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Our great nation is challenged in many ways as the first decade of the 21st century closes.

We are experiencing a huge national debt, state governments on the brink, high unemployment, crumbling infrastructure and an education system that is in decline. Political morass seems incapable of offering solutions. There is a widespread feeling of hopelessness and lack of direction in a large segment of our citizenry. Recent polls indicate eight out of 10 Americans mistrust their government.

This frustration has given rise to several movements whose purpose is to address these difficulties. The Tea Party, Occupy Wall Street, 99 percent vs. 1 percent, Transfer Bank Funds Day are all examples of the frustrations being felt by citizens. In Montana, politics is entrenched in an “us vs. them” mentality. Extremism has become an accepted and standard norm. The Billings Gazette recently detailed the emergence of more and larger extremist groups in northwestern Montana, and we just observed the most contentious state legislative session in recent memory.

For the ordinary citizen, the inability of our elected leaders to address our current challenges is disheartening. The predictable and understandable qualities of statesmanship, politeness and civility in our political system is becoming a fading memory. Good leadership qualities once formed the basis for consensus, problem solving and forward progress. In our state and federal governments, these are often lacking.

The state of affairs as described is apparent to all. So how did we get here? Without pointing fingers, it is clear that the pervasive influence of money in the political process has been debilitating. This money-based system breeds influence peddling, favoritism and crony capitalism which has put the system and the American dream in jeopardy. Money has turned politics into an economic exercise and it is compromising the best interests of our states and the nation. Large parts of our citizenry lack the “ante” to play the game and, as a result, become marginalized and excluded. Our founding fathers would be ashamed.

Does this money-based system work? Most likely, it does not. In addition, it creates a paradox in which the citizenry that elects the leaders, holds those self same leaders in low esteem. Polls frequently remind us that the approval rating for those we have hired is at an all-time low. Plato suggested that a democracy would ultimately fail because it required an informed citizenry who could knowledgeably vote their own self interest.

Politics today makes it difficult for voters to do this. Citizens are bombarded with a well-financed, dizzying, undecipherable and never-ending spin. Politics has become a mass of blurred information fed to us through sophisticated marketing techniques that make it almost impossible for the voter to think through issues and discern fact from fiction. And yet an intelligent and fully formed body politic is the only real antidote to partisanship and its resulting gridlock. Real capitalism and our democratic system are gasping for air.

The recent congressional debacle relative to paying down the national debt is a glaring example and an embarrassment to our nation.

Democracy in America was never meant to be easy. Its promise to its citizens has always been that individual and collective efforts and hard work bring opportunities for better lives. Today, our young people, eager and well trained, enter a society wondering if they have a place at the table. More disturbing is this generation’s disgust with our system of government. When this generation attempts to “be involved,” they are greeted by bureaucracy, elitism, rule rigging, exclusionary favoritism and a world that looks more like an exclusive club rather than a place of opportunity and promise. This state of affairs will ultimately crush and tear apart the promise and fabric of America.

We will regain our footing by being informed and carefully selecting leadership that does not sell out and instead puts the interests of our way of life in the forefront. Anything less puts our futures in peril. We need voters supporting candidates who display heart, courage and willingness to do what is right for the greatest good. For this, our nation waits and prays.

Jim Roscoe is the owner of Roscoe Steel & Culvert Co., a Montana corporation, and

Dennis McDonald, rancher, is past president Montana

Cattleman’s Association, past chairman of the Montana Democratic Party and 2010 U.S. congressional candidate.