Shared State is hosted by The Write Question’s Sarah Aronson and is collaboratively reported and produced by Montana Free Press, Montana Public Radio and Yellowstone Public Radio. It airs Thursdays at 6 p.m. on Yellowstone Public Radio, Saturdays at 9:30 a.m. on Montana Public Radio, and is available online here or wherever you get your podcasts beginning Sept. 8.
Sarah Aronson: This summer, people gathered in the Flathead Valley for an event every Friday. Montana Public Radio reporter Nick Mott went over there one evening to check it out.
Nick Mott: I am walking through Kalispell, [it’s] a semi-smokey,sunny Friday evening, to a mask protest.
A few dozen people lined the street near downtown, holding all kinds of posters. Nick had a long pole for his microphone so he could interview people from a distance..
Nick Mott: Will you read what your sign says?
[Protestor]: “Your country in peril, your liberty at risk. Wake up America.”
[Protestor 02]: “Says unmask us now.”
[Protestor 03]: “Sheriff and police department, thank you for keeping your oath to the constitution. AHA!”
Nick Mott: Gotcha, what was that “aha”?
[Protestor 03]: “Because I believe fully in the Constitution.”
Sarah Aronson: Despite scientific consensus that masks are an effective tool to fight coronavirus, a recent analysis by the New York Times showed that membership in anti-mask Facebook groups grew by more than 1, 800 percent from August to October.
Here in Montana, a lot of the rhetoric at protests comes down to ideas about liberty and freedom. Demonstrators — like those folks in Kalispell — say government shouldn’t tell people if and how to cover their faces.
I’m Sarah Aronson, and this is Shared State: a podcast about what’s driving Montana’s 2020 elections and where the outcomes could lead us.
Montana’s mask mandate was put into effect for the health of everybody in the state, collectively. But those mask protests are all about the rights of solitary citizens. Beneath the surface of this conflict, there are competing ideas about the role of the individual in society as a whole. That tension plays out in Montana politics in all kinds of ways. When we vote for candidates this fall, we’re also casting our ballots for particular ideas about how government should impact peoples’ lives.
This is episode eight: “To Secure The Blessings Of Liberty”. How do we weigh the individual and the collective when we talk about freedom, choice and rights?
[voice montage] We, the people of Montana, grateful to God for the quiet beauty of our state, the grandeur of our mountains, the vastness of our rolling plains, and desiring to improve the quality of life, equality of opportunity, and to secure the blessings of liberty for this and future generations, do ordain and establish … do ordain and establish this constitution.
Nick Mott: By mid-summer this year, Montana had started seeing a steady wave of new coronavirus cases that still hasn’t slowed down. Science shows that masks are one of the most effective ways to stifle the disease, by blocking the droplets that spread when we speak or breathe. So local governments started talking about making them non-negotiable in public places.
[Whitefish mask meeting]: “My body, my choice. Is that only applicable in certain situations? If your mask works, why do you care if I have one or not …”
Nick Mott: This is a public meeting one of those local governments held in July in Whitefish. When I listen back to what was said that day, I hear attitudes that have swelled in the months since across the state. The city had received hundreds of written comments in support of making masks mandatory. But in person, things sounded different.
[Whitefish mask meeting]: “Whenever you put mandate on anything, it is not going to help anything, but strike up chaos with the differences of minds.”
Nick Mott: The anti-mask voices were the loudest. But they weren’t the only perspective there.
[Whitefish mask meeting]: “It’s the least we could do. It’s not an undue burden on us …”
[Whitefish mask meeting]: “It’s not a big deal, we’re trying to like be in this together. Like, I can not believe that this town is arguing over wearing something that will keep other people safe.”
Nick Mott: Other cities and counties held similar meetings. And many of those were also met with resistance. But things ramped up even more in mid-July, when something big happened:
[News story clip]: “As new COVID 19 infections hit another daily high in Montana, Governor Steve Bullock finally took a step that more than 20 states are now following …”
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Nick Mott: Bullock issued an order that said it was time for everybody in the state to bite the bullet and mask up in public. The mandate was only for counties with more than four active COVID cases, and it had lots of exceptions. You don’t have to wear one if you have a medical condition that makes it unsafe, for example. Same goes for when you’re doing strenuous activity, or if you’re outside with less than 50 other people. It was also pretty lax when it came to enforcement; the directive said that police and public health officials should focus on education, and not arresting or fining violators. Still, a lot of people were up in arms about it.
