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Rural Tilt of Contest for Governor Doesn’t Reflect Urban Tilt of South Dakota Population

Tony Venhuizen observes with splendid spreadsheetery that the 2018 gubernatorial race offers the most rural candidates in South Dakota history. Democrat Billie Sutton and Republican Kristi Noem come from counties whose summed population is the smallest of any previous gubernatorial match-up. Adding running mates complicates that complication: Larry Rhoden is plenty rural, but Michelle Lavallee comes from Sioux Falls, a fact she and Sutton are making secondary to talk of her rodeo and trailer-backing childhood.

Yet since 1990, South Dakota has been a majority urban state. The 2010 Census found 56.7% of us living in urban areas. (The Census classification of urban vs. rural is complicated, but short form in South Dakota would be towns over 2,500.) South Dakota is more urban than rural, like all but four states (Maine, Vermont, West Virginia, and Mississippi). Our population growth is happening almost entirely in our urban clusters. So one could argue that by electing a rural governor (and that’s what our next governor will be, even if we go ape and elect the Libertarian Kurt Evans from Wessington Springs), South Dakota is electing an executive who doesn’t natively represent the majority of South Dakotans.

Now I won’t say that a Governor Sutton or a Governor Noem will disenfranchise our Sioux Falls, Rapid City, and Aberdeen voters. But a New York Times op-ed this week finds the over-representation of America’s one-fifth rural population is leading to real problems in making America’s majority heard:

America’s Constitution was devised in the 1780s to balance power between free and slave regions in a thoroughly agricultural economy. In an urbanized polity in which a handful of dense, multicultural metro areas contain most of the people and produce most of the wealth and tax receipts, our federal scheme of representation, which effectively gives extra votes to dirt in low-population states, defies both moral and prudential common sense.

America’s outdated system of representation allowed Donald Trump and the party of the monocultural country to seize total control of the state with a minority of votes and about 36 percent of the economy. That’s not just a glitch. That’s a disaster [Will Wilkinson, “Why Do We Value Country Folk More Than City People?New York Times, 2018.06.27].

I get as swept up in the majestic imagery of rural life as any other South Dakotan. I have a hard time imagining a movie about life in Sioux Falls offering the same sort of stirring imagery and narrative as The Rider. But maybe that’s just a failure of my imagination. There are stories to be told and citizens to represent in our cities, too… and more of them than dot the lonely prairie. We all like horseys and cowboy hats, but the farm and ranch aren’t real life for the majority of South Dakota voters.


  1. Donald Pay 2018-06-29 10:08

    The important point is not so much where people live, as what their vision of South Dakota is. What is valuable to them? How do they want to move forward, while not leaving behind the good life that people have? How can that life be made better?

    I couldn’t understand the perception of many Chamber of Commerce types who believe that between Sioux Falls and Rapid City, there is a lot of wasted land waiting to be exploited for their benefit. All some people think most of that land is good for is nuclear waste dumps, medical waste incinerators or solid waste disposal sites for New Jersey’s garbage. Or they try to incorporate some ag into the mix and propose all that clean, blue water should be sold off to pig manure pipelines, just like they supported the coal slurry pipeline Janklow wanted years ago. Some of those guys have nice second residences in the Hills where they spend their summers vacationing, while the rest of South Dakota sweats at jobs that pay just enough to survive.

    I don’t live in South Dakota anymore because I couldn’t stand the lack of vision and to failure to value what was there. The first thing, to me, is the land. The second thing is the people. Others might switch those priorities, but, to me, the land comes first.

    In Wisconsin some business guys floated the idea we should change our state motto from “America’s Dairyland.” They thought it didn’t fit with today’s reality. California, in most years, produces more milk than Wisconsin, and, as in South Dakota, most people live in cities and don’t work in the ag sector. But people here hooted that idea down in a nanosecond. Even though we are losing small dairies at an alarming rate (I love Canada, but it’s dairy tariffs are too high), people here still drive a few miles out of town and understand that the past, present and future depends on the land, and the land depends on people in the cities understanding that.

    I think most South Dakotans think that way, too, which explains why they turn down projects that don’t fit with their vision of the land.

  2. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2018-06-29 12:22

    As usual, Donald gets me thinking. How do we maintain a healthy, comprehensive vision of our state? How do we use all of our resources sustainably?

