Nearly four decades ago, Ted Muenster was in the vanguard of a Democratic revolution in South Dakota.
So successful were Democrats that, for one general election in 1978, their voter registration numbers surpassed Republicans.
That has never happened again. In fact, Democrats today have about 17,000 fewer registered voters than they did all those 36 years ago.
The party hit a historic low point in last month’s election. Democrats won only 20 of the 105 seats in the Legislature, failed to win any of the 13 offices elected by South Dakota voters as a whole, and suffered the biggest percentage-point margin of defeat in any gubernatorial race in state history.
During the 1970s, Muenster was chief of staff for Democratic Gov. Dick Kneip. Muenster has seen some bad elections for Democrats since then, but perhaps none worse than Nov 4.
“The Democratic Party in South Dakota is always on the ragged edge of catastrophe,” Muenster said. “But it’s now at its lowest point in 50 years.”
Muenster made the comment while participating in a panel discussion last month at the University of South Dakota in Vermillion. The discussion was part of a launch event for the second volume of “The Plains Political Tradition,” a book of essays published by the South Dakota Historical Society Press.
In the book and at the conference, three people offered theories to explain why South Dakota Democrats have fallen so far since their heyday in the late ’70s.
In the panel discussion, Muenster said the Roe v. Wade abortion decision and also the failure of the Oahe Irrigation Project, both in the 1970s, divided Democrats.
In essays written for the book, author Tony Venhuizen pinpointed the 1980s farm crisis as a turning point in the declining political influence of Democratic agricultural movements. Author Mark Lempke said the social turmoil of the 1970s undercut Democratic leader George McGovern and his support from mainline Protestant churches.
Taken together, the theories help explain a South Dakota Democratic Party that’s weakened from the removal of a number of historical supports.
Abortion and irrigation
Muenster said the Roe v. Wade ruling, which protected abortion rights, drove a wedge between pro-life Catholic Democrats and pro-choice Democrats.
Before Roe v. Wade, “‘Catholic Democrat’ was one word,” Muenster said, in part because the Democrats’ interest in social justice aligned closely with many Catholic teachings. After Roe v. Wade, some Catholic Democrats left the Democratic Party because of its pro-choice stance and joined Republicans to fight abortion.
Meanwhile, the Democratic Party also was split by growing 1970s opposition to the Oahe Irrigation Project. It was meant to capture water from the massive Oahe Reservoir on the Missouri River north of Pierre and move it eastward by a system of canals. It had support from powerful Democrats, including George McGovern, who was then a U.S. senator and was nationally prominent because of his failed 1972 presidential campaign.
The irrigation project became intensely political as opposition arose from landowners in the path of the canals and environmentalists who formed a coalition and derailed the plans. That coalition pitted some environmentally activist Democrats against other Democrats.
“The environmentalists came in, and the Democrats were shaken by that,” Muenster said.
Declining farm numbers
Venhuizen, chief of staff for Republican Gov. Dennis Daugaard, contributed an essay on South Dakota’s governors to “The Plains Political Tradition.”
One of the themes he noticed during his research was the tendency of Democrats to make gains in gubernatorial politics during periods of “agrarian discontent.”
That’s no longer the case, Venhuizen said, because farm numbers have declined so far that even a massive shift of farmers to the Democratic Party could no longer swing an election.
The numbers support the theory. There were more than 80,000 farms in South Dakota during the 1930s, but a steady drop has reduced that number to about 32,000 today. That’s a 60 percent decline, even as the state’s population has grown by 20 percent during the same period.
The farm exodus was particularly severe during the 1980s farm crisis, when many farmers were foreclosed and driven off their land. During that crisis, when historical trends might otherwise have predicted a rise in Democrats’ fortunes, Venhuizen thinks the state reached a tipping point: the race for governor in 1986.
Democratic farmer Lars Herseth and Republican lawyer George Mickelson, both sons of former governors, squared off in the general election.
Mickelson had a combined 10,500-vote margin of victory in the state’s two most populated counties, Minnehaha and Pennington, Venhuizen said. In the rest of the mostly rural state, Mickelson’s margin of victory was only 72 votes.
It was a sign, Venhuizen said that “the state’s urban centers were becoming larger and more immune to the agricultural economy.”
Lempke, who teaches history at the SUNY University at Buffalo’s Singapore campus, contributed an essay to “The Plains Political Tradition” that delved into George McGovern’s little-examined association with religious leaders in the 1970s.
Lempke asserts that McGovern built much of his political career on support from liberal, mainline Protestants. Unlike conservative, evangelical Christians, for whom the Gospel is first and foremost a promise of personal salvation, many mainline Protestant leaders during the '70s focused on the so-called Social Gospel and its call for action on issues including war, hunger and poverty.
McGovern identified strongly with the Social Gospel movement and its leaders among the Episcopal, Methodist, Presbyterian and United Church of Christ traditions.
“McGovern interpreted Christian teaching not as an assurance of personal salvation, but as an urgent call to correct injustice and deprivation on earth,” Lempke wrote, adding later in the essay that “The epistemic truth of Christ’s resurrection or God’s grace was beside the point to McGovern; the value of faith lay in how it governed relationships among the living.”
Because of that worldview, McGovern spent much of his career trying to end the Vietnam War and feed hungry people, in concert with liberal Protestant church leaders. Those efforts eventually sparked a backlash among conservative churchgoers who recoiled from the increasingly liberal social movements of the 1970s. At the same time, church leaders grew frustrated with their flock for not following them down the path of social activism.
“In this atmosphere of mutual discord and mistrust, the Christian Right filled a spiritual vacuum,” Lempke wrote.
The results for Democrats like McGovern and for mainline Protestant churches were catastrophic.
McGovern, the most prominent member of the South Dakota Democratic Party, was voted out in the Republican sweep of 1980 and never returned to elected office.
Mainline Protestant denominations saw their congregations shrink. Between 1980 and 2010 in South Dakota, according to the Association of Religion Data Archives, membership declined by 29 percent in Episcopal churches, 22 percent in United Methodist churches, 45 percent in mainline Presbyterian churches, and 39 percent in United Church of Christ churches. Meanwhile, membership in many evangelical churches in South Dakota increased, and the Christian Right helped return the Republican Party to power.
McGovern's experience reflected the experience of many liberal Democrats.
“Ultimately, McGovern’s fortunes in South Dakota were intricately tied to those of the mainline churches,” Lempke wrote. “So long as mainline churches remained respected arbiters of moral citizenship, as they had in the 1950s and early 1960s, he could benefit from their privileged role in mainstream society. When these institutions fell out of public favor, McGovern could no longer depend upon them to commend him to a skeptical South Dakota public.”