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‘Successful society’: The legacy of Minnesota’s Republican moderates

About 30 years ago, Neil R. Pearce, a leading national expert on comparative state government, raised goose pimples on proudly progressive Minnesotans when he wrote a glowing testimonial in an authoritative reference work on the 50 states, “The Book of America.”

“Search America from sea to sea,” wrote Pearce and co-author Jerry Hagstrom, “and you will not find a state that has offered as close a model to the ideal of a successful society as Minnesota.”

The book followed the publication in 1973 of a Time cover story that extolled Minnesota as the “The State that Works”; the magazine pictured DFL Gov. Wendell Anderson on the cover.

Democrats and Farmer-Laborites preceding and following Anderson, such as Hubert H. Humphrey and Floyd B. Olson, with all their liberal reforms and expansive government programs, did in fact have a major impact on Minnesota’s communitarian and distinctively progressive character. But often overlooked is the fact that progressive-to-moderate Republicans governed Minnesota for 22 of the 32 years before the Time article and for most of Minnesota’s history before that. As late as the 1990s, Minnesota was governed by a Republican chief executive who could best be described as a fiscal moderate and a liberal on social issues, Arne Carlson.

An important, lasting influence
The influence of these Republicans is important and lasting and it will be explored at a symposium sponsored by Growth & Justice on Sept. 3, during the Republican National Convention. Former Govs. Carlson and Al Quie and U.S. Rep. Jim Ramstad will be featured speakers.

Today’s more conservative Republican Party defines itself around vaguely anti-government and specific anti-tax themes. At both the federal and state level, tax cuts on the revenue side and either borrowing or program-cutting has prevailed.  Conservatives often mock the environmental movement or offer only token support, and they are not generally viewed favorably by leaders of racial minorities or other marginalized groups. And on other social issues, conservatives have been opposed to abortion rights and gay rights.

What a difference, not so long ago.    

In the late 1960s, under Gov. Harold LeVander, Minnesota Republican Party officials publicly boasted about their governor’s “educational investment” (now often dismissed as spending on a “black hole”) that “by itself more than equals the state budget for all purposes just four years ago.” This included a whopping 379 percent increase in community-college funding.

A scolding of naysayers
In the early 1950s, Gov. Luther Youngdahl took on stingy critics of his major increases in appropriations for education, domestic or “family” courts and mental-institution reforms, scolding the naysayers for “placing first and primary emphasis on dollars rather than human values.”

And then there was Gov. Elmer L. Andersen, a corporate executive no less, who proudly called himself a “liberal.” Elected in 1960, he pushed for higher-education improvements, advanced the cause of civil rights on various fronts, led the effort to set aside thousands of acres for wilderness protections, and embraced the idea of government “as the way we do things together.”

Rather than attempt to undo the greatly expanded  investments in education and economic security enacted by Democratic  President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Farmer-Labor Gov. Floyd B. Olson, these leaders and their national counterparts accepted the New Deal and tried to make it work better. They liked the idea of a reasonably activist government, trying new things to advance “progress.” And they interpreted progress as expanding prosperity and realizing the full human potential of all citizens, not just protecting the property rights and income of the ownership class.

They were skilled performers, too
But they were also skilled mechanics when it came to government performance. Gov. Harold Stassen, the first and best known of the group on the national stage, and a liberal on the international stage who helped found the United Nations, brought in civil-service reforms, and cleaned up corruption in state government. All of these leaders had reputations for personal integrity, rigorous adherence to “good-government” principles of accountability and efficiency and modernization.

Their influence extended beyond the 1970s. Although arguably more conservative than these Republicans who preceded him, Gov. Al Quie was not an early backer of Ronald Reagan, the modern-day spiritual father of Republican conservatism, who announced in his inauguration that “government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” A lifelong proponent of public education, when Quie faced a monumental budget crisis in the early 1980s, he agreed to a temporary income-tax surcharge.

An even more stellar example of a Republican moderate was Carlson, who dominated state politics and policy in the 1990s. He, too, agreed to a revenue increase to address a budget crisis, and worked with DFLers to produce landmark legislation providing health-care coverage to working families. This program was later dismissed by conservatives as “welfare health-care.”

