The 2010 election resulted in some conundrums about Democrats in South Dakota. Actually, what it resulted in was used condoms. Those deflated vessels of spent wisdom lying in the roadside ditches. Underneath the bullet-riddled road signs.
One of the gems of wisdom some folks are trying to re-inflate is that one party government is not good for South Dakota. (We've been saying that for decades. And the state is the product, largely, of one party govmint.) The soothsayers say that the Democratic Party has a responsibility to give South Dakotans a choice, even if they have no interest or inclination in making such a choice. Democrats, they sooth say further, need to take a lesson from their defeat and change. They need to become Republicans. Now, that's a used condom conundrum, if ever I heard one.
There are some facts contained in the census and survey statistics about South Dakota that apply. The Democrats have to confront a demographic shift that no one in the state likes to think about. People in their energetic, creative, and productive years have to leave South Dakota to find jobs and to find a cultural climate that supports, or at least tolerates, the energetic, creative, and productive. This outmigration of the young, talented, and innovative has been going on since the children of the state's first white settlers sought to find and build satisfying lives. Currently, it is referred to as the brain drain. These are generally the kind of people the Democratic Party has attracted to its ranks.
Bob Mercer posed the question of why defeated legislators such as Stephanie Herseth Sandlin do not return to South Dakota and take up public service. He was a bit exercised when a legislator replied, "She's got too much talent to stay here." It is more to the point to ask, what could she possibly do here? Make debt collection calls in a boiler room? Join in community development efforts with those who have termed her scholarship at Georgetown and her work as a congresswoman in Washington a betrayal of South Dakota? And one of the things not considered in Mercer's question is the effects of the toxic political environment. It is one thing to vote people out of office when they are ineffective or when one does not like their policies. But South Dakota campaigns become ad hominem contests comprised of libels and accusations meant only to destroy. They are not campaigns of rhetoric. Those factors permanently damage the cultural environment. Friends and neighbors do not engage in libel, insult, and abuse. Neither do they endorse such tactics. People who participate and advocate such tactics are not friends or neighbors with whom any decent, rational soul would invest one's life. The people, not the deposed candidates, make the choices and create the environment. That people prefer not to live in such an environment inspires a great deal of petulance, but people with something to offer would be fools not to invest it someplace where it can count.
The state is growing in population. It's about 812,000 now. And who is replacing those who depart and are increasing the population? Eighty-eight percent are white guys of both sexes. Kids under 18 account for about one-quarter of the population. And those who are moving into South Dakota are retirees and people who are taking jobs in the usury business and other businesses that take advantage of the sweat shop conditions on which the state sells its business climate. And who wants these kinds of jobs? Not people who have prepared themselves with education and the development of skills. Businesses in the high-tech and knowledge-base fields locate where the work pools offer the talent they need. Party organizers know well that the demographics of the state are trending away from the Democratic Party.
What may help South Dakota may be found in the reason that job creation has failed as part of the recovery from the recession. Three decades of supply side economic policy and service-centered jobs, with a brief respite in the 90s, have eliminated middle class jobs from the national opportunity. People of talent and ability who would leave South Dakota really have no place to go right now, unless they are willing to search outside the U.S. The potential for the jobs they want in the country has been strangled. This report from McClatchy outlines the situation:
The good paying, predominantly white-collar jobs that once sustained many American communities are disappearing at an alarming rate, keeping the unemployment rate stubbornly high despite the end of the Great Recession.
More troubling, these jobs in accounting, financial analysis, commercial printing and a broad array of other mostly white-collar occupations are unlikely to come back, experts predict.
There isn't a single cause to the trend. Some of it is explained by changing technology, some of it is the result of automation. Sending well-paying jobs to low-cost centers abroad is another big part of the story. So is global competition from emerging economies such as China and India.
The result is the same in all cases, however. Jobs that paid well, required skills and produced vital communities are going away and aren't being replaced by anything comparable.
The kind of people who gravitate to the Democratic Party have been leaving the state in a consistent stream, but the lack of opportunity developing elsewhere could stem that flow. Young South Dakotans looking for jobs have no place to go at the moment. And that situation is something the Democratic Party is the best equipped political organization to address.
The South Dakota Democratic Party has two young men vying for its chairmanship: Ben Nesselhuf and Mitch Fargen. They are both unusually intelligent, talented, energetic, and innovative. They can take the state Democratic Party in new directions.
