Are North Dakota politics becoming more toxic? Some lawmakers, observers say yes
Fatigued by a tone of outrage that seems to saturate modern politics, North Dakota Sens. Nicole Poolman and Erin Oban are stepping off of the state’s highest law-making stage. Political observers say their impending exits should serve as a wake-up call.
BISMARCK — North Dakotans have historically taken great pride in their neighborly treatment of others, but two soon-departing state lawmakers worry the ideal of respectfulness implied in "North Dakota nice" is starting to break down within the state's political arena.
In the span of a week last month, Republican Sen. Nicole Poolman and Democratic Sen. Erin Oban announced they will not seek reelection in 2022. Both Bismarck legislators cited toxicity in politics as one of their reasons for retirement.
Poolman and Oban said they still have admiration for many of their colleagues and declined to name those they feel have recently eroded civility or sowed division, but a number of provocative and offensive social media posts made by lawmakers over the last few years demonstrate a rise in extreme rhetoric at the state level, said Mike Jacobs, a Grand Forks Herald columnist and longtime political observer.
In the last three years, a Minot senator referred to a Muslim congresswoman as a terrorist, a Grand Forks representative shared a post comparing former President Donald Trump to Adolf Hitler, and a Fargo representative claimed he was hacked two separate times after racist and sexist posts appeared on his Facebook page.
Oban said some of her colleagues posting objectionable content on social media and feeling no responsibility to their politically diverse constituents is "the first sign of a broken system."
And though the vast majority of lawmakers diligently uphold established rules of decorum on the House and Senate floors, the legislative chambers are not impervious to harsh speech. Earlier this year, a couple of members of the lower chamber were called out for making disparaging comments about their colleagues during official proceedings.
The lawmakers' constituents also have become increasingly antagonistic during the COVID-19 pandemic in their conversations and correspondence with legislators, Poolman and Oban agree.
Republican House Majority Leader Chet Pollert said it's "a loud minority" of constituents that treat lawmakers disrespectfully, but Poolman notes that every legislator now receives personal attacks in their voicemail and email inboxes — something that never happened when she entered the Senate almost a decade ago. She added that much of the verbal abuse she endures comes from detractors who say she's not a true Republican because she's "not a fighter."
“There’s a new critical mass of people who thinks that you’re not doing your job if you’re not angry and fighting with people all the time," Poolman said.
The disruptive tone of rhetoric has been accompanied by a rise in legislation dealing with “wedge” issues like mask mandates, critical race theory and transgender girls’ participation in sports, Oban and Poolman said. The two senators don’t share the same mind on each of the attention-grabbing bills that have come forward this year, but they agree the controversial nature of the proposals has made the job of elected officials all the more stressful.
Fatigued by the timbre of outrage that seems to saturate modern politics, Poolman and Oban are stepping off of the state’s highest law-making stage. Observers say their impending exits should serve as a wake-up call to North Dakotans.
The deterioration of political rhetoric and the surge in divisive legislation drives “good people with good experience, good ideas and good temperament” out of public roles, Jacobs said, and the state is worse for it.
Poolman is troubled by the idea that the hostile state of political communication could also deter would-be candidates from wanting to pick up the baton and run for office.
"That’s what scares me the most," she said.
An 'alarming' volume of extremism
Wedge issues and extreme rhetoric are nothing new in North Dakota politics.
In the late 1800s and early 1900s when North Dakota was a "dry" state, the prohibition of alcohol sales and manufacturing divided residents. During the First World War, many recent immigrants of German heritage caught flak for siding with their old homeland, Jacobs noted.
In the 1920s, opponents of the Nonpartisan League suggested the left-wing party promoted communism, free love and godlessness. "Red Scare" tacticians also came for the North Dakota Farmers Union, Jacobs noted.
“I’m not alarmed about offensive rhetoric — it’s always been here. The alarming part is that it’s at a higher volume and it’s much more widespread,” Jacobs said.
Extreme rhetoric and positions have historically come from both ends of North Dakota's political spectrum, but a libertarian-leaning populist movement on the edge of the Republican Party seems to be primarily responsible for stirring the pot in Bismarck of late, Jacobs said.
Jacobs and Pollert agreed only a handful of lawmakers cross the rhetorical line and contribute to the erosion of civility within the Capitol.
“Our institution is still in place — I firmly believe that," Pollert said. "Like anything else that goes on in life, just a few spoil it or wreck it and give it a tough name.”
