Why all the fuss about the Progressive Democrats of Montana?

by Jay Stevens

A while back, it was announced that a new progressive group — Progressive Democrats of Montana — had formed to “push its own agenda” in Montana politics. That is, “fair taxes, public education, human rights, economic justice and a clean environment.”

Members of the group include Paul Richards Edwards (called “Paul Edwards by Charles Johnson but with Paul Richards’ photograph), Ken Toole, Bob Raney, Gene Fenderson, Margot Kidder, Greg Lind, Christine Kaufmann, Dan Harrington, Diane Sands, Dave Gallik, Mary Caferro, Pete Talbot, and Tracy Velaquez.

There’s been a lot of hubub about the group in the blogosphere – more than the group has merited through deed, it seems.

First there’s the typical reaction from the right – Montana Headlines calling the group a “circular firing squad,” suggesting that the group’s agenda will work against possible Democratic successes in the future and bringing up the group’s formation in the same breath as the GOP’s juvenile death mailer.

Then came Michael Punke’s guest editorial, which, three days later, “borrowed” Montana Headlines’ tag-line of the circular firing squad and elaborated:

There is far too much at stake in modern American politics for Democrats to waste time — and votes — in a fight with each other. We face a war in Iraq , a war on terror, 47 million Americans without healthcare, and environmental challenges that will shape our children’s world.

Formation of a new political group whose mission is to define good and bad Democrats is the political equivalent of self-immolation.

Its practitioners will get a flash of warmth, a fleeting moment of public attention, and perhaps the self-righteous satisfaction of the piously pure.

But they won’t be doing much for the health of our country or our state — unless their goal is to elect Republicans — at whom they can then cast aspersions from the peanut gallery during another long journey through the wasteland of political irrelevance.

Self-proclaimed moderate Jeff Mangan claimed the progressives handed the GOP a golden opportunity to divide the Democratic party, and later reacted angrily to the idea of Democratic “purity” tests.

Here’s my take.

I do think the PDM is “old-school” progressive. One of the more disturbing elements of the group’s formation was the absolute lack in the group of young people or recent grassroots organizers so instrumental to Jon Tester’s recent Senate victory. (And, yes, I’m annoyed that no Montana blogger was contacted to join the group, or at least invited to help frame the group’s mission.) These are not the “progressives” I saw on the streets of Missoula on Election Day 2006.

On the other hand, Punke gets it totally wrong. In his scathing write-up of the group he missed crucial elements of the recent election, almost as if he had been in France or something during the summer of 2006. Yes, Jon Tester appealed to many self-described conservatives here in Montana. But that’s because Tester’s rhetoric on the environment and economy actually appeals to a broad base of support in the state. He’s a pro-gun working-class guy, advocating fair trade and alternative energy, health care reform and tax breaks for the little guy. These are not planks of the Republican Party – or, at least, these are not the positions acted on by Republicans during the Bush II era.

The key to Tester’s victory the issues marking the real upcoming divide, threatening not only the Democratic but also the Republican party, can be found in Mike Lux’ article on the subject in the Huffington Post. (Hat tip to Matt Singer.)

Something new, though, is going on inside the Democratic Party, and as someone who is both a strong progressive and a loyal Democrat, I am paying a lot of attention to the action. This is not just a little bit of a dust-up or some catty dueling between factions. This goes much deeper than that. It is the divide between the party establishment and the emerging (and rapidly strengthening) outsider progressives.

On one hand, you have populists looking to implement strategies that are popular with a broad base of Americans – sweeping health care reform, an end to fast-track trade authority, withdrawal from Iraq, a tough stance on immigration, an end to tax cuts for the wealthy, a balanced budget, and real ethics reform – and the other you have “insiders” who represent or value establishment policies that are decidedly pro-corporate and pro-governmental “elites,” who oppose government regulation of business, support “free” trade, and think they know more about Iraq than we do.

But then, this divide was described in Markos Moulitsas’ book “Crashing the Gate,” in which he identifies the new breed of Democrats trying to wrest the party from the DC elite (i.e., the DLC) and their consultant cronies, who are more interested in preserving their seats and cash flow than they are in advancing the party’s interest or fighting for change. The “new progressive,” if you will, isn’t ideological, but partisan. That is, it’s more important to have a strong Democratic candidate who represents the ideals of the party (people power, baby!) over any particular issue. (Think Pennsylvania’s pro-life Bob Casey, or our own Montana’s pro-gun Jon Tester.) That’s why Max Baucus is getting so much flack here and elsewhere: he’s a consummate insider.

