Want to help Democracy? Be like Mike.

Former governor and historian speak about how to restore civility to politics

By: - November 19, 2023 10:04 am

Former Montana Gov. Marc Racicot, left, and author Marc C. Johnson discuss the legacy of Mike Mansfield (pictured to the left) and how to return civility to politics at a presentation at the Billings Depot on Nov. 16, 2023 (Photo by Darrell Ehrlick of the Daily Montanan).

Helping democracy is simple: Be like Mike.

That’s what two panelists who spoke about democracy, Montana and how to return to a more civil public discourse urged: Become more like the late Mike Mansfield, the longtime Montana politician who was the longest serving Senate Majority leader until earlier this year and who was the architect of some of the 1960s and 1970s most consequential legislation, including the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act the following year.

Former Montana Gov. Marc Racicot joined author and historian Marc C. Johnson on Thursday night to talk about how to help re-establish a more collegial, functional democracy, using Johnson’s recently published book on the relationship of Mansfield, a Democrat, and his Republican counterpart in the Senate, Illinois Sen. Everett Dirksen.

Mansfield was thoroughly Montanan – a juvenile troublemaker in Great Falls who wound up fighting in World War I, working in the copper mines of Butte and becoming a university professor. He was known for a quiet demeanor, a prescient instinct and his trademark pipe. (In January this year, Republican Mitch McConnell of Kentucky surpassed his record as longest-serving Senate leader.)

Among the list of most admired Montana politicians, Mansfield often tops the list. But one of the speakers not far behind on those lists is Racicot, a popular two-term governor who was elevated to the leader of the national Republican Party.

In front of a packed audience at the Billings Depot, the literal birthplace of the largest city in Montana, both men talked about how Montana citizens can get back to a government in the style of Mansfield, who was known for working in a bipartisan manner to make the U.S. Senate possibly the most powerful political body in the world.

“I think what Gov. Racicot and I see is the character, integrity, responsibility and most importantly, the fidelity to law and common sense,” Johnson said.

Both men spoke at length about Mansfield’s deep understanding of the principles of democracy, including the need for bipartisan conversation, the separation of powers and the role of the judiciary.

Racicot warned that if Montana and Americans don’t pay more attention, they may not realize the threats that the country faces.

“I worry that we’re trivializing too much,” Racicot said.

Calling Mansfield “the personification of the U.S. Constitution,” they pointed out that Mansfield engaged with Republicans as much as he did Democrats.

Mansfield also zeroed in on a goal and focused on how to accomplish it, without getting distracted – something that’s much harder to do now with social media and a constant news cycle. They said that Mansfield rarely can be found in the front of pictures that include bill signings or victory speeches. Instead, they both agreed that Mansfield let other politicians claim victory or celebrate accomplishments, not needing the spotlight to feed his ego.

Finally, Mansfield valued a diversity of opinion and he listened, said Johnson. Both said that Mansfield was able to weather the differences of opinions because he trusted those he worked around, suggesting that those serving in Congress should spend more time together.

Forgotten hierarchy of values

Racicot spoke about more Americans needing a hierarchy of values and he did so by sharing his own personal example.

He traced it back to 2016 when the Republicans nominated Donald Trump as the party’s choice for president.

Without naming the Republicans or Trump, Racicot told his story, quipping that the audience may have heard of the “difficulty I have had with the party I had been associated with for most of my life.”

“I was invited to leave,” Racicot said.

That was a diplomatic and gracious way of describing what had been a public ouster of arguably the most successful living Republican who was excommunicated from the party for expressing concern about Trump – a news story that grabbed headlines beyond the Treasure State.

Racicot said in 2016 he was concerned about the “capacity and the character of the candidate.”

“I crossed the Rubicon at that moment,” he said. “I decided that my own ethical hierarchy included the nation and our state first and then party and politics comes second.”

What happened afterward, though, Racicot suggested was even more notable, even if less covered in the news.

He started getting more and more invitations to speak about the federal and state constitutions and democracy. He mentioned traveling the state, going to speak in small communities like Plains, where, what he thought would be a small gathering turned into 150. He was shocked by the response.

Shocked and inspired.

Racicot said that one of the best ways to help salvage a more community-centric style of politics is by using that example: Small groups getting together to discuss ways to help the community, without adhering to one party or another.

He also said that as a politician, he understands that politicians are sensitive to expectations, so he told the audience it’s essential that voters and residents send the message of their expectations.

“We need to send a message about what we expect and what kind of character we’re looking for,” Racicot said. “I have to be honest: I don’t think I’ve ever voted a straight-party ticket general election in my life. That’s because I have tried to vote for the person who I think will represent the values and character that I want.”

Back to the basics

Both speakers mentioned that communication and news cycles have gotten more complex. Journalism, which both agreed was essential to the future of democracy, has undergone cataclysmic changes, with newspapers shrinking and social media rising in its place. Johnson and Racicot said that democracy would be made stronger not just by more journalism, but by more people engaging, reading and sharing reliable information.

Johnson said that democracy begins at the very basic level: Start with your circle of friends and sphere of influence.

Racicot suggested that getting together with friends and other people who share a concern and love of community is a good way to get started on a more positive direction.

“Think about this: Sixty-five percent of people share the opinion that our country is dysfunctional,” he said. “And a huge majority of them are people who are decent, thoughtful and careful. There’s not as much distance between us as you think, unless you assume it.”

Both said it’s essential to return school curriculum from grade school to college to prepare students with more lessons on civics and government.

“You know we’ve placed so much emphasis on STEM (science, technology, engineers and math) that we’ve forgotten about civics,” Johnson said.

Part of that includes teaching the fundamentals of the founding documents of the country and the state, the U.S. Constitution and the 1972 Montana Constitution.

“It expects the best and it’s based on trusting each other for it to work. The moment we quit taking care of each other, that’s the way it starts falling apart,” Racicot said.

Both Johnson and Racicot pointed to the distrust and undermining of the judiciary as an example of dismantling or eroding of democracy.

“Some have taken about to eviscerate a branch of government that has no ability to fight back because it doesn’t have a sword. It doesn’t get to choose what cases it hears and it doesn’t get to decide how money is spent, it just says what the law is,” Racicot explained. “Part of the problem is that concept – separation of powers – has gotten away from us. When we were in school we were given the opportunity to learn about government.”

Johnson and Racicot highlighted what the Mike and Maureen Mansfield Center at the University of Montana is doing besides sponsoring the conversation between the two. The center is also working on curriculum for the elementary, junior high, high school and collegiate level.

“It requires work every day,” Johnson said.

“It requires all of us to voice our expectations of their course of conduct, and to realize that we have to engage in a rapidly changing world, a world that we may not like. A lot of citizens are afraid by what they see and what’s going on so they rush to try to solve a problem by etching a solution in stone, hoping it will solve it,” Racicot said. “But we have to get used to change, not be afraid. I don’t have an exact formula or guide for policy other than to remember the public good.”

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Darrell Ehrlick
Darrell Ehrlick

Darrell Ehrlick is the editor-in-chief of the Daily Montanan, after leading his native state’s largest paper, The Billings Gazette. He is an award-winning journalist, author, historian and teacher, whose career has taken him to North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Utah, and Wyoming.