Pollert declined to name lawmakers he thought had undercut the Legislature's politeness standards, saying he had working relationships to maintain.
Jacobs pointed to several legislators as being particularly prone to distasteful speech, including Minot Sen. Oley Larsen, Minot Rep. Jeff Hoverson and Hazelton Rep. Jeff Magrum. The three Republicans are believed to be aligned with or adjacent to the ultra-conservative Bastiat Caucus, an unofficial collection of lawmakers that doesn't disclose its membership, though Jacobs added it wouldn't be fair to lump the whole group in with its most envelope-pushing members.
Larsen referred to U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar as a terrorist and posted a mislabeled photo of the Minnesota congresswoman to his Facebook page in 2019. He later said he was sorry for spreading false information but refused to apologize to Omar.
Hoverson said during a House floor discussion of a redistricting plan last month he would "like to see some spine in our leadership" in reference to GOP House Majority Leader Chet Pollert. Hoverson said he later apologized to Pollert.
Several days after the House expelled former Dickinson Rep. Luke Simons over alleged sexual harassment earlier this year, Magrum was gaveled down on the chamber floor for making disparaging statements about his colleagues who voted to oust Simons.
Rep. Jim Kasper, R-Fargo, twice said he was hacked last year after racist, sexist and fake news posts appeared on his Facebook page, though he offered no evidence the posts were made by someone else. Democratic critics expressed skepticism that Kasper had been hacked.
It's not only Republicans who are guilty of making improper statements, Jacobs noted. Rep. Mary Adams, a Grand Forks Democrat, shared social media posts in 2019 comparing Trump to Hitler. In another post she said "we can always dream" of Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi ascending to the presidency if something bad were to happen to Trump and former Vice President Mike Pence.
Lawmakers who use extreme rhetoric and back controversial proposals aim to be provocative because they want to "make themselves appear to their constituents and the larger political community as being forceful (and) having spine," Jacobs said.
Hoverson, who has introduced legislation to make performing an abortion legally akin to murder and to ban government-issued mask mandates , said his political ideology of opposing "the murdering of babies" and guarding individual liberties lines up with the Republican Party's platform and the Declaration of Independence. The Lutheran pastor said his guiding philosophy when he speaks on an issue revolves around upholding the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, which he believes are endowed by God.
A zero-sum game
The corrosion of civility and proliferation of wedge issues in North Dakota's politics are the result of several forces working to drive the state and the country further apart, according to Oban, Poolman and political scientists.
The foundation of political strategy has changed over the last few generations, creating the conditions for more division, said Dana Harsell, a political science professor at the University of North Dakota.
Conventional wisdom in the last century motivated public office seekers to appeal to the middle of the political spectrum and the swing voters who reside there. But strategists like Karl Rove, who worked on President George W. Bush's campaigns, rejiggered the equation and found that trying instead to satisfy and energize a political base — reliable Republican or Democratic voters — led to better success at the ballot box, Harsell said.
In the modern context, political contests are often won or lost along fault lines — issues that bring out the strongest differences in opinion, Harsell said.
Campaigns in North Dakota have traditionally hinged on candidates' willingness to knock doors and attend church potlucks, but the state got a taste of national political tactics during the contentious 2018 U.S. Senate race between then-Democratic incumbent Heidi Heitkamp and Republican Rep. Kevin Cramer, which featured millions of dollars from outside interests, Harsell said.
Poolman believes most North Dakota legislators are focused on good governance, but some politicians have taken to feeding their supporters outrage and fear to get them to show up at the polls, Poolman said.
“If you scare your voters into voting for you, it’s an effective strategy," Poolman said. "If you make them feel so angry at the other side that they continue to support your side, it’s an effective strategy. They’re doing it because it’s working.”
This kind of "rhetorical toxicity” is stoking the zero-sum game that politics has become, said Gregory Payne, a professor of political communication at Emerson College in Boston.
“It’s very common and very accepted to castigate the other side as the devil," Payne said. "We’ve reached a very difficult point where I think many of the people retiring have just said it’s become so toxic that my style of politics — getting to ‘yes,’ negotiating, moderating and actually compromising — is looked upon as a weakness rather than a strength.”
The Facebook effect
Before the internet, the traditional news media served as a safeguard against extreme rhetoric in politics, Harsell said. Most information about government had to pass through reporters and editors at newspapers, radio stations or TV outlets before making it to the wider public.
