The Dakota Twins


THE Dakotas, I suppose, are twins to everybody outside their own borders. They were born the same day, November 2, 1889. They are approximately the same size, 250 miles by about 400, though South Dakota is slightly the larger. During the last five years of drought they have both been badly sunburned, and in the winter dust storms both got their ears filled with dirt.

But there the similarity ends.

To those far distant from the parched prairies, the Dakotas are two identical rectangles which occupy a portion of the map of these United States. The map shows them dotted with strange, often unpronounceable names. Beyond that, however, all is mystery.

If you ever visit the sunburnt empire of the Dakotas, never speak as though they were identical twins. They are fraternal.

The most striking contrast between the individualities of the two states is political. Both are progressive. But South Dakota is progressive in a conservative way; North Dakota, on the other hand, has taken up and enthusiastically endorsed more crackpot political schemes than any other two states.

A possible reason for the political gyrations of North Dakota is that there are large numbers of Scandinavians in the state. There is a radicalism about the Scandinavian, once aroused, which borders on fanaticism. South Dakota has a few Scandinavian citizens, but North Dakota is a great Swedish haven. The story persists that Fargo, North Dakota’s largest city, was so named because the Swedes, on arriving there, concluded it was a far go from Stockholm.

In order to understand the politics of the Dakotas, one must consider that they had a common ancestry. A seventy-year-old resident of either state can recall the hastily thrown together towns which mushroomed into existence on the grassy plains. He will relate how saloons, gambling houses, and grocery stores were all operated with the same naive frankness. He will recall that it was not uncommon to see members of the citizenry in their lighter moods swaggering up the primitive main streets, shouting lustily and emitting occasional bursts of gunfire from their six-shooters.

The typical small city of the Dakotas is now completely modernized. The breathtaking changes which absorbed Dakotans for sixty years have ceased. Life flows on with a sober regularity not much different from that in smaller cities in the older parts of the country. Yet the citizens have been brought up on change; it is the breath of life for them. The completion of the physical metamorphosis left the population restless politically.


Into this picture the farm problem injected itself as the fundamental political force in the Dakotas. The war, with its urgent demand for increased food production, brought a vast expansion of the acreage being farmed in the United States. The Dakotas are among the most recently settled states in the farm belt, so the supply of previously uncultivated acreage here was greater than in many of the other states.

When the war was over, the farmers found they were geared up to greatly increased production, and that the market for their products had sharply contracted. Cuts in production were in order. But they were not made. It might seem on the surface that the farmers were guilty of rank stupidity; that is not altogether true. By the time the plight of post-war agriculture was discovered, land prices had plummeted to low levels. Could a farmer who had invested money in the expansion of farm production to meet war demands be blamed for not wanting to see his investment lost?

The instinct of the farmers was to meet lowering prices by increased production, in the hope of maintaining their income at a reasonably high level by selling more units at the lower price. That attempt at solving the problem served only to aggravate it.

Industrial producers faced a similar worry; but they got a break which was not forthcoming to the farmers. The post-war boom had raised the standard of living to unprecedented heights in this country. Demand for all types of machine-made goods reached new high levels.

The bull market also served to postpone the day of reckoning for industry. Because of the public appetite for securities of all sorts, it was possible to float issues of foreign bonds in this country on a large scale. It was profitable for financial interests, so it was done. The proceeds of the bond issues floated in this country provided the world with money to buy American goods.

The farmers shared somewhat in this artificially created foreign market for America, but not to the same extent as industry. And the heightened standard of living meant nothing to the farmers. When an individual is getting enough to eat, an increase in his personal prosperity is not likely to increase his consumption of food.

As a consequence of this difference between the plights of industry and agriculture, a maladjustment of purchasing power has continued to this day. The flurry of 1921 was a sharp, but short, readjustment for the industrial sections of America. For the farm belt, it was just the beginning of a long depression.

Both Dakotas have suffered severely from drought in the last five years. Part or virtually all of each state has been touched by drought in four out of five years. That explains why the AAA enjoyed a tremendous popularity in the Dakotas.

