The DFL's Near Death Experience and the End of Minnesotan Exceptionalism

[If not for fond memories of Dayton's, in 5 years Minnesota would have all the public policies of Texas. Img. MNHS.]

Make no mistake, last night Minnesota lefty politics just barely missed being irreparably destroyed. Had they been nominated, either Kelliher or Rybak would have lost the governor's race by large margins. The only thing that kept Mark Dayton from losing to Tom Emmer was some foggily nostalgic name recognition for the olden days when the name "Dayton's" actually meant something.

The Minnesota Republican Party came within two microns of ending the DFL's 40-year reign as relevant policymakers in Minnesota, whisker-close to getting control of both State houses with an über-right Governor Emmer leading the way. This is what's known in policy circles as "The Trifecta", and basically means that (unless you're a DC Democrat) you can pass just about any legislation you damn well please.

If 8,000 votes flip Emmer's way:
  • Big tax cuts for the rich, with income tax levels reaching near-Texan lows
  • The maximum amount of redistricting, ensuring that district boundaries give Republicans maximum clout
  • State election law requires an up-to-date photo ID, disenfranchising people of color, poor people, and old people
  • Abolishing state health care programs for the poor
  • An Arizona-style immigration law
  • Abolishing, permanently, Local Government Aid to cities (i.e. poor people)
  • Deep University of Minnesota budget cuts, especially to non-commodifiable departments
  • Deep cuts to state funding for public radio and the arts
  • Deep cuts to transit funding, tax-base sharing, and most regional planning
  • The abandonment of pretty much any 'lefty' 'government program' that's survived this long; for example, the Department of Education
  • God knows what else... (Emmer's extremism shouldn't be understated.)
  • (Hell, a lot of these things might happen anyway.)
The first three things on that list alone would guarantee a cash-strapped state and significantly depress DFL turnout for a generation. And any of those changes would likely prove impossible to 'undo'. Really, if not for Dayton taking advantage of fog-shrouded love for The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Minnesota would have become another Midwestern libertarian paradise, a la Kansas or South Dakota.

If you're shocked by this, chances are you're a Minnesota Democrat.

[The 1973 Time Magazine cover of Governor Wendell Anderson is the iconic image of the Minnesota policy world.]

Here in this state, especially among my Twin Cities politics and policy friends,
there's a belief in a kind of Minnesotan exceptionalism. It's a little current that runs through the DFL-MPR-Humphrey Institute nexus, the idea that somehow, in Minnesota, we're just a bit different than everywhere else. Somehow, we're just a bit smarter or more communal or care more about each other or something. It's the idea that politics here is somehow a little better, less partisan, less extreme, or less insane than other states.

It's the idea that, at least since the 70s, we've supposedly had a "common sense" coalition between organized labor and farmers and urban leftys and policy wonks and
agriculture and miners up north and "the inner city" and, most especially, "benevolent corporations" like Dayton's and 3M that somehow aren't just out for pure profits but also care about the common good. The idea that somehow Minnesotans come together around ideas like 'a sound economy' and 'opportunity for all' and 'hot dish' and 'love of fishing' and 'fair taxation' and 'health care'.

There's even this quasi-religious birth story, ("the Minnesota Miracle"), patron saints (Hubert Humphrey, Water Mondale), and martyrs (Paul Wellstone). There's the idea that somehow here in Minnesota, we're immune from the rabid anti-intellectualism of the rest of "the heartland", and that somehow here in Minnesota we all, deep down, agree about a certain set of values, and in particular, the idea that at least at a local level, government is there for the common good.

This attitude is sincere and a little smug and probably a myth. In fact, there's not a universal and collective set of Minnesotan values. We are just as politically messed up as anywhere else, fraught with all the paradoxes and problems that lie at the heart of liberal democratic capitalism.

In fact, to my mind, all the contradictory promise of the DFL-MPR-Humphrey Institute nexus can be summed up within the single person: (future-ex-)State Senate Majority Leader Lawrence J. "Larry" Pogemiller, who has been jousting with Republicans at the state capital since the early 80s. Pogemiller is both wonky and aloof, "progressive" and "elitist". More than any other state politician, Pogemiller can't help but appear condescending, which is why he gradually learned to let others take his microphone away at press conferences (
usually Taryl Clark or Margaret Kelliher). (For example, after so many DFL losses last night, Pogemiller stated, "We were not able to bring an exemplary group of legislators across the finish line". OK, but doesn't this imply that Republicans who were elected are somehow objectively inferior? That DFL'ers are necessarily "exemplary"? This kind of sums up the Pogemiller's attitude.) At the same time, Pogemiller has fought admirably for health care programs and progressive taxation and all the things that make up the DFL platform, and, more than any other person, has led the fight against BridgeFAIL Pawlenty* for all these years.

