North Dakota is a rich state, relatively speaking. Good Midwesterners of mostly Scandinavian descent, those Dakotans always tried to live within their means, with the result that the state never ran up much debt, even in the lean years. And recent times have been far from lean: The boom in oil development—and consequent tax revenues—throughout the Bakken formation has produced an easily balanced budget of $4.1 billion for the state in 2012, despite $500 million in property and income tax reductions.
Meanwhile, North Dakota is also a pretty conservative place. In 2008, John McCain took the state with 53 percent of the vote. In 2010, former Republican governor John Hoeven carried every county in his race for the U.S. Senate. When the state’s other senator, the blue dog Democrat Kent Conrad, announced his retirement this year, most political analysts counted the seat an easy Republican pickup. And that still seems the likely outcome: Former attorney general Heidi Heitkamp has polled surprisingly well for the Democrats, but with his 66–34 primary victory on Tuesday, Republican nominee Rick Berg is finally in a good position to begin his general campaign and should be able to turn Heitkamp back.
The curious thing is that on this same Election Day—Tuesday, June 12—those conservative North Dakotans also voted on four ballot measures. The first would prohibit state legislators from being appointed to state jobs at higher salaries. The second would eliminate all property taxes, repaying lost community revenues with state oil money. The third would add a line about religious liberty to the preamble of the state constitution. And the fourth would force the University of North Dakota to keep the politically incorrect “Fighting Sioux” as the name of its sports teams.
Leaving aside the mostly apolitical first ballot measure (a sure bet almost anywhere), the other three look like winners in a deeply conservative state, don’t they? Which leaves political commentators the unenviable task of explaining how all three went down to defeat on Tuesday—and not just defeat, but slaughter: 77–23 percent against eliminating the property tax, 64–36 percent against constitutionalizing religious liberty, and 67–33 percent against the Fighting Sioux. Either North Dakota is the anti-Wisconsin, a conservative place turning liberal, or we have misunderstood what conservatism actually means in a place like North Dakota.
Given that President Obama and the national Democrats have next to no chance of winning the state this November, the answer seems to be that conservatism is not what it has been painted by the national press. The voters in North Dakota manifest little of the deep mistrust of government that has supposedly characterized conservative movements—from the Values Voters of 2004 to the Tea Partiers of 2010—over recent election cycles. They like their government in Bismarck, because they think on the whole it is has been serious and fiscally responsible. They dislike their government in Washington, because they think on the whole it has not been serious and fiscally responsible.
Each of the North Dakota ballot measures has some local twist that makes it difficult to read as a sign for anything greater. State voters came to believe, for example, that the anti-property-tax measure would not actually lower taxes; all it would have done is diminish the power of local communities and centralize authority in the state government. The referendum on the land-grant university’s nickname was cast, in a large majority of voters’ minds, as an attempt to override the school’s power to decide things for itself, and again the North Dakotans voted to retain authority at the lower level of local government.
As far as the religious-freedom amendment goes, this was an even trickier thing. When President Obama and HHS secretary Kathleen Sebelius singled out Catholic institutions as a particular focus of their attempts to force universal insurance coverage of birth control and abortifacients, they made the Catholic church the face of the new fight for religious liberty.
That had its advantages, putting the largest religious group in the nation at the forefront of the battle. But it also had its disadvantages. In highly Protestant states with a history of suspicion about Catholicism, the fight can seem less than urgent: an unnecessary and Catholic-motivated change to an already sufficient state constitution. In a ranking of states by the Catholic percentage of population, North Dakota comes in below the median—and would rank near last if the Catholic population of the Indian reservations were discounted. Add in worries about the spreading influence of Islam across the border in Minnesota, and the measure was doomed.
The local flavor of the debates, however, cannot obscure the generally pro-government slant of Tuesday’s results. If that’s liberal, then rural North Dakota is a liberal place. Except that we know it isn’t. Not by a long country mile. The state’s voters believe in their ability to govern themselves. If anything, in North Dakota they seem consistently to vote for a straightforward theory of subsidiarity—authority kept in the hands of those closest to the voters: the state instead of the federal government and, where possible, the local community instead of the state.
That isn’t hatred of government. It’s a wise realism about the uses and misuses of government. And with such realism, North Dakota proves just how conservative a state it really is.