Saturday , 13 April 2024
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Should we encourage ambitious young people to stay in the Dakotas, or to leave? Will one or the other of these options be better for those young people, or for society as a whole?

FiredUp: Are the Dakotas a dead end?

A really interesting conversation is going on over at Madville Times about whether we should encourage young people to stay in South Dakota.

Cory Heidelberger, the lefty (or liberal or progressive—pick your adjective) who writes the blog, commented on an essay written by fellow South Dakotan David Newquist. Here’s how the conversation started:

Newquist to Young Grandson: South Dakota Not for You

David Newquist hopes his one-year-old grandson can find his way out of Aberdeen and South Dakota. Dr. Newquist deems South Dakota hopeless for Democrats of ambition and good conscience. As usual, his full essay is worth reading, as it ties many issues together. Here are some key passages:

…South Dakota is mired down by prejudicial, bigoted attitudes, and people who want productive and contributory lives come to the realization that they must either move or resign themselves to hoping that they can make changes that make such lives possible.

…Accomplishments in academics and professional life outside of South Dakota are lethal, particularly if those places carry the aura of prestige. Many South Dakotans hate accomplishment and performance that exceed anything that might raise the level of expectations in South Dakota.  The GOP has been successful in fanning that resentful sense of inferiority into a political rage that wins elections.  If you hold degrees from institutions that demonstrate excellence and you manage to accomplish things in high places, you have committed the unforgivable sin against South Dakota.  Unless the state needs someone of such attainment and accomplishment to go to Washington to bolster the federal subsidies on which the state depends for its existence, it will not elect such a person to Congress.

…And there is the matter of opportunity in South Dakota.  The Governor actually went to the Mall of America to try to recruit young people to the state.   There are number of groups touting life in South Dakota and attempting to lure young people to return.  I spent the past week with  a large number of young people who have left South Dakota.  When telling them of the efforts to lure young people, the inevitable reply is, “To do what?”  One of the emigrants said it was her intention to return, but after the elections of 2004 and 2010, she said the state showed an aspect of life that is simply too discouraging.  She is among those who started her education in the state, but finished out-of-state.  She said there is no opportunity in the state to use her degree, and the fact that she earned hers out-of-state would always be a demerit.  She will build her life where she has opportunity to do so [David Newquist, “Where Are All the Young Democrats?” Northern Valley Beacon, 2013.05.20].

I sometimes feel like we South Dakota Democrats are bowling alone. Can we Dems get a league together when culture and demographics and crony-corporate political money keep busting our balls?

I invite my readers to submit their signs of hope for building a state where Dr. Newquist would not be afraid to see his grandson live and work.


The comments in general seemed to support the dispiriting feeling that Newquist showed. So I weighed in. Here’s part of my comment:

I am not going to wade into the discussion of politics here. As a journalist, my views of politics are for off-the-record discussions over beers only.

But regarding the idea that smart, ambitious people have no place here: I can see what has Mr. Newquist upset. I have experienced some of that “let’s not let anyone get to big for their britches” mindset. But good grief, it’s only a problem if you decide to let it bother you. Who are these thin-skinned smart people who can’t handle some challenge or criticism, or can’t live among people with different views?

Second, nothing wins people over like success. If you go away, gain some education and experience, come back and start a successful business or practice—well, there are always people who will grumble with that “too big for britches” argument. (Even beyond South Dakota.) But the majority of the people around you will at least respect what you’ve been able to accomplish.

And the answer to the “To do what?” question: “Anything you want.” Seriously. You can probably find someone in the Dakotas doing pretty much whatever you can imagine. The pay might be less, and the “prestige” of it is certainly less. But it’s hard to imagine places where one person’s efforts are more meaningful. What, in the end, is more likely to lead to a happy life?

I have a caveat to that “anything you want” answer, though. I don’t recommend people never leave their home county or state. The world is a heck of a lot bigger than small-town South Dakota, and we are not just Dakotans—we are citizens of the nation and, really, the world. We need to know our place in it better than the view we get from here. The life plan I recommend highly (especially, this time of year, to high school graduates) is to go away to school as far away as you dare, start getting your work experience in a place that will challenge you—and then, as you want to settle and focus outward instead of educating yourself, come home to your rural place, or settle in a new one.

I really feel like by living here I am sacrificing very little, and gaining much.

I have to wonder if those people who can’t imagine themselves in South Dakota have let their imaginations wither.


At least one person disagreed with me. Deb, from St. Paul, wrote that “I love living here. I don’t have to fight through ignorance and fear every day. I feel so much more free to be.”

After some reflection, I added another comment:


Upon a day’s reflection, my earlier comment included a little more exasperation than it really should have.

Here’s a more significant point: It might well be good for individuals to leave the Dakotas for areas where more money, prestige, and like-minded connections can be found. But more the more that people leave, the more that people put themselves into like-minded enclaves, the worse it will be for our democracy.

I’ve been listening to podcasts of discussions that were part of the Civil Conversations series, sponsored by Krista Tippett’s On Being radio show. On one of them, Jonathan Rauch, a gay marriage activist, has a conversation with David Blankenhorn, a pro-family activist who recently changed his opinion on gay marriage in large part based on his friendship with Jonathan. There were many great quotes in that discussion, and I’d recommend listening to the whole thing ( But this is relevant to this discussion:

“I believe there’s an element of patriotism about (these difficult conversations). I believe that there are higher values ultimately than what each of us wants as individuals. … we have to share the country. And it is our duty as citizens to find ways to live together, and that that’s a higher value still. I equate that with a form of patriotism. When I see someone who won’t compromise, I see someone betraying the core purposes of our Constitution, which is to force compromise. That’s what James Madison was doing.”

There’s a freedom in our mobile society, that we can live wherever we want. And I don’t think we want to go back to a time when we felt a prisoner to a place. But this mobility has a downside, in that there is less of an incentive to work to make any one place better. If you have the means and the brains, it’s easy to go where life is easier.

It feels great to be around people who are like us. But we don’t grow that way. And if we never or rarely have meaningful relationships with people who aren’t like us, the “other side” becomes less than human. Our civil discourse becomes increasingly uncivil. Compromise is near impossible, because why would you listen to what “they” want?

I also view this from the point of view of someone who cares about land and agriculture. When fewer people live on the land, fewer people care about it. And the care of it among the few hands who still work it becomes less. If those who leave still own land, there’s another problem of absentee landownership, which incentivizes abusive land-use practices: When all landowners consider is the amount on the check that comes in the mail twice a year, because that is all they see, farmers are pushed toward maximizing short-term profit. It doesn’t have to be that way, if one or another of the parties pushes for a different path, but the structure of the relationship is such that long-term care of the land isn’t a priority unless someone makes it a priority.

When people first established the farm communities in the Dakotas, there was a lot of cooperation. And part of that I think was the expectation that they were going to have to live with these neighbors whether they liked it or not. The lack of mobility was an incentive to work together.

Cory, I have to say I would not encourage young people with ambition to “stay and fight.” We fight plenty already. I would encourage them to go, see the world—then come back and live in meaningful community.

What do you think? What life path would you encourage ambitious young people to follow? Share your ideas at


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