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Our political conversation is going the wrong way

The film “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” provides a useful metaphor for our current political drama.

“You’re going the wrong way!”
Paramount Pictures

During this season of glad tidings, let’s pause to celebrate one of the best holiday movies ever: “Planes, Trains and Automobiles.” While our current partisan debate doesn’t provide much in the way of good cheer, this movie provides a useful metaphor for our current political drama, and some welcome comic relief just in case a nasty ideological argument was also served at your holiday party.

Shawn Kershaw
MN2020
Sean Kershaw

John Candy and Steve Martin play Del Griffith and Neal Page, two incredibly incompatible strangers, forced together on their way home for the holidays. In one of many missteps, Del inadvertently drives their rental car the wrong way down the interstate. As they unknowingly barrel straight toward two semi-trucks, ignoring the warning signs and screams from another car that “you’re going the wrong way!” Del and Neal have a hysterical near-death experience.

Our political divide

Minnesotans are barreling straight toward our own demographic “semi-trucks” of slowing labor-force growth and a dramatically older and more diverse society. And in this time of epic partisanship and inability to govern, it’s time to face the facts about our political conversation: It’s going the wrong way.

Our political discussion is increasingly mean because the content of the discussion is increasingly meaningless. The political extremes and gridlock we observe now are not the cause of the problem, but the death throes of two ideological dinosaurs that are ignoring reality and sending us down a dead-end path in policy and politics. Only it’s not funny, because we’re trapped inside the car with them.

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On one extreme is the belief that government is an inherent force for good: a sign of our collective dedication to the “common good,” and the more it spends, the better we are as a society. Just don’t look too closely at the actual ROI on this “investment” in addressing learning or health, or the growing economic disparities by race and income. Minnesota literally can’t afford this path.

On the other extreme is the belief that government is an inherent force for evil: a barrier to individual liberty, and the less it spends, the more we maximize our ability to become healthy, prosperous and educated. Just don’t look too closely at the evidence that communal neglect almost always makes these outcomes and disparities worse. Minnesota depends on better results.

And so we argue around the dinner table and the political roundtable about more or less taxes, regulation, and government services for passive and unhappy taxpayers. Meanwhile, policy outcomes don’t change and we “citizens” become more cynical and alienated.

It’s time we changed course.

Our policy opportunity

In the past generation, our policy challenges have become more complex. Improving education and health and economic growth isn’t just about more or less government spending or regulation, but the role that all individuals and institutions play. The fundamental challenge of the next generation is to build the capacity of all individuals to govern for their individual benefit and the common good, in all the institutions where they spend time.

What does this mean? What policy issue matters most to you? What did you argue about at your holiday party?

For example, you’d conclude from our current debate about education that improving outcomes is only about teachers and unions, or only about poverty and family structure, or only about school leadership and governance, or only about taxes and spending – when it’s about all of these. The fundamentals of learning take place everywhere – in families and workplaces and communities – not just school buildings, and they involve us all.

Education policy needs to switch from silver-bullet approaches that put the burden on someone else to do something differently, to the role we all can and must play. Minnesotans know this is true. Our political conversation and our public policies need to reflect this reality.

The added bonus of this “better way” is that it turns out that it’s also good for democracy. When we redefine public policy to support the roles and opportunities people have  to govern and solve problems everywhere, they become less cynical and alienated. Creating healthy, contributing families, effective communities, productive work places, learning organizations, and the capacity for self-governance is good for policy and good for a vital and just democracy.

Debate remains important, as each ideology has important principles that must be reconciled. But the sooner we accept reality, the faster we’ll change course and get to the policy destinations we all care about.

Del and Neal realized this by the end of the movie. Can we? It’s not too late to reframe the argument about Minnesota’s future. It’s part of our civic legacy. It needs to be part of our civic future.

Sean Kershaw is the executive director of the Citizens League and a member of the Minnesota Active Citizenship Initiative.

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