Last Updated May 21, 2003
For more than a century after statehood, North Dakota remained as close to its roots as any other state. Yet in its second century there are signs of change ahead. North Dakota was settled and its farm economy developed in a short generation. There are North Dakotans alive today who knew the men and women that settled this land and saw the state enter the Union in 1889. As children, they walked in the ruts left by the early settlers' wagon trains; they saw the Indians, recently defeated, herded onto reservations; they saw still shining new the rails that brought the world's commerce to these desolate prairies. This was the frontier to which Teddy Roosevelt came in 1884, determined to shoot one of the fast-disappearing buffalo, a place where settlers were only then breaking the sod and plowing under the natural prairies that are still preserved in a few places. This was some of the best wheat land in the world, empty by then of Indians and buffalo, connected to markets by rail, ready to become a cog in the industrial world being created by entrepreneurs and to raise its living standards to unparalleled heights.
And so, in a sudden rush of settlement during the 20 years before World War I, North Dakota filled up to pretty much its present population. There were 632,000 people here in 1920 and in counts since, the number has fluctuated between 617,000 and 680,000. In the 2000 Census it was 642,000, and cumulatively it is the state with the lowest growth rate since 1950. Wheat is not the only crop here, there are also pinto beans and soybeans and sunflowers, and as the plains become more arid in the west, ranching and livestock grazing--along with strip mining and oil and natural gas production--are important; hardy root crops like potatoes and sugar beets grow as well. But wheat is still number one. Typically the state produces about one-tenth of the U.S. crop, and a fair percentage of the world's; its durum wheat is the main ingredient of American pasta. North Dakota has few big businesses--its leading high-tech firm Great Plains Software was bought by Microsoft in 2001--and it attracts few tourists; it is the state least visited by other Americans. It worries about losing its young people; the number of 20-to-34-year-olds declined 16% in the 1990s. But North Dakotans--who debated proposals to change the state's name to Dakota in 1947, 1983, 1989 and 2001--also has things to be proud of. North Dakota coal mine companies have gotten awards for reclamation and admiration for the respect they've shown Indian gravesites; North Dakota Air National Guard F-16s patrolled the skies of Washington after September 11; the voters of Hettinger County (population 2,715) in 2002 elected North Dakota's first black sheriff.
Its dependence on agriculture shaped North Dakota's politics. Farmers, as much as they like to extol their way of life, are seldom content with the workings of the market. When prices are high, it is often because of low production; when they are low, farmers seek protection. The boosterish optimism of the first settlers was soon followed by cries reverberating with varying intensity for government protection against market forces. Since commodity prices tend to fall during periods of economic growth, there has been a countercyclical element in North Dakota politics, a tendency to vote against the national trends, and a radical strain going back to the 1910s and still lively in recent years. That radical strain also owes much to the immigrant origins of so many of North Dakota's early settlers: Norwegians in the eastern part of the state, Canadians along the northern border, colonies of Poles and Czechs and Icelanders, and native Germans throughout the state.
These immigrants produced orderly small towns and grain and other cooperatives; they also provided support for the Non-Partisan League, which flourished from its founding in 1915 to its alliance with the Democratic Party around 1960. It appealed to marginal farmers, cut off in many cases from the wider American culture by language barriers and seemingly at the mercy of the grain millers in Minneapolis, the railroads of St. Paul, the banks of New York and the commodity traders of Chicago. The NPL's program was socialist--government ownership of railroads and grain elevators--and, like most North Dakota ethnics, it opposed going to war with Germany. The NPL often determined the outcome of the usually decisive Republican primary and sometimes swung its support to the otherwise heavily outnumbered Democrats, instituting reforms and creating a state-owned bank. By 1960, the NPL had more or less merged into the Democratic Party, a merger symbolized by the election of the late Democratic Senator Quentin Burdick, whose father, Usher Burdick, served 20 years in the House as an NPL-endorsed Republican. North Dakota's leading Democrats of recent decades, Senators Kent Conrad and Byron Dorgan, have championed a politics clearly of NPL lineage: For government farm programs, wary if not hostile to American military involvement abroad, and cheerfully championing the little guy from North Dakota against out-of-state corporations.
