Now that the primaries are over, it is a good time to take the temperature of the political climate in Montana. And wherever politicians in this state might stand on the issues of water and weather, they would all probably agree that, when it comes to politics, our state is going to get a whole lot warmer in the next few months.
Primaries challenge individual candidates to gather support from their respective bases and to distinguish themselves from an often cluttered field of contenders. Now, with that behind them, the remaining candidates will shift the focus of their campaigns to their respective opponents. Heated debate will ensue.
And that’s just fine. In fact, it’s how most political campaigns unfold.
But what the general campaign season will tell us about Montana — more, in fact, than it will tell us about the candidates themselves — is that often where the political divide runs deepest, the issues fracture along rural and urban fault lines.
An article in the WSJ from March of this year noted that “Polling, consumer data, and demographic profiles paint a picture of two Americas—not just with differing proclivities but different life experiences…In many ways the split between red Republican regions and blue Democratic ones—and their opposing views about the role of government—is an extension of the cultural divide between rural Americans and those living in cities and suburbs.”
The rural-urban divide in Montana is stark and continues to grow. In rural areas where agriculture forms the economic base, increasing on-farm automation and consolidation of farm and ranchland have resulted in a migratory shift towards Montana’s urban centers. More and more people from out of state are moving to Montana’s urban areas. They bring with them new cultural and social values. These population shifts will continue. By 2030, it’s predicted that 80% of Montanans will live in just 7 cities.
This migration will have far-reaching consequences. It will not just be a demographic shift, but a seismic shift in the bedrock of Montana’s culture.
And, as the general campaign heats up (with issue-specific ads that highlight the rifts between rural and urban Montana), tone might assume that the divide between rural and urban will only grow deeper and more bitter.
However, we should question that assumption. Despite the ads you’ll see, Montana is not permanently split in two. There have been times when Montanans have come together on important matters. In 1972, Montana held a Constitutional Convention, a bipartisan effort supported by the electorate that resulted in our current form of State government. The Stillwater Mining Good Neighbor Agreement is another result of rural and urban interests working together. Recent successes include the Blackfoot Challenge and the unanimous passage of Montana’s 2013 budget.
It is possible for politics in Montana to be something other than a zero-sum game. But, in order for that to happen, Montanans must demand a change in the tone of our political conversation. In a lightly populated state like Montana, we simply must work together. The promise that all Montanans should extract from candidates they support is: “I will respect other perspectives, even if I don’t agree with them.”
Those candidates who appeal to voters on the premise that if they are elected, they will crush the opposition, are not only promising something they are incapable of delivering, but are openly asking to be elected to carry out an act of vengeance on the other party and those whom that party represents. Vengeance does not result in strong, constructive public policy. It only results in reciprocating acts of vengeance.
The one thing that all Montanans, including those elected to public office, can agree on is that we live in a remarkable place. From the snowy pinnacles of the Rocky Mountains to the cold, trout-filled rivers running through lush valleys, to the vast rolling plains of grain and cattle, Montana holds a singular place in the American mythos. For many of us, it exerts such an inexorable, gravitational pull that, whether we are here by virtue of birth or immigration, once we experience it, we can never leave.
And that leads us to a simple conclusion: We’re all in this together. Whether we live in Troy or Missoula, Medicine Lake or Billings, Broadus or Bozeman, we must find a way to keep moving forward — not apart from the people we don’t agree with, but together. Rural and urban Montana are not just interconnected, they are interdependent. Urban Montana has essentials that rural Montana needs — access to healthcare, higher education, and markets for agricultural products and professional services. Rural Montana has what urban Montana wants — clean water, food, wildlife, and room to roam. While we might not all share the same social, cultural, or religious beliefs as our town or farm neighbors, we do all share the same air, the same water, the same education system, the same roads, the same natural resources — the list goes on. Above all, we share a love for the place we call home.
Good policy is the result of compromise reached only after vigorous, healthy disagreement. But all too often, disagreement is replaced with disrespect. The two are not the same. When making policy, constructive outcomes are only possible when debate is carried out in an atmosphere of mutual respect. An individual’s judgment or position on a given issue should always be fair game, but attacks on character have no place in Montana.
After the election is over, and the rhetoric dies down, we will still have to work with each other to solve our problems. When we go to the polls this fall, let’s hope we all consider whether those we vote for are capable of respecting and working with those on the opposite side of the rural-urban divide.
Hannibal Anderson, Board Chair, Lisa Grace, Executive Director, Francis Blake, Dorothy Bradley, William Bryan, Cheryl Curry, Debra Halliday, Robert Hawks, Jim Peterson, Sandy Pew, Members of the Board