We find ourselves in a strange situation right now with one-party rule by Democrats at the national level and one-party rule by the Republicans in Montana. Of course there are tremendous benefits to holding the majority — primarily, not being overly concerned with the travails of the minority party. But there are also perils because there’s no one else to blame — and the accountability for success or failure falls squarely on the party in power.
Here in Montana there’s not much debate over who is calling the shots. The Republicans took every state-level office in the last election and, other than the judiciary, are in total control of state government. We now have a Republican governor, solid Republican majorities in both chambers of the Legislature, a Republican superintendent of public instruction, state auditor, secretary of state, and all-Republican Public Service Commission.
Basically, what that means is anything that goes wrong or right in our state government, elections, lawmaking, education system, insurance or utility regulation fall for better or worse in the Republicans’ laps. And yes, that means holding them accountable for those outcomes — which doesn’t mean criticism is necessarily motivated by political partisanship, there’s just no one else to criticize for the decisions when one party holds all the power.
It’s a fair question to ask what happened to the Montana Democratic Party, since for all practical purposes it has become invisible since its wholesale slaughter at the polls last November. That’s unfortunate since minority parties still have a role to play as the “loyal opposition” to policies, laws, and governance with which it takes exception. In a democracy, robust debate over public policy that affects us all, regardless of political affiliation, is crucial. More’s the pity, but we simply don’t have that in the Big Sky State right now. Hence, any attempt to blame Democrats for ongoing governance is simply unfounded.
At the national level, the roles are reversed. The Democrats hold a very slim majority in the House and are basically tied in the Senate, where moving most legislation forward requires the votes of 60 of the 100 senators. Even on simple majority measures the Democrats have to count on Vice President Kamala Harris to obtain a one-vote majority.
Significantly, however, Democrats also control the executive branch with Biden’s presidency. While that gives them great power, much like in Montana, it also means they cannot escape accountability for the success or failure of their governance.
But here’s the rub. According to the latest polls, only 28 percent of Americans identify as Republicans and 29 percent as Democrats. A whopping 40 percent identify as Independents — including this columnist — and many are extremely tired of seeing the governance of our nation devolve into a red vs. blue, R vs. D, football game.
“Divide and conquer” continues to be used by politicians to try and herd us into their particular corrals. But at this juncture in time, that way lies madness — and quite frankly our current political dysfunction is hard-pressed to serve the needs of a diverse population in increasingly complex societal situations.
Likewise, it’s tough to figure out why political affiliation has such an impact on most of the critical issues we face, especially those that are universal in their effects. Pollution doesn’t care if you’re a Republican or Democrat. Nor do viruses, an acidifying ocean, or a burning planet.
Yet we are caught in this web of one-party rule at both the state and national level — and despite attempts to dodge accountability, history will inevitably judge the success or failure in governance on the party in power.
George Ochenski writes from Helena. His column appears each Monday on the Missoulian's Opinion page.