In states where weather was favorable to crop production the AAA offered an individual little better than an even break. As an illustration, suppose an Iowa farmer cut his corn production by 20 per cent to comply with an AAA contract; if the benefits paid to him by AAA amounted to only about 20 per cent of the market price of his maximum output, it becomes obvious that he gained but little from cutting production to collect a government payment.

Now consider a farmer in South Dakota. Suppose he agreed to cut his corn production by 20 per cent. A drought coincided with the growing season; his corn crop was destroyed. Without the AAA he would have obtained nothing for his season’s toil. But he complied with the requirement to cut acreage, so he got his benefit check.

For about 50 per cent of the farmers in the Dakotas, the AAA benefit payments meant the difference between bankruptcy and a successful battle to stay in business; it is small wonder that the AAA was popular. It is equally understandable that many unflattering remarks were passed concerning the ancestry of six Supreme Court justices, following the Hoosac Mills decision.


The progressive instincts of the two Dakotas have given vent to themselves along widely divergent lines during the last two decades. South Dakota has gone in for practicality in its quest for political salvation. North Dakota has gratified an indiscriminate taste for polemics. The northern twin is a paradise for those who like their politics wild, woolly, and abounding with fizzy whizz-bangs which explode in bursts of pretty red fire.

Probably the most potent single factor in directing the trend of South Dakota politics along reasonably sensible lines is to be found in the persons of two of the state’s most prominent Republican political figures. One of these is Stitzel X. Way, Watertown newspaper editor, who has been Republican state chairman, off and on, for a generation.

A classic example of his political realism is to be found in his guidance of South Dakota through the memorable Bull Moose revolt by Teddy Roosevelt in 1912. Way was state chairman. When the Bull Moosers besought his company, Way gave them some canny political advice — which was not followed.

‘No. I won’t bolt,’ he said. ‘But I ’ll tell you what I will do. I ’ll go back to South Dakota and arrange for a slate of regular Republican presidential electors pledged to vote for Theodore Roosevelt instead of William Howard Taft. If you fellows are smart you’ll do the same thing. Start a third party and you’ll just split the Republican vote and elect a Democratic President.’

Whereupon Mr. Way came back to South Dakota and made good his promise. In South Dakota it was impossible to vote for Taft for President in 1921; the voters cast their ballots either for Roosevelt or for Wilson. The Way tactics were unorthodox, but they were effective. Roosevelt carried South Dakota.

Some of the G. O. P. brothers in the state resented the Way machinations. They did n’t vote. In the 1908 election, 67,000 South Dakota citizens cast their ballots for Taft; 47,000 voted for Bryan. But in 1912, 58,000 went for T. R. and 48,000 expressed a preference for Wilson. This can be construed to mean that some 9000 Republicans sulked in their tents and cursed the resourcefulness of ‘Stitz,’ as Mr. Way is known in South Dakota. Apparently another thousand Republicans voted for Wilson in protest.

North Dakota even then was beginning to develop its appetite for robust support of lost causes. It launched an enthusiastic Bull Moose Party. Result: Wilson, 29,000 votes; Roosevelt, 25,000; Taft, 23,000.


The Dakota twins pursued similar political courses until the pressure of the post-war deflation began to be felt by agriculture. At that time the first of the so-called farm movements burst upon the scene. It was the Nonpartisan League, whose prophet and founder was Arthur C. Townley. South Dakota became enthusiastic over the League, as did several other Western states. Then Townley was convicted of irregularities in his handling of the League funds. For this offense he was imprisoned.

His misfortune was soon followed by the collapse of his farm organization in South Dakota and everywhere else, except in North Dakota. In that state he was not really popular until he had been incarcerated in the bastille. He cried of political persecution. His star rose in North Dakota as rapidly as it set elsewhere.

Only in North Dakota was a Nonpartisan ticket ever elected; and the Leaguers revolutionized the state in a big way, putting it into every conceivable business. Apparently North Dakota enjoys state socialism; its residents continue to support all manner of political freaks. The League now dominates the Republican Party in the state and remains a power to this day.

The result is that nobody outside of North Dakota and probably only a few within its boundaries really understand North Dakota politics. Residents of South Dakota are as amazed by the political phenomena on display in their sister state as are any other citizens of this broad land. In fact their amazement may be a little the greater because they are close at hand. They can catch occasional glimmerings on the northern horizon from North Dakota’s political pyrotechnics.