    Even in our vast rural stretches, life is not some Fisher-Price fantasy of one cow, one chicken, one pig, and one duck, or some cowboy idyll. Much of our vast rural interior is food factories, industrial complexes manned by hired workers who own neither land nor livestock nor even the right to save and replant the corporate seed they sow. There is no poem or profound, inspiring identity found in a CAFO, at least no more than we find at the slaughterhouse or the plastic-widget factory.

    What is the difference, materially and spiritually, between working on a factory farm and working in a mechanical or electronics factory in the industrial park on the edge of town? What is the difference between driving a four-wheeler over the ranch, a tractor over square fields, a UPS truck around town, or your own car from customer to customer on Über?

  3. Heidi Marttila-Losure 2018-06-29 13:01

    “Rural” is in the eye of the beholder. To someone from Minneapolis, and certainly to someone from LA, all of South Dakota is rural. And in terms of rural states benefiting from the Electoral College, those in Sioux Falls benefit just as much as those in tiny South Dakota towns.

    (I also have a hard time seeing towns with populations from 2,500-10,000 as “urban.” They typically have more of the challenges of rural places than of urban ones.)

    I understand the argument of the NYT article. The impact of one person’s vote should be as equal as possible to another’s, and we have to deal with what is, and not what should be, in terms of our population’s distribution.

    But the increasing urbanization of our society is detrimental in many ways. For example: Many of the same people would wholeheartedly agree with that article also consider themselves environmentalists who care what happens to our land and water resources. Well, guess what—most of our land is rural. And the decisions about how that land is used happen in rural places. Or, at least, they should—this is changing, too, with an increasing number of absentee landowners. It’s not good when so few people know or see what happens on the land.

    Some have put forward the idea of a new Homestead Act. The devil is in the details, as it always is, but it’s not a bad goal.

    Jason Kander, who leads Let America Vote and is now running for Kansas City mayor, says people’s yearning to return home to do meaningful work is the right impulse, and they should follow it if they can:

  4. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2018-06-29 13:27

    Interesting to think that urbanization could be detrimental. Nobody moves to the city seeking a worse life. But I can get out my Wendell Berry and recognize the harms, material and spiritual, that come from making ourselves more remote from the land and biosphere that make life possible.

    I like the idea of a new Homestead Act that makes it possible for more people to come live on the land that mechanization and industrialization of agriculture has largely evacuated. The fullest liberty includes more opportunities for that meaningful work Heidi mentions, in more places. When economic phenomena, corporate practices, and government policies restrict where we can live and work, we do not have full liberty.

    But I don’t want to spend my days gardening, pulling calves, threshing, butchering, and canning. How many people do? And however many there are, can we create enough opportunities for them in what’s left of rural America?

  5. Anne Beal 2018-06-29 13:32

    The urbanites can complain all they want, but if they piss off the rural residents enough, the urban grocery stores will be empty in 72 hours. So there’s that.

  6. Porter Lansing 2018-06-29 13:45

    That’s another of your brain’s imaginary scenarios, Anne. If farmers could agree on anything they’d have the strongest worker’s collective in the world. I remember when we were dumping milk in ’67 and the NFO was gaining notoriety. Meetings turned into farmers arguing with each other and refusing to work as a group. Psychologically people farm because they don’t like to be around too many people for too long a time.

  7. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2018-06-29 15:47

    Anne, how much of what’s in South Dakota grocery stores is produced in South Dakota?

  8. leslie 2018-06-29 17:03

    Kristy has been a penultimate urban dweller with the deepest of carbon footprints, from the Great Wall to Capitol Gym, for years. With no skill! Flawed knowledge and zero empathy (equal healthcare for all)! Urban out-sized campaign account! Hard core GOP. Political “service” in a majority party is the short-cut to personal enrichment, and rise in personal and crony family class and power. Regardless of merit. At PUBLIC EXPENSE.
    Noem Governorship will be another flavor of Trumpistan. Empty. Partisan.

    Vote Billie without a doubt!

