A strong majority of North Dakotans believe "people should take personal responsibility for social distancing without government involvement."

A stronger majority say "stay-at-home" orders should be implemented by the federal, state or local governments where they live.

Contradictory? Unequivocally. Welcome to North Dakota politics. And, perhaps more charitably, welcome to a confusing, scary time in history we're all trying to navigate without much of a road map.

A poll conducted in North Dakota by Montana State University found nearly 58% of respondents believe individuals, not the government, should be responsible for social distancing to curb the spread of the coronavirus. That's not surprising, considering North Dakotans' self-proclaimed and sometimes actual belief in small government and the power of individualism.

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At the same time, though, state residents believe by a heavier margin that the federal, state or local government in their area should implement stay-at-home orders due to the coronavirus. The poll found almost 67% think the feds should issue stay-at-home orders, compared to 65% who want the state and 63% who want their local government to do the same.

The poll was part of a larger Western states survey conducted by Montana State University in Bozeman.

One small problem: The poll was conducted from April 10-25. That is far too broad of a time period. What somebody believed about the virus on April 10 might've shifted dramatically by April 25, given the lightning speed at which things are changing during the pandemic.

The poll offers interesting insight into the thinking of North Dakotans, who've become staunchly more politically conservative in the last two decades. There have always been contradictions in the way the state views itself as opposed to how it operates in reality, but perhaps that's not unique to North Dakota.

For example, North Dakota has increasingly bellowed about wanting the federal government to keep its mitts out of the state, yet continues to take in far more dollars from Washington, D.C., than it pays in federal taxes. Republicans in the state say they are strongly opposed to socialism, yet tout the success of the obviously socialist state bank and mill. They hammer welfare, yet support handouts for farmers damaged by President Donald Trump's policies (and also overwhelmingly support assistance for individuals and small businesses financially hurt by the pandemic, according to the poll).

These are not new phenomena nor original observations, so maybe the findings of the MSU poll are nothing more than business as usual. Perhaps North Dakotans buy into the state's "brand" more than they practice it in actuality.

But if the survey numbers are anywhere near accurate, there is something else that needs pointing out.

We tend to hear, see and read about those caterwauling loudest during the pandemic about things like "oppressiveness," "tyranny" and "overreacting." These are talking points heard regularly on the conservative talk shows cluttering North Dakota's radio landscape.

Facebook posts and comments range from headshake-worthy to frightening when those words are tossed about. Newspaper letters to the editor and editorial page columns, including those from contributing conservatives in The Forum, seem heavily tilted toward these viewpoints.

Who do you trust the most to handle the coronavirus pandemic?

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  • Federal government


  • State government


  • Local government


Nationwide and state-specific polling, now including two surveys conducted in North Dakota, draw a different picture entirely. A strong majority of Americans believe their governor and local governments are doing a good job reacting to the coronavirus, while their opinion of the response by Trump and the federal government generally falls along partisan lines. A majority of Americans also continue to support the steps we've taken to curb the spread of the virus, although a much slimmer majority of Republicans than Democrats believe that.

Somewhere, there is a disconnect between what we're hearing and what the majority of us actually believe. The voices of the angry and aggrieved, a minority, are washing away everybody else.

Some of this falls on the media, of course, including newspapers. It is exacerbated by talk radio, social media and the Wild West that is the internet.

A poll like the one conducted by MSU, while not perfect and at best a snapshot in time, offers comfort that perhaps most of Americans, even in an uber-conservative state like North Dakota, are still trusting of our government and scientists who are doing their best to guide us through this remarkably trying time.