William Langer, native son of North Dakota, who completed his education at Columbia University, provided some of that state’s most spectacular politics. He aligned himself with the Nonpartisan League faction, eventually dominated it and found himself governor in 1933. In April 1934, he was indicted on a charge of exacting political contributions from federal relief workers. He was convicted and sentenced to prison, shortly before the primary election in which he sought the Republican renomination for governor, which he won by a handsome margin.

Shortly thereafter some of the North Dakotans decided that an impending prison sentence was not among the better gubernatorial qualifications. They invited Mr. Langer to resign. He refused. So his foes obtained a court order ousting him, and Lieutenant Governor Ole H. Olson was sworn in.

That did not even dent the Langer composure. He declared martial law and held office on the grounds that military law superseded civil law. Like many another dictator who has relied on the military, however, Langer lost the support of his army. The National Guard commander went over to the enemy and Governor Olson duly took office. But for several weeks there had not been a dull moment in North Dakota.

No prison doors have clanged shut on Langer. He has emerged victorious in a series of federal appeals, new trials, and retrials. When Uncle Sam tires of conducting trials for him, Mr. Langer may yet wield his almost hypnotic influence over the radical element and return to power. His leadership of his flock is highly emotional, but it brings them to his feet.


When North Dakota embraced the Nonpartisan League, South Dakota took the other route. It eschewed the League and all of its works. Twenty years ago a man emerged in public life in South Dakota who has played a big part in directing the political thought of the state. Peter Norbeck of Redfield, a well driller of humble origin and little education, was elected governor of South Dakota.

In many respects Norbeck is one of the most remarkable men I have ever known. The hardships of his boyhood in the undeveloped state forced him to do without education. His early manhood was devoted to gathering wealth by drilling wells. Then he turned to politics.

His hard-headed practicality eventually endeared him to ‘Stitz’ Way, the man who had shown the Bull Moosers how to carry South Dakota for Teddy Roosevelt without going Bull Moose. The two made a great team. ‘Stitz’ managed the campaigns and Norbeck did the campaigning. Norbeck is a blend of contradictory qualities. He is strangely humble, and slow to take action; but once he has charted his course, he fights tooth and nail to win his goal. After serving two terms as governor of South Dakota, Norbeck went to the United States Senate.

He soon recognized his educational shortcomings, so while he was a member of the United States Senate he attended night school in Washington. I don’t know whether he will thank me for mentioning that, but he should be proud of it. By the time he had completed his first term in the Senate he had acquired a greatly broadened background. He developed an ability to write and speak in a concise and logical style that might well be envied by the majority of men who have adorned college campuses in their youth, and nobody meeting him in a crowd of college-trained men would notice any unflattering contrasts. Norbeck’s openmindedness continues to this day. I think that were it not for the Roosevelt landslide and a breakdown of the Senator’s health he would have attained national eminence.

As evidence of the tremendous personal following of Norbeck, consider the Roosevelt landslide. From the top of the ticket down to the county offices, Democrats were swept into office in South Dakota in 1932. Norbeck was the only Republican to win a major post. He was returned to the Senate by a majority of 25,000 votes. That is not a bad margin in South Dakota in any case; in 1932, for a Republican to poll such a lead was a political miracle.

That same Roosevelt landslide produced some strange results. South Dakota has been Republican for a generation. It has insisted on progressive Republicans, but it has always remained faithful to the G. O. P. Of course, there have always been a few Democrats in the state, but they never took themselves seriously. They just thought it was fun to be Democrats; they never expected to win elections. Naturally their selection of candidates was often on an informal basis. It was not unusual for candidates to be invited to complete a ticket by way of a casual telephone call; if assured they would not have to do much campaigning, they usually accepted. With the Roosevelt landslide some rare birds were swept into office. On the other hand, some high-calibre men were put into public service by the surprising victory. Some of those who were elected would probably not have run if they had expected to win.


The political contrast between the fraternal twins, North and South Dakota, is well illustrated by the conduct of two men in similar circumstances. The two are Senator Gerald P. Nye of North Dakota and Senator Norbeck of South Dakota. Both men do more than represent their constituents; they are typical of their respective states.