This is a place where everyone knows everyone else; for years there has been no voter registration because people obviously spot anyone not eligible. This communal closeness has produced an innate conservatism in North Dakota. Divorce is as uncommon here as anywhere in the United States, the two-parent family is still very much the norm and abortions are available in only one clinic in the whole state. North Dakota is proud that its students achieve some of the nation's highest math scores, even though its teacher pay is among the lowest in the country; it has one of the highest rates of students going on to college and one of the lowest rates of student loan defaults. Politics is personal, too, in a state where every politician is known to many voters. North Dakota is one of only three states with an all-Democratic congressional delegation (Massachusetts and Hawaii are the others). The two senators and congressman are all allies who have worked together for years, since the 1974 campaign when Byron Dorgan, now junior Senator, ran for the House, and lost. His campaign manager was Kent Conrad, now senior Senator, and their driver was Earl Pomeroy, now Congressman-at-large. Dorgan pioneered and Conrad followed attempts to attribute out-of-state corporations' earnings to North Dakota operations and then tax them--very small potatoes to most big companies, but very helpful for thrift-minded, suspicious-of-big-corporations traditional North Dakota voters.
Yet there are signs of change even in this settled commonwealth. And not just from natural disasters, though they have left scars. The 1997 flooding of Grand Forks left 70,000 people--11% of the state's population--out of their homes as the Red River rose 26 feet above flood stage; despite volunteer help and rallies, many homes and buildings were not replaced two years later. A devastating rainstorm hit Fargo in 2000. North Dakota's missile silos, a taken-for-granted sight in its farm fields, are now being destroyed. Meanwhile, gargantuan animal statues are raised over near-deserted highways--New Salem Sue, the world's largest Holstein cow; the Jamestown Buffalo, the world's largest catfish, a turtle crafted out of 2,000 old tires, a monster grasshopper and a giant sandhill crane, an iron pipe silhouette of Teddy Roosevelt. But most important, the land seems to be emptying out. Increasing agricultural productivity has meant fewer farmers living directly off the land, and more people living in towns and off other industries. "There's a real concern that we're probably seeing the last generation on the land," says University of North Dakota sociologist Curtis Stofferahn. In hundreds of small towns, local city halls are padlocked, banks are open just three hours a week, and bars have closed. The Freedom to Farm Act of 1996 has been replaced by the more generous 2002 farm bill, but the number of farmers continues to decline. At the same time, North Dakota's small cities have grown. Back in 1955 North Dakota-born sociologist Carl Kraenzel predicted in The Great Plains in Transition that sutland communities (places on transportation lines) would grow and yonland communities (places away from transportation lines); and so it has happened. North Dakota's four biggest counties, containing Fargo, Grand Forks, Bismarck and Minot, grew from 134,000 in 1930 to 317,000 in 2000, while the state's other 49 counties dropped from 546,000 to 325,000; in 2000, these four counties cast half the state's votes. The good news is that unemployment is low and the economy stable; in late 2002 North Dakota was one of 10 states with a "stable or optimistic" state budget outlook. Family farmers, as their numbers decline, no longer seem to have the critical mass to drive politics; there is less talk of helping farmers and more demands for better airline connections. In effect, North Dakota is developing the demographics of the Rocky Mountain states, with population concentrated in a few cities and towns.
On balance, these developments tend to undermine the state's radical tradition. If the typical elderly North Dakotan is a hard-working retired farmer, with fond memories of NPL agitation and a belief in government programs, the typical young North Dakotan is a family person with a college education more trusting of markets and the private sector. North Dakotans have noticed that nearby South Dakota has attracted white-collar jobs with low tax rates and that North Dakota, with its higher taxes and pro-government traditions, is the Great Plains state with the lowest population growth in the 1990s--up 3,400 people, or 0.5%. This is a state that Bill Clinton did not come close to carrying, and George W. Bush won here in 2000 by a 61%-33% margin. At the same time, Republican John Hoeven was elected governor over the strong candidacy of Democrat Heidi Heitkamp by a 55%-45% margin. To be sure, Democrats Conrad and Pomeroy have been re-elected, but Pomeroy's margin was down to 52%-48% in 2002--his closest race ever. It's too soon to say that North Dakota has moved away from its radical political roots, but a conservative strain in its heritage is asserting itself.
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