Election Caveat: Ideas Matter More Than Politicians

By: Carl Graham, President, Montana Policy Institute

At the risk of deflating the Macy’s Thanksgiving parade-sized conservative victory balloon, I’m going to pull out my curmudgeon hat. Ok, maybe it’s good to revel a little in the solid repudiation of European-style welfare-state policies.


That’s enough. Now it’s time to get beyond repudiation (as satisfying as it is) and fix the mess that’s been left in the wake of massive spending, record debt, unfunded pensions, and government intrusions into our daily lives that’s occurred over the last ten (yes ten) years. This will take a longer term approach that includes ideas and not just grievances. And those ideas have to reflect the underlying principles that give substance to most Montanan’s desire to govern themselves in their everyday lives and return government to its proper role as a protector rather than a granter of rights.

Politics is about power, and this year’s results determined where the power will be for at least the next couple of years. But power without principle is at best ineffective and at worst dangerous. We need to make sure that those in power reflect the principles of the people who put them there.

Power is also fleeting, while principles and the ideas they foster are lasting. Unfortunately, some of the election results seem to indicate that many Montanans are investing more in people whose names they recognize or who they think will fix their problems than in the ideas that will eliminate the sources of those problems. Overspending, over regulation, shifting everyday decisions from people to bureaucracies, pandering to special interests or the policy fad of the day; these are all things that shift the power of people to govern themselves to someone or something else. They take away responsibility for our own actions, and by extension the ability and freedom to decide how to live our lives.

I don’t think most Montanans get the relationship between freedom and responsibility yet. We need to get that word out or the shift we saw in this election could turn out to be just a footnote in the history books.  The grass roots movement that drove this wave has passion, but even the hottest fire fades without adequate fuel. We need to inform and impress upon our fellow citizens the importance of ideas over people. We need to remember that politicians don’t typically lead the culture, they follow it.

Our political system doesn’t reward innovation or risk taking. In fact it punishes those who really want to stand out and co-opts those with a weak understanding or just plain lack of underlying principles.

For those reasons and more, our political leaders generally stick their finger up into the wind to see which way it’s blowing before determining their course.

For generations it’s been blowing away from individual freedom and responsibility and towards ever larger, more powerful, and overweening government. It’s time to shift the wind and remember what made our country the shining city on the hill, and our state its crown jewel.

We need to be the wind when our elected leaders stick their fingers in the air. We need to be strong. We need to be constant. And we need to invest in the ideas that keep us true to our principles. Investing in people is necessary but can only have a short term effect. Investing in ideas moves the culture and changes the world.


For Immediate Release

563 Words



Carl Graham is president of the Montana Policy Institute, a nonprofit, nonpartisan policy research and education center based in Bozeman, MT.

He can be reached at:

67 W. Kagy Blvd., Ste. B

Bozeman, MT 59715

(406) 219-0508


Election Results: Buck up, buckle down

The sky is falling! The world is ended! The country is lost! The statists have won! The flame of liberty is snuffed forever!

There, glad to get that out of my system. Feel free and take a couple of minutes to run in circles shaking your head and muttering if it’ll help. You’ve earned it. And then let’s get back to business.

But first, let’s put things in perspective. The Founding Fathers fought off tyranny. The abolitionists ended slavery. Communism was contained from without but defeated from within. Yesterday’s results were a setback for the cause of liberty and responsibility, but higher hurdles have been overcome. Now is not the time to lie down and cry. Now is the time to prepare for the opportunities that are inevitably to come.

Yesterday’s election was not a repudiation of common sense or the basic laws of mathematics and economics. It’s going to be hard to watch, but the big government, anti-liberty policies that we’re going to see at the federal and state levels will fail. Our job is to have alternatives ready to go when they do. I’ve made a point of telling people that politics is all about the short term, but ideas last – and they have lasting impact. Milton Friedman said that big decisions resulting in revolutionary changes only occur during crises. The bank bailout is a perfect example. And when those crises occur nobody has time to do a study or consult the operator’s manual. They look at what’s on the shelf and pull down whatever makes the most sense. Well, our stuff hasn’t been on the shelf and the other side’s has. They’ve done a better job of organizing and presenting their point of view. The country’s going to pay for that in the form of bad policy.

Our job now is to repopulate that shelf with good ideas that are based on – let’s all say it together – a respect for individual liberty, an expectation of individual responsibility, and a belief that government should be the avenue of last rather than first resort in solving our problems. The path this country has chosen is simply unsustainable. It was unsustainable under the Republicans, and it’ll be unsustainable under the Democrats. They’re writing checks that they can’t cash, and it’s eventually going to tumble down. That’s not a hope, but a plain hard fact. We need to be there with good options based on our founding principles when that next crisis occurs. And that won’t happen if we’re on the floor in the fetal position sucking our thumbs.

We’ve seen a defeat but not a loss. Go through your grief stages, but be quick about it. This is the time we need to be busy laying the groundwork for sane policy by talking common sense and putting alternatives on the shelf. Most Americans still agree with the concepts of freedom and responsibility. They just need to be reminded what those concepts mean. Let’s help them remember.