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Left, right or middle, public policy groups enrich our state and the debate

It has taken a while for many players and commentators to recognize the massive influence of the Internet on politics and public life, but the power of blogs, podcasts, wikis and similar gizmos is increasingly appreciated, or at least sensed.

Mitch Pearlstein
Courtesy of Center of the American Experiment
Mitch Pearlstein

It has taken a while for many players and commentators to recognize the massive influence of the Internet on politics and public life, but the power of blogs, podcasts, wikis and similar gizmos is increasingly appreciated, or at least sensed. This is the case even by those of us reduced to using words like “gizmos.”

As for new local entries into this expanding universe, I would guess that none has greater potential to reach large numbers of Minnesotans — including electronically slow ones — than MinnPost. I wish it well, and I fully expect its many voices to be heard clearly and attended to more than occasionally.

Yet while the increasing reach of the Net (“Netroots,” I’ve been told, is an apt term of art) is better grasped all the time, hardly recognized at all has been the way in which another important feature of Minnesota’s policy landscape has changed significantly over the last 15-plus years.

Namely, just count the number of think tanks and kindred advocacy groups that have started in the Twin Cities since about the time Rudy Perpich gave way to Arne Carlson as governor.

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Starting a new era
Until Center of the American Experiment opened shop in 1990, the Minnesota Family Council was one of the few reasonably active conservative groups attempting to shape public policy in the state.

Getting started since then have been such right-of-center groups as the Taxpayers League of Minnesota, the Free Market Institute of Minnesota (the nonpartisan branch of the Taxpayers League), the Freedom Club, the Freedom Foundation of Minnesota, a Minnesota chapter of the Institute for Justice and radio stations 100.3 KTLK-FM and 1280 AM (“The Patriot”).

On the left, there were no close analogues in 1990 to either American Experiment or the Family Council, though some on the right have been known to accuse the Citizens League and the Humphrey Institute at the University of Minnesota of being guilty. The former, however, has always striven to be exquisitely non-ideological, and as an academic component of a major research university, the latter is simply of a different genus.

But five years ago, a group of big-time community leaders, including MinnPost founder Joel Kramer, created Growth & Justice, a “progressive” think tank. Earlier this year, Matt Entenza, a former DFL leader of the Minnesota House, founded MN 2020, which describes itself as a “progressive, nonpartisan think tank,” focusing on “what really matters for the future of our state.” And as a rival to conservative talk radio, Air America Minnesota (950 AM) remains aloft despite rocky moments.


What’s the impact?
What might be made of this increasingly dense public policy infrastructure? Let me suggest a few quick thoughts.

· It’s easy to assume that the rise of ideologically animated organizations has been a prime cause of what many people condemn as increasing rigidity and nastiness in politics, both nationally and here. If you put aside the equally plausible explanation that rough and divisive politics has encouraged the creation of groups with combative points of view, it needs to be understood that it’s principally the job of elected officials to seek common ground by melding disparate beliefs; it’s not necessarily the job of advocacy groups, which are driven to hit grand slams rather than play friendly games of catch.

At any rate, exactly when has politics not been a barbed business loaded with stubborn personalities? A quarter-century ago next month, for example, Gov. Al Quie, in his farewell speech, lamented what he then saw as the hunkering down of too many Minnesota politicians in “ideological bunkers.”

· That said, it’s fair to describe some policy organizations as amiable “good cops” and others as in-your-face “bad cops.” American Experiment, I would argue, is a good cop. Of course we seek to be crisp and provocative, as there is little reason for us to exist otherwise. But we likewise aim to be civil, even gracious, and we hardly ever question the motives of anyone. On the other hand, given that growling at the merest scent of a tax increase is in its very DNA (I say this with affection), the Taxpayers League has been known to be viewed differently.

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American Experiment’s stylistic counterpart on the left is Growth & Justice, now led by my old colleague from the St. Paul Pioneer Press, the thoughtful and fair Dane Smith. But has anyone noticed what MN 2020 recently said of conservatives — not just some conservatives with whom they had a particular beef, but evidently all of them?

While “progressives,” the organization said in a post, “want to help children get the education they deserve … conservatives would throw students overboard to save a few pennies on their taxes.” Such is the “heartless, ugly truth about conservative thought,” the writer concluded. I can’t recall the Taxpayers League ever saying anything as rotten about liberals as a whole category of humanity. (Then, again, I might be wrong.)

To the extent, by the way, that the creation of Growth & Justice and MN 2020, as well as national left-of-center groups like the Center for American Progress, are responses to places such as American Experiment in the Twin Cities and the Heritage Foundation, Cato Institute, and American Enterprise Institute in Washington, my colleagues and I in the vast right-wing conspiracy are terrifically proud and we extend warm welcomes.

What might be suggested by all this? Here’s a one-sentence, ecumenical claim that also takes account of revved-up public events in recent years sponsored by the Citizens League and Humphrey Institute, as well as those held by other still relatively young, subject-specific organizations like the Citizens’ Council on Health Care and 1000 Friends of Minnesota, an environmentally attuned land-use organization:

For all the jabbing and sometimes jabberwocky, Minnesota’s policy world has never been richer.

Mitch Pearlstein is founder and president of Center of the American Experiment in Minneapolis.

Want to add your voice?

If you’re interested in joining the discussion by writing a Community Voices article, email Don Effenberger at deffenberger [at] minnpost [dot] com.