Why Isn’t Missoula a Liberal Utopia?

by William Skink

In a recent post, James Conner claims there is something rotten in Missoula, but he can’t figure out if it’s our community that’s rotten, the University, or both. Here are some of the factors Conner offers as explanation for the decline of enrollment at the University of Montana:

The immediate impacts are financial squeezes on UMT, which needs to make cuts totaling $12 million, and Missoula, and painful cutbacks in the humanities at UMT. The longer term impact may be a permanent reduction in the size and reputation of UMT as the state of Montana embraces educational objectives that emphasize training for the professions at the expense of the liberal arts.

A long string of athletic scandals at UMT hasn’t helped. Nor have allegations that a rape culture exists on campus and in the community. Add to that constant reports of crime, public drunkenness, and homelessness, in Missoula. Parents and students alike may be concluding that Bozeman is a much safer place to pursue a college degree.

Missoula is a liberal college town, that much is obvious. And we exist as a liberal bubble in a predominately conservative state, that is also obvious. So what does being a liberal town mean? Here is one quick definition of what “liberal” means:

Liberals believe in government action to achieve equal opportunity and equality for all. It is the duty of the government to alleviate social ills and to protect civil liberties and individual and human rights. Believe the role of the government should be to guarantee that no one is in need.

What does this definition mean for Missoula? Let’s start with equal opportunity. When it comes to living in Missoula, there is a big disparity between what it costs to live in Missoula and what most jobs pay. The government can subsidize housing through agencies like the Missoula Housing Authority, but it doesn’t get close to meeting the actual need. For prospective students, that means the housing market will bleed them dry.

And why is housing so expensive? Because there is finite land for development which makes meeting demand for housing difficult. It seems that those who can afford to live in Missoula are those who made their money elsewhere (like the east coast) and then they transplant to this idyllic valley where the desire to live in a liberal utopia meets the reality of the negative side of growth, which are the urban problems we are seeing increase: addiction, violence and poverty.

Local and state governments have been inadequate in dealing with these social ills. Instead of funding what could help, Missoula is instead tapping the taxpayer piggy bank for more parks while the private sector is building more banks, breweries, distilleries and casinos.

And then we have civil liberties. While Missoula’s rape culture was (and still is) flourishing, our city was busy passing laws to make benign behavior, like sitting on sidewalks downtown, illegal. The worst example of this violation of civil liberties was introduced by an alleged “progressive” who sensationalized examples of women being chased downtown by homeless people to nearly get Missoula sued by the ACLU. We have wasted years with failed efforts to try and sanitize the areas in Missoula where the problems are most visible while the core factors contributing to chronic homeless are ignored.

Missoula, at least to me, seems more concerned with image than substance. This was most apparent when Jon Krakauer came out with his book that prominently featured MISSOULA in its title. When the book came out, the concern seemed to be about the image of the football team, the image of the university and the image of our town. While some great work has been done to improve the criminal justice system, there continues to be serious problems overloading the system, rendering it unable to deal with social ills, like addiction, which is fueling violence and keeping our local detention facility bursting at the seams.

In just the month of December there have been multiple murders. One was ascribed to meth use. Another appears to be a domestic violence situation turned lethal, as predicted by the victim, who was found dead in Pattee Canyon over the weekend. Another incident hasn’t been officially deemed a murder yet, but the little information reported makes it look like something violent happened.

I’ve lived in Missoula for 15 years now. I got my liberal arts education here, got married here and started my family here. And I spent the last seven years trying to understand how our community deals with some of these social ills and what I’ve learned is this: we aren’t dealing with them. We keep first responders in perpetual triage while more money is spent on studies and meetings are endlessly attended.

I know, I’m a total downer. At least we will have some pretty parks to look at, and a nice new bank at the corner of Orange and Broadway and a Verizon store to complain about because it’s the surface images that people in this community seem to respond to more than the underlying problems that continue to worsen.

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About William Skink

I'm a poet and political cynic living and writing in Montana. You can contact me here: willskink at yahoo dot com
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29 Responses to Why Isn’t Missoula a Liberal Utopia?

  1. Buzz Feedback says:

    Missoula is about cronyism, not liberalism.

