Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


Government and politics of South Dakota are in large measure a reflection of the state's past. Home of the Arikaras, and later the Lakota-, Nakota-, and Dakota-speaking Indians (Sioux), the area that became South Dakota was penetrated by French and Spanish explorers, traders, and trappers before and after the Louisiana Purchase of 1803. However, permanent European American settlers did not begin to arrive in any significant numbers until the establishment of the Dakota Territory in 1861 and approval of the Homestead Act in 1862. The two acts together offered some promise of law and order and economic livelihood through ownership and productive use of the land for American-born, German, Scandinavian, and Irish pioneers. Still, the disruption of the Civil War, isolated Indian outbreaks, and drought and other environmental disasters kept the non-Indian population below 12,000 persons until the start of a population spurt in 1878, following the discovery of gold in the Black Hills and the completion of the railroad to Sioux City, Iowa.

On November 2, 1889, the separate states of North and South Dakota were proclaimed, and the era of the Dakota Territory ended. Rival factions fighting over whether the capital city of the Dakota Territory should be located in the southern territorial city of Yankton or the northern territorial city of Bismarck had much to do with the division of the Dakota Territory into North and South Dakota. Pierre was selected as the capital of South Dakota upon statehood.

The Great Depression destroyed South Dakota's agricultural economy and drove the population down from a high of 697,000 in 1930 to 642,000 by 1940. South Dakota has not experienced another economic or population boom since the Depression, as evidenced by the fact that the 1990 population of 724,000 was not far from the 1930 total. The population according to the 2000 census only increased to 755,000. Economically, the state ranks near the bottom in nonfarm industrial wages and continues to have one of our nation's most rural economies. South Dakota's per capita income ranks thirty-eighth among the fifty states.

The beliefs of pioneer German, Scandinavian, and Irish pioneers permeated the state and continue to contribute to a strong moral overtone in politics and governance that has low tolerance for graft and corruption in public affairs. The values and homeland experiences of German and Scandinavian pioneers favored experimentation with public ownership of economic enterprises and substantial public sponsorship of education from the elementary through postsecondary levels in all corners of the state. The success of the Populist Party in South Dakota in the 1890s and the progressive movement that impacted both the South Dakota Democratic and Republican Parties in the early 1900s can be explained by these immigrant values, as well as by farm problems. Peter Norbeck championed the Republican progressive era as governor from 1917 to 1921, and Tom Berry best represented the Democratic progressive era as governor from 1933 to 1937. Municipal-owned enterprises, the South Dakota Cement Plant, more than 170 public school districts, and six public regional universities are contemporary examples of the manifestation of those beliefs.

There is also a strong strain of fiscal conservatism in South Dakota that emphasizes efficiency in government and limited public revenue to support government. However, the desire for many units of local government to serve a sparse population spread out over a large area contributes to many ine.ciencies. Still, the emphasis on e.ciency is evident in South Dakota's streamlined State Unified Judiciary, the modern cabinet model of its executive branch, and the part-time, nonprofessional 105-member legislature that meets only seventy-five days during its two-year term.

Native Americans constitute approximately 8 percent of the state's population, including those who reside on the nine reservations that lie wholly or in part within South Dakota and those who live in urban areas. Relations between Indians and non-Indians continue to be a source of conflict, most recently in the state's attempt to disestablish the Yankton Reservation, but otherwise, and despite the muchpublicized East River (Missouri) and West River differences and urban-rural disputes, the relatively homogeneous character of the population reduces political dispute in the state. Recent exit polling conducted by Voter News Service following the 1998 election revealed that 40 percent of the South Dakota voters identify themselves as conservatives, 50 percent as moderates, and only 10 percent as liberals. Moderate conservatism is a suitable ideological label for South Dakota.

The moderate conservatism of South Dakota politics also leads to Republican Party domination of state gubernatorial and legislative elections. William Janklow's domination of state politics as governor from 1979 to 1987 and congressman from 1995 to 2004 is an example of Republican success in state elections. Democrats have controlled the state senate for only six years, the state house of representatives for only two years, and the governorship for only ten years since 1938. In fact, from 1889 to the present, Democrats have won only four governorships (1926, 1932, 1958, and 1970). Richard F. Kneip's three gubernatorial election victories in 1970, 1972, and 1974 are the most remembered by Democrats. Democrats do fare much better in congressional races and state constitutional office races when a vacancy exists and an energetic, articulate Democrat runs for election. Once elected, these Democrats have been able to use the advantages of the incumbency to be reelected. Former U.S. senator and Democratic presidential nominee George McGovern and U.S. Senate minority (1995-2001 and again beginning in 2003) and majority (2001-3) leader Tom Daschle are obvious examples of Democratic success stories. Former Republican U.S. representatives and senators Karl Mundt, Francis Case, and Larry Pressler and former Democratic U.S. representative and current U.S. senator Tim Johnson are other major political figures in twentieth-century South Dakota politics.

See also IMAGES AND ICONS: West River Country.

Robert V. Burns South Dakota State University

Burns, Robert V., and Herbert E. Cheever. "South Dakota: Conflict and Cooperation among Conservatives." In Interest Group Politics in the Midwestern States, edited by Ronald J. Hrebenar and Clive S. Thomas. Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1993: 285–304.

Farber, William O., Thomas C. Geary, and Loren M. Carlson. Government of South Dakota. Vermillion: Dakota Press, 1979.

Schell, H. S. History of South Dakota. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1975.

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