Press "Enter" to skip to content

Reading Lauck, Miller, Simmons… Why Is South Dakota So Republican?

Last updated on 2012.11.13

...and how might Democrats take South Dakota back?

The Plains Political Tradition: Essays on South Dakota Political Culture

The South Dakota State Historical Society Press gave me the opportunity to review The Plains Political Tradition: Essays on South Dakota Political Culture (Jon K. Lauck, John E. Miller, and Donald C. Simmons, Jr., eds., Pierre: South Dakota State Historical Society Press, 2011). The book includes twelve essays compiled and edited by South Dakota historians Jon Lauck, John E. Miller, and Donald C. Simmons, Jr.

The Plains Political Tradition provides a great primer on South Dakota politics for bloggers, campaigners, and other students of our fair state's history. But be forewarned, fellow blog-babies: this book offers no polemics or controversial battles. Lauck, Miller, and Simmons assemble a panel of scholars who offer mostly rigorous, carefully documented efforts at political and historical science.

Lauck, Miller, and Simmons declare their academic intent in their introduction:

In this volume, the authors have analyzed certain episodes and trends in South Dakota political history and used them to develop a better understanding of the broader political culture of the state. This process continues the discussion launched in 2004 in the pages of the journal South Dakota History and constitutes a major step forward in the effort to build a larger synthetic framework for understanding the political dynamics—both formal party politics and policy formation and more general social attitudes—of South Dakota [Jon Lauck, John E. Miller, and Donald C. Simmons, Jr., "In Search of South Dakota's Political Culture," in PPT, p. 7].

Language like that ("synthetic framework"!) will give the knuckle-dragging insult-mongers at Dakota War College heartburn, but it signals the authors aren't just spitballing or telling tales. They're building an academic theory of South Dakota politics.

But they aren't just writing for eggheads. The blog stripes of Lauck and a couple of the chapter authors show through in the editors' hope that the book will spark conversation:

We also hope that this book is the beginning of a longer conversation. The conclusions contained herein are not the end of the matter but a substantial first step toward developing an integrated and nuanced framework for understanding the state's and the region's political culture, one that will engage scholars and commentators for decades to come [Lauck, Miller, and Simmons, p. 7].

Commentators... that's us, kids! I'll leave the scholarly responses to the professors and the journals. Let's talk about what The Plains Political Tradition as a whole tells us amateurs (from the French, for lovers) of South Dakota politics about two big questions:

  1. How did South Dakota become such a strongly Republican state?
  2. How might Democrats reverse Republican dominance?

First, PPT makes clear that Republican dominance does not mean that there are no Democrats in South Dakota. Far from it: Dr. Miller traces the "40% rule" (p. 79) back to territorial times. From our earliest days, we Democrats have regularly been able to muster 40% of the vote. Unfortunately, it takes unusual circumstances like the Great Depression and unusual leaders like George McGovern and Richard Kneip to move that 40% higher.

But why won't that number move? It could have to do with the "cultural matrix" (Lauck, p. 16) in which South Dakota was founded. We established our rural state just as the frontier was closing and the nation was urbanizing. The growing prevalence of urban life could easily inspire fears among early South Dakotans that our rural way of life could be overshadowed. The Republican party disliked cities even then (see? even Sarah Palin's "real America" talk is recycled from over a century ago; see Lauck, p. 23), so its message would resonate all the more in a new rural state hoping to assert itself at the D.C. table alongside older urban states.

Dr. Miller notes that Democrats in Washington held up South Dakota statehood for many years (p. 78). Such obstruction perhaps wrote distaste for Democrats into South Dakota's DNA. But don't confuse cause and effect: D.C. Democrats blocked South Dakota statehood because we already were a heavily Republican territory. Many of our territorial settlers were Union Army veterans loyal to the party of Lincoln. We also caught the wave of GOP-leaning Protestant immigrants from Germany and Scandinavia (Miller, pp. 78-79).

