Finding Common Ground That’s the Montana Way

Now that the primaries are over, many folks are taking the temperature of Montana’s political climate. It feels “hot” or divisive, and many believe it will only get hotter as the political season advances. They may also agree that the November election results will have major implications for Montana. Many even believe we are at a critical juncture in our state’s history. We certainly see this, at One Montana, where we are trying to create a vibrant Montana through common ground.

The general campaign will tell us where the Montana political divide runs deepest, with many issues fracturing along fault lines of rural and urban, and east and west. What does this mean for our state?

Our demographics reflect that rural-urban and east-west divides are real and growing. Demographics show that by 2030 about 80% of Montanans will live in just seven cities, most in the western part of the state. Also, seniors over 65 will double to 26 percent of our total population. Over the same period, increasing on-farm automation and consolidation in rural areas are resulting in a migration to Montana’s urban areas. In addition, more people are moving to Montana, bringing with them new and different cultural values.

These ageing and migration trends have far-reaching consequences. The result won’t be just a demographic reshaping, but a seismic shift in the bedrock of Montana’s culture, significantly affecting how we chart our future into the next century. These shifts are going to require collaboration to work across these divides, not divisive politics that will only highlight the differences between rural and urban and eastern and western Montana.

Fortunately, our history shows that Montanans have come together on important matters, creating effective and enlightened solutions. For example, 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. More recent successes like the Blackfoot Challenge and the Montana Sage Grouse Habitat Conservation Program show that finding common ground and meaningful solutions can still be a driving force in our culture.

So, is it possible for Montana policymaking to be more than a zero-sum game? Yes, but we Montanans must demand a change in the tone of our political conversation.

Candidates who appeal to voters by saying they will “crush the other side” are asking to be elected to carry out retribution on their opposition. Vengeance does not result in constructive public policy. We see that in Washington again and again. It only brings reciprocating acts of retribution. Instead, the promise that we Montanans should demand from our candidates is: “I will respect other perspectives even if I don’t agree with them and I will look for solutions that will help all Montanans.”

The one thing we all agree on is that we live in a remarkable place. From the Rockies to our trout-filled rivers to the vast open spaces of grain and livestock grazing, Montana holds a singular place in the enlightened American experience. For many, once we’re here, we never want to leave.

That leads us to a simple conclusion: We’re all in this together. Whether we live in Libby or Plentywood or Missoula or Broadus, we must find ways to communicate respectfully and productively with one another to keep moving forward.

Rural or urban, eastern or western, we are all interdependent. Urban Montana has essentials that rural Montana needs — access to quality healthcare, higher education, and markets for agricultural and energy products. Rural Montana has what much of urban Montana wants — clean water, wildlife, open space, and energy resources. We might not share the same beliefs, but we all share the same air and water, the same education system, and the same natural resources. Above all, we share a love for the place we call home.

Good policy is the result of collaboration and reasonable compromise after healthy disagreement. However, constructive outcomes are possible only when communication and debate happen in an atmosphere of mutual respect and trust. An individual’s judgment or position on a given issue should be fair game, but attacks on character and integrity have no place in Montana.

After the election and the rhetoric subside, we still have to work together to solve our problems. When we go to the polls this fall, let’s consider whether the candidates we vote for are capable of respecting and working with those who have differing views. This is the last best place - only we can keep it that way.    

Jim Peterson, Board Chair, One Montana, Rancher and former President of the Montana State Senate

Bill Bryan, President, One Montana, Co-founder and former CEO of Off the Beaten Path, an International travel planning service. One Montana, a non-partisan entity focuses on creating a vibrant Montana by connecting rural and urban communities.