  9. Kurt Evans 2018-06-29 17:25

    Cory writes:

    So one could argue that by electing a rural governor (and that’s what our next governor will be, even if we go ape and elect the Libertarian Kurt Evans from Wessington Springs) …

    You know I’m a young-earth creationist, Cory. Would electing me really be going “ape”? Or would it be going Adam? :-)

  10. Donald Pay 2018-06-29 20:49

    Liz and I were discussing how food now and food when we were growing up in the 1950s is different. Most of the year you couldn’t get fresh vegetables at the grocery store. Fresh fruits were limited as well. It was all canned, mushy and salty. Later on there were frozen veggies. Now, stores have many fresh veggies stocked year around. That’s due to globalization and trade, and refrigeration.

    By the time fresh veggies from Mexico or Chile get to the store they may be 2-3 days from the field. If they are bought at a farmers market or from a local growers, maybe they are 1-2 days from harvest.

    When I was growing up we had a small garden in the backyard, so I got the opportunity to eat just picked stuff, but it was a novelty. Sometimes we would buy fresh stuff from a farm stand. I got seriously into gardening in my twenties.

    We grow a lot of our own veggies in a large community garden established on the campus of the University here, and preserve a lot through freezing. We can eat our own produce into January.

    My daughter was involved with a Chinese startup that was peddling small self-contained units that you could put in a basement that would grow your veggies year round. And in large urban centers in Asia there are vertical gardens where they grow greens and other things. And, of course, there is the small-scale egg-laying boom in many cities. Urban agriculture is becoming a big deal.

  11. John 2018-06-30 02:39

    The nation should have ‘one person, one vote’ governance. A republic is unhealthy and will not survive with consistent minority rule. (Nothing about SD is ‘urban’. The closest thing to ‘urban’ in SD is the bankruptcy of the Rapid City mall.)

    SD ag is part of the agro-industrial, congressional complex. It grows little-to-no food for my table. Most of my food comes from CA, Mexico, Washington, and the Pacific Ocean. SD ag is about irrelevant to my life here. That’s sad they walked away from the market they used to dominate. Few folks cold put together a meal based on SD grown and processed food, especially one using organics and pesticide, GMO-free sources.

  12. Debbo 2018-07-01 00:16

    “I don’t live in South Dakota anymore because I couldn’t stand the lack of vision and to failure to value what was there.”
    Same here Don.

    I think Heidi is on to something and with more broadband and continuing tech growth, chances are better.

    Homesteaders wouldn’t have to be full time farmers. If they had 20 acres, a few head of livestock, fowl, a big vegetable garden, an orchard, vineyard, etc. These things would be their sidelight, but would connect them to the land and that’s the critical thing! There’s a lot of that all around the developed world.

    People move out of the cities onto small acreages. They buy a dozen head of cattle, a bull and a small tractor. They name all their critters. They’re into to new/actually old sustainable farming methods. They learn old skills of animal husbandry, carpentry, horticulture, blacksmithing, and so forth.

    Watch The Swedish Homestead (Sweden), Anne of All Trades (Washington) and For the Good of the Land (?US) on YouTube. There are lots more.

  13. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2018-07-01 19:00

    Kurt, I could be persuaded to jump parties and vote for a Governor who can think up wordplay that deep.

  14. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2018-07-01 19:04

    Basement gardens, roof gardens… suburb gardens?

    We may not get everyone to jump at Heidi’s offer of a modern homestead out in the country, but maybe we could add some “block garden” greenspace requirements to all in-town housing developments: on every block, reserve one full lot—or maybe two central half-lots, on either side of the alley—for shared gardening space. Or design every other new street with a median dedicated to public garden space.

  15. Debbo 2018-07-01 19:39

    Good link Mike, and interesting. Ch-ch-ch-changes are frightening and electing to remain in the past does play a very large role. I’m familiar with small towns that say they’re very welcoming to newcomers. What they don’t say, and probably don’t even acknowledge is the additional phrase, “As long as they act just like us.”

    There are a few small towns in Minnesota, and Worthington is one of them, that really are eager to welcome newcomers Just As They Are. The towns are willing to learn about other cultures and help celebrate them.

    Northfield, Minnesota, my town, puts out a monthly newsletter that has 2 columns on every page. One is English, the other Spanish. There are dozens of programs to help newcomers from other countries settle here.

    What is the difference between these small towns and others? The prof in your article, Mike, isn’t real confident that the fearful victimhood types can be or are willing to be helped to acculturate to 21st century USA. I think his next focus ought to be researching why some small towns are able to make the change.

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