Politically, North Dakota is known as a deep red state, meaning it’s supposed to be conservative. At first glance, this seems to make sense. NoDaks (shorthand for North Dakotans) have supported GOP presidential candidates for the longest time, and recently our congressional delegation has gone from 3 of 3 Dem to 2 of 3 GOP; Senator Hoeven and Congressman Berg are GOPers, while Kent Conrad, our Dem, is declining to run again. GOPers dominate statewide and local offices.
But things are not so simple here. As this article in the British publication The Economist points out, ND may very well be a political bellwether for now and the future.
That’s weird to hear, but then so is the fact that we’re leading the nation in employment and the fact that we’ve surpassed Alaska in oil production, trailing only Texas.
And thanks to the oil, there’s a lot of newfound diversity in the state, by which I mean there are now people from all over the country living here. One sees license plates from all sorts of places now, and many of them: I’ve seen Louisiana, Texas, Arizona, Texas, Alaska, and Connecticut lately (I wanted to stop the guy and ask why). And they bring their politics with them.
The Economist piece points to indications that North Dakota really isn’t, and hasn’t been, a deep red state:
That both Democrats and Republicans are trying to depict their rivals as slavish creatures of the opposite party suggests that North Dakotan sympathies really do lie somewhere in the middle. The state, after all, has a long history of ticket-splitting. It also has a progressive streak. It owns a flour mill, America’s largest, and a bank, both set up in the early 1900s to protect farmers and ranchers from predatory tycoons. The state’s most successful Republicans embrace these things, even though they would hardly fire up a tea-party rally. John Hoeven, the new Republican senator, used to run the state bank. Jack Dalrymple, the governor, talks enthusiastically about how this heritage can be harnessed to help direct economic development.
The Economist doesn’t mention it, but the one President with whom we associate ourselves, who spent time here as a young man in the Badlands, Teddy Roosevelt, was a progressive, not a conservative, and founded the Progressive Party (also known as the “Bull Moose” party) in 1912.
A further piece of evidence concerns the Senate race to replace the retiring Kent Conrad. GOP Congressman Rick Berg should be running away with the race if ND is so red, but he’s not (although little reliable polling has been done), and the GOP is concerned, while a piece at Politico suggests the GOP may not pick up the seat. Heidi Heitkamp, the Dem candidate, has had to basically forsake the President and the national Dem party, but she’s hung in there.
Why? Former Dem Senator Byron Dorgan explains ND politics is more personal than partisan:
According to Byron Dorgan, who retired in 2010 after 18 years in the Senate, politics in North Dakota is more personal than partisan. Ms Heitkamp appears to be popular in some quarters. At a Native-American “pow-wow” (festival) in mid-August, the crowd cheered feelingly when the master of ceremonies announced that she was present. At the names of several other Democratic candidates, by contrast, dancers in feathered and beaded costumes stared at their feet, while the audience seemed more interested in “Indian tacos”—fried bread freighted with minced beef, cheese, lettuce and tomato.
Another indication that ND is more purple than red concerns an election we had June 12. On the ballot was Measure 2, which would have eliminated property taxes in ND. A red red-meat issue if there is one. It lost, hard. A measure designed to preserve the University of North Dakota’s mascot and nickname as “The Fighting Sioux” lost, which I suppose was a conservative measure. Most disappointing was the fate of Measure 3. Measure 3 would have added language to the State constitution similar to language found in 27 other State constitutions aimed at preserving religious freedom. It failed, even in Walsh County (Grafton and Park River are the major towns there), by a margin of 48-52. Walsh County is a bit like Kierkegaard’s Denmark: there, even the cows are Christian. And if Measure 3 couldn’t carry that county, well… Of course, it didn’t help that Planned Parenthood and other pro-abortion allies poured about $1 million into the State to fight Measure 3.
There is also of course the abortion clinic in Fargo, which we simply haven’t been able to close in all these years of trying, for whatever reason. And it’s interesting returning here to ND after shy of 20 years away: bumper stickers are relatively few and far between, but I see more supporting gay rights (such as the Human Rights Campaign’s equality logo) than I do Gadsen flag stickers (that’s the snake with “Don’t Tread on Me”). (Of course, Christian stickers outpace them all.) Meanwhile, mainline churches are every bit as liberal, I think, as their counterparts in Minneapolis/St. Paul, for instance, our nearest real metropolis; they’re just quieter about it.
And that is, I think, the sort of conservatism we have here: not a rock-ribbed political conservatism so much as a personal and cultural conservatism. We’re conflict-avoiders by nature, an attitude forged in the settlers by the vicious prairies in the nineteenth century. (Here’s your crash-course in the form of a novel; required reading in many high schools and colleges around here.) If you’re in an argument with your neighbor, he might not save your neck in a blizzard. You must get along to survive. We have our opinions but shun controversy. It’s in our DNA by nurture.
That said, if North Dakota is more purple than red, and if it is indeed changing, I think there are a couple main reasons:
(1) Loss of touch with the land. Family farming continues to flag, as more rural folks move to our bigger towns and cities. Rural people are on balance more conservative than city people. I think that has little to do with education or parochial attitudes, actually, but has to do with being in touch with nature.
(2) Media. Thanks to the internet, North Dakotans and their youth have access to everything everyone else everywhere else has access to.
Both of those factors lead to a weakening of family and community ties, the sorts of things that make for a serious, Crunchy-Con style of conservatism.
In short, under the conditions of technopoly and globalization, North Dakota is undergoing a similar sort of secularization that’s affected the rest of the West for some time now. Many of us are more urbane if not urban. The purple tones of our supposed red state shouldn’t surprise.