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Rohl Calls Direct Democracy “Evil”; Father Haire Said Legislature Was Unnecessary

Holly Meyer, who once upon a time reported for the Rapid City Journal and now edits global religion news for Associated Press, reminds us that Ohio and other states with initiative and referendum have South Dakota socialist priest Robert Haire to thank for their exercise of direct democracy:

The practice of citizen-originated ballot measures began 125 years ago when South Dakota became the first in the nation to enact a statewide initiative and referendum process. More states followed, and the movement giving voters lawmaking powers grew far bigger than the Rev. Robert W. Haire’s spirited advocacy for it.

…South Dakota’s initiative and referendum came about during an agrarian populist movement. The political conditions were brief but just right in 1897 for lawmakers to approve it; voters passed it the following year. In a memoir compiled by the state Socialist Party, Haire is credited with writing the amendment itself. (Constitutional amendments by initiative were enacted in 1972.) [Holly Meyer, “How a South Dakota Priest Inspired 125 Years of Direct Democracy—and the Fight to Preserve It,” AP, 2023.10.27]

I tell Meyer that initiative and referendum are an essential part of moral government:

“It represents for me the fundamental idea of the equal dignity of every human being,” said Heidelberger, who blogs about South Dakota politics.

The people, he said, deserve lawmaking power too: “They’re no better, but they’re no worse than any one legislator sitting in Pierre making a decision” [Meyer, 2023.10.27].

Alas, Republican Senator Michael Rohl (R-1/Aberdeen) thinks recognizing that equal human dignity is “evil” and that Father Haire was an idiot:

Republican State Sen. Michael Rohl, whose district includes Brown County where Haire spent much of his ministry, told The Associated Press that ballot initiatives are a “necessary evil.” They are susceptible to special interests and most voters focus on the overall issue instead of the proposed details, but they can be a check on lawmakers and party politics, he said.

…As for Haire’s politics, Rohl didn’t mince words: “It may have been originally created by the work of a socialist priest, but even a blind squirrel will find an acorn every now and then” [Meyer, 2023.10.27].

The keen-eyed and visionary Father Haire likely would have responded that Rohl and his fellow legislators are an unnecessary evil:

Initially, Haire called for more radical change: Abolishing the state’s representative legislature and letting the electorate make the laws instead. He argued for it in the Aug. 8, 1891, issue of The Dakota Ruralist: “There would be no humbugging in committees as now, no secret sculduggery, and passing bills at the last hour of the legislature” [link added; Meyer, 2023.10.27].

I’ll grant the practical advantage of an elected Legislature to handle most lawmaking. But the power of initiative and referendum is not evil. Direct democracy is necessary as a moral statement of the equal dignity of all citizens and as a check on the far more corruptible offices of elected humbuggers and skullduggers like Senator Rohl.


  1. larry kurtz 2023-10-30 08:08

    In 1888 L. Frank Baum of Oz fame began editing the South Dakota newspaper The Aberdeen Saturday Pioneer where he advocated for the extermination of American Indians. In the early days of South Dakota statehood Indian agents embezzled federal funds meant for tribal nations, just like James McLaughlin did. Mount Rushmore is South Dakota’s premier example of white nationalist ideology. Its sculptor was a member of the Ku Klux Klan.

    Little has changed.

  2. larry kurtz 2023-10-30 08:12

    While incidents like the one at Aberdeen Central are hardly uncommon in South Dakota white nationalist incitements have intensified because of Trump’s history of sexual violence, hateful lies and propaganda. South Dakota’s Republican governor spins the hate wheel every day because Republican is not just another word for earth hater; it’s another word for Nazi.

  3. Fishenfool 2023-10-30 09:01

    All the good stuff comes from Socialists.

  4. Donald Pay 2023-10-30 09:35

    Some history of the initiative and referendum in South Dakota got left out. Haire certainly played a part in the I&R movement during the late 1890s, but others had pushed the initiative process prior to statehood. A sort of statewide initiative process was even in one of the drafts of the original SD Constitution. It was taken out because there had been a lot of trouble obtaining statehood. They didn’t want the idea of direct democracy, a controversial issue with the corrupt national politicians, getting in the way of statehood. The idea was to obtain statehood and then amend the SD Constitution to include the I&R. That happened ten years after statehood.

  5. DaveFN 2023-10-30 10:07

    What was Rohl’s field of study at Drake?

  6. Buckobear 2023-10-30 10:14

    Unfortunately, passage of an initiative or referendum only give our one-party legislature a target.
    Remember: “Under god the people are ruled.”

  7. Donald Pay 2023-10-30 10:47

    I think Rohl has it backwards. Special interests control the Legislature, and the people are less swayed by those interests than the legislators. The public can be fooled, but not bought. The more money special interests have to spread around to political parties and candidate campaigns the more they control their particular titles in the South Dakota code. That has been a problem since territorial days, and it remains a problem.

  8. P. Aitch 2023-10-30 11:32

    Thanks, Onion. That’s the education of someone trained to view the public as a “rube”. A group to be manipulated and led around by any salesman able to entice their selfish and carnal desires.

  9. e platypus onion 2023-10-30 13:55

    Yer welcome, Sir.

