Mike Jacobs: No hockey yet, but politics galore

Mike Jacobs, Grand Forks Herald columnist.

Today is the last day of September. Ordinarily, this would be a time of keen anticipation. Hockey season starts the first weekend in October most years, and every fourth year – this one included – would mark an intensification of political campaigning.

Hockey and politics! The best spectator sports.

Brad Elliott Schlossman, the Herald’s star hockey writer, tells us that there will be a season, but not before the end of October. As for politics, the county auditor’s office assured me that my ballot has been mailed, as per my request.

In a normal year, the hockey season would open with a game against Manitoba, always a friendly encounter, but seldom a contest. That’s the case with North Dakota’s election, too. The Democratic Party has reduced itself to noncombatant status, leaving Republicans to sweep every available office, most likely, and to tighten their grip on the state government.

That leaves a couple of ballot measures to consider, one dealing with the mechanics of amending the state constitution, the other with the size of the state Board of Higher Education, which governs the state’s 11 public colleges and universities. As regular readers know, I’m against both of them, the first because it makes initiating changes to the constitution much more difficult, an outcome that Republican legislators fervently desire, and the second because no one has yet put forward any rationale for doubling the membership of the state board.


Given voter bias against unfamiliar and unexplainable ballot measures, I expect both of these to fail, especially because no real campaign in favor of the changes has been mounted anywhere except in the Legislature, which last met 18 months ago.

In sharp contrast to the relative calm in North Dakota’s political theater, a sense of uncertainty pervades national politics. Even a feeling of dread.

Donald Trump, a candidate for re-election, warns repeatedly against socialism.

Socialism is a choice, as the U.S. Supreme Court recognized in 1920 in a case involving North Dakota’s so-called “Industrial Program,” which included a state-owned mill and elevator and a state-owned bank. “If the state sees fit to enter upon such enterprises as are here involved, with the sanction of its constitution, its legislature and its people, we are not prepared to say that it is within the authority of this court to set aside such actions by judicial decision,” the justices ruled unanimously.

Authoritarianism? That’s a different question.

Of course, authoritarianism can arise on the left or the right, and history is replete with examples of excesses on both extremes, but on this last day of September 2020 in the United States, the danger seems far greater on the right.

There are a number of reasons. One is the president’s evident enthusiasm for authoritarianism. More threatening is the compliance, or complacency, of other Republican officeholders. North Dakota’s congressional delegation is an example, led by U.S. Sen. Kevin Cramer, who can explain away any of the president’s remarks, and Sen. John Hoeven, who gets by without commenting – while consistently voting with the president.

Even moderate Republicans have fallen in line. Ray Holmberg of Grand Forks, for example, who chairs the state Senate’s Appropriations Committee and is therefore one of the most powerful among state legislators, partly because he’s widely seen as a moderate. But when Trump carries North Dakota, a virtual certainty, Holmberg will cast one of the state’s three electoral votes in his favor. Likewise, in a “contingent election,” which Trump himself seems to be anticipating, Kelly Armstrong, the state’s lone member of the House of Representatives, would cast the state’s vote – one of 50 – for Trump. A “contingent election” is unlikely but it is possible, if Trump partisans – read rank-and-file Republicans – are able to cast doubt on the outcome in enough states to make a majority in the Electoral College impossible to achieve.


These are the legal niceties.

Another lurking danger, this one also encouraged by the president, is the upwelling of intimidation that’s occurring nationwide in advance of the election: the cavalcade in Portland, Ore., for example. Or the line of Trump supporters outside early voting places in Virginia. Or the big, bold and blatant Trump flags flying across America.

The beginning of October ordinarily marks the home stretch in presidential politics, but that’s not so much the case this year. It’s simply not clear how this will all play out.

The president himself has said he might not accept the results of the election – a sure mark of authoritarianism. There, the specter of military involvement arises. Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, has said there’s no role for the military. In a question-and answer-session with active duty military last week – conducted virtually, of course – Milley, who chairs the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told troops to “hold the constitution close to your heart.”

It’s good advice.

As September ends, October begins and the election plays out, let’s hold the constitution close to our hearts.

Mike Jacobs is a former editor and publisher of the Herald.

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