A few weeks later, at that protest in Kalispell, I talked with Bonnie Mickelson. She’s a reflexologist in Columbia Falls, and she wasn’t happy about Bullock’s decision.
Bonnie Mickelson: I said, What?! In Montana?!
Nick Mott: Bonnie had shoulder length gray hair and was wearing a floral shirt.
Bonnie Mickelson: I thought we were in a free country. We found out we’re really not.
Nick Mott: Protests like this one popped up all over the state.
[Ravalli County Protest]: We’re here for a reason, it’s called freedom, it’s called liberty …
Nick Mott: Some protestors even used language from the left — chants that are usually heard at rallies about abortion and ending police brutality and racism.
[Protester]: “I can’t breathe! [chanting] “My body my choice”
Nick Mott: At the time we’re recording this, more than 200,000 people have died in the U.S. from the coronavirus. We have 4 percent of the world’s population but more than 20 percent of its COVID deaths.
In the early days of the pandemic, public guidance over masks wasn’t consistent. But as scientists have learned more about the disease, their message has become more urgent: wearing masks is the best way to keep yourselves and your community safe from coronavirus.
[Robert Redfield]: “Facemasks are the most important, powerful public health tool we have.”
Nick Mott: That’s Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. He testified before the U.S. Senate in September
[Robert Redfield]: “And I will continue to appeal for all Americans, all individuals in our country to embrace these face coverings. If we did it for 6, 8 , 10, 12, weeks we’d bring this pandemic under control. We have clear scientific evidence they work, and they are our best defense.”
Nick Mott: At the protests, most people weren’t talking about science; they were talking about their ideas of personal rights.
Thomas Jefferson quotes abounded on peoples’ signs.
[Protestor]: “When the people fear the government there is tyranny, when the government fear the people there is liberty …”
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Nick Mott: The Montana constitution actually weighs in on this debate too, about individual and collective rights. In one part it says: “All government of right originates with the people, is founded upon their will only, and is instituted solely for the good of the whole.”
This resistance to masking up isn’t necessarily new. Back in 1918, when the Spanish flu pandemic hit Montana, public health officials made masks mandatory for certain workers in public places. But people complained and disobeyed. They said it was a burden; that the government was overstepping and trying to control citizens’ lives.
Those are some of the same arguments people are making today. They link the mask mandate to a deeper suspicion: that the order itself was just step one of broader, more egregious government intrusion.
That message is also being fanned by organized groups. One in particular, called “People’s Rights”, was formed directly in response to state shutdowns back in April. It’s the brainchild of Ammon Bundy — he and his family twice led armed standoffs with the federal government over land policy in Nevada and Oregon.
Nicholas Ramlow: Liberty essentially to me means being unconstrained.
Nick Mott: Nicholas Ramlow is an organizer for People’s Rights in Montana — and also a libertarian candidate for a state house district in the Flathead. I asked him to explain his definition of liberty, and why it’s so foundational for his politics. He gave me a thought experiment: Imagine you’re at the grocery store.
Nicholas Ramlow: If you’re standing in line and somebody cuts in front of you, you’re basically given a choice. You shrink and just let them take your spot.
Nick Mott: Or…
Nicholas Ramlow: You either have to push that actor out of line or, let’s say the bad actor is 300 pounds, much bigger than you, kind of like an analogy for government, A very big, strong force. You have to be willing to call upon the other people in line to come to your aid in defense of themselves and you.
Nick Mott: Ramlow said that’s where People’s Rights comes in. They say, they bring neighbors together to protect each other against an overreaching government. Their website talks a lot about liberty and individual rights. It says: Any kind of act that prevents you from deciding what’s best for you violates your right to be free.
The group is decentralized, so it doesn’t have any official leaders. It organizes locally and online, and has a massive text messaging network. In a different interview with a right wing talk show, Ramlow described the organization’s strategy as kind of like Uber, but for militias. You call, they respond. Talking with me, he said they also push for political change through legislation and the courts.
The Southern Poverty Law Center and the Montana Human Rights Network have flagged People’s Rights as a far-right, extremist group. Ramlow disagrees with that characterization. He said People’s Rights is nonpartisan; they take issue with government intrusion from both Republicans and Democrats. I pressed him about their militia organizing — carrying weapons in public. And as an answer, he told me about this quote he’d heard.
Nicholas Ramlow: “Those who have swords but don’t use them …”
Nick Mott: By swords, in this case, he means guns.
Nicholas Ramlow: The idea is that we want to have the power to defend ourselves. But we want to create institutional policies and procedures whereby we can be an effective tool that doesn’t need to break out a sword to accomplish our ends.