[State Senator Larry Pogemiller explaining exemplary public policy.]

The Star Tribune's "Stunner" headline story captures what was surely a shocking evening for Pogemiller.
I can only imagine how his life flashed before his eyes:
The loss was particularly crippling for Senate Majority Leader Larry Pogemiller, who had served in the Senate since 1982 and for the first time in his political career will work as a member of the DFL minority.
Soon after the seeing the Senate majority slip through his fingers, Pogemiller said he called to congratulate Senjem. "A lot of very good state senators were defeated this evening," Pogemiller said. "The national mood, [the] anti-incumbent mood, spoke loudly in Minnesota."

Annette Meeks, Emmer's running mate, drew loud applause at another rally by saying that Senate Majority Leader Larry Pogemiller might literally lose his State Capitol office. "Picture Larry Pogemiller [and the DFLers] carrying their boxes of belongings across the street" to the minority party office, she said.

You can taste the schadenfreude dripping from GOP tongues.

Last night's election means that Minnesota really isn't that special. Our set of progressive public policies are based on a series of delicate accidents, such as democratic voting laws or the existence of a regional governmental institution. But for a few twists of fate, Minnesota's lefty policy politics could easily disappear, or might never have happened. But for Mark Dayton's name recognition, we would have woken up today to the total and complete demise of Minnesotan exceptionalism. There would be no telling what sorts of destructive looting a Governor Emmer would unleash.

But, at least for now, old-school 'liberal values' Minnesota hangs on by the slimmest of recounted threads. DFL policy folks can rest easy that, somehow, the state didn't join the ranks of the completely dysfunctional. Instead, you're likely to get another compromised budget plan, drafted by gleefully dishonest state Republicans, and vetoed by a harried-looking Governor Dayton, who will likely have to pull every political trick in the book to keep the state government from "shutting down" or self-destructing. Hell, even getting through the recount unscathed is likely to be a Herculean labor.

It won't be pretty, and I'm not quite sure Dayton's up to the task. Like Obama, he seems to fit really well within the traditional liberal public policy mold. I'm not sure he'll make a good fighter. He seems prone to media gaffes, and he certainly didn't respond well to the institutional clusterf**k that is the US Senate. I never thought I'd be relying on Mark Dayton to keep Minnesota liberalism alive.

In another way, though, he's perfect. Just as Pogemiller seems to embody the DFL's paternalistic wonky policy wing, Dayton personifies the myth of the benevolent corporation (as if every corporation in the state, including Target and 3M, isn't pushing hard as hard as it can to the Right). Even though days of 1960s job security and guaranteed pensions are long gone, even though Dayton's-the-consumerist-paradise is long gone, even though the era of sensible credit and rising wages and the Keynesian welfare state is long gone, we still have Mark Dayton, the benign businessman, the gentle father, the philanthropic aristocrat, who is desperately trying to fix the unfixable, to untangle the political-economic American mess. Today, Mark Dayton is the only thing standing between Minnesota and a neoliberal, libertarian, right-wing paradise.

Good luck, Mark. You're certainly going to need it.

[Mark Cerberus Dayton stands alone between Minnesota and the gates of Hell.]

*Rest In Pieces


Anonymous said...

Nice post, Bill. But I think you may have misinterpreted Pogemiller's comment. He has a habit or talent (I'm not sure which) of saying only a tiny part of what he means.

What struck me about this election was the absolute lack of media attention on the legislative situation. Lori Sturdevant was doggedly covering the capital, but everyone else was looking at the governor's mansion. Including the DFL.

It seems to me (I haven't taken the time to verify) that there were way more districts where a Republican ran unopposed than where a Democrat ran unopposed. Part of that was the Republican wave, but a bigger part (I suspect) was that the DFL was concentrating on the governor's race. They figured they could hang on to enough seats to keep power, at least in the senate, and finally win the governor - they know more than anyone how long it's been.

So what Pogemiller really meant is that they didn't focus enough on the legislature because they were going for the governor. Part of the reason was that they still believe in Minnesotan exceptionalism, as you point out, but part of it was just that the results of this election were nearly impossible, therefore difficult to anticipate.

Alex B said...

btw that was alex b. commenting. I'm drinking off my post-election blues

Bill Lindeke said...
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Bill Lindeke said...

alex: i think you make a good point, and also that most of the DFL leaders were truly shocked when the results of the election came back. nobody thought that might happen. the Strib headline "Stunner" pretty much captures it.

also, MN has sometimes 'bucked' national trends. ppl always point to the 1984 Reagan election, but that really shouldn't count. but our 'republican revolution' came a few years late (1994 v. 1998, the year Pawlenty became majority leader), and there are probably other examples. even the existence of the DFL (a unique party) shows something interesting.

as much as I might want to believe that Minnesota is 'special' or something, we're not. it'd be nice if it were true. my argument is that a lot of this unique political culture stuff is pretty accidental.

