Jacobs: ‘ND exceptionalism’ explains much about state
Long ago, in a life that seems quite far away, the editor of a big American newspaper asked me, "Why do you Dakotans expect so much from the federal government?"...
Long ago, in a life that seems quite far away, the editor of a big American newspaper asked me, “Why do you Dakotans expect so much from the federal government?”
My answer was pretty simple and pretty direct. “We deserve it,” I said.
And I think that we think we do.
This conversation took place back in the days of congressional earmarks, when North Dakotans in Congress expertly larded the federal budget with projects back home, ensuring a modest prosperity and big election victories.
Things have changed, of course. Washington doesn’t work that way any more.
But North Dakotans still think that way.
A sense of virtue and its counterpart, an expectation of reward, still permeate the state’s psyche. Add a demand for protection, and you have the exceptionalism that has been a persistent theme of the state’s politics.
I don’t expect this to be a popular assertion, but I think it goes a long way toward explaining the state’s politics, including both its traditional and contemporary iterations.
This exceptionalism actually is chiseled in stone. On the lintel above the door of Morrill Hall on the North Dakota State University campus are the words, “Those who labor in the earth are the chosen people of God.”
The source is Thomas Jefferson, and the special role of farming people is a principal tenet of Jeffersonian democracy. The logical extension is that if we are special, we ought to rewarded and protected.
These notions are playing out in this session of the Legislature.
One instance is the debate over the anti-corporate farming law. Last week, the governor signed legislation opening a relatively modest loophole. Dairy and hog operations will be allowed to incorporate.
Another is the Grand Forks Herald’s effort to open a discussion of the state Milk Marketing Board, put forward in an editorial last week.
Both were greeted as threats to the fabric of the state.
These laws were intended to protect family farms - that is, farms that have individual owners. In the case of the milk board, the target for salvation specifically was family-owned dairies.
Family farms, the idea went, were small farms, and family farms would mean stable rural communities.
The laws have failed. The number of farms in North Dakota is a fraction - less than one quarter - of what it was when the anti-corporate farming law was passed. The number of dairy operations has declined ever farther, so that today, only a couple of dozen family-owned dairies remain.
Supporters of the milk board argue that controlling prices means that milk will be available in small-town groceries. It’s the same argument small-town druggists made to defeat an initiated measure that would have let Big Box stores sell prescription drugs.
The fact that milk is more expensive in North Dakota than in neighboring states, to the disadvantage of every consumer, either escapes notice or is regarded as less important than supporting a particular type of business.
The other side of the notion that farmers are special is that no one can interfere with their operations. This attitude crops up in a different way - namely, opposition to any use of land other than agriculture.
We saw the impact of this point of view in the last general election, when a conservation amendment was defeated.
This attitude also is reflected in efforts to reduce the amount of money from oil taxes that goes to the so-called Outdoor Heritage Fund - which is administered by a board dominated by farming interests. Other laws limit ownership of land by conservation interests.
These laws have left North Dakota with a fraction of the parks and recreational areas that other states have established, and North Dakota wildlife without any place to hide.
These twin legacies continue to influence developments in North Dakota.
A change of ideologies has brought a change in villains. Lately nature, and those who want to protect it, have replaced corporations as the bogeymen in North Dakota politics.
The underlying idea is the same, though. We North Dakotans are special, and we deserve protection. We’d like to be rewarded, too, but that’s no longer in our reach.
Too bad about those earmarks.
For several years in the 1970s, Jacobs published a newspaper called The Onlooker about North Dakota politics. This column resurrects the name - and the spirit - of that undertaking. Readers can contact Jacobs at email@example.com .