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Lloyd Omdahl: Still living the frontier culture in North Dakota

In the early warning signs we found that the legislature planned to reapportion itself, cut the income tax, reject mask mandates and deny black people their place in history. Except for the household function of reapportionment, all of the other plans constituted 1880 on hold.

Lloyd Omdahl, use online, horizontal.jpg
Lloyd Omdahl

In the special session beginning on Nov. 8, the legislature planned to validate the frontier culture that has dominated North Dakota policy process since the first oxen broke a furrow in the prairie grass.

In the early warning signs we found that the legislature planned to reapportion itself, cut the income tax, reject mask mandates and deny black people their place in history. Except for the household function of reapportionment, all of the other plans constituted 1880 on hold.

But before going too far, the nature of our frontier culture must be described so everyone is on the same page.

Demographically, the first settlements established the patterns by which future generations live. However, in many states, there are some with cognitive flexibility to move into the future along with the economy, technology and population.

Lack cognitive flexibility

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In North Dakota, we do not seem to have enough cognitive flexibility to swing with a changing world, except in agriculture technology. Even so, we still treat agriculture as a North Dakota basic economic sector. It was in 1880 but not in 2021.

This was pointed out to me by two university faculty members working on a new book about North Dakota. When they called my attention to this fact, they probably thought I should noise this abroad, but I am wise enough not to criticize the priests of the soil. So I kept my peace even though they were right.

What branded North Dakota with the frontier culture were the first settlements of farmers, usually one farm per quarter, often miles away from the nearest neighbor.

Fostering self-reliance

So what happened when something went awry – the binder breaks down and there is no one to help within three miles. The prairie farmer had to fix it him/herself or it wouldn’t be fixed. “Haywire” was the primary repair. A woman is due and there are no women for miles, so she and her husband became the midwives.

Early settlers required a high level of self-reliance. They pulled themselves up by the bootstraps even when they didn’t have any. So an early ingredient of frontier culture was rugged individualism. And we never forgot.

State of independents

We became a state of independent self-reliant individualists, and we still regard that virtue as the Eleventh Commandment. The only problem is that the state economic, political and social structures of 2021 no longer work in an 1880 mindset.

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Many people have not been equipped with frontier self-reliance because it is no longer the characteristic of our society. Finally, new emphasis on technology training appeared in the last session, and cities are now bidding to be locations of new technology

Jobs left workers

The dramatic changes that have occurred since 1880 have left thousands unemployed because the new jobs couldn't use them, and the state has done very little in training and retraining. But we think everyone without a job is a loafer, which isn’t true, but we like that line of thought because it makes us feel more superior.

Cutting the income tax is a manifestation of a frontier self-reliant culture. We don’t realize that the modern culture requires a new commitment to a common good, and the common good requires common investment in the social and economic problems of 2021. Cutting the taxes needed to fund 2021 is withdrawing resources from the common good.

North Dakota’s common good has never blossomed. We still carry the burden of the frontier mindset. As a state, Minnesota has done much better addressing the need for a greater common good.

Lloyd Omdahl is a former state lieutenant governor and professor at UND.

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