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Montana politics, elections and legislative news

Political Activism In Trump Era: Changing The System Or Bogging It Down?

About 25 members of the activist group Big Sky Rising protested outside Sen. Daines' Kalispell office Wednesday, Feb. 08 over the senator's role in silencing Sen. Elizabeth Warren.
Nicky Ouellet
About 25 members of the activist group Big Sky Rising protested outside Sen. Daines' Kalispell office Wednesday, Feb. 08 over the senator's role in silencing Sen. Elizabeth Warren.

The chants of protesters and ralliers have become familiar sounds recently. Protests, pickets and rallies have been popping up across Montana cities ever since the election last November.

Rob Saldin, a professor of political science at the University of Montana, says the amount of political activism we’ve seen so far in Donald Trump’s presidency is unprecedented.

"The kind of resistance we're seeing now, it's unlike anything we've seen in American politics for a very long time," Saldin says. "It's far more aggressive than what George W. Bush, Ronald Reagan, or Richard Nixon encountered at the start of their presidencies."

Saldin adds that any time political power flips from one party to the other, the newly 'winning' party can expect a deluge of contact  from those now out of power. And that’s what's been happening.

Since election day, people in the Flathead Valley — like Joan Vetter Ehrenberg — say they’ve been getting in touch with their congressmen through conventional ways - like writing, calling or showing up at local offices.

"It makes people feel as though they're part of democracy," Ehrenberg says.

But it's not always easy.

Two weeks ago, several members of the activism group Missoula Rises scheduled a meeting with Republican Senator Steve Daines' Missoula office to talk about a number of issues, including how Daines planned to vote on a few of Trump’s cabinet nominees. Group leader Erin Erickson says she emailed questions in advance, with the hope that her group would be able to have a real back-and-forth with Daines’ office staff.

"We were really encouraged by the way things were shaping up," says Erickson.

The morning of the meeting, however, she received a call limiting her group from a dozen people to three. She was advised no recordings could be taken, and there would be no discussion.

"My expectation is if we're going to take our time to go there, and if we're going to use up his staff's time, everyone should be well prepared and we should be ready to have some dialogue, Erickson says. "If we wanted to just leave questions for them without any substantive dialogue or answers, there's other avenues for us to do that."

After numerous emails and calls from Montana Public Radio, a spokesperson for Senator Daines emailed a statement saying, "Steve's number one priority is to represent all Montanans and Montana values in the Senate. He welcomes the opinions of everyone from the Treasure State."

Democratic Senator Jon Tester says he’s also fielding more constituent contact than usual. This January, constituents contacted him more than 34,000 times. That’s six times the amount from the same time last year.

"Which is absolutely amazing to me," says Tester. "I think it shows that people are very engaged with what their government is doing right now."

Tester says he's had to double his phone staff in D.C. to address the calls coming in:

"We absolutely take into account what these people are saying and following up and doing some research on the points they bring up. It does do good, it's very important, and it does impact decision making."

Many of the people I spoke with also mentioned contacting Representative Ryan Zinke, but decided to focus their energy on Montana’s Senators when Zinke began abstaining from votes on January 5.

A spokesperson for the Rep. Zinke said, "constituents are overall excited for the new administration and when they call or write our office they can expect a staff member to listen to their concerns and take action as needed."

So far, there’s little evidence to show that the calls and protests have led to any demonstrable results. Professor Rob Saldin points out that Republicans are sticking with Trump’s agenda, and so far all his cabinet appointments have been confirmed:

"It seems like the big question is whether this kind of resistance is sustainable, and whether it can take the really critical steps of organizing at the local level. By this, I mean working within the system, getting people on the ballot, registering people to vote. These tasks are absolutely essential, but they aren't nearly as fun as marching. The things we've seen so far, in a way, that's kind of the easy stuff, but this is a long game."

Nicky is MTPR's Flathead-area reporter.
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