Guest Post: How Red Is North Dakota?

North Dakota Flag

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 foundedthe 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.

Dr. Leroy Huizenga is Director of the Christian Leadership Center and Assistant Professor of Theology at the University of Mary in Bismarck, N.D.  You can read his blog here.

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  • sbark

    If I may, I think this article ties in well to you post, to not only N.Dak, but the nation as a whole. I points out how our wealth is actually the strongest force against us.
    from article…….America is like a family that inherited a profitable business from a rich relative. Unfortunately, only some of the family members understand how the business works, while most of the rest just see a big cash machine that’s going to keep printing out money forever. This is not how the world works with companies or with nations.

  • reggy

    Unless Red stopped meaning Republican controlled, it’s pretty damn red. Interesting article nonetheless.

    • Rob

      But how conservative are those Republicans? Hoeven and Dalrymple, for instance, are basically moderate Democrats.

      • reggy

        Red/Blue is generally considered a political party distinction, not a political ideology distinction. You may not like their views, and I understand that, but to say they’re not Republicans basically means:

        1)The Republican party is intentionally misleading its membership, and its members are fine with that, or
        2)What you think of as Republican isn’t the same as what the North Dakota Republican Party thinks of as Republican. (This is fine, cause I think the Republican Party in this state is pretty “go with the flow” and a legitimate challenge from the right might give them some ideological definition moving forward, which I personally believe they need.)

        • Rob

          I guess I’ve never considered the Red/Blue to be a partisan distinction so much as an ideological distinction. North Dakota is a “red state” that had an all-blue congressional delegation for a long time, but that delegation was considered to be conservative Democrats (we can debate about whether or not that was true.

          As for the NDGOP, I don’t think their policies match their platform. Which is probably why they give pretty short shrift to the platform in general.

          • $8194357

            Our Republicans are what moderate Dems used to be..
            The Dems keep moving farther left and taking the
            moderate middle with them.

      • $8194357

        Tru that Rob

  • Mike Peterson

    Right on the money!

  • Albert Lickenspittle

    Bible thumpers and old goats are plentiful in North Dakota. Add to them the Hoopleheads and you have a state in serious mental trouble with a majority taken in by Rush and Fox. The whole notion the state stands a prayer against right wing greed and lying is absurd. You can spin a goat or Hoople head with fear, guns, gays, god, you name it.

  • VocalYokel

    Oil will definitely bring about changes, not only economically and politically, but culturally.

    For many years much of the state has been insulated from change by the fact that we were viewed as being a stone throw away from the abyss.
    There are folks out there who think that ‘Fargo’ was a documentary.

    It will be interesting to see what happens when those who think they are ‘conservative’ are forced to do more than just go along to get along, and define their positions with standards instead of platitudes.

    I guess I must be old-fashioned…or perhaps it comes from being a MN expat, but I would try to save my neighbor’s neck in a blizzard irregardless of his personal bent…even if it was Al the toady.

  • tomorrowclear

    Connection to the land predisposes folks towards conservatism? Care to articulate the causal relationship at play in that hypothesis? Mind you, if modern-day “conservatives” ever advocated conserving something, I might be in agreement.

    As a scholar, I take it you do have some familiarity with “conservatism” in its original form as opposed to the modern, bastardized form, yes?

    • robert108

      It’s actually very clear, if you have some common sense. City dwellers are completely dependent upon govt for their water, trash and fuel, as well as food and disposal of their personal waste. People who live on the land have to be more self-sufficient, which is the hallmark of conservatism. Easy peasy.
      It’s no hypothesis, it’s a living truth. When you look at maps what show counties, almost all of them are red, with the blue areas being around the cities. Even CA is mostly red, but the Democrats have a stranglehold on the State govt through gerrymandering.

      • tomorrowclear

        Yes, nothing speaks to being one with the land like burning/burying your own trash. Is that how those of you communing with nature handle it?

        You have some questionable premises:

        1. Your assumption that if someone lives outside the city, they must be closer to the land. I’ve lived in rural areas my entire life. Most of the people living in these areas did not have all that strong of a connection with the land. The vast majority, actually.