South Dakotan Republicans have held their dominance in part because they have not often been challenged by a very distinct Democratic opposition. The first Democrats to appear in the state were actually a bunch of disaffected Republicans (Miller, p. 79). The Democrats who rode FDR's coattails and the upheaval of the Depression to power in 1932 quickly lost that power in 1936 in part because they took such conservative positions that they did not offer a clear alternative to the Republican Party (Miller, p. 87). Then candidate Karl E. Mundt, playing Red Scare, dealt South Dakota's left-wing a defeat in 1938 from which it has struggled to recover (William Pratt, p. 121).

Migration both in and out of the state may also contribute the GOP's continued dominance in South Dakota. South Dakota has not experienced a major influx of foreign migrants since the 1870-1910 phase (Frank Van Nuys, p. 64). Large waves of immigration bring the possibility of changing local political dynamics; such waves have not come to disrupt the early established patterns that favor Republicans. Meanwhile, we have experienced out-migration of young talent of large enough magnitude to be named "the Dakota effect" (Joel Johnson, p. 180). Channeling their pioneer forebears, young people with talent, gumption, and a desire to improve themselves often head out of South Dakota to make their fortunes (and often do quite well). Perhaps that desire to improve themselves also correlates with a desire to improve their community. Tie that reformist urge with Grandpa's desire to wander beyond the horizon to start a new life, and South Dakota is perhaps left with a higher proportion of young people who are happy with the way things are... classic conservatives.

How might Democrats reverse over a century of Republican dominance? The authors in PPT regularly refer to the victories and defeats of two major exceptions to GOP dominance in South Dakota, the Depression surge of Democrats and the Democratic rejuvenation led by George McGovern. In both cases, Democrats played to agrarian and populist concerns. The success of grassroots South Dakota environmental movements in the 1970s suggest the need to unite even more political strands, including anti-corporate sentiment, localist federalism, and sovereignty (John Husmann, p. 241-2). Building coalitions among those interests may be complicated, but it's one route to power, or at least success in specific campaigns on specific issues like the Oahe Irrigation Project or, currently, the Keystone XL pipeline.

But Democrats may learn as much from failures as from successes. In his survey of major Senate defeats, Dr. Jon Schaff finds that seniority and party leadership don't sell with South Dakotans, whatever the party of the incumbent (pp. 319, 324, 326). Instead of emphasizing their pull in Washington, South Dakota politicians need to make clear their continued connection to the home folks.

The 1936 and 1938 defeats seem even more instructive for Democrats looking to rebuild a winning opposition in South Dakota. In 1936, South Dakota Democrats tacked conservative, while Dems in surrounding states tackled economic problems and built more liberal coalitions (Miller, p. 87). Democrats in those others states rode the realigning wave led by FDR; South Dakota Democrats fell from power in 1936, then got hammered by red-baiting Mundt in 1938. Instead of letting shouts of "Liberal! Radical! Socialist!" drive them to declare themselves just as conservative as the Republicans on the ballot, Democrats should stand up for themselves and their party. Embrace the issues that distinguish us from the GOP. Give voters a real choice.

We may also want to caution current and future Dems from trying too hard to replicate the oft-cited McGovern appeals to agrarian and anti-corporate sentiment. South Dakota's majority rural population is just a bit below its 1980 level, while our urban population has increased by over 50%. A smaller percentage of South Dakotans make their living from the land. More South Dakotans receive their wages from large corporations like CitiBank, Premier, and Sanford Health. We South Dakotans still carry around the image of the "real South Dakotan" as wearing a checked shirt and riding a horse or a tractor, but hundreds of thousands of real South Dakotans live in town, work in offices, and cash monthly checks from The Corporate Man. Democrats must not discount over a century of deeply seated cultural identity, but perhaps we can boost our traditional 40% by appealing to the increasing number of South Dakotans for whom agrarian values simply aren't a part of daily life.

Such are the things The Plains Political Tradition can get us thinking about. Lauck, Miller, and Simmons's compilation illustrates numerous factors that have shaped South Dakota politics. The craftier devils among us—if they don't all move to the Cities—may well find in PPT some clues for changing those politics.


  1. LK 2012.02.13

    Does the book explain why South Dakota political institutions were able to blunt all efforts to form a Nonpartisan League (NPL) like our neighbors to the north. It seems to me that both states have the same aversion to urban influence, but North Dakota Democrats have had more statewide success and have been able to break that 40% number more frequently, in part, because of that NPL tradition.