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  2. Craig Moore says:

    Leaving it to government has always left the “believers” underwhelmed. In your definition of “Liberal” replace govt. with “responsible citizenship.” Seems to change the dynamic for relying on institutions that suckle from the host. With “responsible citizenship” govt becomes accountable to effect the desires of those citizens. Bugs Bunny sums up belief in govt as a replacement for such dynamic citizenship. http://veronicamcintyre.com/stuff/Bugs_Bunny_maroon.jpg The “surface images” are merely symbolic citizenship (Priuses, Subarus, and such plastered with bumper stickers) which can be purchased. The studies seem to come from rent seekers acting to continue their lifestyles and positions of importance. All of this comes to an end when we citizens stand up to create progress rather than accept perpetual motion in the squirrel cage as good enough.

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    • here’s what I see: money trumps responsibility and ideology. for example, let’s say you’re a conservative downtown business owner ideologically opposed to expanding government. that position might make sense when it comes to opposing taxes, certain zoning or other regulations, but would that same business owner oppose expanding government if it meant passing ordinances to criminalize sitting on sidewalks? not from what I’ve seen. if it means using ordinances, municipal court and jails in an attempt to disappear unsightly street people, the same people who complain about government seem to have less of a problem to use government to their perceived benefit when it suits their interests.

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      • Craig Moore says:

        I don’t think you addressed my point.

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        • that believers in government are always underwhelmed? that’s a pretty general point. the government has a lot of functions, and with local municipalities, a lot of important ones. I’m sure the people at the fairgrounds a few summers ago were pretty happy with the health department catching the rancid meat before it sickened people, for example.

          and I’m not sure what kind of institutions that suckle on the host you are referring to. health care is a major cost bleeding a lot of stretched budgets in this state. how does the “responsible citizen” fit into a situation where air ambulances that don’t contract with insurers are pushed onto people in crisis, then stuck with a $30,000 dollar bill?

          I am frustrated with the greed and waste across the spectrum. that’s what one finds when looking beyond the image-making and the rhetoric.

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        • Craig Moore says:

          Again you miss my point. However, IMHO people should never “believe” in govt. institutions. Responsible citizenship holds govt. accountable for effecting the “plan”. Save “belief” for the intangibles and philosophical.

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        • Nor should people “believe” in private power, Jesus, religion, God and country, TV news, faked events, global warming, terrorism, sports or advertising. But they do. You do. I am curious why you believe in probably almost everything I list here, and yet decided that government is the one thing you choose not to believe in? Your skepticism button is finely tuned to one aspect of our lives, and out of tune to everything else.

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        • Craig Moore says:

          Mark, you are quite the wanker projecting your opinions as if they represent facts. You don’t know me, but yet you banned me. Why on earth would you assume you are worth a substantive response on your delusions?

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        • How can you assume I don’t know you when I read your words, have for years.

          This is interesting. People reveal themselves in their words, and yet when I call them out on their words, claim they are private clubs that have to be joined and studied before I can comprehend them.

          I didn’t ban you. Your comments are corralled. If insightful, they are set free. Of not, they are not.

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        • Craig Moore says:

          Mark, you are quite the arrogant liar. You did ban me. You even copped to it. Now you may claim to having changed going forward, but you did ban me. That is both a fact and the truth, something you seem not to grasp. Now, I am not going to swing at your pitches in the dirt. Here’s also something you can’t grasp, this post and my response to William are not about me.

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      • Indeed, getting banned is painful, especially when done by lesser mortals, as you view me. But I did change the idea, from”banning” to corralling, and here you are going to have to fess up, that you are a skimmer and didn’t read things before tossing in comments. If you want to read what is written, and then tell me I am full of shit, your comments will appear.

        How will I know? I just do.

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  3. JC says:

    I guess, to answer your headline question, and using the definition of liberal you provide, i’d have to say: Missoula isn’t a liberal utopia because it really isn’t a liberal town.