Senator Nye, a former newspaper man, serves to strengthen an idea I have long cherished about the breed. They should stay out of politics. Their training suits them for interpreting the political arena, but it often ruins them for participation. They know too much about the mechanics of publicity. Like Nye, they cannot resist the temptation to ‘break’ a sensational story. Nye has the additional handicap of having been born, politically, in a state where muckraking, mud throwing, and bombast are the accepted rule in politics. He was put into office by a Nonpartisan League following.

Nye is an able politician. He is reasonably liberal and not a bad chap. His worst failing is the readiness with which his mind translates any course of action into newspaper headlines. Sometimes his publicity coups backfire, as when he aroused the wrath of the doughty Carter Glass by terming the late Woodrow Wilson a falsifier.

Nye’s flair for publicity hunting virtually robbed the Senate munitions hearings of any value. Most informed observers agree that a European war is in the offing in the comparatively near future; this country needs unbiased, straightforward information on the subject of maintaining neutrality. Nye’s committee had the opportunity to be of real service in that respect. But the situation offered too good an opportunity for gaudy polemics, and Nye could not resist the temptation.

Now consider the conduct of Senator Norbeck when he was placed under the gun in a similarly important Senate study. After the 1929 stock market collapse, divers millions in this country wanted to know what it had all been about. Sharing that curiosity were members of the United States Senate in the Hoover régime. So, according to an old Senate custom, they called for an investigation; Senator Norbeck, as chairman of the banking and finance committee, was placed in charge. Millions of investors had been fleeced in the market collapse, along with those who lost nothing but paper profits. It was an important assignment to find out just how it had been done. Norbeck carried through the initial stages in his usual practical way.

He hunted no sensations. But he did insist on finding out how the market was rigged to trim the gullible. When it became evident that he planned to expose the entire procedure, President Hoover became alarmed, fearing that such disclosures might frighten prosperity away from her post, ‘just around the corner.’ He asked that the investigation be handled ‘tactfully.’ Senator Norbeck politely but firmly assured the President that he intended to take the stock market apart and expose its faults. He also promised not to play politics with the investigation. He kept that pledge.

After the Roosevelt victory the investigation was turned over to Senator Fletcher. But Norbeck had set the general tone; for the most part it was continued along the lines he started. The result was a constructive contribution. The security market legislation, based on the abuses brought out by the Senate committee, was violently opposed in some quarters when it was pending; but among the most bitter critics of the Roosevelt administration I have yet to find the one who will now challenge the value of the security market regulation which was set up as the result of the investigation started and outlined by Senator Norbeck.


The residents of South Dakota are more thoughtful and less inclined to erratic political conduct than the citizens of their sister state to the north. It would be impossible to determine the reaction of North Dakota to Nye’s conduct of the munitions hearings. He played the sort of politics to which North Dakota is accustomed.

So far as South Dakota is concerned, there is fairly widespread sympathy with the international ideals for which the late President Wilson contended. Considering that the geographical centre of the North American continent is in South Dakota, that may seem surprising. But there are definite reasons why it is true. Political isolation breeds economic nationalism. The farming industry has a comparatively fixed domestic outlet; therefore foreign markets are essential if the wartime expansion of farm production is to be maintained.

Foreign markets, however, are a thing of the past. The farmers do not particularly want to embrace schemes for production control; they see no other alternative in the present nationalistic world. But they can look with longing upon the vision of the kind of world Woodrow Wilson wanted to create.

In the first reaction against Wilson’s idealism, the state voted with the Republican isolationists who succeeded in nullifying Wilson’s work, so far as participation by the United States is concerned. That was inevitable, in view of the practical nature of South Dakota’s population. But, as time passes, it is becoming apparent to many in the state that there are practical as well as visionary advantages to internationalism, at least for those who depend upon farming for economic support.

I am a resident of South Dakota; possibly I may be accused of bias in my comparison of the Dakota twins. But nobody can challenge the facts. I have merely striven humbly to write the truth. If the good residents of North Dakota want to make merry with their politics rather than remain practical, what can I do but chronicle the fact?