  2. larry kurtz 2012.02.13

    Two words: Governor's Club.

    The in-state press is on the dole (Guggenheimer learned it, now DM is learning it) so it's up to NPR and the Native media to expose red state collapse.

  3. caheidelberger Post author | 2012.02.13

    Good question, LK! NPL got some votes here, but it faced a strong governor, Peter Norbeck, who was ready for their challenge and triangulated a little, doing just enough progressive stuff (alongside some truly heinous, unconstitutional anti-immigrant measures) to steal some of their thunder (Pratt, pp. 111-112). We also have this historical tendency to beat up leftists and run them out of town (Ahmad, p. 193).

  4. Steve Sibson 2012.02.13

    "Democrats should stand up for themselves and their party. Embrace the issues that distinguish us from the GOP."

    Cory, the fascist pro-corporate socialist Democrats moved into the SDGOP and now lead a tyranny in Pierre where things are done behind closed doors. It is not only agrian rural interests that are being trumped, but interests of all who like or are "small".

  5. Bob Mercer 2012.02.13

    The Fusion success of Gov. Lee showed the initial model for Democrats. The Democratic success in the 1920s was in response to the financial failures of the Norbeck-era progressives. The Depression-era dominance by Democrats speaks for itself as people voted their pocketbooks. The Democratic success in the 1960-70s coincided with the baby boom generation turning old enough to vote. Track Democratic registration from 1978 through 2004 and you can see the base erode beneath Tom Daschle. The rise of independent registration during the past decade is the new trend diminishing Democrats' chances for electoral success on a statewide basis.

  6. David Newquist 2012.02.13

    It is hardly a recommendation to take a book very seriously when one of its editors has a record for being a shameless partisan character assassin.

    However, examining an "integrated and nuanced framework for understanding the state’s and the region’s political culture," a "synthetic framework," if you will, makes South Dakota politics sound much more cerebral than they are. LK refers to an episode regarding the Nonpartisan League, which has been recorded and examined by a number of historians, and the contrast between the two Dakotas defines a South Dakota tradition that is rooted firmly in the reptilian cortex. Plain old racial and ethnic resentments and hatred cannot be euphemized as nuanced, nor covered by a facade of metrics as integrated. Racist and ethnic hatreds have been major drivers of South Dakota political attitudes in the past, and still are. At some point, the people have to be given credit for what they really think and feel and act upon.

  7. mike 2012.02.13

    Mr. Newquist,

    Are you talking about Lauck?

  8. Bill Fleming 2012.02.13

    Mike, of course he is. And his pal, Sibby. What they did to Tom Daschle is a permanent skid mark in the shorts of South Dakota Politics.

  9. larry kurtz 2012.02.13

    My dad was a life-long Republican who voted for Tom and cursed his home state for electing John Thune, a bible school graduate, to Congress. Dad didn't vote in another election afterwards then died in 2010.

    Red state collapse on parade.

  10. mike 2012.02.13

    I love sibby but has his blogging gone down hill since 2004?

  11. mike 2012.02.13

    I didn't read many of the blogs in 2004.

  12. Bill Fleming 2012.02.13

    Mike, I don't know about downhill. Sibby kind of oozes around in cyberspace, up, down, sideways whatever. He'll be in the gutter lying like a used car salesman one minute, then on some mountaintop hallucinating like a shaman on cactus juice the next, then slip sideways into a rare moment of clarity and actually make the occasional rational observation and helpful suggest. He's a mystery, surrounded by a riddle, wrapped up in an enigma. That's probably why you like him. He's everywhere and nowhere all at the same time.

  13. caheidelberger Post author | 2012.02.13

    David, how did we get such a powerful concentration of reptilians? Why did they settle here in greater numbers?

  14. Donald Pay 2012.02.13

    I disagree with Mercer about the Democrat's rise in the 60s through the late 70s. It's not that simple.

    This beginnings of that shift started before most of the baby boomers began voting (voting age then was 21). The Kennedy election in 1960 swung a significant number of Catholics into the Democratic Party, or at least to vote for some Democrats. This had a big impact over time. Bill Dougherty was one key person who became active. Of course, Richard Kneip was another. There were a number of younger to middle aged (older than baby boomers) men (mostly, but some women) who invigorated the Democratic Party.