    Missoula used to be an industry town (lumber, paper, wood products) that got infiltrated by hippies in the 60s-70s. Unfortunately, while the hippies managed to build a bit of a liberal hippy haven that gives Missoula its rep, the industrialists (like Dennis Washington and Tom SIebel) were more interested in seeing the industrial side of Missoula maintained, feeding money into areas that have no positive impact on a liberal community (sports, sports sports!!!). And yes, I am one of those that believe Siebel’s creation and funding of the Montana Meth Project was a misguided “Just say no” failed attempt to scare people away from one drug — to the detriment of the broader drug problem — to create nothing more than a positive image for Siebel to make a bid for the Senate.

    As to limited land to develop, that’s an illusion created by the likes of the MOR (Missoula Organization of Realtors). You can look at their 2015 Missoula Housing Report where they’ll tell you all about how many lots have sold and for how much, but not how many are for sale, or how many potential lots could be developed. But if you look back 10 years, when the Mullan-Wye plan was released by City-County planners, you’ll see they opted to have an availability of 10,500 new lots for single family homes built — enough single family housing to add over 30,000 people to the roles (and the city council pushes high density infill — go figure). So it isn’t the lack of developable land that keeps prices up. It’s market manipulation — trickling just enough lots onto the market to keep prices where they want them, and rising.

    And lastly, but not leastly, we’ve seen the Missoula rental market become captive by professional rental management outfits. And with that takeover, we have a corresponding increase in per monthly rental fees of 5-15%, averaging around 10% — plus per unit fees of half-full month’s rent — pushing the average rent up by almost 15%. And once the prop managers do that, private home/unit owner/managers will match prices (why not a little extra, eh?). SO take all that money Missoula spends on rental, and 15% is a huge, huge number. How much? Well, somewhere between a hundred and two hundred million a year.

    Liberal utopia? My ass. Capitalist dream town with some fluffy trendy window dressing! Oh yeah, and a new library bond coming soon to enlarge and modernize the library so Missoulians who have no where else to go can spend time when it’s cold out.

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    • Rob Kailey says:

      JC, I am not trying to be combative, but I would like to remind you that in the past when I’ve pointed out exactly what you have here, I was roundly chided for it as ‘not knowing what I was talking about’. Even by you.

      Missoula is a blue collar town, with nowhere left to work that isn’t service industry for those passing through, or maintenance for structure. I reiterate that the real social damage was not the loss of industry but of union power to demand economic equity and opportunity.

      It was only 8 years ago that I passed the milestone of spending more of my life outside of the 5 valleys than in it. Right out of high school, two of my good friends came over to Bozeman to attend MSU. One, the California liberal, told me matter of factly that Bozeman is more liberal than Missoula. It took me a long time to accept that he was right, but he was right. Bozeman has more gender equality, more educational equality and more economic equality than the city slightly less than twice it’s size. I don’t write that to promote moving to Bozeman; please don’t. This city has it’s own problems, overrun with trust fund babies and all. I write this, Lizard, simply to point out that your ‘downer’ view is shared by those who have experience with Missoula and it’s image-driven vacuousness. If anything, I’m surprised by how much I revile Missoula anymore. I used to love that place so much. That has nothing to do with it being a liberal Mecca. It isn’t and never was. That has far more to do with it being a self-gratifying illusion.

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      • JC says:

        Opinions change over time. And I’m not sure specifically where you get off alluding that I “chided [you] as ‘not knowing what I was talking about'”. I may or may not have about this issue (surely with others), and I’d rather not dredge up the past. Suffice it to say that I’ve spent half of my years in the Missoula vicinity, 10 of them in the Jocko. Before that I spent 12 years in Bozeman during its transition from cowboy town to cowboy-hippy town. Thankfully I missed the yuppie/trusty infill generation when I moved 30 years ago. Bozeman was a much more libertarian town back then — live and let live full of opportunity as it grew. It was a fun place to live, go to college and work in. Missoula has become a struggle to survive on many, many levels for many, many people. I dread the day when I have to move back over the hill and live in the oppression of the Missoula valley again. Then again, maybe I’ll find somewhere different to move to next.

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    • Big Swede says:

      Detroit is a liberal city and they can’t give houses away.

      Like

  4. steve kelly says:

    Dallas is not a liberal city and they can’t keep water out of houses. Happy New Year, Swede.

    Like

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