In the end I believe the Progressive Democrats of Montana will be a flop, because it simply isn’t engaging people. Instead it makes proclamations and pads its rolls with established lawmakers and experienced politicos. It’s hard to be a top-down grassroots movement. A better model for engaging people with progressive issues is Forward Montana, a group that targets young voters by using the latest technologies and organizing techniques to advocate for populist projects.

Meanwhile, let the conservatives stew and moan about the group while we change the Democratic party itself, refashioning it in our own image.


  1. Say it again brother. Say it again.

  2. Um, Paul Edwards is a different guy than Paul Richards. They might both be involved, but Edwards is definitely the guy leading up this effort.

  3. I believe the Progressive Democrats of Montana is an honest attempt to relate to a Senator who cannot fathom the inherent decency of upping the minimum wage for an entire class of citizens who have been losing their already shaky ground for nearly a decade without subsidizing everybody else first.

  4. Pete Talbot

    Some quick comments here while I work on a longer point-by-point rebuttal to Professor Punke’s reactionary crap — to be printed, hopefully, in the many Lee newspapers that ran Punke’s piece as an op-ed. Jay, we certainly didn’t set out to exclude young people, grassroots organizers, groups like Forward Montana or the blogosphere. On the contrary, we welcome them with open arms. Hell, we just mailed out a letter to a few hundred people to try to get some working capital — we haven’t even really organized yet. Who’d have thought a few letters would create such a firestorm? There must be some serious paranoia out there. Mostly what we want to do is continue to advance Democratic principles — many of which seem to have been lost in the Party’s move to the right in the last decade or so. We also want to keep the energy and excitement that was created by Tester’s Senate campaign alive and well.

    Finally, although you had some kind words in general for progressives there was one remark that cut deep — we’re “old school.” I happen to be a youthful 53, hang with you youngsters often and can kick most 20-something snowboarders, tele and alpine skiers asses on the slopes of Snowbowl.

  5. Turner

    The progressive vs. old-school Democrat split was pretty evident at the platform conference in Lewistown last year. Some of us wanted more progressive planks, but party operatives would crash into our committees (not bothering to participate in the discussions) and outvote us.

    They didn’t want us to embarrass the candidates by adopting principled positions. They insisted on wishy-washy “centrist” positions that they thought would sell well.

    I understand their caution. But I think Montanans will accept more progressive positions if they’re given a chance to.

  6. Big Swede

    I mentioned on aother blog that your party was fractured, then took it back, did I speak too soon?

  7. Ayn Rand

    Here comes the rebirth of the new party. If progressive means a minor needing a parents sign off on detention slips, tatoos, grade cards, but not abortion…then by all means this group is truely progressive ( liberal).

  8. Finally, although you had some kind words in general for progressives there was one remark that cut deep — we’re “old school.” I happen to be a youthful 53, hang with you youngsters often and can kick most 20-something snowboarders, tele and alpine skiers asses on the slopes of Snowbowl.

    Sorry, man! I hope it came across that you all have been involved in Montana Democratic politics for quite some time, unlike the newbies like yours truly and the other kids (tho’ I’m hardly a kid) pounding the pavement this fall…

    We’ll have to go skiing sometime! This blogger was a one-time downhill ski racer, tho’ sadly out of practice and with ancient equipment. (You know where I can get some fat skis, cheap?) Ping pong is for sissies!

  9. Turner: I actually agreed with the centrists’ positions. I didn’t think — and still don’t — that, say, the elections should be a referendum on social change. I think it’s more important to simply get some competent governance for the state on crucial issues for everybody: education, health care, etc.

    Take gay marriage. If you’ve read my blog, you’ll know that I’m a passionate support of gay marriage. (Just click on the “gay marriage” category for a list of posts on the topic.) But I think if we want to legalize gay marriage, we’ve got to do it through the initiative process. Otherwise I think it’ll feel like it’s been imposed on the state, and that’ll just spawn a backlash.

