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Friday Mailbag: Cognitive tests for politicians, decline in conservatism, and how I deal with angry readers

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PHOTO: Term Limits ballot measure petition circulator
In this reader-submitted photo, a circulator for a proposed constitutional amendment that would implement term limits in North Dakota uses signs that falsely claim the petition is about term limits for Congress. (Courtesy photo)
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MINOT, N.D. — It's Friday, so that means it's time for a mailbag column in which I respond, publicly, to some of the correspondence I receive from you, the audience.

I love getting feedback, positive or negative, so send it along to I try (and sometimes fail) to respond to everything I get, even if it doesn't make it to the column.

Submissions may be edited for clarity and brevity.

Garrett writes, in response to my column headlined, " Conservatives believe they can use big government to win the culture war ": "Excellent diagnosis in today's article! This was especially interesting for me as I've had the opportunity to witness some of the disappointing change over the years (I'm 29). The question I've been pondering for some time, 'How do we get back to what conservatism used to be.'"

Humans have a bad habit of remembering the past as better than it actually was. Nostalgia tends to inspire us to put on the proverbial rose-colored glasses. I don't want to do that with conservatism, believing there was some time when right-of-center politicians were paragons of limited government and fiscal restraint.


Still, there's no doubt in my mind that, in the Trump era, a large faction of the conservative movement has turned their backs on principle for the sake of culture war expediency.

How do we fix that? Good question.


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I tend to agree with National Review columnist Kevin Williamson's diagnosis of the status quo : "[T]he economic incentives of right-wing media more or less ensure that Trumpism will remain enough of a force within the Republican Party for long enough to cripple it for a generation," he wrote this week. "Donald Trump was for many years a generous donor to Democratic campaigns, from Hillary Rodham Clinton to Chuck Schumer, but his deformation of the GOP will be his lasting gift to the Democrats."

The unfortunate truth is that Trumpism is snake oil. There's a big market for that flavor of snake oil, and thus money to be made. As long as that's true, the grift will continue regardless of the harm done to the conservative cause and the social/fiscal health of our country.

What we need is people who think of themselves as conservatives to stop being obsessed with personalities and the news-as-entertainment schtick and start believing in ideas again.

I wish I knew how to inspire that to happen.

Collin writes: " Your article on term limits and a cognitive test [for aging politicians] was interesting and provocative. I do have a couple of points to offer. Regarding term limits and the idea that the 'solution' is to vote them out. I think that fails to consider that the system doesn’t offer a real 'choice.' In ND the Democrats can’t seem to find a candidate worthy of voting for and to be nominated as a Republican in ND is to virtually guarantee election. Unfortunately, the Republican Party is loathe to replace candidates who should not be endorsed (see Luke Simmons). There is no doubt in my mind he would have been re-elected had he been left alone. While voting them out is a good idea, it doesn’t seem practical. Unfortunately winning isn’t good enough, now voting suppression seems to be the latest Republican strategy. Regarding the cognitive test, as a 70 something-year-old, it does bother me (we old-timers have thin skin you know) that the argument for cognitive testing seems age-based. I suggest that espousing craziness is not age-related."


The term limits cause has to be one of the most unintentionally ironic political movements in American history. It paints itself as a populist movement, aimed at digging entrenched politicians out of office, while glossing over the fact that no incumbent in the American political system can be entrenched without the help of the voters.

Collin argues that Republicans in North Dakota win one election after another because North Dakota's Democrats don't run good candidates. But how will term limits change that? Will Democrats suddenly find better candidates? Will term limits make the platform Democrats campaign on more palatable to the average North Dakota voter? Will it convince North Dakota Republicans not to nominate for public office clearly unqualified candidates like former lawmaker Luke Simons?

Term limits won't change any of that. The one thing it will accomplish is limiting the amount of time an experienced incumbent who is popular with his or her constituency can serve in office.

Besides, it's not at all clear that North Dakota has a problem with political entrenchment. The term limits measure currently being circulated for signatures in our state, that will almost certainly be on the ballot next year, would limit state lawmakers to no more than eight cumulative years in office, and governors to no more than two eight-year terms.

I ran the numbers back in August and found that, at least in our state, this is a solution in search of a problem. Since statehood, just two governors have served more than eight years: John Hoeven (10) and William Guy (12). Every political cycle since 2001 has seen a more than 15% turnover in the Legislature, which is to say about 15% of the incumbents don't return. In our current Legislature, the median amount of time served is just 8 years. The average is just over 10.

It seems like the voters are already doing a good job of consistently bringing in fresh faces to these elected offices.

As for cognitive tests for elderly politicians, I understand that this can be a fraught suggestion. Anyone who has ever had an uncomfortable conversation about driving with an elderly loved one knows this. That doesn't mean we should avoid them. The simple truth is that our cognitive abilities decline with age. The public deserves to know whether the people seeking some of the most consequential responsibilities in our society are up for the job.

Sam asks: "How do you deal with all the abuse people throw at you? I don't agree with most of what you write, but the name-calling and ugliness you get on social media and elsewhere surprises me. Why do people act like that?


I don't have a good answer for Sam's last question, other than to say that social media has made us a very performative people. Everyone has an audience now, be it on Facebook or Twitter or TikTok, and that makes people feel like they can't just have an opinion on something. They must be seen to have an opinion, and the visceral they are in expressing themselves, the more attention they'll get.

It's anecdotal, but one thing I've noticed is that the conversations I have privately with people, be they via email or direct messages or even in-person, are far more civil and fruitful than what takes place on social media. That's probably because there's no audience.

A couple of years ago David Graham argued, in an article for The Atlantic, that CSPAN, with its omnipresent cameras, had made politics in Congress and Washington, D.C., worse.

"Politicians love it for the chance to grandstand," he wrote, and I suspect that same phenomenon is true of social media.

As for how I deal with it, I mostly ignore the performative people. I engage, now and then, because it can be amusing, but for the most part I don't consider them (or, at least, their posturing) to be worth taking seriously. Unburdening myself of the obligation to engage with the histrionics leaves me free to engage meaningfully with more thoughtful people.

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Rob Port, founder of, is a Forum Communications commentator. Reach him on Twitter at @robport or via email at .

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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