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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, November 17, 2012

The land of infinite WTF

Cory Heidelberger at Madville Times has been pondering the election statistics for how they show the voting patterns in South Dakota. His findings acknowledge that there are more Republicans than Democrats, but that the Republicans are much more active and enthusiastic about going to the polls. An implication that underlies examinations of voter behavior is that campaigns affect that behavior. Campaigns can influence the way some people vote sometimes, but they are not the factors that campaign strategists seem to think they are. 

Commanding the sun to rise
Campaign strategists tend to be afflicted with the Chanticleer syndrome. In medieval fables, Chanticleer the rooster believed that his crowing is what made the sun come up in the morning. The people of the Dark Ages thought this was a wonderfully hilarious literary figure of satire, alluding to self-delusions of people who have inflated notions of their own power and importance.Chanticleer was the beautiful rooster with the clarion voice whose fatuous belief was that he called the sun up every morning, rather than just announced its ascendance. The fox was shrewd enough to see this vanity and told Chanticleer that his morning call was so beautiful that he wondered if he could not impose on the rooster to demonstrate it for him just so he could bask in its loveliness. Chanticleer was more than pleased to comply, and when he closed his eyes and stretched his beak skyward to send forth his beautiful call, the fox grabbed him by the neck and ran off. However, Chanticleer turned the tables. Fellow animals were chasing the fox to see if they couldn't get him to drop the rooster. Chanticleer said the fox was so wily that he might save himself some effort if he stopped and told his pursuers that it was pointless to give chase. The fox, agreed, and stopped to address his pursuers, and Chanticleer took the opportunity to fly up into a nearby tree.
The perils of fatuity

Political strategists claim that they create and propel the political stars into ascendency and determine their orbits. They claim they do so through their power over the electorate. For the most part, their crowing at best merely announces the rise of a political candidate. The electorate has its own mindsets. Campaigns are most effective when they endorse those mindsets.

Nowhere is that more evident than in South Dakota. The GOP has adopted a strategy to take out its Democratic opponents by claiming that the contacts, relationships, and achievements they make outside of South Dakota are betrayals of the state. This was used to unseat George McGovern from his Senate seat. The John Thune-GOP campaign used this line of attack against Tom Daschle, claiming that his Washington, D.C., house was evidence that he was violating South Dakota values, that his leadership in the Senate constituted an abandonment of his state, and that he dumped his South Dakota wife for a beauty queen from the urban world. There were other attacks on him such as claiming that Air Force veteran Daschle's opposition to making flag-burning a Constitutional crime was evidence of his lack of patriotism. 

This line of attack worked on Daschle, so it was used on Stephanie Herseth Sandlin by Kristi Noem who told South Dakotans that Herseth Sandlin was closely allied with Nancy Pelosi, who they had labeled as the wicked witch of the east from the west. Despite the fact that Herseth Sandlin was a Blue Dog, which faction was more often at odds with the Democratic leadership than in obedient compliance, Noem's message struck the sweet spot in the South Dakota mentality, which thinks any experience and achievement outside the state of South Dakota is a personal insult to the people of the stolen earth. The thinking is that if the accomplishments of people outside, and often within, the state makes one feel ignorant, unsophisticated, and stupid, then make ignorance, unsophistication, and stupidity  virtues.

Noem trotted out this stance against Matt Varilek, and the GOP even sponsored a campaign video in which Varilek was held up to scorn for being educated outside the state, traveling the world, and accumulating work experience in places of power. The video became known throughout the U.S., and was widely derided for the "values" it held as aspirations.  Some political analysts went so far as to say that the video ended Noem's chances.  But those commentators do not know and understand South Dakota.  She garnered more votes against Varilek than she did against Herseth Sandlin.

The Argus Leader, which seems to paying penance for its past associations with liberal politicians, endorsed Kristi Noem, which in effect was an endorsement of the resentments so many South Dakotans hold against people and achievements in other places.  They affirmed that endorsement after the election with an editorial that makes an incomprehensible argument for supporting Noem's careless and incompetent performance during her first term and the kind of feckless insouciance that so endears her and mentor-apparent John Thune to the hearts of the people of the purloined earth.  The good people stalwartly stand against rigorous education, intelligence, and achievement in defense against those insidious values that might creep into the state from the outside.

The smart and honest campaign strategists have demonstrated that to win elections in South Dakota, one must not tamper with those resentful mindsets, but must grovel in obsequious praise of them as the stuff of real people.  They understand that they must never try to influence their base in ways that suggest that different perceptions and attitudes might be more relevant to changing times.   

