Wouldn’t it be nice if we could accept the outcry of contrition coming from elected Republicans in North Dakota after their party adopted a platform that condemns gay and transgender individuals?
Of course, it would be nice.
It would also be naïve.
Neither historical context nor current considerations will excuse the resolutions. So, let’s not allow these officeholders to hide behind their outrage.
Where should we start?
The North Dakota Republican Party’s history on gender rights isn’t stellar by any means. More like a black hole. The last significant gender rights issue that passed in the Legislature was ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment. North Dakota was the 34th state to ratify — and that was way back in 1975, when Earl Strinden was leader of the Republican majority in the Legislature — and we were all 45 years younger than we are now.
Last session — more than 40 years on — the North Dakota Legislature attempted to take back its ratification of the amendment. Sponsors saw the amendment as superfluous in today’s more enlightened times, and they cited a deadline for ratification that had long since passed.
In the meantime, Republican lawmakers have turned back legislation meant to protect gay, lesbian and transgender people. Gay marriage was forbidden in the state after Republican lawmakers forwarded a constitutional amendment to voters declaring that the state would recognize only marriages between one man and one woman. The U.S. Supreme Court cleared the way for gay marriage throughout the land, and North Dakota gave up its prohibition.
Opposition to legislation protecting gays from discrimination in other areas, such as housing, hiring and services continues, though. A session or two ago, a law protecting gays from housing discrimination was defeated by Republican lawmakers. One of those who voted against it was exposed for posting a picture of his pokey on a gay hook-up site.
So much for consistency of conscience.
Enough of historical context. Let’s have a look at current considerations.
First the resolutions that elected Republicans tried to dodge have been around for a while. They date at least as far back as 2016, which means that they were in the platform that Doug Burgum ran on when he became governor in that election cycle. Same for John Hoeven, re-elected to the U.S. Senate in that year. And for Kevin Cramer, re-elected to the House, though he later moved on to the U.S. Senate.
That leaves only Kelly Armstrong among the top Republican office holders who wasn’t in place at the time these resolutions first appeared. But wait! Armstrong was chairman of the state Republican Party in 2016.
Exclamations of outrage notwithstanding, these officials have managed to duck this issue in the past. Pick your explanation from among these four: Ignorance. Amnesia. Indifference. Or acquiescence.
This year’s iteration of these resolutions first appeared in late winter, when a committee approved them and sent them on their way — to ratification by the state party convention. Coronavirus intervened, of course, and no actual meeting was held. Instead, delegates voted online.
This might have brought the resolutions more attention than a vote at an actual convention, when approval of platforms is routine, especially at Republican conventions. Democrats are more inclined to argue about details of resolutions.
But there were 50 resolutions, a surefire guarantee that few people read all of them. Instead, they did as they would have done if they were in a convention hall somewhere. They voted “Yes!”
Herein lies another problem with platforms. They are invariably the products of enthusiasts for one position or another, and their intent is seldom examined and even less often questioned. It’s easy, in other words, to get pretty radical ideas into a party platform.
Of course, that’s why very few people pay very much attention to them.
Until they become an embarrassment. Then the outraged responses begin. We’ve heard those from the highest-ranking state officials and the highest-ranking officials of the state Republican Party.
Coincidentally — it’s tempting to say “ironically” — Republicans have run into another problem here, an internal one. A group of activists led by Curly Haugland, a former party official, has objected to the decision to cancel the state convention and to allow online voting. The argument is a complicated one having to do with the party’s rules, but a straightforward reading of them suggests that the party leadership may have overstepped.
This development is more in character for Democrats, who enter every convention spoiling for a fight over something, sometimes the more trivial the better the fight.
The uprising in the Republican Party mirrors a growing split in the state’s dominant political party. This is a rich broth of competing factions and shifting alliances.
Mike Jacobs is a former editor and publisher of the Grand Forks Herald.