In 2006, the talk of the Red State/Blue State dichotomy has perhaps thankfully passed from being a ready cliche of political discourse. While regurgitating the stereotypes of cultural identity would not be productive, it would perhaps be productive to look at two maps: one showing the electoral vote of the 2004 Presidential election, and another showing what party controlled the gubernatorial seat. The fact that New York, Massachusettes and California all had Republican governors while Wyoming and Montana had democratic governors certainly bears some investigation. A brief biography of Brian Schweitzer, the man who became Montana's governor in 2004, will perhaps tell us a little something about Montanan, and American politics and culture.
A biography of Schweitzer is not actually very involved, or interesting, by some standards. He was born in Montana in 1955, and studied agriculture at Colorado State University and Montana State University. After graduating in 1980, he worked overseas as an engineer for six years, before returning to Whitefish, Montana to begin a career as a farmer. For the next fourteen years, he practiced business, with his only political activity coming when President Clinton appointed him to several technical posts in the USDA. In 2000, however, Schweitzer tried a senate run against Conrad Burns, a conservative Republican senator, and almost won. In 2004, he ran for governor, splitting his ticket with a moderate Republican state senator, John Bohlinger and won the election by a 50-46 margin. Despite his lack of political experience, he advertised that he "has been signing the front side of a paycheck for 25 years", a boast that seemed to resonate with voters.
During his first two years in office, he seems to have maintained, and even increased his popularity. He has focused a lot of energy on nuts and bolts issues, but has also engaged in some politically charged acts, such as calling for Montana National Guard units to come home from Iraq to assist in fighting fires, and criticizing the Bush administration for high gasoline prices. Whether the next two years of his term will find him more of an administrator, or more of an activist, remains to be seen. His further political career past 2008 is also unknown, although already some people have murmured that they would like to see him make a run for president.
Now that we have the facts, I am going to comment on the implications of Schweitzer's success. While Montana is not anywhere near as reactionary as perhaps the popular press would make it, it is still a state dominated by conservatives. How did Schweitzer manage to win not only an election, but popularity? I think the secret is that Schweitzer is a businessman and an engineer, and even those who don't agree with him would be hard pressed to argue with his technical abilities. Schweitzer grew farms in Saudi Arabia and was a succesful farmer in the depressed, rough-weather prone area of Flathead Lake. Montana, in the eyes of the residents as well as the rest of the nation, is a part of the mythic frontier. Unlike, however, Texas, which has the same mystique, Montana also is full of people that are living in a real frontier. As most Americans have receeded from the actual realities of the "cowboy" life, they have bought into a mythologizing of it that bears little relation to its actuality. To make a blunt example, George W Bush, a New Englander whose business experience seems to be limited to using his father's connections, has managed to be a "cowboy" due to his possession of a dude ranch in Texas. But with Schweitzer, you have the real deal: a man who is earning a living through ranching, engineering, and business. When Schweitzer came along, the actual embodiment of something that had begin to be stale cliche, he was able to connect with people quickly.