Although moderates have been overwhelmed and driven out by anti-tax, anti-government, and social-issue conservatives in the Republican Party, some of these centrists are actually still in office. Among the most successful and popular in this tradition has been U.S. Rep. Jim Ramstad, who is retiring from Congress this year.  Ramstad, in the tradition of Youngdahl, worked tirelessly with the late U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone to expand federal medical benefits for those with mental-health and addiction problems.

Economy outperformed the nation’s
To be sure, these progressive Republicans also were often hard-headed, practical cost-cutters who advanced the cause of free markets, lower business taxes, and smaller government spending than their Democratic adversaries. Gov. Carlson unfailingly articulated the idea of government “living within its means” and was enormously popular with business leaders. Despite an official “Price of Government” that was relatively high under Carlson, and tax rankings that put Minnesota near the top five states,  Minnesota’s economy outperformed the nation’s during the 1990s and dramatically overachieved compared to low-tax, Midwestern states.

This progressive strain prevailed until a decade ago, when a far more conservative brand of Republicans dominated the Legislature. With Independence Party Gov. Jesse Ventura in control, they imposed record income tax cuts. In the ensuing budget shortfalls, a “no new taxes” religion took hold, and a government-slashing and rebate mentality prevailed. Minnesota’s total revenues as a percentage of personal income are at their lowest level in decades, and, interestingly, the state’s economy is underperforming the nation’s for the first time in decades.

Firm foundation nourishes growth
We would submit that the earlier brand of Republicanism was better for Minnesota in the long run. It reflected a maturity and sense of balance. These leaders understood how a foundation of public investment in human capital and infrastructure — in education, transportation, health-care and environmental sustainability — would nourish and stimulate economic growth and prosperity for all citizens, not just a few.

Summing this attitude up, toward the end of a life that also included remarkable contributions to humanitarian and community causes, Elmer L. Andersen had this to say about that governmental role:

“I have often defended government against uninformed claims that it is wasteful or that its work is insignificant. But I am still a Republican. I believe government’s role should be limited. People need to do what they can for themselves. But government should do things for people that they cannot do, or cannot do as well, for themselves.”

Dane Smith is the president of Growth & Justice, a nonpartisan think tank that conducts policy research on tax, budget and economic issues. Russell Fridley is the former director of the Minnesota Historical Society.

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Comments (8)

  1. Submitted by Craig Westover on 08/25/2008 - 02:16 pm.

    The key question left unanswered in this piece is, “Have all these progressive programs made people better off?” Relative to white students, are students of color better off today than they were before the progressive reforms of the 1960s? Are families of color more stable today than they were before the progressive reforms of the 1960s? Is crime, especially among urban youth on the rise or decline? The deterioration that progressives like to lament is not a function of declining dollars – gross spending on education, health and human services and the like has risen steadily. As Dane pointed out in a previous piece, in percentage terms the “cost of government” has remained relatively stable over the past decade. The relevant variable is the content of progressive programs. An honest appraisal would include the possibility (or the conclusion) that progressive programs simply have not achieved the objectives used to justify them.

    My question is, “Is the progressive agenda about generating revenue for government or actually making life better for real people?

  2. Submitted by Ed Day on 08/26/2008 - 01:48 am.

    A cost of government that probably wasn’t as prevalent is tax increment financing and other sweetheart deals to move businesses from one municipality to another. Like a St. Paul company that is enticed to move to Woodbury at a cost to taxpayers, or when Mayor Norm Coleman got Lawson to move from Minneapolis to St. Paul. In both cases, the net job gain was zero.

    Since the 1960s, passive or nonexistent government policy has allowed developers to build cheap, large, utilitarian but cookie cutter homes in the ever-expanding suburbs (and then exurbs) to encourage white flight from the inner cities — leaving only the people who need the progressive services the most stuck in bad areas. This has also come at a cost to the taxpayer in terms of sewer services and roads since the 1960s.

    The families of color left behind (in part because informal housing discrimination lasted into the 1980s) are now in areas of concentrated poverty (along with poor folks of other creeds and races) whose children attend underfunded schools (because the per-pupil general education funding follows each student like a voucher program would) are now living in conditions that are favorable for criminal activity.

    An honest appraisal of progressive initiatives would indicate that they did not occur in a vacuum.

