Port: There's good populism, and there's bad populism, and it's important for us to know the difference

"The Jan. 6 riot in Washington, D.C., was bad populism. Recalling a local elected official who richly deserves it? That's the good kind."

Emily Eckroth
Bismarck School Board member Emily Eckroth, pictured here during a September 3, 2022, traffic stop conducted by the Burleigh County Sheriff's Department
Screenshot taken from video obtained from Burleigh County via an open records request
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MINOT, N.D. — It probably doesn't surprise those who read my work consistently to learn that I am not a populist. I believe in self-governance, and the will of the people, but only with appropriate checks and balances in place to protect our laws, and our society, from the whims of the fickle mob.

"Democracy is a pathetic belief in the collective wisdom of individual ignorance," H.L. Mencken wrote in his "Notes on Democracy," and while that's far too cynical a perspective for me, we can recognize in his polemic some truths about modern politics.

"A bill before the Legislature in Bismarck ... would remove from the North Dakota Game and Fish Department their authority to regulate deer baiting. ... This is foolishness."
"You could hear an audible groan in the chamber," one lawmaker told me shortly afterward. "Absolutely embarrassing."
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Mencken saw politicians as either the demagogue who "preaches doctrines he knows to be untrue to men he knows to be idiots" or the demaslave "who listens to what these idiots have to say and then pretends that he believes it himself."

It's almost like he had a time machine and could see the modern political grifters selling conspiracy theories to the masses standing next to the craven pushovers making common cause with whatever topic is trending on Twitter, or lighting up the cable news primetime shows.

Still, for all the problems with populism, there is a time and place for it. Populism, like bleach, can be corrosive. It can also help clean up a big, stinky mess.


In Bismarck, a recall campaign is brewing, and its target, local school board member Emily Eckroth, has certainly earned it. You'll remember that Eckroth and her husband, former Republican legislative candidate Ryan Eckroth, were pulled over by Burleigh County Deputies on Sept. 3, 2022.

While Ryan Eckroth underwent sobriety tests — he was ultimately allowed to call for a ride home — Emily Eckroth behaved atrociously.

She taunted and heckled the officers who patiently and repeatedly asked her to pipe down and let them do their jobs. No doubt concerned about safety — the traffic stop happened next to a busy interstate — the deputies put Emily Eckroth into the backseat of one of their patrols cars where she proceeded to urinate on herself and the seat. It was apparently on purpose because when Eckroth emerged, she taunted the officers about it.

"Did you pee your pants?" one deputy asked her.

"Oh I p----- in your car, yes," Eckroth replied. "And it was amazing," she continued, after chuckling about it.

Warning: This video contains content which may be offensive to some viewers. Discretion is advised.

At no point has Eckroth taken full responsibility for her behavior. She's claimed that she's taken responsibility, but only in the context of expressing anger that the news media, in service to the public, which has an interest in knowing what elected officials get up to, reported on her actions.

"It is regrettable that some members of the media have decided to publish information of my arrest," she griped. "It seems their purpose for doing so is to embarrass me personally for an incident that I deeply regret."


It seems, to this observer, that Eckroth regrets the incident only insofar as it's embarrassing for the public, including her constituents, to know about it.

Emily Eckroth.jpeg
Emily Eckroth.

Eckroth is also refusing to step down from her position on the school board. The other members of the board have called on her to step down, but she has refused. At a meeting this week , the other board members voted to censure her, and strip her of her portfolio assignments and school visit duties until December of this year. At that same meeting, Eckroth again paid lip service to feelings of regret, but also insinuated a conspiracy theory in which law enforcement used redactions to the audio of the traffic stop to paint her in a bad light.

"There is a lot more behind it than even the video said. There are things that were bleeped out that are not correct. And that being said, that's for my lawyer, not to be discussed here at this board meeting," she said.

I was among the journalists who requested the video of Eckroth's stop, and I spoke at length with Sheriff Kelly Leben about the redactions. He told me they were challenging because much of what they had to redact was private information unrelated to the stop being broadcasted on the radios of the deputies in the background. I'm satisfied with that explanation, but if Eckroth has more information about inappropriate redactions, then we're all ears.

But it's hard to imagine any sort of chicanery with the redactions exonerating, to any degree, Eckroth's behavior during that stop.

Which brings us back to the question populism. Bismarck residents, appalled by Eckroth's actions, and her refusal to hold herself accountable for them, have organized a recall effort. They just submitted their petitions for approval to be circulated today.

The Jan. 6 riot in Washington, D.C., was an extreme example of the bad sort of populism. So, too, has been the violent insurrection — an echo of Jan. 6, in many ways — perpetrated recently in Brazil by people protesting that country's recent national election.

But recalling an elected official who so richly deserves it?


That's the good kind of populism. The kind we can all get behind.

It's important for us to know the difference.

Opinion by Rob Port
Rob Port is a news reporter, columnist, and podcast host for the Forum News Service. He has an extensive background in investigations and public records. He has covered political events in North Dakota and the upper Midwest for two decades. Reach him at Click here to subscribe to his Plain Talk podcast.
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