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Omdahl: Does North Dakota need a two-party system?

By Staff | Dec 13, 2016

In theory, North Dakota Republicans and Democrats believe in a two-party system but in practice Republicans believe in a one-party system. They have proven this by their relentless efforts to legislate the Democratic Party out of existence.

They have gerrymandered the legislative districts to limit the number of Democrats in the Legislature; they have trumped up fraud cases to justify unwarranted ID requirements for voting; they have opposed disclosure of campaign contributions.

Their efforts were rewarded in the recent election with even more Republicans and even fewer Democrats in the upcoming legislative session.

Before we rush to judgment, however, this undemocratic behavior has to be kept in perspective. Republicans are only doing in North Dakota what all political parties do in other states.

Democrats are just as guilty in Democratic states as Republicans are in Republican states. It just happens that North Dakota is a Republican state.

The reach for absolute power is characteristic of all true believers and most politicians are true believers. (It is also true in churches.)

This highlights Lord Acton’s allegation that “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” As Republican domination moves toward absoluteness, the Legislature will be challenged to avoid corrupt use of its authority.

But Republicans didn’t obliterate the Democrats all by themselves. They got a lot of help from Democrats.

As a party, the Democrats have been careening downhill for the past 20 years.

First, they became dependent on the campaign support provided by Senators Kent Conrad, Byron Dorgan and Congressmen Earl Pomeroy. It became a party on the dole.

Next, they failed to maintain a grass roots organization; they kept nominating a new slate of unknown candidates for state offices; they failed to mobilize campaign support for their candidates; their leadership consisted of emailing, press releases and social media; and they offered voters very few policy alternatives to Republicans.

This brings us to a larger question: is there room for a Democratic Party in North Dakota?

North Dakota has always been a conservative state in a culture marked by rugged individualism which in turn fosters anti-governmentalism. In North Dakota, less government is good; no government would be better.

Because this conservative bent permeates our politics, Democrats must be conservative to be electable. Senator Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND) understands this but many Democrats don’t and want her to be the kind of liberal that cannot survive in this conservative climate.

If the conservative culture requires Democrats as well as Republicans to be conservative, North Dakota Democrats are hard-pressed to offer a stark contrast to Republicans when it comes to issues. And without defining issues, Democrats find it difficult to enthuse the troops.

If they want to continue as a political party, Democrats must accept the role of the loyal opposition no matter how small a contingent sits in the Legislature.

Though few in number, Democrats in the last session did offer contrary perspectives on relevant issues. And when they did, Republicans felt they had to explain their policies. Republicans were accountable.

To actually score points on policies in the future, Democrats may have to fight outside of the traditional channels. The initiative and referendum are both effective for proposing new policies and testing those passed by the Legislature.

As Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said when criticized for going into Iraq with a poorly-equipped army: “You go to war with the army you’ve got.” The Democrats now have to go to war with the platoon they’ve got.

If history is predictive, 2018 can be a more favorable year, unless Democrats continue on their rudderless course.

Omdahl is a former lieutenant governor and former political science professor at UND.

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