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Threats to democracy threatens conservation

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This is the year Montanans celebrate the 50th anniversary of our nation’s first citizen-initiated wilderness, the Scapegoat, and our first new constitution since 1889 statehood that guarantees each of us the right to a clean and healthful environment, a safeguard not explicitly provided for in the United States Constitution. Neither of these achievements would be possible today where toxic partisan polarization has replaced civility and cooperation for the great-er common good. 

How did we get to this point and does anyone care? We’re not here to play the blame game but we absolutely must get back to the idea that facts and the truth matter. Democracy dies in lies, and it dies when people are unaware or don’t care. So, is our cherished American democracy in danger of dying? The short answer is yes, but salvation is still possible so long as we heed the flashing red lights.

The direst flashing light against democracy took place last year on January 6 when the defeated President (former guy) sent an angry mob to the capitol to “stop the steal.” The attack was fueled by his baseless claims of a stolen election, otherwise known as the “Big Lie.” It was the worst outbreak of US political violence in modern times. President Biden likened it to a dagger held to the throat of American democracy. Instead of this being a wakeup call the Governors of 16 Republican-led states, including Gov. Gianforte, have signed into law dozens of measures that will make it harder to exercise our most sacred of American rights, to be able to vote in fair and free elections. Never before in our history has a major party tried to turn election administration into an explicitly partisan act. 

The January 6 insurrection and the false claims of election fraud that instigated it didn’t happen in a vacuum. Distrust in government has been growing ever since 9/11. The seeds of discontent and conspiracy theories found fertile ground, a result the former guy has taken full advantage of. Never mind that there is zero evidence of fraud that would have changed the election. Never mind that 60 plus frivolous lawsuits contesting the 2020 Presidential election were thrown out, many from judges appointed by the former guy. All that needs to be done is to incessantly repeat the Big Lie, then amplify it via friendly outlets and social media so as to insulate the base from the truth. The Big Lie takes on a life of its own so that Republican candidates either embrace it or face a difficult primary challenge promoted by a vindictive loser.

Herein lies the danger. Democracy relies on respecting election results, even when you don’t like the outcome. It is about accepting the equality of others and counting their votes. Democracy cannot survive if a major party isn’t willing to accept defeat. As a result of the constant drum beat echo of the Big Lie an astonishing two-thirds of Republicans do not believe Biden won. There is growing concern that another baseless challenge to an election is now even more likely following the Big Lie. A terrifying percentage of the population actually supports violence to overthrow an election.  

It isn’t hyperbole to state that our democracy is on the brink. Republicans are twice as likely as Democrats to be worried about the future of democracy, but for the opposite reason. They wrongly think the Presidential 2020 election was stolen and that Democrats will do it again. Often driven by conspiracy theories they are the most motivated voters in America today. In contrast many other voters, especially Democrats, seem indifferent.

The claim that the former guy won is a Big Lie not just because it demands belief in a conspiracy, but also because it reverses the basic structure of American history. To tell the Big Lie is to be owned by it because it demands allegiance to the Liar in Chief. If you sell your soul, what are you getting in return? A shocking number of Republican lawmakers, including Rep Rosendale, voted for the lie that forced them to flee the chambers on January 6.

If there is a bridge across the huge ideological divide in America it is a common quest for freedom, an often heard battle cry for Republicans. But how can they reconcile their desire for freedom with their support for an autocrat who defies the checks and balances set up by the framers of the Constitution? A sore loser seeking to retain power by means of a violent assault against our nation’s capitol? 

Indeed, this is a battle to prevent an authoritarian theft of our freedom. Our freedom to hunt, fish and wander on public land, or to even have public land. Our freedom to be free of violence from anti-democratic extremists. Our freedom to vote.

Impairing democracy is key to the former guy and his enablers’ ability to seize power. Once in power they won’t focus on the real problems we all face: Covid, inflation, the climate crisis. Instead, culture wars will be used to create fear, division and chaos with threats to shut down the government and default on the national debt. How will this help any of us?

As folks with a long history of conservation in Montana we’re nostalgic for the good old days when bipartisanship in good faith produced good policy. We can and must get there again. But only if both major parties believe in democracy and the rule of law. One approach, radical as it may seem, is to tell the truth. And to tell it over and over again, using the same repetitive tactics of the extremists who create a fictional self-serving reality.


Bill Cunningham

Montana Conservation Elders is a nonprofit nonpartisan organization with a particular empha-sis on sharing Montana’s rich conservation legacy with Montana students.


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