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 MinneKota@gmail.com

Monday, May 20, 2013

Where are all the young Democrats?

I spent a week in Denver to, among other things, join the celebration of grandson Julian's first birthday.  We celebrated grandson Kace's first birthday last month in Aberdeen.   As I ponder the futures of the two boys, I find a nagging hope that Kace can find his way out of South Dakota.  The state has no  future because of the state of its present.  And it has worked toward its present state for a century.   In the past decade, however, it has made a decisive commitment to matters that seem to insure a bleak future.  The prevailing attitude toward education is the tip of an iceberg of denial and ill-will that seems to be emerging as the essential character of the state.  

 Monday morning after some e-mail exchanges with her friends, my wife gave me the news that her former boss, Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, has announced that at this time, she will not be running for any public office.  She joins another very talented young person, Brendan Johnson, in declining to run for office.  Actually, their decisions may be the best hope in working toward improvements that could return South Dakota to a viable state which can produce a future.  In the announcements that they will not seek public office at this time, both Stephanie and Brendan commented that they wish to devote their energies and efforts to their present positions outside of politics.  Brendan Johnson is the state's U.S. attorney who has made great strides forward in reconciling and coordinating federal and tribal justice systems.  The dominant attitude of South Dakotans toward the native Americans is a cultural malignancy that has done severe damage to the state.  Stephanie Herseth Sandlin has stated that family is a big consideration in her decision, but she gave equal emphasis to her job with Raven Industries, a leading corporation centered in South Dakota.  

I do not to presume to know all the factors considered in their decisions, but I do know their backgrounds and know that both are people whose decisions would not include any of the provincial exclusions and hate-based discriminations that have become issues in the state's political dialogue.  Even if a person opposes those exclusions and discriminations, they become issues forced upon them during campaigns, and they divert attention away from the issues of creating a future in the state which addresses matters of liberty, equality, and justice.  And opportunity.  But South Dakota is mired down by prejudicial, bigoted attitudes, and people who want productive and contributory lives come to the realization that they must either move or resign themselves to hoping that they can make changes that make such lives possible.  That latter option is clouded by the reality that the prospect of such changes has become increasingly remote of late.  

Most significantly, the demographics of the state, as reflected in its recent elections to state and federal offices, have made politics an unlikely vehicle for change.  In 2010, when the South Dakota Democratic Party needed a candidate to run against John Thune for U.S. Senate, party supporters asked a number of officers to work at recruiting some good candidates.  I was among those, and had the opportunity to interview some very qualified and capable young people.  That was a time when I was confronted with a reality about the prospects of South Dakota.  The people I talked with had reviewed the possibilities and found that engaging in state politics could be lethal to family life and to any aspirations to lead a mindful life.  They thought that exposing their families to the kind of defamation and denigration that the John Thune campaign used in 2004 would be unconscionable, and they could not see how it would be possible to do anything  constructive in a political environment seething with provincial malice.  The people I talked with seemed to have a consensus that anything good for South Dakota would have to come from outside the political arena.  

Brendan Johnson and Stephanie Herseth Sandlin have both serious demerits against their candidacies:  they both hold degrees from prestigious universities outside the state--in the east.   Herseth Sandlin went to Georgetown U. after graduation from Groton High School on a scholarship.  She then obtained  a law degree from there.  Brendan Johnson moved to Washington,  D.C., from Vermillion, when his dad was elected to Congress,  for his high school years.  He then returned to graduate from the U. of South Dakota.  But then, he obtained his law degree at the University of Virginia.  Woops.  Accomplishments in academics and professional life outside of South Dakota are lethal, particularly if those places carry the aura of prestige. Many South Dakotans hate accomplishment and performance that exceed anything that might raise the level of expectations in South Dakota.  The GOP has been successful in fanning that resentful sense of inferiority into a political rage that wins elections.  If you hold degrees from institutions that demonstrate excellence and you manage to accomplish things in high places, you have committed the unforgivable sin against South Dakota.  Unless the state needs someone of such attainment and accomplishment to go to Washington to bolster the federal subsidies on which the state depends for its existence, it will not elect such a person to Congress.  

Any smart potential candidate must consider how their accomplishments and experience will be regarded in South Dakota, and how such a background might be contrived as defamation and abuse against them and their families.  Such potential candidates must also think seriously about how they can represent the people who are committed to resentment and hatefulness to the nation.  Does one really wish to be obliged to these kind of people?  Of course, successful politicians must deny or ignore the presence of the ill-willed and malevolent among their constituents.  To those who wish to build a sustaining culture and a nation of true liberty, equality, and justice,  politics does not offer much opportunity for service.  And so, many young Democrats opt out of active participation.

And there is the matter of opportunity in South Dakota.  The Governor actually went to the Mall of America to try to recruit young people to the state.   There are number of groups touting life in South Dakota and attempting to lure young people to return.  I spent the past week with  a large number of young people who have left South Dakota.  When telling them of the efforts to lure young people, the inevitable reply is, "To do what?"  One of the emigrants said it was her intention to return, but after the elections of 2004 and 2010, she said the state showed an aspect of life that is simply too discouraging.  She is among those who started her education in the state, but finished out-of-state.  She said there is no opportunity in the state to use her degree, and the fact that she earned hers out-of-state would always be a demerit.  She will build her life where she has opportunity to do so.

Jobs are by no means the only factor young people consider.  The culture and the opportunities it offers to pursue talents and interests are limited.  Stifling.  Often absent. Where denial is a way of life, there is very little life. 

For years, my job was to assist students in gaining  skills, honing talents, and providing them with some knowledge of the larger world.  It was an assumption that most of those students would move out of state to find and pursue their lives.  

That is not to say that there aren't talented and accomplished people in South Dakota, but they live in cultural enclaves where they find encouragement and appreciation.  In many cases, their activities are aligned with other places.  Supposed political observers keep telling the Democrats they have to do something different if they are to remain a viable party in South Dakota. They haven't observed carefully.  They haven't observed the fact that intelligent Democrats, young and old, are doing something different.  They are not investing their lives and futures in a political process that does not work and cannot work under current conditions.  They are expending their efforts on jobs, better educational opportunities, and families.  

South Dakota politics is a casualty of the culture wars.  Democrats have by no means given up on the principles of their party.  Like the members of the Occupy Wall Street movement,  they pursue those principles in quieter, protective ways.  You won't find their efforts reflected in the news media or in political blogs.  And you won't find them in political forums.  

Politics in America has reached a state of hopeless dysfunction.  This is the one area in which South Dakota can claim to be a true leader.  People continue to carry forward the work of building America, but their America is not reflected in any of the precincts of corporate fascism. 

In the meantime, we make provisions for Kace to live in a society that has abandoned South Dakota for now. 

1 comment:

larry kurtz said...
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