  3. Submitted by Tom Trisko on 08/26/2008 - 01:32 pm.

    This article is a public service to Minnesota and its Republican Party. I hope today’s “Business Republicans” will read it and learn about their predecessors’ magnificent contributions to our state. (These predecessors include not only politicians, but business person citizens and their spouses with names like Pillsbury, Dayton, Bakken, Bell, and many others). I hope it will inspire them to become more active in their party and return it to being the positive force it once was.

    Joining and revitalizing the Citizens League would be another good place to start. The CL study groups in the 1960-1980 period were the place where citizen Republicans, Democrats and independents met to study and think about public policies in a non-partisan, “can-do” atmosphere. Their innovative reports containing creative ideas for solving or heading off emerging public problems, or creating new opportunities, were frequently enacted by the Legislature in nearly verbatim form. This creative study and dialogue process was the spark plug of Minnesota’s economic and social success in the late Twentieth Century as described in the MinnPost article.

  4. Submitted by Ann Spencer on 08/26/2008 - 04:01 pm.

    Thanks for the great article. I would add former Senator Dave Durenberger to your pantheon of moderate Republicans. Almost thirty years ago, he sounded the alram about both the looming health care crisis and the tremendous strain on the Social Security and Medicare systems that an aging population would bring. Unfortunately, not enough people listened. A policy wonk in the best sense, he regularly put principle above politics.

  5. Submitted by Phyllis Stenerson on 08/25/2008 - 09:14 am.

    Thanks for validating my memory of the previous generation of Minnesota Republicans. I’ve sided with Democrats for 30+ years but had (mostly) positive opinions of Republican leadership and appreciated (mostly) their role in providing balance. This current crop of so-called conservative Republicans disgrace Minnesota and American politics and have done tremendous damage to the state and the nation. My plea to reasonable, moderate, progressive Republicans: come back to help find solutions to the real problems of real people.

  6. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 08/28/2008 - 11:50 am.

    Mr. Westover’s (largely ignored) question becomes especially prescient when applied to the public school system.

    Today, the public schools of Minneapolis and St. Paul spend more than $12,000 per pupil, per year. Indeed, our public schools consume more than 40% of our state budget. The return on that generous investment?

    Graduation rates of just over 50%.

    And who are these kids that are being sent forth from our schools without a diploma? Overwhelmingly they are the progeny of the recipients of this state’s liberal public largess.

    It takes no great feat of intellectual prowess to praise “progressive” people and projects past, especially in this venue, but I would argue that the true test of success or failure lies in the result that stands before us today.

    I would further argue that the result we are presented with does not bear out the author’s grandiose recollection of our state’s liberal past, nor does it recommend a liberal future.

  7. Submitted by John Olson on 08/27/2008 - 07:21 am.

    Yes, it was a different time and was less contentious compared to today. One difference was that both parties had a significant number of members who still had real jobs outside of the legislature. As the end of May approached, leadership recognized that they had to come to agreement so their members could get back to their jobs.

    In addition to the moderate Republicans, there was also a small group of thoughtful, more moderate DFLers in that era who were an important part of the process. John Brandl (who recently passed away) was an important player in many tax and fiscal issues, for instance. And that influence was frequently exerted quietly and behind the scenes in a respectful and dignified manner.

    Today’s legislature has a significant number of folks who are full-time legislators and have little or no “real world” experience. There is no incentive for them to get done on time anymore because they can drag their collective feet while continuing to collect their per diem and be on the six o’clock news. The idea of a “citizen legislature” has become an oxymoron.

  8. Submitted by Karen Sandness on 09/01/2008 - 12:08 am.

    I’m another middle-aged Minnesotan who remembers the days of moderate Republicans and how the state seemed to be well-run no matter who was in charge.

    As far as achievement levels of black students are concerned, some younger or more recently arrived posters here may not realize that until the mid 1960s, the Twin Cities had an unusually small percentage of African-Americans for its size. You can’t make a meaningful comparison between black student achievement in the 1950s and now because the population has changed so much.

    Right-wing Republicans love to blame the decline in educational achievement on “government,” and yet, Minnesota’s schools have always been overwhelmingly government sponsored. The high-achieving schools of Europe, Japan, and Korea are also overwhelmingly government-run.

    Returning to Minnesota after a 19-year absence, I see a state that has deteriorated in many respects, and as I analyze the situation, I have to conclude that the influx of Sun Belt conservatives, with their contempt for everyone who isn’t a white, middle-class suburbanite, has been the single most poisonous influence on the political and social life of this state.

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