U.S. Rep. Dusty Johnson, R-South Dakota, conducts his inaugural Level Up Youth Conference on Oct. 30, 2023, at Western Dakota Technical College in Rapid City. (Seth Tupper/South Dakota Searchlight)
Members of the other political party aren’t evil, journalists aren’t the enemy, and watching a lot of cable TV news isn’t a good idea.
That’s a sampling of comments Monday from U.S. Rep. Dusty Johnson, R-South Dakota, who hosted his inaugural Level Up Youth Conference at Western Dakota Technical College in Rapid City. Hundreds of students attended from local and area high schools.
Johnson is fresh off a bruising several weeks in Washington, D.C., where the House of Representatives ousted its speaker, cycled through several nominees and finally elected a new speaker. Johnson said he’s frustrated by the state of politics and wants students to help change it.
“I don’t know that a conference like this is going to change everything overnight, and I suspect it’s not,” he said. “But I think because politics is a spectator sport, I think this is an opportunity for us to try to make sure that South Dakota and our country are better governed.”
The recipe for change, according to Johnson, is getting to know people with different views, listening to them, and working with them to solve problems instead of engaging in the politics of “fear and anger.”
“Politics needs to be about addition and multiplication,” Johnson said. “Politics is not about division and subtraction.”
To help convince the students, Johnson played a prerecorded message from “Captain America” actor Chris Evans. He’s the co-founder of A Starting Point, which publishes free online videos showcasing and encouraging bipartisan civic engagement.
Johnson appears in some of the videos and said he’s “become friends” with Evans. In the prerecorded message, Evans said “the ability to engage in civil, thoughtful and inclusive discussion is the foundation of a healthy democracy.”
“Dusty understands this better than most,” Evans added.
Students heard additional, in-person messages about the importance of civil discourse and engagement from a former Rapid City councilman and two local media professionals. Johnson shared information about military service academies and congressional internships.
During later comments to reporters, Johnson lamented a 2021 analysis from Tufts University that said South Dakota’s 32% percent voter turnout among 18- to 29-year-olds during the 2020 general election was the lowest in the country.
“What I hear more often from young people than anything else is that they are worn out by how those of us in Washington, D.C., do our business,” Johnson said. “They don’t understand why there has to be so much meanness — why there has to be so much bickering.”
Lochlan Willis, a student from Hill City, doesn’t have a lot of faith that the country will heed Johnson’s call for civility. But Willis thinks some of the students at the conference might take the message to heart.
“I hope they do,” Willis said. “I know I did.
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