Kristi Noem, the popular Republican governor of South Dakota, walked into a political buzz saw this week with her decision to veto a bill to protect the integrity of girls’ sports in her home state.
South Dakota’s House Bill 1217 would ensure that girls and women in sports — from kindergarten through college — would only compete against other females and not biological men. Among other provisions, the bill would also give both girls and schools a right to sue if retaliatory actions were taken against them for demanding enforcement of the law.
After declaring she was “excited to sign” the legislation, Noem reversed herself. When the bill arrived on her desk, she issued a “style and form” veto, outlining how the bill must be changed before she’d consider signing it.
The reversal came as a surprise, but was less shocking as it became apparent that Noem had been subject to some intense lobbying efforts from the NCAA, Amazon, and the Chamber of Commerce. These corporations and entities are overtly hostile to traditional values, including those that acknowledge and affirm basic facts about biology.
Noem has attempted to clean up the mess by announcing the creation of a “Defend Title IX Now” petition initiative to “build the coalition” she feels is required to truly take on the NCAA, which she claimed would punish South Dakota’s athletes if the bill were enacted (Margot Cleveland takes issue with that claim here). Appearing on “Tucker Carlson Tonight,” Noem said she was a problem solver who would not “let conservatives on the right bully me.”
Politicians reversing themselves on key culturally conservative issues, or falling in the face of leftist corporate pressure, is not in itself unusual. The GOP has been bedeviled by this for years. While serving as governor of Indiana, Donald Trump Vice President Mike Pence backtracked on the Religious Freedom Restoration Act after pressure from business groups, including the NCAA. While there was general harumphing around conservatism, the move turned into little more than a speedbump in his continued political rise.
But this is not the situation in which Noem now finds herself. Rather than the usual eye-rolling and sighs about spinelessness, the condemnation of Noem has been sweeping, national, and sustained. Few on the right have come out to defend her actions. Once considered a rising star in the GOP, Noem’s political future is now less certain.
This is the Trump effect at work. Of the many legacies Trump left the Republican Party, one of the most consequential was his fearless engagement of the culture wars. Trump, unlike Republicans before him, paired rhetoric with meaningful policy outcomes in ways that both energized and endeared the base to him.
Indeed, Trump enacted such robust pro-life policies that the abortion giant Planned Parenthood rejected government funding rather than comply. Insidious racism training was banned throughout the government. Rather than hemming and hawing about Google being a private company or deferring to soft corporate corruption, Trump’s Department of Justice launched an antitrust lawsuit designed to force them back into legal submission.
The voters noticed. The “Trump effect” on the culture war was not only a series of accomplishments but a demonstration such accomplishments were possible. For years, GOP base voters were accustomed to the thin gruel of “well, we tried” from GOP leaders as they made their once-a-year speech about the sanctity of human life, and voted approvingly on pro-life measures designed to fail. At no point did any of these legislators intend to spend any real political capital to enact the substantial change their lip service declared was necessary.
Trump set the standard for what Republicans now expect from their leaders as they engage in an ever-expanding culture war. It’s a struggle that doesn’t just cover traditional social conservative concerns, but is focused on staring down the mega-corporations that increasingly leverage the power of their services, jobs, and tax revenues in an attempt to impose radical cultural values on the population writ large.
Rather than responding to this, however, Noem used a 2008 playbook on a 2021 electorate. As a result, her political reputation has been substantially damaged. Not only is the Republican base now thoroughly impatient with hand wringing, but they’re also thoroughly unconvinced by the meaningless gestures of politicians convinced the hapless masses are dumb enough to be distracted by them.
In other words, the charade stopped working. Conservatives aren’t in any way convinced an online petition will afford the proper legal protections girls in South Dakota would have had if Noem had simply signed the bill. Neither do they appear willing to forgive her for it and submit to rule by yet another politician who prefers Amazon’s interests over voters’.
Girls in South Dakota may have to wait for a more rock-ribbed defender to stand up to woke corporate power, but GOP politicians everywhere should take note of Noem’s example. The performative aspects of the culture war — the pablum, pandering, and pats on the head — now threaten careers, rather than enhance them.
Conservative and Republican voters have seen what real cultural policy accomplishments look like, and have witnessed what happens when someone stands up for his values despite withering attacks from corporate America. In the face of an all-out assault by big government, big media, and big business, voters want and expect clarity, courage, and leadership that will not yield. Despite the disappointment in South Dakota this week, that this is now bracingly clear is a welcome development.
Rachel Bovard is the senior director of policy at the Conservative Partnership Institute.