Last week, a student asked me the following:
“What the hell is wrong with the North Dakota legislature?”
I’m not going to say who it was, both because they trusted my confidentiality and because I didn’t ask permission to write this essay. What follows is a much longer version of my response.
American politics is so extremely right-wing that what would be considered center-right in much of the world is considered progressive here. The North Dakota legislature exemplifies this. In addition to the obligatory anti-trans, anti-critical race theory, and anti-library-book laws, they have been subject to online ridicule because they canceled a free lunch program for school children then turned around and increased their own lunch per diem. This is neither good policy nor good optics.
Lots of people are Republicans. Some of them agree with the legislature’s decisions and some don’t. To reject or approve specific policies one must have an independent justification for why it is good or not, not simply rely on its categorization on the political spectrum. This is why all policies should be open to debate on their merits and not become litmus tests for party loyalty.
Why are they doing all of this? The answer to the question can’t simply be, “what’s wrong with them is that they’re Republican,” even if the student clearly believes this. All that answer does is affirm the consequent: it assumes the conclusion in the premise of the argument by asserting that the reason Republicans are bad is that they hold Republican positions. We need a more persuasive point of view; we need evidence along with inference. We need to be able to persuade while we complain.
In other words, a partisan answer is not a good philosophical answer.
I propose that the real problem with the state legislature is its insular nature; its members aren’t worldly enough. I told the student that the very first question one should ask a political candidate is as follows: “where have you been?”
Here’s what I mean: it is easy to forget that all legislating is comparative. Laws are not made ex nihilo (out of nothing), but from options. A health-care law for example, is a choice between universal or employer-based private health care. That system decides whether to cover pre-existing conditions coverage or not. The policy either pays for birth control or it doesn’t. There are endless ways to adjust policies to suit an electorate and the legislators have to agree on each of them. Choices go deep. It’s turtles all the way down.
A partisan answer is not a good philosophical answer.
But picking a comparative means being able to compare and this, it seems to me, is the one thing that our legislators are either unable or unwilling to do. Why? Because many of them haven’t been anywhere. They haven’t been out of the country; they haven’t lived, again, for example, in a place with accessible health care. Many haven’t even been to cities where there are health care options. They have spent their lives in towns of a few hundred, with one county clinic and one school, where everyone knows everyone, and family farms and ranches are passed down through the generations. Do they actually know any trans people? Can they articulate what critical race theory is? How risqué can a small town North Dakota library book collection be?
There’s nothing wrong with this life. It is enviable in many ways. But it is just one kind of life and there are others. We should be exposed to as many of them as we can.
When I moved to Vienna, Austria in 1994, I suddenly discovered that bread wasn’t just something you put stuff on; it was a food in itself. I came home and learned to bake European style loaves because I missed it so much and then, in the late 1990s there was a bread revolution in the US. Suddenly, you could get good bread everywhere. I understood why. It made me happy.
When I ended up teaching in a neo-fundamentalist college in small-town Kentucky for a year, I learned to understand both the ways that protestant faith informed college students’ lives and how it inspired their rebellion. This was an essential experience for me.
But moving to North Dakota was my most meaningful diversity experience. I grew up in a Manhattan neighborhood that was so Hispanic that pluralism meant Cuban, Dominican, and Puerto Rican. I could hop on the subway and be in a Korean neighborhood, Little Germany, or Chinatown, within a half hour. Every language, ethnicity, food, and religion in the world was within a ten-mile radius from me, but I had never seen a cow and I had never talked to a farmer. I had no experience of the rural, so in this respect, at least, I was equally sheltered. I am a better and more cosmopolitan person because I have spent the last twenty-two years in North Dakota.
It’s unclear how many of the North Dakota legislators do not have college degrees. In 2015 it was at least 15% but there is less data available today, which means, almost certainly, the number is higher because they are hiding the data. These folks lack a general education; they haven’t had to contend with the humanities, science, and academic intellectual discipline. They weren’t taught by experts. This is a problem since legislating is a knowledge-based activity.
There is no current data on religious affiliation in the ND legislature, but again in 2015 only 1% were non-Christian. Back then over 80% of the North Dakota legislators were Baby Boomers or older. We do know that as of 2020, 98% of them are white and 79% are male. I know of only one openly gay legislator currently serving. Sexual orientation is not listed on the source I cite.
I am a better and more cosmopolitan person because I have spent the last twenty-two years in North Dakota.
Diversity gets a bad rap in right-wing circles because it has been reduced to skin color and religion. It is portrayed as a caricature, a photo op of different skin tones (yes, I know The Onion is satire; that’s the point). But diversity is about the breadth of human knowledge, not about appearance: a woman knows things a man doesn’t and vice-versa. A non-binary person understands things neither of them do. A Jew experiences things a Buddhist doesn’t, who interprets things in ways a Christian can’t, and, again, it works the other way around. The young have insights the old don’t and the old have experiences worth valuing. People in wheelchairs travel in a world of obstructions those of us who can walk are oblivious to. If the North Dakota legislature lacks these kinds of diversity, it is doomed to undermine its own purpose.
North Dakota homogeneity is exacerbated by its geographical weirdness. There is a strong cultural belief that anything east of Bismarck isn’t really North Dakota. It is often claimed that folks in the eastern Red-River Valley might as well be living in Minneapolis, and since Minneapolitans might as well be New Yorkers, to be east of Bismarck is, in essence, to be part of a “liberal coastal elite.” Those outside of North Dakota may laugh at this absurdity, but it has just as serious an impact on ND politics as the belief that middle America is the “real” America has on national elections.
The fact is, all Americans are real Americans, and all towns and cities are of equal worth, regardless of their size. But if someone has spent their entire life in rural surroundings and hasn’t had the opportunity to see how others live, they cannot make good decisions. They just don’t have enough information. The same is true of someone who has only had an urban experience, or an American one, or has cohabitated with “their own kind,” whatever that generally offensive phrase might mean.
This is why I’d like to repeat my main point: the first question anyone should ask a political candidate is where they have been. If their answer is almost nowhere, they are unqualified to lead. Without that knowledge and experience, they can’t do their jobs. State legislators who have sheltered in place cannot make North Dakota better, they can only make it stagnant, or worse, regressive.
In the end, this is my answer to the student’s query. What the hell is wrong with the North Dakota legislature? Its people have minimal ability to compare our state with the rest of the world, and what they do have, they don’t use enough, so they’re sending us back in time. Without a sense of options there can be no vision of the future, and despite the human tendency towards nostalgia, the past was really not that great.
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