Matt Evans: Does North Dakota Really Need To Change?


I did not grow up in North Dakota.

I’ve lived many places in the US, all of them in suburbs of large cities. I came to North Dakota as a young adult, and it was here that my wife and I started our family.

Until moving out to the country, Fargo was the smallest place I had ever lived. I lived in the Hawthorne neighborhood, and that was the first place I lived where I could afford to live close enough to a downtown that was worth walking to.

People who have not lived outside of our great state do not know how good we have it. As an outsider, I can offer a perspective that some people overlook – I can appreciate the things some North Dakotans take for granted because they’ve always had them, and may have never known life without them.

For instance, ours is a high-trust society. I was shocked to meet so many people in our state who don’t lock their doors. Everywhere else I’ve ever lived, locking everything all the time is the norm.

Indeed, I’ve seen multiple news stories over the years where the Fargo police remind people to lock their homes and cars at night. To me, this is like having the police department remind people to breathe.

When we first moved here, a lady from a local church called and proceeded to ask a bunch of questions about my family, my background, etc. I was very defensive and put off by this – clearly this had to be some kind of scam designed to steal my identity! I was polite, but insisted on not answering some of the questions. I explained why.

The lady on the phone had never dealt with someone so difficult and unfriendly as I; she had never experienced someone who wasn’t happy that they were getting a call from her.

Now, I realize this is fine. In a high trust community, people take an interest in you.

Recently, I was at a gas station in town, and my truck wasn’t starting. Another customer stopped by and helped me troubleshoot the issue, and got me going again. As our conversation was winding down, he actually offered me a job!

(I still need to write him a thank you note, and figure out what I want to do about the job offer. Here’s a reminder to the whole world to hold me accountable)

When I first moved here, I was shocked at how many people would meet each other for the first time, discuss what tiny towns they were from, and then realize they knew people in common.

That’s a rarity. There’s a pervasive sense that the whole state is one big family. When I was a new North Dakotan, it was actually a bit daunting to feel like such an outsider. I didn’t know where these towns were; I didn’t know who the people were.

[mks_pullquote align=”right” width=”300″ size=”24″ bg_color=”#ffffff” txt_color=”#000000″]The culture in our state enjoys a rich heritage of high trust and strong community. That’s a precious treasure, and it’s increasingly rare in the US.[/mks_pullquote]

The culture in our state enjoys a rich heritage of high trust and strong community. That’s a precious treasure, and it’s increasingly rare in the US.

Sometimes, friends from big cities ask me if the “lack of diversity” bothers me. It doesn’t. In everywhere else I’ve lived, racial plurality has been the norm, and, race-based violence, intimidation, and harassment have come along for the ride.

Once a population is large enough, it seems that people want to self-segregate into what feels familiar to them, and “diverse” cities turn out in fact to frequently be segregated cities, with many internal fractures and borders. It is along these borders, yet also in common places, that people behave as members of their own sub-group, instead of as members of the same community. I don’t suppose anyone enjoys feeling like they’ve walked into someone else’s community accidentally. I never did.

Race is still a terrible problem in our country, and I have no idea what to do about it.

But it’s not a problem for me in North Dakota. North Dakota is very comfortable for me. Nobody here seems interested in making an issue of my whiteness.

(Reflectively, I suppose it might be a very poor experience to be non-white here, but nobody’s complained to me about it.)

One interesting thing that is a result of our small population, monoculturalism, and community orientation is that our government is actually pretty pleasant.

North Dakota is the only place I’ve lived where getting a driver’s license, car title, or a license plate isn’t a total disaster. North Dakota is the only place I’ve lived where you can call most government offices and have a competent person answer the phone and help you.

I was quite libertarian when I moved here. Libertarians are pre-disposed to be very cynical about government, but North Dakota actually makes it pretty difficult to be cynical sometimes. There are too many people here in state and local government who seem to genuinely want to do a good job, and who are actually capable in their roles. My passion for railing against government is sometimes difficult to maintain in the face of nice, competent, helpful people.

The great people of this state, and how well we work together, have even led me to moderate some of my political ideas. North Dakota has some strange bits of socialist-populism (like a state mill, a state bank), and some anti-corporate laws for farming, pharmacy, etc.

A free market libertarian would want to remove all of these things. Indeed, many of my free market libertarian friends want to remove them all, as a matter of principle.

I’m not so sure.

A favorite quote of mine is, “the difference between theory and practice is, in theory, there’s no difference, but, in practice, there is”

My libertarian theoretical objections to a corporate farming ban notwithstanding, I’m much more interested in preserving what is great about North Dakota than I am changing things for the sake of change. So I primarily view Measure 1 through the lens of “what will it do to rural communities”, and I’m still trying to make up my mind about that.

Speaking of rural communities, one of the best things to happen in my life was the new friendship I gained over 10 years ago with a couple who had grown up farming in the western half of the state. As we became closer friends, they invited me to visit the family farm, and I liked it so much that I actually took vacation time from my office job to help them harvest one year.

The sentiment I had, after helping them for about 70 hours in 6 days, during “my vacation”, is that time spent in the country doesn’t feel like real life, yet it feels like what real life was meant to be.

A few short years later, we left Fargo, and now we’re doing our own country living thing, which we very much enjoy.

