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David Danbom column: Rural theme falls flat in urban state

This summer Rep. Earl Pomeroy's, D-N.D., re-election campaign has been running a television ad touting Pomeroy's commitment to "rural values." The spot isn't clear on exactly what "rural values" are, but judging from t...

This summer Rep. Earl Pomeroy's, D-N.D., re-election campaign has been running a television ad touting Pomeroy's commitment to "rural values." The spot isn't clear on exactly what "rural values" are, but judging from the congressman's recent voting record they seem to involve commercial farmers getting more taxpayer support and welfare moms and their kids getting less.

The Pomeroy campaign's emphasis on "rural values" reminds us that the Democratic-Nonpartisan League party was created by rural North Dakotans, is rooted in agrarian radicalism, and still draws most of its passion and much of its support from the farms and small towns of the state.

The problem with the "rural values" approach is that North Dakota has become an urban state. Most North Dakotans now live in cities, and while every one of us hopes that rural depopulation will end, that farms and small towns will flourish again, and that rural culture will be revitalized, nobody with the brains of a pot roast would predict that North Dakota will ever cease to be an urban state, or will even become less urban than it is now.

However much urban North Dakotans might feel warm and nostalgic when they hear the phrase "rural values," the reality is that their concerns are the concerns of urban people. They worry more about finding decent, affordable day care for their kids and the quality of the public schools than they do about price supports for wheat. They wonder how they are going to pay for health insurance, buy a house, or educate their kids on pathetic North Dakota wages. They are concerned about whether they will be able to retire with dignity, and when.

Some of them are even committed to clean air and water, and to preserving such North Dakota jewels as the grasslands. What does the "rural values" campaign have to say to such folks? Not a damned thing.

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In 2000 Heidi Heitkamp's gubernatorial campaign stressed rural and agricultural themes, going to far as to pose the candidate at the Canadian border pledging to fight imports of farm products. Along came One-Note Johnny Hoeven with his mantra of economic development, and the Republican carried the cities and the state. Somebody needs to break the news to Pomeroy that Heitkamp lost.

In the 1970s and 1980s the D-NPL had an uncanny ability to sense the mood of North Dakota's people and the direction in which they wanted to go. It's losing that ability now, and parties that lose their feel for the public pulse end up like the Federalists and the Whigs -- extinct. North Dakota needs a Democratic Party that addresses the real problems of all North Dakotans, not one that substitutes feel-good phrases for substantive policies.

Danbom is profession of history at North Dakota State University and an occasional contributor to The Forum's commentary page. He can be reached at DavidDanbom@msn.com

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