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Former Gov. Racicot: “We’ve got to fix this”

by Kristi Niemeyer
Editor | December 1, 2022 12:00 AM

Backed by a wall plastered with Democratic banners from five counties, former Republican Gov. Marc Racicot offered a lesson in civics and civility recently at the Sanders County Fairgrounds 4-H Pavilion in Plains.

Introduced as “a person who blends character, policy and political prowess,” Racicot has an impressive personal and political resume. He was born in Thompson Falls, grew up in Libby, graduated from Carroll College in Helena and earned a law degree from the University of Montana. He served in the JAG Corps in Germany for three years before returning home to work as deputy county attorney in Missoula and assistant attorney general in Helena.

He ran for elected office, once for Montana Supreme Court and twice for District Court judge and lost all three races before earning a nod from voters to serve first as attorney general and then as governor for two terms, from 1993-2001.

He became influential in the national arena after leaving the governor’s house, serving for two years as chair of the Republican National Committee, and then chairing President George W. Bush’s reelection campaign.

The great middle of America

So how did he come to be speaking at a gathering of Democrats from Lake, Sanders, Lincoln, Flathead and Butte-Silver Bow counties less than two weeks after their blistering mid-term defeat?

Racicot acknowledged that “some might think it’s an unusual gathering, but they’d be missing a great story about democracy in its purest form. That’s what enchanted me” about the invitation to attend and discuss what he’s been describing as “the great middle of America.”

Racicot has become an oppositional force in Republican politics in recent years, denouncing former President Donald Trump and supporting Joe Biden in the 2020 election; and endorsing Democrat Monica Tranel and Independent Gary Buchanan instead of the Republican front-runners in the race for Montana’s two U.S. House seats.

But in Sanders County, his focus was on a much larger question: how does our fractious nation find its way forward?

“It’s not been an easy journey to get where we are as a nation and as a state,” Racicot pointed out. Montana’s constitution is just 50 years old in 2022, while the foundations of our Republic – the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution – are less than 250 years old.

“There are now ominous and unmistakable warning signs all around us that our constitutional government and democratic republic are confronting serious and dangerous moments of uncertainty and peril,” Racicot said, noting that a majority of citizens “believe America is in crisis and at risk of failing.”

This threat of unraveling isn’t new. At the close of the Constitutional Convention in 1787, asked whether the framers had birthed a monarchy or a republic, Benjamin Franklin replied, “you have a republic as long as you can keep it.”

“That remains the existential question of our time,” Racicot said. “Can we keep our republic, and can we keep it if the values and virtues of the rule of law, purposefully woven by our framers into every article of our constitution, are not faithfully and consensually observed?”

Democracy is a dynamic institution

Democracy, he believes, requires patience, participation, compromise and fidelity – a word he defines in this context as “faithfulness to the words and spirits of those constitutions.”

“Democracy is a dynamic institution that’s always changing. We choose it. We breathe life into it and become responsible for its endurance.”

According to Racicot, the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, is a painful reminder of what can happen when we lose “the adhesive that holds us together.”

“Those values and virtues infused into our constitutions and the rule of law will disintegrate, loosening the bonds of our nation and our union and into that abyss will stride the ghost of tyranny,” was his dire prediction. “We have seen it, we have witnessed it, and we should take great, great effort to make sure we never get that close again.”

Returning to "a stubbornly civil" America

His remedies seem, on the surface, old-fashioned – as homespun as the 4-H pavilion where he spoke. He recalled the “stubbornly civil” America of his younger years, “where being a neighbor meant more than living next door to another family.” He contrasted that to “the poisonous, coarse and careless electronic communications of today … It’s dizzying, it’s vacuous and it’s perilous.”

“It’s no wonder an invitation like today’s is such an alternative attraction,” he said, describing the gathering as “one of the most inspiring and charming opportunities to meet the people of Montana – your friends and neighbors.”

To counter the vitriol, he encouraged people to practice self-discipline, and seek out opportunities for direct human interaction and conversation.

“It’s not a hopeless call to return to simpler times, it’s a hopeful call to return to the rule of law, to simple, timeless and enduring values, to relentless pursuit of the truth, to presuming the best of each other, to listening in good faith before acting or responding, and exuding generosity and grace … and setting about to accomplish something not to be somebody.”

Ending his speech on an optimistic arc, he cited “credible and emerging evidence that the majority of people, the great middle of America, are tired of the intramural wars.”

He recalled an eighth graduation he attended as governor in Biddle, MT (pop. 51), where the school’s sole graduate informed him, “we’re not different groups of different people in America, we are one group of different Americans.”

In a conversation after his talk, Racicot said, despite rejecting some of his party’s candidates, he’s still invited to speak at Lincoln Day dinners and address business organizations that lean Republican.

“I’m absolutely convinced that our concerns transcend partisan politics,” he said. “They’re worried about the future for their kids, about the country falling apart, about this extremism that seems to be awash everywhere and how nuts we’re getting, how angry.”

”I know I’m not the only one concerned. I can see it, I can feel it across the state of Montana,” he added. “The question is how to mobilize it.”

Clearly, Racicot isn’t stepping out of the fray just yet.

“This is a delicate existence we share, not only in terms of physically growing old and getting all rumpled up,” he said. “It’s life or death. I don’t mean to be hyperbolic, but it is. We’ve got to fix this.”

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