Whoever takes over the chairmanship of the party will do so without a major burden that has restrained party activities. The new chair will not immediately be faced with a debt that has taken up so much energy and effort within the party in recent years. That debt has been discharged, so funds raised in the future will not have to be devoted to paying off old debts.
The harsh fact that faces Democrats is that the political system which puts people in elective office is totally dysfunctional. It is irrelevant and is the greatest impediment to state (and nation) building. Campaigns based upon selling misinformation and disinformation, on who can mount the most effective libels and create the most hatred cannot result in legislative bodies that function for the public good. The Democrats, in their time of defeat, have an opportunity to reform politics. That reform hinges on a refusal to play the usual political games, to take political activity out of the arena of ad hominem sport and put it in the neighborhoods where it can address issues, not ploys and strategies for the exertion of power.
Begin with the fact that if the young, the bright, and talented are to find opportunity in the state (or the nation, for that matter), it won't be found in the current legislatures. Elections produce nothing but rancor and lead to nothing but oppressive gridlock through the power game playing. A reformed political party must understand that to contribute to beneficial change, it will have to work around the state government, not through it. The old Non-Partisan League, which formed in the Dakotas early in their statehood, has some lessons for our current time.
Just as the Non-Partisan League built its influence through addressing the actual concerns of farmers who realized that the railroads and grain companies were impediments to their lives, the Democratic Party must acknowledge the forces that keep so much of South Dakota in a state of thralldom. The Non-Partisan League challenged the stifling oppression by the business community through state-owned banks, grain elevators, mills, and banned corporate farming. Many people objected to the socialist aspects, but state government in South Dakota is dominated by the credit bank interests, so there is really no difference between the rule of state government and the rule by banks. The Party needs to strengthen and revitalize its presence in those enclaves in the state where it has its support, and it must work at the local level to build functioning relationships with the segments within and outside the state that make the creation of viable communities its priority. The election of sacrificial goats and/or scape goats to the state legislature is more of a distraction than a reasonable focus of political activity.
The miserable economic and cultural state of the country is largely the result of its plunge back into feudalism, only this time global corporations occupy the lordly manors. When it comes to jobs, these corporations have no interest in building the nation. Their driving force is to enlarge the serfdom and make the serfs dependent on and subservient to a ruling class that wants privileges and benefits only for itself. Cheap and controllable labor that will not detract from profits is the business model in force. It is impossible to miss the fascistic display put on in the corporate world as it bestowed bonuses and luxuries on its executives at the height of the recession and as it launches a concerted resistance to any regulatory measures that might restrain its arbitrary and unlimited control over the nation's economy. The significance of the election of 2010 is in what happens when corporations have the unbridled power and wealth to control elections with massive propaganda blitzes. When the corporate feudal state defined its enemies, it also defined itself as the enemy of middle class America. If the Democratic Party is to serve any genuine political function, it must be the party of resistance. But also the party of viable alternatives.
Running for election or re-election in South Dakota means that in order to represent the will of the people, candidates must compromise party principles. This election just past is a case study in futility. Perhaps, at some point, the electorate might wish to forgo its one-party government, but Democrats have to more shrewdly face up to the fact that under current conditions, state government will not and cannot respond to their principles. The Democrats have 37 percent of the registered to the Republicans' 45 percent. Still, 37 percent is a pretty hefty number to use as a starting point for the Democrats to define themselves rather than answer to the Republicans' outworn epithets of the party of big government and big spending. There are important things that need to be done and can be done in South Dakota if the Democratic Party focuses on its constituency and works with its national alliances. It can reduce the state's dependency on federal handouts and reduce the national debt by targeting farm programs which benefit corporations, not people. It can move toward remedying the disgrace of the reservations by insisting that the treaties be honored and the return of lands to the tribes be negotiated. It can inform people about which businesses and business practices are detrimental to their well being and facilitate their patronage of honest businesses that contribute to the state and local communities. And it can begin transforming the way politics are done and government is administered by concentrating on the enclaves within the state where the Democratic Party has its power. In other words, the party can build itself by serving its people.
The Democratic Party tried in the last election to reflect some Republican approaches to government. Within its own ranks, it lost some interest and credibility. As long as it is in the minority, it can reassert its own principles and address the concerns of its members, and that will involve doing politics in a different way and refusing to be part of a system that has submitted to corporate control.
It is time to try integrity of purpose and adherence to principle. There is nothing to lose.