It’s astonishing to think now, but South Dakota made sense as a destination for idealistic young liberals in the mid-1970s. Senator McGovern, who died Sunday at the age of 90, had run an inspiring but catastrophic campaign for the presidency three years earlier, bravely opposing the Vietnam War. The state’s junior senator, James Abourezk, was another liberal Democrat and the first Arab-American elected to the upper chamber. And Red Power activism was roiling the state’s Indian reservations; the Wounded Knee standoff on the Pine Ridge Reservation even captured the nation’s attention for several months in 1973.I was born a few years later, in 1980, just months before Mr. McGovern lost his race for a fourth term in the Senate. It wasn’t yet clear that the Plains political winds were shifting to the right. My parents ran a record store, Prairie Dog Records, and we lived in a small house with a low-tech “solar collector,” a box that trapped the bright prairie sun under glass and blew its warmth into the house on frigid winter days. In summer, we tended an organic garden fertilized with sheep manure from my godparents’ farm. By the time I was 3, I had formulated (or parroted) the crowd-pleasing stump speech, “Ronald Reagan is mean; he gives money to rich people.”
Now, he writes, South Dakota is a far different place:
Yet as I came of age, so did a new political tradition in South Dakota. Senator Larry Pressler, who replaced Senator Abourezk in 1979, attacked Big Bird and PBS long before Mitt Romney found it useful to do so. (Mr. Pressler, a Vietnam veteran, recently endorsed Mr. Obama over Mr. Romney, citing the president’s positions on veterans’ issues.) The old prairie populism faded as family farmers loosened their alliance with union labor. I felt increasingly out of place in South Dakota, and steadfastly hid the secret of my mom’s sexual orientation.Today, the old liberal Plains folk are tending a thinning row of populist Christian liberalism. Their social gospel has lost ground to anti-abortion and antigay politics. Today the State Senate has 30 Republicans and 5 Democrats. Pundits even suggested our Republican senator, John Thune, as a running mate for Mr. Romney.