  10. Jim Fleischmann

    If you form a new progressive party, they call you divisive. If you form a group WITHIN the Democrati Party (formally blessed by the MDP as a Democratic club), they call you divisive. Is there any way that you can express a different set of values – short of just toeing the Democratic Party line – without being divisive?

    Since when, in the country that is synonomous with dissent, did dissent become divisive?

    The founders of Proressive Dems of Montana have been on the front lines of trying to change our state for the better, many of them for their lifetimes. That they’ve united to create an organization – within the party – to advocate for a more progressive MDP is a fact that many should celebrate.

  11. Jim, I thought we were doing a pretty good job working within the party. It just didn’t seem all that necessary, to be honest.

  12. Conventional wisdom is that the part of our electorate that doesn’t vote has the makeup of a British-like labor party. The DLC wants to avoid igniting them, and so tries to steer party toward middle-roadism. Centrist Democrats led the party to loss of both houses in DC and a president by luck who never got 50% of the vote. But I think this last election showed what can happen if you ignite the base. And I honestly think that is exactly what the DLC fears – they’d rather lose than be left.

    Hats off to the PDM! There’s a real Democratic Party out there. Let’s be divisive and win rather than centrist and lose.

  13. Steve Wells

    How do I join Progressive Democrats of Montana?

    I’m tired of the corporate Democrats. It’s time to organize to drag our corporate party members over to the left a little where the people are, and away from where the elite big money operatives are.

    There are two kinds of power in this country.
    1. People power
    2. Money power.

    Jon Tester proved that the West is fundamentally populist. This is how he won both the primary and the general against better funded opponents. He won with people power.

    Why not keep the ball rolling and win some more?

    A big shout out to Pete and Jim.

  14. Matthew Koehler


    Your claim that the PDM has an “absolute lack” of “grassroots organizers so instrumental to Jon Tester’s recent Senate victory” is completely false and demonstrates to me that you have no idea who these folks who formed PDM really are and what they have done.

  15. …you have no idea who these folks who formed PDM really are and what they have done.

    You may be right.

    It’s just that the rhetoric of the PDM as written up in the Gazette was so…un-2006-ish…”environmental justice”…what the h*ll is that?…calling Democrats “Republican lites”…what, exactly does that mean? What’s a Democrat? What’s a Republican? Talking about “human rights”…last time I checked, Montana has a pretty good record on human rights.

    Thing is, Tester talked about issues that were actually important to Montanans: health care, weaning the state off of oil dependence, preservation of Montana’s wilderness, treating veterans with dignity and respect, funding education, preserving jobs in the state.

    Instead the PDM gave us basically the same catch phrases we’ve been hearing since the mid-1980s. The truth is, IMHO, is that a majority of Montanans have “progressive” values — and this includes many Republicans. We not only need to speak their language (and not high-falootin’ idealistic jargon batted about at conferneces for twenty years), we need to include them in any progressive populist movement.

    Name one — one! — member of the PDM who has not run for office or already has an established track record of old school traditional progressive stances…name one — one! — member of the PDM in this article under thirty. (Under forty?)

    Perhaps I’ve overreacted to an article making hay out of a simple released letter. H*ll, I would like to be involved even! It’s just that the Tester movement clearly showed a path to success: a bipartisan populist movement based on the basic needs of Montana households across the state. And — maybe I’m reading into the article too much — all I see is high-toned idealism, as if that’s what people really want.

  16. Pete Talbot

    I actually appreciate most of the comments Jay has made. The “Old School” progressives need to do outreach to younger activists (and vice versa). We hope we can coordinate with Forward Montana and other like-minded organizations. And some of our jargon may need updating (although I don’t think phrases like human rights, economic justice and a clean environment ever go out of vogue). I’m going to try to link the above comments and other blog pieces to as many PDM folks as I can (wish me luck — remember, I’m “Old School.”) Also, as I mentioned in a previous post, please keep in mind we’re just starting to organize and haven’t really adopted our mission and vision.

    A couple things in the above that I question: I’m not really sure that Tester’s win was “bipartisan.” A few Repubs may have voted for him but what put him over the top was that more Independents voted for Jon than Conrad — a new trend — plus a bunch of new voters. And yes, we be old, for the most part. A lot of us have been together, getting beat up by Repubs and conservative Demos, for awhile now.