        2. Your assumption that folks in rural areas are less dependent upon government. You cherry-pick certain services and ignore others that are nearly exclusive to rural areas and focus on a few that are generally provided to urban dwellers. Have you taken a gander at the states that receive more in federal government expenditures than they pay into the system via taxes?

        3. Your equating of self-sufficiency with “conservatism.” That’s just bizarre. Using this logic, I suppose anarchists are the most “self-sufficient” of them all.

        • robert108

          Nice blather, but no facts or logic. BTW, nothing I said was an assumption; it came from my own experience, and you still had no facts to dispute anything. When you make up your own stuff, you can draw any conclusions from it you want, but don’t think your conclusions bear any resemblance to the truth. What do you think cities do with their trash and your personal waste products?
          I didn’t cherry-pick anything, but if you have “certain services” in mind(your cherry-pick) at least name them, if you can.
          As for federal govt expenses, they go to the cities in those states that have poliiical pull, like Chicago takes up most of the federal spending that goes to Illinois.

          • tomorrowclear

            You need to consult some data. The Deep Southern states are amazing “looters” of taxpayer funds. Yes, your precious, “self-sufficient” rugged individualists. Farm subsidies, subsidized roads and highways and so on.

            Your definition of “self-sufficiency” is again curious. If I pay a private firm to take away my garbage rather than paying the state via my tax dollars, I’m somehow more “self-sufficient?” Odd concept.

            You are typical of what we see in modern politics. You form conclusions and without data. In this case, you form your conclusion, that rural counties and states are more “self-sufficient” and thus consume less government services than more urban ones. Of course, when you compare proportionally, many of these rural states and counties take out more than they put in, but you don’t really care about actual facts or data. You’d actually be chocked if you saw some of the places that are net winners for taxpayers. After all, if they’re populated with liberals, how on Earth could they be putting more money in than they are receiving? Inconceivable, given that they aren’t as “self-sufficient.”

          • robert108

            I wrote what I wrote, not what you make up. Present your “data”, if you have any. So far, you haven’t presented any factual counterargument to what I wrote.
            Again, it’s the cities that get the federal money, and they’re generally blue. To correct another of your mistakes, nobody “takes” federal money; it is forced on us through legislative tricks.
            Highway funds are first taken from the taxpayers of a state, then “given back” with the feds taking the credit, but the citizens paying the bill. Since you don”t know this, the federal govt has no money of its own; it only has what it confiscates from the achievers in society, and the top ten percent pay almost all of the taxes.
            You are obviously a liberal obfuscator, so even “self-sufficient” is beyond your understanding.
            BTW, I never said that states and counties were self-sufficient, I was referring to individuals, where this discussion started. You want to keep spinning and changing the subject, so I must conclude that you are another little hanni sockpuppet.
            I care only for facts and data, and you have yet to present any.

      • $8194357


  • Snarkie

    Be honest. Roosevelt was another kind of progressive. Herbert ‘New Deal’ Hoover too. Not like a progressive today — not the same party. Merely nominal resemblance.

    • tomorrowclear

      Yes, sort of like modern-day conservatives and actual conservatives from that era. Good lord, I can’t remember the last time I heard a “conservative” speak of the common good. That’s anathema to “individual liberty” to the modern-day “conservatives.”

      • robert108

        “The common good.” is commiespeak. Conservatives want teamwork with empowered individuals, like a football team, not a collectivist gang, like the KKK.

  • joeb

    I don’t think we can ignore the decades long campaign in mass media and elsewhere to replace the family with the Government.

    As for ‘gay rights’ stickers, no, not here in the west, even though gays tend to be very aggressive about such things.

    The DHS hasn’t claimed gays are likely to be “terrorists:” as they have those who might be sporting a Gadsen Flag sticker. Besides, the latter group will quietly wait and work to change things peacefully rather than make a grandstand effort to gain ‘acceptance’.

    I can only talk about the people I have spoken with, but that group is almost universally against the homosexual agenda (not just ‘live and let live’, but against), and strongly supports the Constitution over the current mess in Washington and the disregard there for fundamental law.

    Besides, why get your car keyed by some liberal for having a sticker on it? If Conservatives acted that way, there’d be a lot fewer gay rights stickers.