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Our political conversation is going the wrong way

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

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
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.

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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Comments (8)

  1. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 12/17/2013 - 08:42 am.

    I agree

    with your accurate yet vague generalizations. What your piece needs is a real example of this “better way” where the principles and ideology of the ruling majority played no role in governance.

    Partisanship is a good thing. Expressing a difference of opinion about how we should be governed is what differentiates us from the tyranny of totalitarian states.

    But you’re right. Instead of debating the relative merits of individualism versus collectivism, or a free society versus a managed society, conservatives see liberals as stupid and they see us as evil. I blame a public education system, delivered by unionists, that indoctrinates young learners into only one side of the argument.

    Maybe we could start there.

  2. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 12/17/2013 - 09:04 am.

    It’s a pretty false division that you set up.

    As a “liberal leftist” it is a laughable assumption on your part that I would see government as an unalloyed force for good. There have been too many misdeeds and mistakes and some downright criminal acts for the government to be seen as that.

    And I know that throwing money at a problem does not make the problem go away, especially when there is no real understanding on the cause of the problem.

    But, I also recognize that government has a singular facility that few other institutions have–the ability to concentrate power and wealth, or disrupt the concentration of power and wealth.

    And that is the crux of the difference between “liberal” and “conservative”.

    The liberal believes that there is an important role to be played by government in assuring equity.

    Conservatives say, “winners are winners, and losers are losers”, and government has little role in trying to remedy that.

    And that gap is where conversation and solution-finding fails–doing something or doing nothing.

  3. Submitted by Tim Gieseke on 12/17/2013 - 09:57 am.

    A Governance Compass

    Which direction our governance is heading and then knowing this direction is important. For Dennis Tester, I will add a real world example of how to find a better way. First, governance is so much bigger than government – we need to embrace that. Second, we need to recognize the governance sectors of public policy-maker, public practitioner, private policy-maker and private practitioner. As Sean mentions the numerous educational outcomes – these are delivered by differing governance sectors.
    Third -the example. I applied the governance compass to address agriculture watershed issues and tapped into the capacity, funds, expertise and respect of each of the four sectors. Government has a hard time accepting that their 21st century piece of the governance pie is a bit smaller than their comfortable 20th century governance pie.

    Once we became really connected about 3 years ago, the governance shift began its natural progression. Three years is about a second in government time and an eternity in the private sector. It time we sat down to discuss governance over a cup of coffee and a piece of pie.

  4. Submitted by Eric Snyder on 12/17/2013 - 12:11 pm.

    Kershaw’s intention is commendable, but he might want to rethink

    The ‘sooner we accept reality,’ indeed, the better off we’ll be. Agreed.

    I see several problems though with Kershaw’s analysis.

    First is his implication that we have two political extremes that are more or less equally to blame. This claim has questionable validity. Although fairly commonly heard, the assertion that “both sides are equally to blame in their polarizing ideological commitments” seems to originate in a noble desire to mend fences and initiate dialogue, not in a more serious analysis.

    Political scientists Keith Poole and Howard Rosenthal have analyzed political polarization using data going back more than 100 years. Quoting from the article (linked after the quote):

    “It is true that the Republicans have moved further to the right than the Democrats have moved to the left. That’s absolutely true.

    “On the other hand, there doesn’t seem to be much impetus on the part of the leadership of either political party to really do something serious about our budget crisis. I doubt very seriously we’ll see much improvement.

    “People forget how utterly irresponsible our political leadership has been for the last 30 years. … The current political class of the U.S. just isn’t in the same league as Truman and Eisenhower and Adlai Stevenson. You just don’t have that kind of leadership now, just when we need it.”

    Second, he appears to attribute economic disparities and problems in health (outcomes) to over-reliance on government. However, this defies everything that is likely known about the roots of these problems. Poor American health outcomes have various roots: Our country’s awful commercialized junk food culture, overwork and stress, poverty, lack of affordable health insurance (arguably kept that way by profiteering and inefficient insurance companies–two of whose representatives, by the way, sit on the board of the organization he runs), poor quality food choices in the public schools, and more. Inequality in this country? I wonder how Kershaw explains the lower wealth and income inequality of many European countries relative to the US, not to mention health outcomes.

    Third, how do we deal with the fact that large numbers of Americans have difficulty in accepting various realities, which in turn no doubt contributes substantially to our political divide? In other words, why should we assume that the best explanation for political division is located in our divisive politics and not public ignorance? Take climate change. A majority of Republicans, according to a recent Pew survey, doubt that humans are largely responsible for our changing climate.