    Also, I would like to reference Turner’s post above. I was at that convention, too. It was the young Turk staffers from the Schweitzer and Baucus offices that put the kibosh on progressive planks — ending the Iraq War, gay marriage, some good environmental stuff. Don’t trust anyone under 40? But seriously, I look forward to continuing the dialog with all progressives. We all have a lot to contribute.

  17. petetalbot

    (The following is from a guest opinion column in the Missoulian in response to an above mentioned column written by Michael Punke. I wanted to link to it but if you’ve ever tried to get stuff from the Missoulian archives, you’ll know what a fruitless effort that can be.)

    And here I thought university instructors were trained in critical thinking. Obviously, a few of them are not. UM’s Michael Punke uses fuzzy logic and comes to flawed conclusions when he lambastes political progressives in a recent guest column.

    Apparently the “big tent” that Democrats refer to fondly when describing the party isn’t big enough for progressives. Plenty of room, though, for the Sen. Joe Lieberman-like centrists that Punke so admires.

    But Punke’s biggest gaffe comes when he compares progressives with Green Party candidate Ralph Nader. We are not third-party spoilers. We work within the Democratic Party framework. We may recruit progressive candidates to run in Democratic primary elections (primaries being a tradition that we hope is still alive and well in all political parties). When the dust settles, however, we will always support the winners in the Democratic primaries when they run in the general election. We will not back a third-party candidate.

    Punke also seems to think that progressives will hurt Democrats like Jon Tester or Brian Schweitzer when they run for office. He refers to Schweitzer and Tester as “moderates” or “centrists.” Schweitzer actually calls himself as a populist. (The dictionary defines a populist as an advocate of the rights and interests of ordinary people.) And Jon Tester certainly fits that mold.

    It was Tester’s populist message that galvanized progressives to get involved, to volunteer on the phones and doors, and to vote. Remember the long lines of college students around the courthouses in Missoula and Bozeman election eve? It wasn’t a Republican-lite message that got them to the polls.

    Progressives are organizing now because their voice has been absent for so long in Democratic politics. The Democrats moved to the right in the last few electoral cycles in an effort to win votes. It didn’t work. Centrist Democrats lost as many as they won. Lately, it has been the populist, dare I say progressive, candidates that beat Republican opponents.

    Progressives are learning something from the Republicans, though. The Republicans’ conservative message was what we call a value-based campaign – not long rhetorical arguments or policy statements but instead, the use of succinct campaign messages. They employed slogans like “contract with America” and “family values.” These values, however, turned out to be hollow clichés and American voters are starting to see through them. Voters are realizing that issues like gay marriage and flag burning maybe aren’t as important as the Iraq War, health care, global warming and a massive federal deficit.

    Poll after poll shows that American voters want candidates who have integrity and stand on principles. They don’t want the wishy-washy politicians whose values shift with the prevailing winds – the kind of candidates that UM’s Punke seems to endorse.

    So progressives are ready to advance real values. We haven’t forgotten the core beliefs of the Democratic Party: fair taxes, public education, human rights,
    economic justice and a clean environment, to name a few.

    Currently, there are a number of groups that are recognized by the Montana Democratic Party Executive Board, and rightfully so. They include the Montana Indian Democrats Council, College Democrats, Democratic Women’s Club, and the Hunter and Outdoor Sports Roundtable. Progressives just want a place at the table.

    We want to create interest, keep the dialogue lively and maintain excitement – like the kind generated by the Jon Tester campaign. We believe that progressives will give the Democratic Party more people, energy and options to defeat the Republicans.


    Pete Talbot is a member of the Progressive Democrats of Montana, a former member of the Montana Democratic Party Executive Board and a past chairman of the Missoula County Democrats.

  1. 1 Progressive Democrats of Montana endorse « 4&20 blackbirds

    […] Here is a post by 4&20’s own Jay Stevens which gives some background on PDM. Jay links to mainstream media stories and op-ed pieces. In 4&20’s constant effort to remain objective, you’ll see some criticism of PDM in that post and in the comments. The last comment you’ll see is a superbly crafted response to the criticism, written by yours truly. No Comments Leave a Commenttrackback addressThere was an error with your comment, please try again. name (required)email (will not be published) (required)url […]

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