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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