Information, observations, and analysis from the James River valley on the Northern Plains-----
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Two groups have emerged on the South Dakota political scene that grew out of dissatisfaction with politics-as-usual. The Mainstream Coalition, which is composed of state legislators from both parties, has stirred up some commotion, particularly in Republican circles. The group is looking for some legislative solutions with a moderate approach to state problems. The other group, Democracy in Action, thinks that energy and effort is being wasted on hot-button items such as abortion at the expense of more relevant and pressing matters facing a majority of citizens.
The groups are looking for nonpartisan solutions on the legislative agenda. That is by no means a new approach in the Dakotas.
In the early part of the 20th century, Arthur Townley started the Nonpartisan League in North Dakota. Townley was a socialist, but the Nonpartisan League worked by making alliances with politicians of both political parties who would work for their agenda.
The major factor in the formation of the Nonpartisan League was the control of agriculture exercised by grain-trade interests. The Nonpartisan League worked to established state-owned grain terminals, mills, grain inspections, and lending banks. Although the League had only a decade of controlling politics in North Dakota, primarily, it managed to free farmers from what they regarded as oppression and economic disaster at the hands of corporations involved in agriculture.
Cooperatives had not worked out. Farmers tended to get bogged down in factional disputes and wrangling over policy. The Nonpartisan League managed to establish grain marketing services that were efficient and stable.
While the Nonpartisan League dealt mostly with agricultural issues, it set an example of an alliance of interests that could use the two-party system to circumvent partisan ideologies and get the legislatures to work on tasks that moved the state ahead.
The Mainstream Coalition and Democracy In Action both look to work on programs through alliances with centrist people in both the Democratic and Republican Parties. When a legislature is locked down by a single party, as in South Dakota, citizens have to find some way to get their representatives to face the real issues and circumvent the partisan barriers.
The frustration of people in South Dakota at politics-as-usual is hard to escape. While the extreme partisans make the noise that gets the attention, the people who want the state to work for them are doing the planning.
No one should discount the power and influence that Democracy In Action and the Mainstream Coalition can wield. People from both parties are looking for something better and a better way to get our political business done.
We might well be replaying a political strategy from 100 years ago. The two organizations offer a way to close partisan divides and allow Republicans and Democrats to relate to each as friends and neighbors once again.