One thing I didn’t know until I lived out here, but that all North Dakotans know, and many take for granted, is that here, you can see the weather coming in from miles away. To see thunderstorms rolling across the prairie, towards you, while you are still in direct sun, makes the arrival of thunderstorms breathtaking, actually. In Seattle (where I once lived), rain is just an annoying, ever present thing. There is no majesty, just a high suicide rate from seasonal depression.

During the decade that I lived in Fargo, I noticed some other storms on the horizon, rolling towards town. Fargo gained a rapid influx of new people, from places like Minneapolis and Chicago. The faces at the gas station, and the grocery store, began to change. Crime, which was nothing more substantial than kids prowling the ubiquitous unlocked cars once or twice per summer, suddenly became a thing worth paying attention to. People started getting murdered in Fargo. Convenience store robberies and pizza delivery holdups are becoming increasingly common.

Drug related gang activity is now a thing in Fargo, and it brings with it all kinds of serious and violent crime.

There was a violent student and a police altercation at one of the public schools last year, with racial overtones, and a news media all too eager to try and make news out of it.

These are the signs of an infection.

The patient is the North Dakota you grew up with; the same state that I fell in love with.

The infection is: population replacement – with people who don’t share your values.

There are well-meaning folks in Fargo who often point at Minneapolis as a model of what Fargo could grow up and become.

Trust me. You don’t want to grow up.

Minneapolis is plagued by racial violence (police related and otherwise). The majority of terrorism suspects in the US are arrested in the MSP area. The refugee problems are severe enough that there’s an area of town called “Little Mogadishu” (a reference to war-torn and lawless Somalia)

Notably, Minneapolis is run by liberal democrats, and their outsized influence has wrecked the laws for the entire state of Minnesota.

If you look at election returns, you’ll note that Fargo has a few regions that reliably vote for democrats already. In cities, higher population is correlated with voting for democrats. If Fargo and Grand Forks continue to quickly add people, democratic politics are likely to infest both of these large cities. Since we have only a handful of cities in our state, if one or both of them turns majority democrat, the politics of our entire state will be similarly damaged.

I don’t want this to happen.

We have an election coming up – for governor. One of the candidates is accused of being the status quo. One of the candidates is accused of being a Fargo liberal.

I’ve had people tell me that radical changes are needed in North Dakota.

No. No, they aren’t.

North Dakota is the best place I’ve ever lived. We’ve got so much going on here that is wonderful, and

great, and isn’t common elsewhere. I’ve lucked into it. I appreciate it because it’s still new to me; I don’t take it for granted.

[mks_pullquote align=”left” width=”300″ size=”24″ bg_color=”#ffffff” txt_color=”#000000″]I have tremendous respect and appreciation for Mr. Burgum. He has built businesses that have allowed thousands of intelligent software engineers to stay in our great state. But he talks about bringing additional technical people into our state from elsewhere to continue growing our economy, and one specific aspect of this worries me.[/mks_pullquote]

I have tremendous respect and appreciation for Mr. Burgum. He has built businesses that have allowed thousands of intelligent software engineers to stay in our great state.

But he talks about bringing additional technical people into our state from elsewhere to continue growing our economy, and one specific aspect of this worries me.

In the past, leaders at Microsoft in Fargo have talked about making North Dakota less socially conservative, so as to better be able to attract young technical people from elsewhere. An example that comes to mind – and that Burgum seems to have flipped on, is support for laws like SB2279 last session (which would make gender identity a protected class, amongst other things)

My thoughts on this are pretty blunt:

If you would refuse to live or work in North Dakota because of the lack of a law like SB2279, please stay out.

One of the best things about North Dakota is how socially conservative it is. This is a nice place to live. It is a nice place to raise a family. There are churches everywhere. We’re down to only one abortion clinic. Our police are tough on violent crime, and are fighting for our communities. Our entire state is run by the Republican party, and getting personally involved in politics here is both easy and impactful.

So, no, I don’t think that North Dakota needs to import people from elsewhere that don’t share our values. I don’t think it’s a good thing for our state if we make Fargo the next Minneapolis or the next Seattle.

I know that Burgum is from a small town, and that small towns and community is a critical part of who he is. So, I admit that I don’t understand the apparent contradictions I’m seeing. The push to upsize Fargo, and to bring in lots of people from outside of our state doesn’t seem like a winning formula if we want to remain a socially conservative place with a small-town feel. I don’t know if that’s what Burgum wants or not, but it’s a concern I have.

Finally, rather than the people who want to transform Fargo into the next big trendy city, what resonates with me are the countless people I’ve met – both in the software industry, and in many other industries – who live in Fargo, but who wish to return to the small rural communities they grew up in, or to move to a rural property like I have. Rather than making Fargo bigger, how do we help our young people revitalize the smaller communities they had to leave?

I don’t think North Dakota needs radical changes. I want to preserve what is great about North Dakota –its rural emphasis, its community spirit, and its conservative values. I want to keep Fargo from turning blue and wrecking our state. I want the young families who wish they could live in rural communities to find ways to go make that happen, and I want our state government to do whatever is required to make that easier for them.

If that’s not the North Dakota you want; I’d prefer that you skipped the primary, and voted with your feet.

Ours is, I feel, the best state in the nation. We’ve inherited something great. We shouldn’t take it for granted. Thank you for sharing it with me.