    There’s no longer any serious debate about climate change, and yet not only do many Republicans reject the science, they actually think climate change is a hoax by a margin of 58-25. Thousands of scientists, journalists, professors, academic journals, scientific bodies are all working in collusion to pull a hoax on the public? What this belief implies about the thinking ability of those who hold it is profoundly concerning.

    What if much of our political polarization comes down not to ideological division but to refusal to accept reality? How much is the bias against disconfirming evidence the real culprit here? Is same sex marriage simply an act of justice or a fundamental threat to “the family” and civilization? Does abstinence only sex education actually produce the results it claims that it does? Are green and sustainability initiatives attempts to build systemic resilience in the face of ecological challenges, or are these efforts all part of some United Nations plot to threaten American sovereignty? (
    Does free birth control reduce abortions? (
    Is government standing in the way of innovation and breakthroughs or is the reality something different? (

    If we frame the problem of difficult political dialogue and decision-making as one of ideological rigidity and leave the diagnosis at that, we’re missing a lot. We live in a time in which we’re acquiring more and more reliable knowledge about various phenomena (at the same time we’re realizing our ignorance in other ways). And this fact exists simultaneously with the reality that we don’t live in a culture with high levels of scientific literacy, critical thinking, or ability to adapt and change. Whichever political orientation is best suited to those skills is the one least susceptible to the charge of occupying some “political extreme.” That a political party might be at a philosophical pole tells us less, even far less, than what that pole represents, what it stands for, how it responds to new information, how it learns, etc.

    In summary, although Kershaw is no doubt correct in his somewhat general and vague proposals about how we get our of our current gridlock, I think we need to face reality about the underlying causes of our political gridlock, and that these go well beyond the parties and their philosophical or ideological stances.

    Also, I wonder if he fully appreciates the implications of the changes he’s proposing–specifically “learning organizations”[1] and the “capacity for self-governance.” The underlying social changes these imply could be considerable. We’re looking at everything from changes in education to parenting to new understandings of organization to higher levels of multifaceted human competence in general. The irony is that bringing about these changes might very well incur the same polarization he’s already decrying. Which then raises the question again about how we really define extreme, if we even want to use that term, if the objective changes we need are being resisted more by one political affiliation than another.

    Having said all this I want to express my appreciation for both his ideas and intentions.

    [1] The concept of a “learning organization” has profound implications, does it not? But given how seldom we see it in practice, it seems to imply that we need sweeping educational and social changes to make it a living reality and not have it be merely a set of ideas that will forever remain safely hidden in Senge’s books. Ironically (to repeat myself from above) if we take the full implications for social change implied by the learning organization, I wonder if Kershaw would see those implications as a kind of extreme?

  5. Submitted by Chris Bonnell on 12/17/2013 - 02:48 pm.

    Political Divide

    Sadly, I believe Snyder misses the point in his first few paragraphs. To me it really does not matter which party has tacked the furthest toward their extreme, but that both parties are skewing away from a place where common ground may be found.

    In order to have a constructive dialogue, which should be at the core of public policy, we need to do away with the entrenched labeling, and childish name-calling. It may not be a refusal to accept reality that drives our differences, as maybe a different outlook and world-view. If we sit around the table and have honest, forthright conversations we may find common ground for governance, as Gieseke highlights.

    The idea that our policy allegiances must be all or nothing, is confusing, and a root cause of our current trend where little or nothing gets accomplished. Many conservatives cast a “no” vote on the marriage amendment, and likely played a significant role in the amendments defeat. We also saw signs of a more moderate decorum by liberals during the last legislative session. With solid control of the House, Senate as well as the Governor’s Office, it could have been a united show of force to tax and spend at will. Given three different proposals, of varied amounts, they chose to find common ground; a concept that could work inter-party as well as intra-party.

    Eventually society may well decide that the middle 60% of the political or policy spectrum have more in common with each other, than the fringe 20% on either side. Most moderates, of either party, do not challenge climate change, but may differ on how, and how quickly, it can, or should, be resolved. If one believes there is value in abstinence education, does that equate to being unable to find an acceptable policy solution on the issue, or rather that it is a starting point to the dialogue. There are plenty of critical pieces of scholarly research that also show that distribution of contraception alone, will not address societal issues.