Nick Mott: He said People’s Rights membership is about a thousand strong in Montana, and about 30,000 across the country. But he said the number of their supporters in Montana is a lot higher — closer to 10,000, if you include networks with other groups that frame themselves as pro-liberty, or part of the antigovernment “patriot” movement. And those numbers are growing.
Nicholas Ramlow: It basically, it acts as a hedge against intrusive government action, so whenever we see a government action that is egregious, we’ll see a spike.
Nick Mott: Groups like People’s Rights — liberty-focused, anti-government organizations — they’re talking about the fundamental rights of singular human beings. In that balance of the collective versus the individual, the weight is on the individual, hard.
These kinds of groups have been around Montana for a while.
Ken Toole: “But it seems to me and from my experience, there’s been a very conscious effort to talk about individual rights, individual freedom, personal liberty coming out of essentially conservative organizations and figures since the early to mid 90s.”
Nick Mott: This is Ken Toole, former Democratic state legislator and the founder of the Montana Human Rights Network. Back then, militias and white supremacist groups like the Aryan Nations, Militia of Montana, and the Montana Freemen, were putting down roots in the Northwest. Some of those groups were part of the sovereign citizen movement, who believed their rights came straight from God, and they didn’t have to answer to any government. Ken said recruiters targeted people feeling dispossessed and disenfranchised, especially as changes in the economy left people out of work in rural areas. At the heart of those strategies were ideas about an individual, disconnected from the broader political, or social group.
Ken Toole: The number of supporters, what their strategies are, what their tactics are, have always changed. But the ideological underpinnings have been the same for a very long time.
Nick Mott: In the mid-90s, these groups proliferated across the country. Armed standoffs between the government and personal freedom groups led to bloodshed in Waco, Texas and Ruby Ridge, Idaho. In Montana, another standoff seized national headlines involving the Montana Freemen. That encounter came to a non-violent resolution after more than 80 days.
Groups like this are still around. In October of this year, a report from the Department of Homeland Security said coronavirus has created an environment ripe for recruitment into anti-government extremist groups, and that violence from those groups is one of the biggest threats facing our country today.
Ken said: the ideas these groups profess bleed into the political mainstream. Watching them grow and evolve throughout the years, he said, fundamentally:
Ken Toole: It wasn’t my view of what Montana was, or has been, or anything like that.
Nick Mott: Ken said their ideas focus on protecting your own interests, on the individual, independent from the broader society. And that just didn’t ring true to Ken. His dad was famed Montana historian, K. Ross Toole. Growing up, he learned that Montana values meant taking care of each other, of the collective good.
Ken Toole: Without people coming together to work on things and create things, Montana wouldn’t exist.
Nick Mott: Montana isn’t the only place struggling with this political debate — personal liberty versus the community. Mask protests are happening all over the country. Still, I wondered: is there something about Montana that makes it ripe for groups like People’s Rights?
This summer, a study in an academic journal caught my eye that I thought could help me answer that question. So I reached out to one of its authors.
Friedrich Gotz: So my name is Friedrich Gotz, and in my work I focus on geographic differences in personality traits.
Nick Mott: Friedrich’s a psychologist at Cambridge in the UK, and he tries to map out personality to see what characteristics are unique to certain areas. In that study I noticed, he tried to find out if there are certain types of personality that are distinctive of the Mountain West. To do it, he tapped into this huge dataset that already existed — from a personality test that went viral online. For academics interested in mapping out personality, those 3 million responses were a treasure trove.
When Friedrich ran the numbers, he found that Westerners are:
Friedrich Gotz: A little less conscientious, a little less outgoing, a little less sociable, more emotionally stable, and more open to experience.
Nick Mott: In a nutshell, he said the statistics show that people in the Mountain West are less extroverted and more disagreeable than people in other parts of the country. As a fairly grumpy introvert, that sounded about right to me.
Friedrich said there’s another way of putting his findings: people in the West are more individualistic. It’s a trait that’s become deeply ingrained in our society.
I wanted to talk with a historian to find out how those ideas took hold, looking way back over time. So I called up Rosalyn LaPier. She’s a professor at the U of M.
Rosalyn LaPier: I actually teach a class called Environment Montana from Anaconda, to Zortman. So it’s from A to Z. And I provide a chronological story of what is now the state of Montana.
Nick Mott: She gave me the Sparknotes version of that story, starting with settlers moving West, which is when she said ideas around liberty and freedom really started to flow this way. As colonists displaced Indigenous people and perspectives, they brought with them ideas of rugged individualism, that people can survive on their own, without the help of others or of government.