Social media, however, is unfiltered. Facebook, Twitter and other sites can be a productive way for elected officials to engage with constituents, but the lack of gatekeepers can also lead to unhealthy political discourse that impedes consensus and compromise, Harsell said.
Oban noted that algorithms for sites like Facebook manipulate what users see, keeping them confined to an echo chamber where they only read views of politics that confirm their biases. She added that the overwhelming amount of unrefined information available on social media has blurred the lines between news stories and editorials or trustworthy reports and misinformation for many users.
A bombshell Wall Street Journal report published earlier this year unearthed internal documents that showed Facebook was aware that a 2018 algorithm change meant to increase engagement and make the platform a healthier environment had the opposite effect of making users angrier and more polarized. And Poolman has noticed a difference in North Dakota.
“I believe social media has played an important part in making people feel outraged," Poolman said. “The language and the rhetoric people use on social media is slipping into our regular conversations.”
Examples of outrage-fueled political demonstrations and rhetoric abound in the Peace Garden State. During summer 2020, Fargo protests over the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police turned into a riot that left dozens injured and several buildings damaged.
Months later, hundreds of Trump supporters and a handful of prominent politicians turned out to a Bismarck rally in support of the Republican president who had just lost the election. Many attendees carried profane signs and chanted "stop the steal," and the rally briefly devolved into a brawl between the pro-Trump crowd and a small faction of Black Lives Matters demonstrators.
Both events were largely organized through social media.
For Sean Cleary, a Republican who recently announced he's running to replace Oban, social media has undermined the predisposition of North Dakotans to be cordial and agreeable.
“The average North Dakotan is usually pretty respectful — there’s a reason why they call it ‘North Dakota nice’ — but for whatever reason, that seems to go out the window when you go on these online, anonymous platforms,” Cleary said.
Payne and Jacobs say Trump bears significant responsibility for weaponizing social media against his opponents in a way that further divided the country.
“(Trump) broke down a whole lot of the walls of politeness or decorum that we had before," Jacobs said. "It’s almost like he took a battering ram to those kinds of political conventions and knocked them all down.”
Oban also blames " a decay in the quality of (the Legislature's) conversations" on partisan cable news and talk radio programs. She said many of her fellow lawmakers have recently taken cues from conservative media personalities like Fox News' Tucker Carlson and the late Rush Limbaugh, and it has led to more legislation addressing "culture war" issues like critical race theory and transgender girls' participation in sports.
These are "issues that have literally never been a thought in anyone’s mind until somebody on some talk show on the TV told you it was an issue,” Oban said, adding that they take time away from lawmaking that could tackle "real issues," like child care costs, workforce shortages and behavioral health care access.
“We don’t turn those opinion shows on in our house because it’s not productive," Oban said. "I don’t like to listen to it, but it felt like I was surrounded by those shows listening to some of my colleagues talk and I can’t turn it off. That’s where it really changed for me and where I started feeling too tired by it.”
Speaking more broadly about social media and opinion-oriented political programs, Cleary cited the "outrage industrial complex," a phrase used by public policy scholar Arthur Brooks to describe the forces spurring political polarization and contempt between disagreeing parties. The widespread desire to drive ratings and engagement rather than inform is detrimental to many North Dakotans, Cleary said.
The real shame now is that the outrage and divisiveness is compelling two accomplished, passionate legislators to hang it up, Harsell said, adding that others across the country, including former U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan, have cited similar reasons for leaving legislatures.
Turning the tide
Jacobs said he had never worried about the United States heading toward civil war, but when he watched angry protestors storm the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, the idea of a collapse in civil society crossed his mind.
Reversing the trend of more outrage, extreme rhetoric and polarization is no simple task, but Payne said he has " tremendous faith in people at the local level," adding that the change will come from idealistic young people and small towns in places like North Dakota.
If Americans were to turn off cable news and Facebook and gather at houses of worship, high school football games and ice cream shops, they would find they're not so different from their neighbors, Payne said.
Cleary said more people coming from a place of mutual respect and good will can make a difference on an individual level.
Oban said she believes there are enough people with the right intentions who can lift up their communities through public service. She added that many of her legislative colleagues are still high-quality lawmakers, but she hopes they will "have the courage to be the really good people they are."
Poolman also said she still has confidence that members of the Legislature will act in the best interest of the state. She wishes social media companies would be more thoughtful and respectful in the way they disseminate information.
But ultimately, people have to look inward and make a more conscious effort to be kind and understanding in their communication with others, Poolman said.
“It’s going to take all of us," she said.