News, notes, and observations from the James River Valley in northern South Dakota with special attention to reviewing the performance of the media--old and new. E-Mail to

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Where did all the Democrats go? Update in the comments.

There is much discussion in the press and on blogs about the declining number of Democratic voter registrations in South Dakota. There is an explanation that most would not like to hear:

Democrats are leaving the state--both mentally and physically.

Some illustrative perspectives on that:

The demographics are changing, with young people migrating out and older people moving in.  As long as I have been in South Dakota in higher education, a perennial concern has been the outmigration of young people, particularly those with talent and ambition.  This has been a trend in South Dakota since statehood, when Hamlin Garland examined the forces that drove the children of homesteaders to look for and make lives for themselves elsewhere.  In the time I taught at a South Dakota university, the administration and faculty were in constant discussion over where young people were going and why.

The tracking of students revealed a pattern among college-age students that became an entrenched custom.  The most talented and achieving high school students left the state after graduation to attend out-of-state colleges which lured them with scholarships and prestigious programs.  Of those South Dakota students who attended state colleges, most of them regarded their education as preparation to find more rewarding and fulfilling lives in other places.  At one time, a college president enraged the regents and many citizens when he promoted the idea that an education at his South Dakota institution would prepare them for successful lives elsewhere.  He coined the slogan for Northern State as the "Gateway Institution" and was sternly advised to abandon that approach.  It did address the expectations of the students.  

The fact was that when most South Dakota students graduated from their state colleges, they did, in fact, seek and find work or post-graduate education outside the state.  Students of talent and ambition found that the social and political climate in South Dakota discouraged intellectual work and lifestyles.  Not until recent years did the regents acknowledge that fact and attempt to take measures for higher education that would be conducive to intellectual work.  The conversion of the Homestake Goldmine into the Sanford Underground Laboratory was catalytic in the attempt to change the state's reputation for intellectual work and research. 

Intellectual work thrives in a liberal climate, liberal in the sense that it is open to diversity, exploration, and innovation.  

The state struggles to provide opportunities for the educated and ambitious.  They generally trend toward Democratic political attitudes because of its support for equality in civil rights and educational opportunities which allow people to explore and choose lifestyles that the more staid citizenry is upset by.  So, the outmigration of the young and talented continues.

Other factors that reduce the number of people who have Democratic sympathies are in the attrition process.  In this aspect,  I have witnessed what takes place in a population sample.  For many years, I have been involved in maintaining a list of the most active Democrats in  and around Brown County.   We spent a considerable effort in compiling this list.  In recent years, it has shrunk to about half the size that it was at its peak.  Every month, when we make mailings, we get returned mail from those who have died or moved away.  And as older people are removed from the list for these reasons, there are few younger people to replace them.  It is not that the younger people incline to the other party; it's that the other party has become so offensively small-minded and obsessed with its scurrilous malignity and oppression of women and minorities that younger people of discernment find party politics too degrading and offensive to be a part of it.

This was illustrated before the election of 2010 when I was approached to help recruit some candidates to run for Senate against John Thune.   I have mentioned this a number of times, but some very qualified and able potential candidates emphatically declined to become candidates because they did not want to expose themselves and their families to the kind of destructive nastiness that campaigns have become.  The candidates were fully acquainted with the political process and pointed out the permanent damage that political campaigns inflict upon candidates and families.  As a result, John Thune ran unopposed.

One of the potential candidates had a very hefty file of materials from the Daschle/Thune campaign that he studied in making his decision.  He said the person who could meet the Thune campaign on the terms that Thune operated on is not kind of the person he could vote for.  The voters decided who they wanted, he said, and endorsed Thune's campaign.  In so doing, they have identified what they conceived the state to be, and that is not a state the potential candidate could serve, he said.  

That person is one of those who has, in effect, left the state.  He expanded his business interests to another state and has gradually shifted his concentration to that  state, where his family has moved.  The success of his business is the deciding factor for the family's move to another state over political climate, but politics cannot be dismissed as having an important role.  A big question is why some kinds of business, particularly those requiring high levels of education and intellectual skills, do not find potential for growth in South Dakota. The question goes right back to the reasons for the outmigration of young people.  

The man during a conversation once remarked that misplaced sentimental loyalties impede progress and damage lives that have great potential.  He remarked that many South Dakotans do not realize that the spirit of the settlers who formed the state moved with their children.  

In one discussion I had with potential candidates, one of them posed the proposition that for someone from South Dakota it was difficult to oppose bad programs that poured money into the state.  If one wanted to deal with South Dakota's professed conservatism while clamoring for federal funds, it would be better to be in another state where Congressional representatives could vote against South Dakota pork with impunity.   While the remarks were made somewhat facetiously, they say something about the South Dakota constituency and the stark opposition between what they want candidates to profess on the surface but practice on the Congressional floor.

Many Democrats have simply ceded South Dakota to the Republicans and are too busy trying to arrange their lives for other possibilities to devote time or energy to politics.  A dynamic leader might raise some hope in the minds of the liberal-leaning, but the reality is that the majority will cast the deciding vote that shapes the nature of the state.

For many people from South Dakota,  it is a good place to leave.   


caheidelberger said...

Is there no way around this awful cultural trend of Dems checking out? Your 2010 non-candidate's assessment of the electorate, of what it takes to get elected, and of the damage it would do to his soul to try is a daming indictment of any hope for change. But there's got to be a way, right? South Dakota hasn't been left with a completely irrational majority, has it? Aren't there still enough voters to whom we could make the rationale case for change?

larry kurtz said...