Rosalyn LaPier: If we start with Lewis and Clark, we have two men, quote unquote, alone, coming to conquer the wilderness. And after that, you know, we have the story of the fur traders who also have this story of rugged individualism coming out to tame the wilderness right from the animals, the wild animals that are there.
Then there’s miners, farmers, all representing — at least in our imaginations — these notions of rugged individualism. Coming West into a big unknown. That story of self-reliance became a part of the culture.
Rosalyn LaPier: In contemporary society, we still have some of those concepts. And those stories of what makes Montana Montana that evolved from that history.
Nick Mott: So the sorts of liberty that anti-mask protestors scrawl on signs and chant about — all that grew out of this history of settlers coming west to Montana, and eking out a living here with nobody else to help them. Or so the stories go.
That narrative frames the individual as center stage in our society. But balancing that role with what’s best for a larger group comes up a lot in Montana politics — in debates on how to manage public land, school choice, social welfare programs.
There’s one race going on right now where the two candidates are trying to sell voters on pretty different versions of that story about our society. It’s the fight for Montana’s lone seat in the U.S. House of Representatives between Democrat Kathleen Williams and Republican Matt Rosendale.
Rosendale is state auditor right now, and he talks about freedom a lot on the campaign trail.
[Matt Rosendale, Mike Pence Rally]: “I will continue to fight for results, lower taxes, less government, and more freedom!” [fade clapping under]
Nick Mott: On the phone, I asked him to tell me a little more about what liberty means to him.
Matt Rosendale: I think of personal choices, personal freedoms, um, as long as they do not infringe upon someone else’s rights. We used to say stretch as far as your nose.
Nick Mott: I asked Rosendale what issues he thinks about when he thinks about liberty. First, there was healthcare: he supports repealing the Affordable Care Act — and he’s also voted against Medicaid expansion, which has increased healthcare coverage for more than 85,000 Montanans since 2015. He talked a lot about cutting healthcare costs, and making sure people can choose the plan that works for them. The second amendment was also at the top of his mind.
Matt Rosendale: I don’t think it’s up to the government to make a determination about what type of gun nor how many guns you should own. That is the individual’s personal choice and their liberty and it is clearly protected under the constitution.
Nick Mott: When I asked Rosendale about mask mandates, he said it’s complicated. Above all, he said we need to focus on protecting the most vulnerable in society, like senior citizens. And people should take measures to be safe, like masking up. But in lots of contexts, Rosendale said it comes down to individual choice.
Matt Rosendale: Certainly, if anyone has a store or any kind of commercial activity, then they own that property. They are able to make determinations and choices about how that’s to be handled.
Nick Mott: As we talked about masks, Rosendale’s press officer jumped in and said he had to move on to his next meeting.
I asked if there is anything else you’d like to add about liberty before we part ways.
Matt Rosendale: I love it. I love it and I will always fight to preserve it. That’s what I wanna add.
Nick Mott: Some scholars use a specific term for the kind of autonomy Rosendale’s talking about: “positive liberty.” It means the freedom to do as you please, with nothing holding you back. It’s freedom for the individual, with the government on the sidelines.
The flipside of this is “negative liberty.” It means getting rid of the things that constrain liberty: legal inequalities, discrimination, racism, oppression. The forces that make you less free. This can mean increasing or reforming government, to level the playing field. Another way to think about this tension is “freedom to,” as opposed to “freedom from”.
I also wanted to talk with Rosendale’s opponent, Kathleen Williams, to see what kind of liberty fits in her worldview.
Kathleen Williams: Is liberty something that is defining of the state and the people here? Yeah, I sometimes say that I have a libertarian streak. I always enjoyed the fact that we had it when everyone asked me my astrological sign. You know, their characteristic of Aquarius is fiercely independent. I love that. And I love to be able to do what I where I want as long as it’s not harming someone.
Nick Mott: Williams started with this idea that sounded a lot like how Rosendale thought about liberty. But as we kept talking, I thought more about that notion of negative liberty. Her ideas weren’t just around the individual, they were about the broader community. She wants to make sure everybody has the same footing, the same freedom from forces that could curb liberty.
Kathleen Williams: To me liberty is giving people a good start, and ensuring that there isn’t discrimination. You know people are struggling to make ends meet, pay their healthcare bills, keep a job. They have less liberty than those who don’t face those problems. We don’t want liberty to be relative to one’s means. We want everyone to be able to have opportunity in this world.
