Now that the primaries are over, it’s 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 agree that, when it comes to politics, our state will get a whole lot warmer in the next few months.
However, what the general campaign will really tell us about Montana is that often where the political divide runs deepest, the issues fracture along rural and urban fault lines.
This March, an article in the Wall Street Journal noted: “In many ways the split between red Republican regions and blue Democratic ones … 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 growing. In rural areas, increasing on-farm automation and consolidation are resulting in a migration towards Montana’s cities. More people from out of state are moving to Montana, bringing with them new cultural and social values. This change will continue and, by 2030, it’s predicted that 80 percent of Montanans will live in just seven cities.
This migration will have far-reaching consequences. It won’t be just a demographic shift, but a seismic shift in the bedrock of Montana’s culture.
And, as the general campaign heats up, highlighting the differences between rural and urban Montana, one might assume that the divide will only grow deeper.
However, we should question that assumption. At times, Montanans have come together on important matters. In 1972, Montana held a Constitutional Convention, a bipartisan effort supported by the electorate. The Stillwater Mining Good Neighbor Agreement was the 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 policymaking in Montana to be more than a zero-sum game, but Montanans must demand a change in the tone of our political conversation.
Candidates who appeal to voters on the premise that, if elected they will crush the other side, are asking to be elected to carry out vengeance on their opposition. Vengeance does not result in constructive public policy. It only results in reciprocating acts of vengeance. Instead, the promise that all Montanans should extract from candidates is: “I’ll respect other perspectives even if I don’t agree with them.”
The one thing that all Montanans agree on is that we live in a remarkable place. From the Rocky Mountains, to our trout-filled rivers, to the vast plains of grain and cattle, Montana holds a singular place in the American mythos. For many of us, once we’re here, 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 ways to keep moving forward.
Rural and urban Montana are interdependent. Urban Montana has essentials that rural Montana needs — access to health care, higher education, and markets for agricultural products. Rural Montana has what urban Montana wants — clean water, wildlife, and open space. We might not share the same beliefs as our town or farm neighbors, but we do all share the same air and water, the same education system, 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 after healthy disagreement. However, constructive outcomes are possible only 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 together 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.