An Open Letter to the South Dakota Democratic Party [OPINION]
Author's Note: This piece was originally published in January of 2017. I've updated it to reflect the current events of June 2018. The message is still the same.
Hey there folks on the South Dakota Democratic Party. It's midterm season. I spent the first half of 2018 wondering if you guys even still existed. All we heard about was the GOP candidates for governor and the US House of Representatives. Their media presence in news and commercials dominated the spring. It looked like the races were all red all the time. I get it that with unchallenged primaries for governor and the House, there may not have been a huge urge to spend precious campaign money for the primary. But, I expected to at least see Billie Sutton and Tim Bjorkman on the news responding to events and statement by the Republicans.
I see you did post a press release today (June 6) about the primaries. I really hope that now that the election year is in full bloom we, the citizens of South Dakota, will be seeing your messages and ideas more often.
In our two party system, two strong parties are required to ensure the functioning of our government. I want to remind you of your important position in our state as the opposition, and offer some ideas.
My first impression of the South Dakota Democratic Party is that it's seized by a strong sense of nostalgia, a longing for the days of George McGovern. In other words, the party seems like a collection of aging baby-boomers disconnected from the people on the street (or the dirt road). That’s probably not a fair characterization, but that’s what it feels like on the outside of the political-nerd bubble. It's becoming difficult for the average South Dakotan to identify with the party.
To win offices the party must command attention and refine its message. The party must loudly announce its existence. It must be everywhere spreading its message. It also cannot make the mistake of solely highlighting the failings of the opposition, as tempting as that might seem. You must tell the people of South Dakota why your ideas are better. You have to own the discussion now. Not in October of 2018, NOW. It’s time to let the people know who’s on their side, who has the practical solutions, who is willing to make the tough choices and can explain why.
Changes in the way people consume information has made it easier, quicker and cheaper to connect with voters and reinforce your message. We all have the most sophisticated tools of communication in our hands right now. The key is using them to get the word out in a tone that embraces the future.
South Dakota campaigns often have a great focus on farm related issues. But, that can not be the entirety of the party’s message. Farm issues are not the same as rural issues, both economically and social. And even in South Dakota, we are an increasingly urban population. Trying to energize the average urban voter with family-farm nostalgia is a dangerous game. A young family in Sioux Falls can be sympathetic to farm issues, but their life is dominated by wage stagnation, access to health care, public school funding, crushing student debt, public infrastructure and the security of their children’s futures.
The average rural voter is faced with the same issues, plus the contracting of rural economies leading to the eroding of opportunity and being trapped in small town poverty. Eroding of access and the rise of drug abuse.
The party needs candidates and spokespeople that can effectually deliver the message that access to health care is a positive for not only the people, but for businesses. Healthy people are more productive. When quality employees are not trapped in positions to ensure access to health insurance they are available to entrepreneurs and small businesses. And, if businesses are not trapped in the roll of health care provider they can be more efficient and focus on their core missions.
Candidates and advocates need to be able to show how raising wages is good for the employer as well as the employee. When a person can provide for their family through their properly compensated hard work they live with the dignity the American Dream promises. Plus, when people have money they spend money.
We need candidates and spokespeople that can talk about climate change in a way that is relevant to South Dakotans. There are not any polar bears here. But, there is an agricultural economy that stretches back a century and half. In order to ensure that that tradition continues, we must take climate change seriously, especially in the popular political discussion. Changes are under way and our state needs to be prepared. This isn’t about taking peoples trucks away, shutting down power plants or protesting pipelines. It is about what crops the South Dakota farmer of 2030 will be planting (by the way Baby-Boomers, those farmers are your grandchildren). What are we going to do when extended droughts and increasingly erratic severe weather become the norm? Changes in local climate will also lead to changes in the type of pest infestations that our farmers will deal with.
This is not treehugger stuff. We have to shake off the stink that hippy loudmouths have stuck us with. Developing renewable energy and preparing for changes in climate are not Earth Day platitudes, it’s main street economics. If there’s a chance that the foundation of our state’s economy and social traditions will be severely impacted, then we must be thinking, preparing and listing to independent experts. The cash crops of South Dakota may be different in the next generation, but to keep feeding the world we have to be ready.
Speaking of the economy, we are staring down the barrel of the post-service economy at a time when our popular politics has not even made the transition from talking about the end of the manufacturing dominated economy. Advances in robotics, artificial-intelligence and automation WILL NOT STOP. There are huge swaths of our current job market that will not exist for the kids in elementary school today. From transporting to service personal, WHEN the tech advances enough, and the price drops enough, the market will take advantage of it. As it should. But, where will that leave the people of South Dakota?
There is no stopping the future. Public education is the only way to stave off a depression in our state’s productivity. Strong, fully funded, public education will prepare our child to thrive in the future that is coming. The Democratic Party needs candidates that can remind us that one of the forces that created the American superpower was public education. Shortchanging education, or selling it off, hampers our future economy.
The party needs to articulate the benefits for all people of protecting the rights of small groups. When we ensure that the system works for others, we ensure that the system works for all. We need candidates and spokespeople that can communicate to people that in America inclusion does not mean instead of; it means in addition to.
Of all the lessons to be learned from 2016, one of the most important is that there is a hunger for solutions. The Democratic Party has a legacy of solving problems and being on the side of the common person. You must own the discussion and develop the tools and talent to protect what we’ve built and expand opportunity to everyone.
The rising generations are not interested in continuing the 1960’s dorm-room debates that have strangled our political lives for the past four decades. Voters are done with parties treating the very serious business of politics and public service like rival sports teams fighting for wins and losses. To quote the musical Hamilton, “History has its eyes on you.” Future Americans will look back and cheer our actions, or decry our defeatist paralysis.
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