The Collapse of the Democratic Party In South Dakota: What Happened?

2014 was a terrible year for the Democrats nationally, but in South Dakota it was a catastrophe: Democrats hold only 20 out of 105 seats in the state’s legislature, all 13 officers and representatives elected statewide are Republicans, and in the race for Governor, the Democrats suffered the worst margin of defeat in the state’s history. This marked the nadir for a party that as recently as 1978 was riding high, with more registered voters than the GOP.

Last month, the University of South Dakota sponsored a panel discussion on the Democrats’ decline as part of the launch of the second volume of The Plains Political Tradition: Essays on South Dakota Political Culture, co-edited by my friend Jon Lauck. The Rapid City Journal reports:

In the book and at the conference, three people offered theories to explain why South Dakota Democrats have fallen so far since their heyday in the late 1970s.

In the panel discussion, [Democrat Ted] Muenster said the Roe v. Wade abortion decision and the failure of the Oahe Irrigation Project, both in the 1970s, divided Democrats.

The Oahu project was supported by Democratic leaders like George McGovern, but was blocked by environmentalists.

Tony Venhuisen, now chief of staff to the state’s governor, pointed out that the number of farmers has fallen dramatically:

One of the themes he noticed during his research was the tendency of Democrats to make gains in gubernatorial politics during periods of “agrarian discontent.” That’s no longer the case, Venhuizen said, because farm numbers have declined so far that even a massive shift of farmers to the Democratic Party could no longer swing an election.

Venhuisen cited the 1986 election, won narrowly by Republican George Mickelson during a farm crisis, as a turning point that demonstrated that “the state’s urban centers were becoming larger and more immune to the agricultural economy.” It occurs to me that an analogous point could be made about the declining number of factory workers, even as factory production grows.

A third panelist emphasized the close connection between George McGovern, the dominant figure in South Dakota’s Democratic Party in the 1960s and 1970s, and liberal Protestantism:

Lempke asserts that McGovern built much of his political career on support from liberal, mainline Protestants. … McGovern identified strongly with the Social Gospel movement and its leaders among the Episcopal, Methodist, Presbyterian and United Church of Christ traditions. …

Because of that worldview, McGovern spent much of his career trying to end the Vietnam War and feed hungry people, in concert with liberal Protestant church leaders. Those efforts eventually sparked a backlash among conservative churchgoers who recoiled from the increasingly liberal social movements of the 1970s. …

The results for Democrats like McGovern and for mainline Protestant churches were catastrophic.

McGovern was voted out of office in the Republican sweep of 1980, and mainline Protestant church membership declined dramatically.

It is interesting to contemplate the ways in which the recent political history of a small state like South Dakota parallels that of the United States as a whole. In particular, the centrality of the social issues, as identified by the U.S.D. panelists, is striking. But I would add this: while social issues may have helped Republicans to take control of the state’s government after the 1970s, what has cemented GOP control, and led to sweeps like the one this year, is South Dakota’s booming economy. Sioux Falls is one of the nation’s true boom towns, and my own home town, also in Eastern South Dakota, is 50% larger now than when I lived there. Having experienced the tangible benefits of a business-friendly, low-tax state government, it is hard to see why voters would take a chance on the Democrats.

This is one fundamental difference between the experience of South Dakota, or any other individual state, and the country as a whole. At the state level, voters are swinging decisively toward the Republican Party, as red states generally prosper and blue states, for the most part, fail. But at the national level, divided government has been the norm, and neither party has held sway for long enough to give its policies a sustained and definitive trial (although Republicans of my vintage generally consider the Carter/Reagan era to have been virtually a laboratory experiment). Still, one would think that the rest of the country would be perceptive enough to draw lessons from successful states like South Dakota.

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