Nick Mott: When I asked her what policy issues liberty made her think of, Williams brought up a lot of the same issues as Rosendale; but she had a very different take on them. Williams talked about guns — she said she’s all in favor of people’s right to bear arms, but with reasonable regulation and background checks that help keep the community safe. And she talked about healthcare. She wants to protect the ACA, and make sure that quality and cheap coverage is available to everybody. As a state legislator, she’s supported expanding Medicaid.
I also asked her about masks. She said she’s proud of the way the state’s handled the pandemic.
Kathleen Williams: You know, I think our residents and our citizens and our businesses making choices to encourage people to protect their neighbors, again, is freedom in the context of the best thing for our communities and our economy, really.
Nick Mott: Rosendale and Williams seemed to be talking around each other. They were using some of the same language — especially around liberty — but telling entirely different stories about what that meant for the world. Historian Rosalyn Lapier told me those stories we tell to make meaning of the world are just that: stories. She likes to call them myths because, often, they’re not true at all. And they can change as we come to learn more about our collective past.
She said, just look at that idea of “rugged individualism.” Those individuals were never all that alone. The miners, the fur traders, the settlers — they depended on the support of companies to make it here, or else on government policies that helped them settle the land. They all relied on someone or something else, to survive.
Rosalyn LaPier: I think it’s when we began to think of the myth as a reality. That when we begin to not make good decisions as a society.
Nick Mott: Earlier this month, I was driving down to Yellowstone National Park, and I was thinking about how the stories we tell ourselves about where we come from link up with where we are now. Passing through Gardiner, I saw this house with a sign out front written in thick sharpie, advertising handmade masks for 10 dollars a pop.
I was curious how somebody crafting up masks for tourists and her neighbors saw her role in the community. So I knocked on the door.
Anita Ritchey was eager to chat. COVID cases had been on the rise in Montana. So we set up socially distanced in her front lawn, as cars drove by en route to the park. She showed me her business card. It said “Semi Retired, Still Sewing,” and she said these days, she splits her time between here and Jacksonville, Oregon.
Anita Ritchey: In April, early April, they were talking about people starting to make masks. So I sort of played around with some masks because I’m a seamstress …
Nick Mott: She started having fun with it, and the mask-making took off from there. She, along with a friend who helps her out, have made hundreds of masks for locals, passersby going into Yellowstone and businesses in the area.
Anita’s great-grandpa moved here in 1885 to work in the park, and the house where we talked has been in her family since the nineteen-teens. I asked her what she thinks of as her Montana values.
Anita Ritchey: I guess we’re adventurous, [giggling] I don’t know exactly
Nick Mott: Individualism didn’t really figure into it. When she looks back at her family coming here in the days of the frontier, what she sees is community. And that’s exactly what making masks is giving her today. She feels more connected to this place than ever.
Anita Ritchey: It’s just been really satisfying to see the responses people have to the different types of fabrics that we’re using. It’s just been a joy.
Nick Mott: A Pew survey from late August showed that about 85 percent of adults across the country wore masks in stores on the regular. That number’s still a little shy of where health officials want it to be. But it’s 20 percent higher than it was just back in June. And here in the Mountain West, that number’s gone up more than anywhere else in the country in the last few months — by 33 percent.
So business is good for Anita. She told me she’s seen the protests on the news. But to her, masks aren’t about personal rights; they help keep other people safe.
Anita took me up to her porch, piled high with colorful fabric. She wants to have plenty of designs for people to choose from. I saw football logos, deer and bears and bison. Lately, she said, her Halloween themes have been selling pretty well.
Anita Ritchey: There’s skeletons. We even have a mix [laughter]. Yep, both Republican and Democrat right there …
Nick Mott: That one was plastered with donkeys and elephants, side by side. Another one was covered in phrases like “Born in the USA” and “Celebrate the Land of the Free.” We chatted for a while, and by the end, I’d almost forgotten how divisive masks and liberty had become in Montana. From Anita’s front porch, things didn’t look quite so dire.
I hit the road, and I started to think about the stories I’d heard from Anita: If Rosalyn Lapier was right, and the narratives we tell about ourselves help make us who we are — in a hundred years, what stories will we be telling about right now?
Ep. 9 — For this and future generations
How is dark money shaping this year’s election?
The Shared State podcast is created by Montana Free Press, Montana Public Radio and Yellowstone Public Radio. It’s produced by Mara Silvers and edited by Nick Mott. Editorial assistance comes from Brad Tyer, Nicky Ouellet, Corin Cates-Carney and John Adams.