Editorial Roundup: South Dakota

Yankton Press & Dakotan. April 1, 2024.

Editorial: Addressing The State Of SD Democracy

A forum held last week in Vermillion explored the state of democracy in South Dakota, and three veteran lawmakers all agreed that the health of democracy in this state leaves a little to be desired.

Actually, perhaps more than a little.

And, in fact, it reflects what we’re seeing on a national scale.

The forum was part of the 2024 Chiesman Democracy Conference held at the University of South Dakota, and it featured retired Democratic state legislator Ray Ring and retired Republican state legislator Arthur Rusch, both of Vermillion, and District 15 Democratic Sen. Linda Duba, who has announced she is not seeking reelection this year. (Meanwhile, Ring is seeking a return to the State House in District 17 this fall.)

All three offered a downbeat outlook on democracy in this state, pointing to polarization both between and within parties, as well as the problems posed by an electorate that’s not as involved in the process as they should be, the Vermillion Plain Talk reported.

The latter factor can also cultivate polarization in Pierre and elsewhere. “I think that people are making less of an effort to really understand both sides of an issue,” Rusch said. “I think that’s damaging to our democracy.”

Meanwhile, the climate in Pierre has grown more contentious, thanks in part to lawmakers who, like some voters, often appear to have little interest in exploring all sides of an issue.

“What I have seen in our state is a rise in individuals who are extreme and they are fracturing what I would consider our Republican Party,” said Duba, of Sioux Falls. “That fracture is obvious, and it shows itself in committee; it shows itself on the floor; it shows itself when you talk about performance. There is a lot of performing going on right now in South Dakota, and we should have our heads down and be focused.”

This is, arguably, evident in a possible growing split emerging within the state Republican Party, which otherwise owns healthy supermajorities in both the House and Senate. This is producing an unusually high number of contested primary races in June.

It’s also evident in the Democratic Party, which ousted its party chair last summer in a move that has created bitter feelings and a need for “healing,” Duba said.

When the party members are battling among themselves, it’s harder to reach accommodations with members of other parties.

And that outreach is needed to make our democracy more constructive and productive for the people.

That means coming together to solve problems, perhaps through compromise, not ramrodding one solution or blowing an issue apart. We saw that happen at times with the carbon pipeline issue in Pierre, which looked irreconcilable at some points and still seems precarious now that the session is over.

Rusch noted that lawmakers must learn that it’s OK to agree to disagree on some issues and to have “respectful disagreements” and not resort to insults.

Dr. Shane Nordyke, director of the Chiesman Center for Democracy at USD and moderator of last week’s event, advised lawmakers to “be like a goldfish,” which only has a 15-second memory. Otherwise, how “do you set (an issue) aside to move on to the next issue that needs to be dealt with … “? she asked.

For democracy to truly be productive, bipartisanship between parties must mirror the intra-party ability to put aside issues within a caucus. And the public must support, not penalize, efforts by lawmakers to occasionally reach across the aisle to address the state’s business.

That’s the best medicine for what ails our democracy, both here and elsewhere.