Bill Lindeke said...
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Mike Hicks said...

In honor of my friends who scrape by on low incomes and who would be affected negatively by his election (if it happens), I have bestowed the Republican candidate the title of "Fr. Tom Emmer" (and the "Fr." doesn't stand for "Father").

Anyway, the issue of LGA is kind of interesting. I think making cuts to it would backfire for Republicans, since many small towns would suffer the most. On the other hand, many suburbs do quite well financially, and that seems to be where the political power is these days.

Yeah, Dayton was never a great candidate -- In my mind, the best candidates disappeared around the time of the caucuses. We got a candidate who had exactly the same enthusiasm issues as Al Gore and John Kerry. I agree about Pogemiller's weirdnesses too. He's a Democrat from a Minneapolis district who hasn't had any competition to keep him on his toes.

I feel there's a lot of truth in the idea that suburbanization has caused conservatism to spread. As people interact with each other less and less, there are fewer opportunities for ideas to be challenged. Humble sidewalks have an important role in a functioning democracy -- though only if there are enough people around to interact along them.

Well, if LGA and other services get cut, people will begin fleeing from small outlying cities, and some municipalities will probably have to merge. The tiny community of Landfall did worst in the study I linked to, but that's because it's essentially a low-income trailer park which decided to incorporate (notably, they also have the highest population density of any city in the state because their "manufactured homes" pack together so tightly). They could easily survive if they merged with a neighboring city, though.

In some ways, I'd love to run for office, but I'm pretty gullible. My personality is so weak that I'd practically even hide in the shadow of Dayton. Still, I try to be objective about issues, so I hope I'd do a good job if it ever came to it.

Well, I suppose that if Republicans clawed their way into power by getting elected to school boards, anti-Republicans should try to work their way onto zoning and planning commissions, or maybe those little-understood watershed districts...

Bill Lindeke said...

Watershed Districts!

Kenny Blumenfeld said...

The legislators were not exemplary, and thus, there were none to bring to the finish line anyway.

Stephen Gross said...

Wow! Quite a powerful essay. I'm not as familiar with Minnesota political history, so for now I'll take your word for it.

I agree that there is a weird kind of unreality to the "Minnesota exceptionalism". The state is not immune to the culture wars that grip our nation.

RPSpauldin said...


But don't write 'em all of yet - the polls seem to suggest a majority of voters recognize the need for revenue. If there's solace to be had, I take some heart in the fact that Tom Horner was proposing a significant tax increase, even if it was just the sales tax (which could have made our tax system more progressive, despite what all my campaigning friends would say). And the fact that Tom Emmer always shied away from clearly stating where he was on the no-new-taxes pledge, which must say something about the fact that he thought by taking Pawlenty's tact, he'd alienate too many Minnesotans. So we're not as think as you dim we are.

Bill Lindeke said...
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Bill Lindeke said...

its not a matter of dim-ness. i'm saying that people don't make voting decisions based on 'logic' and stark rationality about their 'best interests'. they go with 'who represents them', and by represent i mean a broad understanding of the idea: who is like me? who thinks like me? who understands the world as i do?

this is why the sort of 'objective' social-economic policy way of thinking is far too limited for understanding how people behave, and what they want and what they think they want.

so, for example, people don't vote for horner because of his tax policy. its because of what he's doing viz the others, and how he talks and the kinds of words and phrases he uses and who they think he is, deep down, and maybe partly because of something he says about taxes but this is only a small part and always understood within the larger context of the 'person', so that you cannot take these policies in isolation. the very same phrase can mean two entirely different things if it comes from the lips of either emmer or dayton.

hell, even the idea that you can separate policy from the person (a la the MPR vote decider) is a particular mode of understanding the world, and believe me if you are the kind of person who thinks that policy in the abstract is how we decide who to vote for, then you are the kind of person who listens to Gary Eichten with rapt attention and who will never understand why people vote for Emmer.

but even if we 'think' we're this kind of person, abstract and rational, this is forgetting that even these concepts (abstraction and rationality) are certain emotional modes that 'move' us and make us 'feel' a certain way, and that (kind of) turn us on when we encounter them, as we think to ourselves, "i can 'solve' the world like a Rubix cube, figuring it out logically", and that feeling feels good and is not simply a cold and emotionless accounting. thus, its no different, in some ways, from the feeling of racism or frustration or powerlessness or whatever drives your typical Emmer-fanboy.

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