Legislative term limits and the rise of social media have had corrosive effects on civility in South Dakota government and politics, according to former Gov. Dennis Daugaard.
In response, Daugaard said, it’s incumbent upon each politician and government official to make an individual commitment to civil behavior.
“Try to set an example and not fall into the trap of grandstanding and posturing,” Daugaard said.
He made the comments in an interview with the Rapid City Journal, which presented its Craig Tieszen Award for Civility in Lawmaking to Daugaard on Thursday at the Ramkota Hotel and Conference Center in Pierre, during the South Dakota Newspaper Association’s Newspaper Day in the capital city.
Daugaard, a Republican, is the second person to receive the award, after former state Rep. Julie Bartling, D-Gregory, received it last year.
The award’s namesake, Tieszen, was a widely respected state representative and former Rapid City police chief who died in a November 2017 kayaking accident in the Cook Islands. In the days and weeks following his death, Tieszen was eulogized across the state and across the political spectrum by constituents and colleagues who described him as a thoughtful and effective public servant with an uncommon devotion to civility.
The Journal’s mission for the Craig Tieszen Award for Civility in Lawmaking, as stated on the plaque given to Daugaard, is to honor the legacy and encourage the emulation of Tieszen’s civil and effective conduct as a lawmaker.
Daugaard, 65, of Garretson, served in the Legislature and then as lieutenant governor before serving his limit of two terms as governor. He left office earlier this month and was succeeded by new Gov. Kristi Noem.
During Daugaard’s time in public office, he earned a reputation as a thoughtful and civil leader, much like Tieszen. The approach worked well for Daugaard, who won his two elections for governor by margins of 24 and 45 percentage points and was consistently ranked by pollsters as one of the most popular governors in the nation.
“I think I’ve tried to be dispassionate about things,” Daugaard said. “You can be passionate and have strong feelings, but you can’t let that passion turn into revenge-seeking, and you can’t personalize things, even if others do.
“In the end, any rational person will recognize that it may be emotionally satisfying to tell someone off or call someone out, but it’s not the sensible thing to do if you’re a policymaker. You’ll regret it sometime in the future.”
Daugaard said those pangs of regret will most likely strike when the offending policymaker needs support on a different matter from the policymaker who was offended.
“The problem with being uncivil is that you make enemies who are less likely to consider your position in the future,” he said.
Uncivil behavior increased during his time in public life, Daugaard said, and he identified legislative term limits and social media as contributing factors.
Before legislative term limits were implemented, Daugaard said, legislative leaders held their positions longer and many leadership elections were not contentious. He said term limits have led to shorter leadership tenures and more contentious leadership elections, causing more hard feelings to linger among legislators. Daugaard said the problem could be counteracted by making term limits longer in duration; since voters approved term limits in 1992, legislators have been limited to eight consecutive years in either chamber.
Daugaard also thinks legislators could lessen the hard feelings among themselves if they elected only the top leadership positions, such as speaker of the house and majority and minority leaders, while allowing those top leaders to appoint lower-tier leadership positions, such as whips.
“You would have more of a sense of team among leaders, as opposed to an eclectic mix, and that model would contribute to more collegiality,” Daugaard said.
Regarding social media, he encouraged politicians and government officials to be cognizant that online discussions may negatively affect civility.
“When you develop your own Twitter following or your own Facebook group, that tends to be an echo chamber where your attitude is reflected back to you and that tends to polarize people more frequently,” Daugaard said.
Daugaard remembers Tieszen as the opposite of polarizing.
“I can’t remember him saying a harsh word about anyone ever, and when you’re in the Legislature, you always have those who disagree with you, and people you disagree with,” Daugaard said. “Yet I never remember him being disagreeable. He would state his opinion without rancor and without personalizing things, so I think people respected him for that. They didn’t see him as speaking from emotion, but from thoughtful logic.”
And that’s why Daugaard said the award he accepted Thursday was so special.
“To receive something that carries the Tieszen name is very much an honor,” he said.