Montana values and the ’72 state constitution
Carl Davis (left) with his father, Carl, who was an attorney and a delegate to the 1972 Montana Constitutional Convention. This picture was taken around 1997. (Photo by Carl Davis)
“Montana values” is an elusive concept, reflecting the varying ideologies and ambitions of Montana citizens since the state’s creation in 1889. Today’s trendy buzzword overlooks the diversity of backgrounds, opinions and prejudices of the state’s rural and urban populace. Montana values have always depended on who’s doing the talking.
The one place that does embody Montana values is our 1972 state constitution. My father, Carl Davis, a World War II veteran and small-town attorney, was a constitutional convention delegate. As a college kid seated in the house chamber balcony, I watched Dad and 99 other delegates from all walks of life set aside their political differences to modernize the state’s antiquated 19th Century constitution—a document largely written by and for the wealthy elite who controlled the state’s resources and purse-strings.
The 1972 constitutional convention was not without politics. But these were ameliorated by easier bipartisan conversations in hotel rooms, Helena eateries, and local watering holes. Famously, delegates were seated alphabetically rather than across aisles like warring political armies.
This simple seating arrangement “humanized” the convention, enabling delegates to learn about each other’s lives and concerns, not just their political allegiances. In these ways and more, a dedicated group of humble citizens cooperated in the tough bipartisan work of revising a 19th Century state constitution for the benefit of future generations.
Our state constitution is now threatened by the Republican supermajority who want to fix something that isn’t broken.
Their ambitions are “death by a thousand cuts” constitutional amendments or a new constitution altogether, both tailored solely to their rightwing ideology. And so, our fair-minded state constitution—long considered to be one of the finest in the nation–is the latest Republican resentment and political football.
Here’s the thing: Some fifty-years down the road, we appreciate Montana today because of the state’s 1972 constitution, not in spite of it as the Republican party and its radical Freedom Caucus would have you believe. We all value the state’s scenic beauty, open spaces, and pristine waters, which are not givens but instead are actively protected by our constitutional right to a “clean and healthful” environment. The shenanigans of elected politicians and government officials are constrained by our right to examine public documents and observe deliberations of a public bodies and agencies.
And the list goes on and on.
Sadly, Republican America’s current fixation on “culture war” politics has little to do with Montana’s constitution or public need. A new constitution is unlikely to improve the daily lives of Montanans; protect our state’s profound beauty and natural resources; or address a huge variety of 21st Century challenges—affordable housing, rural health care, climate change-related drought, etc.
Instead, following their familiar playbook, a Republican-spurred constitutional convention would surely focus on deregulation; disenfranchisement of opposing voices and minority communities; and the shuttling of wealth and privilege to the rich and party loyalists, just like the days of the Copper Kings.
Thankfully, democracy still works in Montana.
We citizens vote on convening a constitutional convention; ratifying a new constitution; and approving constitutional amendments. The Friends of the Montana Constitution, a non-profit comprised of former delegates, state officer holders and civic leaders, is now dedicated to educating citizens about the constitution and all that it holds. Our 1972 state constitution works just fine, and, as far any partisan attempt at “fixing it” goes, well, you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.
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