Greetings from Santa Fe, David: don't forget to turn the lights off before you flee.

David Newquist said...

Larry, Santa Fe is one of the places I might come to.

Cory, I think the key lies with our universities. The state bungled the Homestake by making it an economic development project and turning off the National Science Foundation and all the scientists who had signed on in support of the original plans. Many friends involved in politics have children who have worked on campaigns and staffed Congressional offices. Not a one has remained in South Dakota. Perhaps it is time to make use of the Internet media to focus on some propositions that can be discussed without the constant static of the Sibbies, the Jones, and provide a place for people who want to explore information, not put their egos on display. The nature of our political discourse is one of the biggest discouragements to the young and the talented.

caheidelberger said...

Hmmm... which propositions? And how do we avoid the excesses of our current blogosphere?

David Newquist said...

A good proposition to begin with is public education. It has been the constant factor in the development of America and now is under attack because an informed, critically thinking citizenry is such a threat to a national mentality shaped by corporate "messaging."

One of our former contributors is participating in a study which confirms what communications scholars have said for some time: the totally open, unedited discussions on the Internet do not distinguish between informed, fact-based, qualified opinions and the spurious reactions. Consequently, it is all regarded as the noise of the Internet. It has the result of, say, posting the Federalist Papers along with the graffiti on a public outhouse wall. The rule I am most familiar with from newspaper days is that the right to free speech includes the right to edit, particularly for quality, and it is the full exercise of this standard that built the reputation of The New York Times, The New Yorker, and many of the academic journals. There are forums from which the uninformed, the scurrilous, and the obsessive should be excluded. Note how discussion threads depart so quickly from the topics they cover and go on and on without focus or point. I am talking about forms which are edited for coherence and effective expression undergirded by strenuous fact-checking. That means something quite different from what casual blogging does.

David Newquist said...

I received a number of e-mails pointing out a response to this post by Al Novstrup at Bob Mercer's blog:

Novstrup complains that this post is short on facts. The post is not an attempt to explore the facts, but a response to a general, ongoing discussion over the facts of the "brain drain" from South Dakota. Novstrup cites some figures from which he concludes that the young, talented, and ambitious are not leaving the state. He contradicts what has been discussed and noted at length by the Regents and other education officials and some measures have been put in place to stop the brain drain by attracting businesses that can utilize talent and encourage it to remain in the state.
The overall population statistics do not show this problem. Here are the census figures from 2010 and 2000 to show the age demographics:

814,180 100.0
Under 5 years 59,621 7.3
5 to 9 years 55,531 6.8
10 to 14 years 53,960 6.6
15 to 19 years 57,628 7.1
20 to 24 years 57,596 7.1
25 to 29 years 55,570 6.8
30 to 34 years 49,859 6.1
35 to 39 years 45,766 5.6
40 to 44 years 47,346 5.8
45 to 49 years 57,519 7.1
50 to 54 years 59,399 7.3
55 to 59 years 54,231 6.7
60 to 64 years 43,573 5.4
65 to 69 years 31,944 3.9
70 to 74 years 25,683 3.2
75 to 79 years 21,724 2.7
80 to 84 years 18,004 2.2
85 years and over 19,226 2.4

Total population 754,844 100.0
Male 374,558 49.6
Female 380,286 50.4
Under 5 years 51,069 6.8
5 to 9 years 54,486 7.2
10 to 14 years 59,463 7.9
15 to 19 years 62,463 8.3
20 to 24 years 52,802 7.0
25 to 34 years 91,013 12.1
35 to 44 years 115,386 15.3
45 to 54 years 97,682 12.9
55 to 59 years 33,611 4.5
60 to 64 years 28,738 3.8
65 to 74 years 53,129 7.0
75 to 84 years 38,916 5.2
85 years and over 16,086 2.1

It takes more detailed studies, such as those done at Boston College to reveal the trends. Its study concludes:

"From 2000-2006, the changes in the age distribution of South Dakota’s population
generally reflected national trends. That is, in South Dakota, there was a decrease
in the percentage of the population under the age of 25 and between the ages
of 35-44, and an increase in the 45-64 age group. In comparison to national
statistics, South Dakota matched the increase in the percentage of people aged
75 and older.

"Compared to national statistics, South Dakota is expected to witness more
significant decreases in two population groups: those under the age of 25 and
those aged 45-54. In addition, the South Dakota population will age more rapidly
than the country as a whole. That is, there will be a higher percentage point
change in the 55 and older age group between 2006 and 2010."

Novstrup cites the enrollment increases at the state universities to refute the contention that the young are leaving. I cannot speak to the other universities, but note that NSU reversed its enrollment decline by attracting a large number of Korean and Chinese students, who will return to the their home countries.

John said...

Mr. Novstrup appears to view South Dakota through rose colored glasses. Another measure is finding where the students secure employment 1 year after graduation. Let's say we begin at the SD university with the highest success of job placement; a university with nearly 100% graduate employment annually; a university where graduates starting salaries top an average of over $60k. The graduates of SDSMT do not hang around South Dakota - and these graduates, arguably are among the least liberal, least liberal-arts oriented, and the mostly highly educated in science and math. Mr. Novstrup should tour SD's campuses to see the faces of the students and tour the career days displays to see just how few of the recruiters are offering jobs that pay competitive wages - then report back.

David Newquist said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
David Newquist said...

Here us the link to the Boston College study:

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