The Briefing: South Dakota’s firebrand governor
The Associated Press has a story out on South Dakota Governor—and 2024 presidential hopeful—Kristi Noem, and Noem’s various profile-raising hijinks. Before we go deeper, these are the basics:
- Who is Kristi Noem?
- Noem is a former United States Representative for South Dakota, elected governor in 2018.
- A conservative through and through—on COVID-19, abortion, and critical race theory, she’s taken the maximal right-wing position.
- A fast driver. Too fast, some might say—Noem racked up twenty speeding tickets when she was running for the House of Representatives in 2010.
- Why is she in the news?
- For one thing, Noem seems to have her eye on the prize: the 2024 Republican presidential nomination. Apparently that alone is reason to pay attention.
- Last year, she threw some shade on fellow Republican Ron DeSantis, governor of Florida, for being too willing to embrace COVID restrictions.
- Recently, she’s been at odds with her Republican colleagues in the South Dakota state legislature, over just about every issue listed above.
- The South Dakota Legislature trimmed down Noem’s CRT proposal and halted her abortion bill in committee.
- Why does any of this matter?
- Well, as the AP report suggests, there might actually be some benefit for Noem if her legislative proposals are shot down.
- That sounds pretty counterintuitive for how we expect democracy to work, so it’s worth looking at closely.
The Question: Why would Noem pick these fights?
How could it be good for Noem to lose major legislative fights or sling mud at a GOP darling like Ron DeSantis, and what does it tell us about today’s politics?
There’s a minor political truism that says state governors are particularly well-suited to life in the Oval Office. Indeed, the office that presidents have most often occupied before the White House is, in fact, governor. That makes plenty of intuitive sense—a US Senator, for example, has a categorically different job that often involves public posturing with limited accountability. They oversee a few dozen staff at best. Governors find themselves the head of a state bureaucracy and the face of the state’s successes and failures. The buck, as we so often say, stops with them.
According to the normal logic of politics—i.e. that public failure is bad for one’s executive career—Noem’s approach doesn’t quite make sense. There’s no clear reason she couldn’t be a firebrand conservative while also proposing legislation that has a shot at earning a legislature’s approval after some opposition and compromise. We normally expect executive politicians to secure bumps in approval ratings or future electoral wins when they enjoy legislative victories, not legislative defeats.
We can’t be sure whether Noem’s combative approach will pay long-term dividends or not yet. We do know, however, that she enjoys a fairly high approval rating in South Dakota, making her a solid favorite for re-election in November. One of two things could be the case: either Noem is making some inadvisable tactical calls, or something about the conventional wisdom doesn’t quite fit here and now.
The Theory: The “Mediatization” of Politics
The political scientists Gianpietro Mazzoleni and Winfried Schulz may have an answer, in the form of what they call the “mediatization” of politics. In a scholarly article that’s now about two decades old—although remarkably prescient—they argued that media is not just a neutral conduit through which political activity is communicated.
Rather, the shape of the media landscape itself incentivizes different kinds of political rhetoric and, in turn, different kinds of political behavior: the kinds of legislation politicians pursue and battles they pick. Politicians want to catch their fifteen minutes of fame on cable news. Eventually, they may view it as advantageous to fight, rather than cooperate, with their party in order to stand out.
Politicians like Noem, the governor of a small state with a low national profile, can establish national notoriety by instigating conflict within their own parties. If they can do it in a spectacular fashion—say, by adopting maximalist policy positions on one end of the political spectrum—then that’s all the better. Whether it’s 24-hour TV news or social media, the landscape demands high drama. Casting yourself as a crusader against the weak establishment within your party provides higher drama than typical partisan divides.
The Implications: A game for everyone
The process of “mediatization” is hardly limited to the governor of a fairly small state. Donald Trump obviously embodies much of this in four years picking fights with his own party on border walls, healthcare, and the legitimacy of national elections. Known by some as the “greatest poster of all time,” Trump commanded social media to extraordinary effect. Even as his presidential administration accomplished surpassingly little (although that’s hardly unusual in our hyperpolarized era), his devotees stayed loyal because he successfully maintained his image as a fighter, not unlike Noem.
It’s hardly limited to Republicans, either. Earlier this year, Democrats embarked on a quixotic crusade to modify the filibuster rule for a landmark voting rights package. Despite emphatic objections from Democratic Senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, Joe Biden and the rest of the party went ahead. Of course it’s only conjecture, but it’s not much of a stretch to wonder if they were trying to score fighter-points like Noem.
Importantly, this isn’t all just a game of image. There are political consequences. When it comes to the voting rights legislation, for example, Biden and party leadership took several consequential weeks out of the Democrats' congressional calendar to craft their proposals and lobby for key votes.
While we’ve written plenty about legislative laziness, the lesson regarding executive inaction is similar. One must look to the surrounding incentive structures. If it’s all about getting the camera turned on you, it’s no surprise politicians behave less like leaders, and more like bad actors on a soap opera.Subscribe to Spectacles