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The Roaring Fork Schools held a series of community meetings earlier this month to ask the public’s opinions about the progress we are making and the road ahead. The most surprising set of meetings was those we held for community leaders. Among them were mayors, police chiefs, nonprofit executives, elected representatives, journalists, city and county employees, and business leaders. Despite the group’s differences, all were open to listening to other views and working together.

This is in stark contrast with the tone of our national discourse, which is becoming more rancorous and winner-takes-all.

A new report about America’s “Hidden Tribes” explores the deep divides polarizing the nation. It finds that many Americans are separated along the extremes, adhering to far left or far right wing ideologies. However, rather than this two-way split, the report describes America as segmented into multiple tribes according to their political and cultural beliefs. At the extremes, each side is bent on defeating the other. The vast middle, however, comprising 77 percent of the population, is characterized as the “exhausted majority,” whose voices are often drowned out by extreme views but who believe that there is much that holds America together in common.

To me, the most promising aspect of the report is the assertion that most people, not in the extreme wing groups, are still open to listening to one another, remaining flexible, and changing their views. While the exhausted majority tends to be much less likely than people on the wings to attend political rallies or donate money to advocacy organizations, they are extremely likely to vote in local elections. To me, local is what it’s all about, and our local affairs seem on a much healthier course.

Contrary to the Hidden Tribes report, which claims that people’s social and political views can be predicted by the tribes to which they belong, the community leaders in the Roaring Fork valley were impossible to predict. We heard none of the stereotyping and tribalism described in the Hidden Tribes report from our local leaders. Whereas the report characterizes conservatives as isolationist and liberals focused on inequality, our participants were full of surprises.

We will be reporting on the substance of those conversations at a later date, but the tone and tenor of the conversations were striking. For example, a traditionally conservative police chief decried that Latino and Anglo students seem to live in two separate “tribes” (his air quotes) and that we need to do more to break down and integrate the two cultures. A town council member spoke to the need to start thinking more regionally, crossing municipal and jurisdictional barriers to work in more common purpose.

The Hidden Tribes report says that one of the main forces driving polarization is the weakening of local communities, which creates room for an us-versus-them narrative. To the contrary, one of the valley’s leading environmentalists sat at the table with one of its leading developers, as they laughed and broke bagels together. We heard a great deal from all participants about the desire to work together and to continue to invest more in our children.

These are community leaders, so one might expect them to be less self-interested and more apt to seek common interests. But it stood in fresh contrast to the dialogue among leaders at the national level. Whereas our national dialogue seems to sound crazier and more divisive all the time, our local dialogue is remarkably sane. If the national dialogue belongs to the rigid extremes, our local discourse occurs in the flexible middle. And if, nationally, leaders of the political parties don’t mix socially like they used to in the days of Tip O'Neill and Ronald Reagan, our local leaders are constantly interacting.

The Hidden Tribes report says that, even in this climate of political extremism, most Americans “believe that compromise is necessary in politics, as in other parts of life, and want to see the country come together and solve its problems.” It’s great to see leaders in the Roaring Fork valley demonstrating how that’s done.

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