  10. Arlo Blundt 2023-10-30 14:46

    When exploring the history of the I and R movement and its’ passage in 1897, I encourage our correspondents, and Mr. Rohl, to read “Principle Over Party, The Farmers Alliance and Populism in South Dakota 1880-1900.” by R. Alton Lee, Professor Emeritus of History at the University of South Dakota. This is the period in our History when the Populist Party briefly was able to leverage power in the Legislature and offer alternatives, popular with voters, to the status quo politics of the dominant Republicans and much smaller Democratic Party. South Dakota was struggling ro come out of the Depression of 1892 and the divisive issue of the moment was Prohibition. Father Haire was somewhat a minor figure, but a firebrand with a wide constituency among German Catholic farmers (anti-Prohibition), laborers, and small town merchants.

  11. leslie 2023-10-30 16:10

    great history lesson folks! thanks

  12. PWK 2023-10-30 16:43

    Rohl is full of more $!&! than a thanksgiving turkey. Next, he’ll demand the removal of the Father Haire memorial (located on the campus of NSU).

  13. grudznick 2023-10-30 18:07

    This Mr. Haire fellow seems dangerous and misunderstanding of even legislatures filled with ignorants can be controlled by some, and the legislatures provide cover to others. The direct measures, initiated, are amongst the worst ways to govern, ever.

  14. grudznick 2023-10-30 18:09

    You said the FDA guy will wrap up tomorrow?

  15. larry kurtz 2023-10-30 18:20

    The Republican Party is the most dangerous institution on Earth, for sure.

  16. Arlo Blundt 2023-10-30 22:09

    Grudznick—your concern about the dangerousness of Father Haire is a century too late. He campaigned against the interests of the rich and powerful during the Gilded Age. I expect you believe the Robber Barons of the era were “pretty swell fellows.” Much blood was spilled to prove you wrong.

  17. leslie 2023-10-31 02:55

    big picture:

    eliminating initiative/referendum from SD’s constitution’s peoples’ power checking the governor and legislature, serves Republican ideology as it has devolved, power-mad in the face of demographics.

    Bigger Picture:

    It is no accident Putin’s little Vermillion frat-boy puppet Dusty brought Butina into the NRA at the RC/Spring Creek church camp in the hills ten miles from town.

    Putin was afraid of HRC and was able to compromise our 2016 national election, with the help of SD’s lame, naïve ideologues in DC, or knowingly, and Trump, Putin’s ultimate puppet was elected president and in four years cut the legs out from under our democracy.

    How many Ukrainians and Russians has Putin killed since Trump insisted globally that Zelenskyy prevent Biden’s 2020 election as president? Putin is just as afraid of Joe as he was of Hillary. (Fighting and air strikes have inflicted nearly 22,000 civilian casualties, while 5.1 million people are internally displaced, and 6.2 million have fled Ukraine. 17.6 million people need humanitarian assistance. [Soldier casualties on both sides are tens or hundreds of thousands.])

    Trump’s administration created chaos in every department of US government, and with the assistance of lost-cause states-rights incompetent elected Republicans nationally and in more than half the states with gullible under educated flakes like Noem in Republican power, like Ravnsborg’s eager participation enabling RAGA, the border insanity, fear if Geirge Siris activism, the anti-vaccination pandemic insanity, abortion and civil rights, and the right wing fear of losing power, Putin leverages mass hysteria with sophisticated and long running disinformation propaganda aimed at all Republicans’ many psychological, physical, moral and ethical weaknesses. Billionaire Bob Mercer’s Cambridge Analytics cratered HRC’s presidential run.

    Mitch McConnell is the same as Putin, willing to sacrifice a nation for power he thinks a 6-3 SCOTUS will assure. His wife was just one example of the many Trump plants, as Secretary of Transportation! Pompeo, Secretary of State, another and the list of ideologues was embedded throughout the federal government. Another radical Catholic, Bill Barr turned every aspect of DOJ on its head. Betsy Devos, billionaire plant in the Department of Education. SD is reeling today with Noem’s execution of her orders to privatize at the long term detriment of every young person.

    Putin is now killing thousands of Israelis and Palestinians with his influence on Iran and Syria, and likely Hamas, fueling decades and decades of global chaos. Putin is at the heart of the US Republican Party’s “slow motion” crash and burn. If the US democracy fails, he wins. North Korea will win, too. China is very powerful but likely will not succumb to Putin’s misinformation war.

    Like Trump, Sen. Rounds’ fascination with billionaires and corporate welfare was notable as he chanted for years that it was the Democratic Party in a death spiral. This bizarre trait of Trump’s narcissism, blaming others for his own failure of ideology-based leadership, infects all of his past and present Republican supporters.

    “Beijing has been pro-Palestinian since Mao’s days and is mindful about the US’s close ties with Israel … [now] almost anything that the US supports, China must be against.”

  18. leslie 2023-10-31 03:00

    Sorry, Geo Soros of course

  19. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2023-10-31 05:58

    Rohl has been helpful to marijuana advocates in protecting their initiatives, but that says more about < ahref="">his support for marijuana than for democracy. His labeling of initiatives as “evil”, even with the adjective “necessary”, furthers his Republican Party’s effort to undermine and ultimately eliminate the people’s ability to use initiative and referendum to check his Legislative power.

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