    But let's consider the grassroots. The campaigns then depended on a lot of volunteers. I was one of them, making calls, canvassing neighborhoods, putting up signs, etc. These were the baby boomers, and most of them couldn't vote. A lot of the kids involved in Teen Dems in Sioux Falls, and in campaigns in 68, 70 and 72 were Catholic, coming into the Democratic Party partly over the war and partly over the Kennedy campaigns.

    Many of these kids' parents and grandparents were Republicans. Enough of the old guard of the Republican Party began to divide over the Vietnam War that it created some movement toward the Democrats, at least for the Congressional and Senatorial races.

  15. caheidelberger Post author | 2012.02.13

    Interesting mention of Vietnam creating a division, Donald. In PPT, Ahrar Ahmad says the Vietnam War "had neither a profound nor extensive effect on South Dakota" (p. 197).

    At peril of oversimplifying, might we say that SD Dems better rode the Kennedy wave out of the 1960s than they rode the FDR wave in the 1930s?

  16. David Newquist 2012.02.13

    I strain not to be snarky and say something like it's habitat, which is rocky, and reptiles find intellectual compatibility with rocks. But although the two states are very similar, there are some differences which have puzzled me for some time. Those differences show up in the success of the Bipartisan League, the refusal to be cowed and controlled by the railroads in North Dakota, and a number of other differences in the way the histories of the two states developed. When I traveled extensively for the Dakota Writing Project and the Humanities Council, my colleagues and I often noted and discussed differences. When accompanying an officer from the National Writing Project who was touring the Dakotas, he noted to me that there was quite a difference in the small towns still functioning in the two states. Many of the small towns where we visited schools in South Dakota had many unpaved streets and the school buildings obviously were being maintained at a minimal level. In North Dakota, communities of the same size would have paved streets and the schools were clean, neat, and attractive. Different cultures with different values were apparent.

    When roaming around the state as a humanities scholar, which I did with the late NSU professor of history Bob Thompson, I commented on this. Bob's specialty was state history, and he agreed that there was an obvious difference, but that was not always the case. He said that the declines of the small towns took a much more severe form in South Dakota than in North Dakota. As a native of northeast South Dakota, where his father had been a superintendent of schools, he noted that as the small towns disintegrated the remaining populace came to gridlock because of the degree of rancor among the factions. One group always insisted upon punitive denials to another group.

    One of the more obvious pieces of evidence of differences in cultural attitudes is in the prison populations. With very similar state populations, South Dakota has six adult correctional facilities that at the end of 2011 housed 3,552 inmates; North Dakota has three facilities which housed 1.471 adults in 2011. The rate of incarceration in South Dakota is more than double that of North Dakota.

    My point is that the political characteristics of the two states go beyond those usual things measured by polls, and rest more upon the social psychology of the state and those personalities who exercise dominance. But as a culture develops, in conditions people to accepting its stances. The arguments which seem to win elections in South Dakota are a strong indication of how its dominant population thinks. The school legislation is a powerful case in point.

  17. larry kurtz 2012.02.14

    The NFO was a big deal when Democrats still had a toehold in South Dakota: there is still a loading pen near Lane with a stencil over the door.

    South Dakota began collapsing when the NFO collapsed.

  18. Jon Lauck 2012.02.14

    Larry, re the NFO, you might be interested in Lauck, "The National Farmers Organization and Farmer Bargaining Power," Michigan Historical Review vol. 24 (Fall 1998), pp. 88-127.

  19. larry kurtz 2012.02.14

    This line caught my eye, Mr. Lauck: "Aggressive partisanship has never been the exclusive or even the most prominent element of politics in South Dakota, where the close personal proximity of candidates and voters alike militates against such an approach."

    Do you believe that is still the case?

  20. larry kurtz 2012.11.15

    Senator Mark Udall (D-CO) just tweeted that wind resources in Montana could meet the state’s electricity needs 210x over. He wants to extend the credit for wind power.

    I want to tear out the Missouri River dams and rewild the Basin to Yellowstone.

    We can do this in our lifetimes.

Comments are closed.