williams, the Democratic nominee for our only seat in the US House of Representatives, recently triple that point when she ran a campaign ad asking her to fish, express her admiration for Ronald Reagan, and fire a shotgun within the first 12 seconds.
“The Washington Playbook says I shouldn’t tell you I voted for Reagan if I run for Democrat,” she says, wading through a stream. Before the viewer can process this claim, the camera cuts to a take in which it loads a 20 lane in front of a barn. The same playbook, she says, insists “I can’t be a proud gun owner and support background checks on gun sales.” After a short clip in which she shoots a clay pigeon, we find ourselves 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 lower taxes. ”“ One can imagine that this criticism will drive her insane, a trapped woman who is forced to withdraw from an angry mob who accuses her of being bipartisan and low taxes, but Williams calms us down. “I don’t care what Washington thinks,” she says, “in Montana we do things our way.” She’s now holding a beer in a bar. “I bet you think I shouldn’t have a beer in my ad either.” With a beer in front of the camera, Williams appears with political outsiders like Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, Elizabeth Warren and Chuck Schumer.
From one perspective, it’s strange that a Democratic candidate for Congress should base her campaign around the message that she loves Reagan and hates Washington. At the same time, it’s absolutely boring and familiar – standard fare if you live in Mountain West or, increasingly, anywhere else with more cattle than people. Montana is kind of a champagne region for intensely popular political advertising, as it has perfected a meaningful-over-substance approach that has permeated the nation.
Very few surveys are carried out here; National firms track federal and gubernatorial elections, but information about voter opinions on specific issues is difficult to come by. Montana State University, Billings, conducts an annual survey of approximately 500 respondents, but the results will be released in October when messaging strategies are already in place. As a result, the candidates fall back on what little they know for sure: The Montaner mostly advocate access to public land, especially for leisure activities such as hunting and fishing. Williams is particularly strong in this area; In 1995 she moved to Helena to work as a research analyst with the Legislative Environmental Policy Office and she was the executive director of a non-profit association of fish and wildlife agencies. In another policy, this experience – closely linked to the one topic that the Montaner are sure to be interested in – would be the focus of their campaign. In 2020, however, the false image of the real Montanan is too powerful.
People here do things a little differently, except when the season hits flatter and people start acting weirdly the same. During a special election in Congress in 2017, for example, both candidates published advertisements in which they took up arms against electronic devices. Republican Greg Gianforte shot dead a computer that dramatized his opponent’s alleged plan for a national arms register. His opponent, country musician Rob Quist, was filming a television showing one of Gianforte’s ads. “That old rifle has been protecting my family’s ranch for generations,” Quist said before dropping onto the device that sat next to a few cans on a hill. This competition, which ended with Gianforte attacking reporter Ben Jacobs the night before the election and then disappearing until he was declared the winner, could be remembered as the stupidest in Montana’s history.
But there is still time. Williams’ opponent in the 2020 race is Republican Matt Rosendale, who made national headlines 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 overspending display, but he pronounced the word “drone” with such a heavy Maryland accent that it became the subject of an entire article on Slate. Oddly enough, Montana’s Wild West image is being sold by local consultants to campaigns whose candidates mostly come from elsewhere. Williams was born in California; so did Gianforte and Senator Steve Daines. Since the two Montana’s congressional districts were merged into a single seat in 1992, half of the six MPs have been born outside of the state. Montana voters are obviously open to foreign government, but the belief that they want a caricature of themselves prevails. And so, on her second campaign to be sent to Washington, Williams is a place she says she can’t stay.
This situation would seem strange if it didn’t happen everywhere else. The Montana experience – in which cultural signifiers and fake grievances overshadow politics – is one we have all gone through with violence over the past few decades and years. American politics has become aesthetically more demanding, although it is increasingly frustrated because of its inability to recognize common values or to solve collective problems. There are historical precedents for what happens to a democracy when it invests more in its own mythology and is less patient with its own political process, and those precedents are not good. Perhaps we will soon reach the terminal stage of lifestyle politics and discover what is behind it. Or maybe the people here are learning to do things a little differently – whether we’re ready or not.