Voter registrations in South Dakota continue to rise for Republicans and Independents while Democrats plummet. That is true here in Brown County, which has historically been a Democratic stronghold.
It is hard to determine just what accounts for the shifts in registration, as the changes in registration from one party to another are not tracked, so the reasons and patterns of motivation behind the registration figures are left to speculation.
The registration figures have an economic and social context. I have noted often, after maintaining a list of the most active Democratic voters in Brown County, that Democrats are leaving the state physically through attrition and mentally through disaffection. In Brown County, a staff member of the Aberdeen Development Corporation told the county commission that companies are hesitant to locate in the community because of a shortage of workers. That statement must be seen in the context of the bankruptcy and closing of the Northern Beef Packers which left workers who had moved to Aberdeen for the jobs were stranded with little chance of finding other jobs in the state.
The failure of the beef plant and the attitude towards workers that prevails among Brown County businesses are strong signals to workers of the kind of thinking and mindset that defines the life offered to them. But the hard data about wages and living expenses sets the foundation for why there is a shortage in the workforce and the decline of Democrats in Brown County and the state. If one takes the range of wages offered for what jobs are available in Aberdeen and adds up the costs of housing rental, utilities, food, transportation, clothing, and necessary incidentals, one finds that the wages fall far short of covering a subsistence level of living.
A colleague and I worked on an analysis of wages in the Aberdeen area to determine if it is possible to live on the prevailing wage scale for available jobs, which is between $8 and $10 an hour. In rounded numbers, a person at $8 an hour earns $320 a week, $1300 a month, $16,640 a year. A person at $10 an hour makes $400 a week, $1730 a month, $20,800 a year. Our goal was to apply documented cost-of-living figures to the wages earned and see if the costs were covered. We obtained information from a number of young people and confronted a problem. The generalized figures for cost of living did not match up with the actual experiences of the workers.
An example was in rent. Most of the single young people who supplied us data shared apartments or houses with other singles. There was a very common experience among them. A housemate decided to move away for better opportunities and the remaining tenants or tenant had to cover their share of the rent when they left and pay to fulfill the terms of the lease. They found themselves in financial difficulty. Housing is a problem. Many years ago while I was working at NSU, the student services ended maintaining a list of approved off-campus rentals because it found so few it could approve. In recent years, Aberdeen has had a surge in apartment units to provide alternatives to old structures converted into badly designed, poorly maintained, squalid, and over-priced units. The problem is that the newer units start at $800 a month plus a month’s rent deposit, which is not possible to manage for one person earning $1300 a month and half of that, if an apartment is shared, doesn’t leave much to cover the other necessities. Absolutely Aberdeen, a promotional organization for the city, advertises that 1,000 jobs are available in Aberdeen, but it does not reflect the nature of those jobs and the pay scale and what kind of life they support. I have talked with numerous people engaged in job hunting, and none of them can understand where that 1,000 figure comes from. Many young people who provided us with case data on their employment status have to get financial help from government agencies or their parents to manage financially and cover a subsistence existence.
The steep rise in food costs also hits those low-wage budgets hard. That does not include restaurants, which struggle in Aberdeen. Two once-popular restaurants closed since the first of the year. Groceries, especially meat and produce, have experienced a sharp increase and more is projected in economic forecasts.
Even the proverbial idiot with a hand calculator can figure out that the majority of jobs in Aberdeen cannot support a person to cover the necessities, let alone offer any kind of a future. That holds true throughout the state. So, people leave or keep working at low wage jobs while trying to save up to make an eventual change. Most of those who we have talked with about the job situation think it is so rooted in the culture and provincial mindset that there is no effective political action that can change it. They feel like they are forced to leave the state because the opportunities to develop a well-paying, satisfying career do not exist in South Dakota. The prevailing mindset clings to a conservative notion that rejects social and intellectual progress and believes in an ethic that the only good is making money. People who do not subscribe to the money-is-power ethic are considered unworthy and not deserving of consideration. And those who receive the signal that they are unworthy have no interest in the place that regards them that way. While there are good, intelligent, and beneficent people in South Dakota. its politics and culture have a malignant, belligerent strain that poisons and characterithzes the social atmosphere. And the people most aware of it are those with liberal leanings, and they are becoming convinced that if they are to have possibilites in the future, South Dakota is not the place they will be found.
The dominating sect worships the gospel of ignorance and hate spewed by Rush Limbaugh and his imitators. Limbaugh is to America what Joseph Goebbels was to Germany. However, his target is not Jews but liberals. He uses the same propaganda techniques of defamation, misstating and distorting facts. generally preaching a message of hatred and vicious malevolence. The sect in South Dakota, which often claims Christian principles, devoutly preaches and practices his gospel, despite the fact he is the antithesis of anything Christ taught.
Democrats have not confronted the ills of South Dakota They express their love for the state, insisting that it is the nice and lovely place they see in their memories and their hopes. They have not faced what the state has become as reflected in its state legal code which endorses secrecy in government, has cemented a corrupt state-corporate relationship, and systematically strips education and worker opportunities in its attempt to create a subservient class of worker drones. And so, those who observe and understand what the state has become leave or make plans to do so.
And their decisions are reflected in the voter registration numbers.