    Finally, I find no value in the statement regarding the make up of the board of the organization that Kershaw heads. It denies the value in differences of opinion, or the ability of anyone to be a critical thinker. The organization in fact, along with many of its members, work to find the common ground that many of us aspire to see our policy leaders emmulate.

    One day, hopefully, the we will begin to tack back toward moderate views, where we accept and embrace differences, and strive to make public policy absent extreme partisanship, and without name-calling and flame-throwing.

  6. Submitted by Eric Snyder on 12/17/2013 - 05:17 pm.

    Reply to Bonnel

    Thank you for your reply, Christ. I’d like to take a few of your points in order.

    1) You claim that both parties are “skewing away from a place where common ground may be found,” thus reiterating Kershaw’s point of a kind of equal responsibility, but refuse to address my critique, in particular the evidence of the link I added for discussion. Do you have anything substantive to add here? It’s very easy to make the claim, coming, as I take you to be, from a sincere desire for finding common ground, that there’s equal blame everywhere. (But is it actually true?) Such generalities tell us very little about how we’ve actually gotten to this place, where the actual fault lines might lie, and thus where it might be best to pursue dialogue. It seems misguided to me to take the cognitive shortcut of assigning equal guilt or ideological rigidity when understanding the nuances of what we’re dealing with might hold some important lessons. It sounds good and charitable to say “Yeah, we’re all equally guilty. Sorry, let’s sit down for a good heart-to-heart at long last,” but if this is not the case, and the political science research article I linked to suggests it not, then what how do we proceed?

    2) Don’t you think that what often underlies different outlooks and, more often in the case of (to use your word) “worldviews” (with its direct implication of irreconcilable differences in what one believes the nature of reality to be, among other things) are precisely disagreements about specific truth claims, and more broadly, about the nature of the universe? Almost half the American public thinks the earth is less than 10,000 years old. Scientifically this is absurd. But, does this then mean we should educate our children into scientific illiteracy just to placate a portion of the population?

    Of course we should seek common ground where we can find it. But what happens when there is none?

    3) I agree that policy allegiances needn’t be “all or nothing.” I never made a claim to the contrary.

    4) Regarding your paragraph “Eventually society…” First, it seems to me that we need to pay a little more scrutiny to the unstated assumptions behind notions like “moderate” and “middle” and to the idea that there are these neat and tidy fringes that are always questionable simply be virtue of the fact that they’ve been labeled “fringe.” (Yet in your second paragraph you call for an end to “entrenched labeling,” but you use such labels throughout your post. We all use labels. Language can be useful that way. Problems arise when language functions to blind us to underlying realities, which are often more messy than language superficially suggests.) Does “moderate” necessarily mean reasonable? Does some imagined “middle” historically have a better track record than other political leaning in terms of solving problems and passing successful legislation? What happens when the “middle” and “moderate” national politicos are the largest recipients of corporate cash? Do we just ignore this? A majority of member of the U.S. House voted for the Iraq resolution (as you may recall), including, presumably more “moderate” Democrats. The “fringe” was in opposition at the time. Where they wrong then? Despite what I understand to be quite a number of unprosecuted crimes on Wall Street going back to before the recession, many “moderates” have resisted investigations.

    Second, it would be great, wouldn’t it, if those “moderate” Republicans at the national level would agree to some reasonable measures on, e.g., climate change? Except, there are very, very few moderates (historically speaking) among the current crop of Republicans at the national level. If that is indeed the case, and much evidence speaks in its favor, isn’t this information relevant? No clichés of hopeful and earnest desire for productive democratic dialogue, as much as many of us would desire it, will likely change that. And here Kershaw is very likely correct about change coming from a more active citizenry. But out here in the hinterlands we have many immoderates in the public as well, and they take action (see my above link above on green legislation).

    5) My statement about the board is highly relevant. It doesn’t deny the “value in differences of opinion” (a non sequitur), or certainly not anyone “to be a critical thinker.” (How could you possibly derive that intention from my statement?) To find my statement irrelevant you would also have to find irrelevant the idea that representatives of corporate interests might have a very decided bias in favor of the industry in which they work, and that this may have relevance for the positions the Citizens League takes. You might also note that its board is heavily weighted with corporate representation. Its largest 2012 contributors are nothing less than a roster of corporate interests. Even in the organization’s mission statement it lists support for charter schools–ventures that have very mixed outcomes, but are also seen by privatization advocates as new profit centers. None of this is relevant to the kinds of phrasings, framings, policy prefrences and potential ideological commitments of the Citizens League? You see nothing here of interest? Where are representatives from labor unions, environmental groups, minority groups, etc., on the board? Or, are they by definition not “moderate,” not capable of finding “middle ground”? You detect nothing of material or theoretical interest here?

