The study of history allows us the luxury of 20-20 hindsight. Looking back, we can see the little events that led up to the big moments, and we can wonder, “How could they not have seen it coming?”
Of course, it’s much harder to see clearly when you’re living through history in real time.
I was reminded of this while reading a newspaper column by Andrew McKean, the former editor of "Outdoor Life" who lives in Glasgow. McKean very capably highlighted the choice voters face in the Republican primary for Montana governor, and he did so through the lens of public lands.
Our one-term congressman, Greg Gianforte, has a fundamental instinct to privatize our lands, our waters and our wildlife, and has chosen as his running mate a law professor who has written that private landowners should be allowed to exclude the public from what are now public-access waterways.
Gianforte’s main primary opponent is Montana Attorney General Tim Fox, who has drafted a plan not only to maintain public access but also to vastly improve that access for hunting, fishing and outdoor recreation.
This issue — public access to public lands — provides a large window into how these two candidates think about the world. It’s a fundamental difference, and reveals much about how they weigh the good of the many against the profit of the few.
And just as this one small issue reveals much about the contrast between these two candidates, the divide between Gianforte and Fox exposes a critical split within today’s Republican Party. Yes, this election is about public land access, and it is about the public good versus private power, but it also is about the heart and soul of America’s GOP.
The Republican Party was born as the party of innovation and leadership. It has been the party of emancipation, public education for all, the National Park Service and public lands, transcontinental railroads and interstate highways. It has been the party of Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt, and the party of people who believe in both individual liberty and civil service.
It has not been the party of locking out the public interest for the profit of a private interest.
Civil service and personal ambition are both tremendous motivators, but they function best when balanced to protect the rights of everyone.
This election is one in which much doubt will be removed regarding the future of our party, and in which there will be no room for the leadership examples of both Theodore Roosevelt and Mitch McConnell. Roosevelt warned politicians “not to represent any special class and promote merely that class's selfish interests, but to represent all true and honest men of all sections and all classes.” It was good advice then, and it’s good advice now.
Republicans traditionally have been idealists, in that they believe in both the individual and in principles greater than the individual. But now, some in the party embrace the blame-politics of scapegoating and scoring points against political “enemies,” rather than working with others to do the good work of public service.
There’s no escaping that we’re living right at a turning point in American history.
This Republican primary is not just about public lands, or about the political philosophies of these two Montana candidates. It is about deciding who the party leaders should be and, by extension, what the character of the Republican Party will be for years to come. In the recurring history of primary elections, we have rarely had such an opportunity to choose our own future. We as voters should be prepared to meet that moment.
Bob Brown, of Whitefish, is a former Montana secretary of state and state Senate president.
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