Ultimately, elections are won and lost by established mindsets and the demographic distribution of those mindsets.  Campaign strategies have little influence.  That is apparent in analyzing the numbers in my home county, Brown.  Brown County has been a stronghold of Democrats.  It has produced some strong leaders for the party, including Tom Daschle and Stephanie Herseth Sandlin.  Within my association with the Brown County Democrats, I have seen its events draw massive crowds, while now they are attended by a dwindling number of loyalists.  The change is a demographic one.  Many of the older stalwarts have died, or moved to different places, or have lost trust and interest in the entire political process.  Currently, the number of registered voters in the county for the 2012 election are 10,171 Democrats, 9,093 Republicans, 3,423 Independents, and a smattering  of other parties, totaling 22,687 for the major parties.  The ratio is 45 percent Democrats, 40 percent Republicans, and 15 percent Independents.  Overall voter turnout in 2012 was 16,236 for a rate of 69.62 percent. 

When one examines the numbers, one must make an informed conjecture that the Independents play a strong swing role in Brown County.  Obama received 7,250 votes for 45 percent, while Romney received 8,321 votes for 51 percent. However, Matt Varilek won 8,335 votes for 52 percent to Noem's 7,693 votes for 47 percent.  There is significant cross-balloting in those numbers.

The numbers indicate some patterns in the voting, but they are indicative, not definitive.  One can speculate that the numbers mean a lot of Democrats do not vote, split their ballots, and that the 17 percent of Independents swing the elections.  But not knowing exactly which voters voted for which candidates imposes big limitations on what may be inferred from the numbers.  For statistical inference to be valid and fairly accurate, the inferences must be drawn from a sample about which the statisticians know the party registration of each person in the sample and precisely who and what they voted for.  That is why exit polls are taken.  They provide a documented sample on which consequent numbers may be based and tested, providing that the control-sample respondents are telling the truth.

When poll researchers do not have a highly controlled sample to form the basis for their interpretations of the numbers, they construct a control sample from anecdotal evidence.  A lot of anecdotes provide the factual materials from which generalities may be induced.  Through the anecdotal evidence from a select group, we can see what trends are in operation,  and those observations can be disconcerting when they illustrate trends that are contrary to popular assumptions.  

For the past 15 years, I have had the responsibility of maintaining a list of Brown County Democrats who most actively support and participate in the party.  For the past 8 years, the monthly changes on that list have accelerated.  Attrition accounts for many of those changes. The reasons are deaths, people moving out of the area, and a loss of trust and interest in the political process.  That latter factor plays a significant role in the dwindling number of names on that list.  Many people who have been active have withdrawn from political activity because partisan politics has degraded into such depths of mean and puerile hatefulness.  Some people do not choose to live their lives on that level and refuse to be party to such degradation.  There is a cultural dimension to this descent into the reptilian level of politics. 

An established trend in South Dakota is for young people to leave the state to realize their ambitions and aspirations and to find communities with more opportunities and a more supportive social climate.  Nothing infuriates South Dakotans more than to suggest that those anti-intellecutal, anti-educational, anti-cultural attitudes make the state an oppressively  backward place to live for educated and motivated people.  The stock response to such a suggestion is, if you don't like it here, leave.  And that is precisely what many people do.

They do it mentally, if not physically.  For generations, a number of families I am acquainted with go to the Twin Cities once or twice a month for their recreation, their shopping, their "quality time."  Those of us who monitor the list of active Democrats have observed what we call "mental emigrants."  By that, we refer to those who live and work in  South Dakota, but focus much of their attention on outside communities.  The Internet has facilitated this circumstance.  For example, some people become long-distance residents of the communities where their children live.  Through visits and the exchange of news, they involve themselves with those communities socially, culturally, and politically.  Their family lives revolve around those communities where their friends and relatives live, and they focus much of their mental attention on them.  In chatting with these people, I find that they know the politics of their outlying state and local community to the point where they contribute to the campaigns of politicians from those areas.  Some have told me that their concerns are given a political voice in other places that the single party government of South Dakota ignores.

There is a cultural factor that is gaining more definition in what discourages interest in South Dakota.  When discussing the politics of the state,  many people point to the influence of Internet news sources and blogs on their thinking.  They stress the difference between stating political viewpoints and criticizing policies and defaming individuals.  The blogs that claim conservative viewpoints are particularly obstreperous with their obsessive need to inflict insult and abuse.  Such has become a dominant feature of the Internet and interactive communications.