  7. Submitted by Jeffrey Peterson on 12/18/2013 - 09:17 am.

    Spirited debate

    Not surprisingly Sean Kershaw’s article promotes a discussion/debate regarding who is the most responsible party for the division – ideological and political- that creates our policy dysfunction.
    The short hand continues to encourage mechanisms and organizations for “building the capacity of all individuals to benefit for their individual benefit and the common good”.
    I would suggest the Citizens League has been and will continue to provide a forum for helping to bridge these divisions, regardless of how one may think fault may be apportioned, to find “common ground for the common good”.
    The Citizens League tries very hard to have broad representation in accepting input for the recommendations on positions taken. If one believes this has not been inclusive enough for certain segments of our community, that can be remedied by active participation by any and all who feel they have bee under represented. There are plenty of opportunities for involvement and everyone is welcome.

  8. Submitted by Chris Bonnell on 12/19/2013 - 11:30 am.


    Thank you for the response, Mr. Snyder, it is an opportunity to analyze differences, and rethink perspectives. I appreciate both the initial column, and your informative responses, as a means of continuing dialogue. I enjoy a good conversation. So as to not stray off point, I have utilized the order you placed my comments in, above.

    1) Yes, I do claim that both parties are “skewing away from a place where common ground may be found,” but view it more as a shared, rather than equal responsibility. I read your critique, and the link you shared. I don’t believe there is any real question as to which political party, at this time, has skewed the farthest from center, but I don’t have to look back very far to see the shift in the opposite direction. In my desire for finding common ground in the development of public policy, I’m not sure that it is real helpful to assign “blame” that one party has skewed further right, than the other has left, or vice versa, we are still not talking and communicating about making formative policy changes that solve problems. I continue to be amazed, both in DC and St. Paul at the number of times public policy is made on strict party line votes. Are our elected officials really that aligned, or are they in fear of their respective party machinery? With few exceptions, the choices for most citizens are determined by a small fraction of voters that participate in the caucus/primary function.

    2) The nature of reality, and I like the term, could be a discussion on to itself. If you believe the earth is a 1,000,000 years old, and I counter that the earth is less than 10,000 years old, how does that change our view(s) on current day issues. I, as I assume with you, tend not believe everything I read, and presume some form of bias regardless of who is presenting information. The age of the earth has never come up in conversations I have been involved in regarding education, heath care, income inequality, job production, and energy. Scientific literacy is vital, but I don’t believe its the only word. I am not threatened by someone’s belief that there can be a balance between science and faith, as to me more information, and the conversations that go along with it, is better than less.

    Where there is no common ground “to the victor goes the spoils.” Eventually decisions must be made and policy enacted. If it comes after real dialogue and a thorough vetting, all the better.

    3) I apologize for inferring disagreement on this point. It was not intended, but in re-reading, I see that it was poorly stated.

    4) Yes, labels are important when used deferentially. To often they are used as a tool to disparage someone’s perspective when it differs from our own. To me “moderate” does mean reasonable, but I respect that it causes concern for others. To me a moderate, but definition means that there has at least been a consideration of the issues, a weighing of perspective, and then taking a policy position, rather than clinging to a platform as being set in stone.

    Yes, it would be great, if moderates of all forms would look at real solutions to policy issues, and even better if they were informed by a more active citizenry. Where you see a lack of moderation among the current crop of Republicans at the national level, I see it lacking on both sides, but we had that conversation in point one.

    5) I disagree with your statements on the board, but would refer you to Mr. Peterson’s comments for your review. Even assuming that its board is heavily weighted with corporate corporate contributions, if you have ever had the opportunity to participate in one of their forums or policy discussion, you would find a cross-section of representation that would like skew toward a young, activist population. Again, charter schools could be a whole different conversation. But thank goodness we are looking at alternatives to solve the educational issues we face in this country and state. The current system is not working. What I see at the Citizens League is individuals not threatened by differences of opinion, who know how to present scientific, factual information. If you have not attended an event, or participated in a policy discussion, I would invite you to do so. You will find a wide range of representatives, a thorough discussion of public policy, and a respectful atmosphere pointed toward solving problems. I am proud to be a member, and financial supporter. I have truly benefitted from the conversations, as I have from this dialogue.

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