After Tom Daschle's defeat in 2004, there was an active interest, which included funding, for establishing a think tank to deal with the problems faced by the northern plains states.  Such thinking had been centered up to that time in the east at Rutgers in New Jersey.  The project advanced to the  point where a firm of market researchers was hired to recommend a location for the think tank to be situated.  Aberdeen was a contender.  When the team came to Aberdeen to evaluate its potential, I was in a position to offer it office space with Internet and telephone connections to use for assembling and analyzing the data it collected and was fascinated by how they collected and interpreted the data.

Aberdeen fit many of the requirements that had been established for the the successful operation of the unit, and the people who generated the funding leaned toward it as a good location.  However, the market researchers also noted some detractions.  The one that surprised and puzzled me was how they interpreted the discussion board on the local newspaper's website.  The discussion board was notorious for being frequented, often dominated, by trolls, and most readers dismissed it and ignored it.  The researchers did not, but cited it as the symptom of a serious problem.  I commented that although the postings by the trolls were repulsive and offensive, they were the work of a very small minority and certainly did not represent the community at large.  One of the team members said that the fact that the major news medium in the community allows commenters to publish insult, abuse, and often libels under the guise of freedom of speech signals an attitude toward intellectual work.  He pointed out that many news organizations invite critical comment, but exercise their Fourth Estate right to edit out the malicious, the salacious, and the libelous.  But beyond that, the offensive comments are a part of the community, and what organization would, in effect, elect to build its headquarters near a sewage lagoon?  However, the state of South Dakota was characterized as having social and political attitudes that were not compatible with an intellectual enterprise and Aberdeen fully demonstrated those attitudes.  In the end, the northern plains states did not get a think tank devoted to their study and development.  Some of the funding and materials went to a university library, and some went to universities to the east that had projects underway to examine the great plains.   Serious consideration of the Buffalo Commons is not done by anyone who lives there.  

That episode illustrates a problem that South Dakota and the great plains states have with any scholarly or intellectual enterprise.  They force the those interested and capable of such work to go elsewhere. Many of the blogs from the right wing in South Dakota express and convey the social and political attitudes.  South Dakota War College, for example, is single-mindedly devoted to character defamation and degradation of people it chooses to attack.  It does not criticize policies, but busies itself with personal libels and perfidious accusations, as does many of its extreme right wing compatriots.   The fact that it can advertise itself as South Dakota's number one political blog says much about the intellectual and moral climate of the state.  It does not represent a thought process, but a  mindset.

Successful political strategists in South Dakota have not challenged the hardened mindset.  Rather they affirm and inflame the provincial notions that education, world experience, and anything that does not conform to the provincial standards is suspect.  That mindset is protected by a wall of denial.  They deny that bright, talented, and hopeful people are forced out of the state, if not physically, then mentally.  The restless people are the descendants of immigrants whose family histories are of recognizing the need to live life in some other place if any aspirations for better and fulfilled lives are to be realized.  This reality operates in my family and those of most friends.    They comprise an emigration, one that became apparent from South Dakota's statehood. 

War College and other blogs may chortle and take joy in the decline of the Democratic Party, but the contemporary emigrants are looking to celebrate freedom and opportunity.  Those left behind are right to feel a sense of repose, but not because they are winning power, but because they are losing the presence and interest of those who want to build satisfying, accomplished lives.   The political strategists who appeal to the affinity for ignorance and small-mindedness are not calling up a sunrise, but are digging into an age of darkness.  

Meanwhile, the talent and the intelligence emigrates to the light.


Bob Newland said...

Tom Emanuel said...

This sounds frighteningly accurate to me. As a progressive young adult, I wanted nothing more than to get out of South Dakota, applying and getting accepted to several out-of-state universities. Eventually funding considerations led me to the University of South Dakota, but when time came for me to move on to grad school, I had no interest in remaining in SD. Now I'm taking time off before grad school due to a family emergency last year, and I'm coming to recognize some of the wonderful things that SD has to offer. But its politico-intellectual climate is not one of them. That anti-Varilek ad is the perfect exemplar for why this state is bleeding itself, almost willfully it seems, of its best and brightest.

larry kurtz said...

David: we have to face the reality that the odds are against us. Pat and his handlers look like Israel's Iron Dome neutering our salvos in the efforts deflecting the blows landed on Democrats.

Thanks for flanking fire anyway.

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States