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This election season we need a different kind of conversation

David Mann

Since making Minnesota my home in 1987, I’ve come to appreciate many of the values that are shared by people across this state. While we’re in a heat wave now, we all know Minnesota winters are harsh. And when we see a car stuck in the snow we help dig it out. It doesn’t matter what color the driver’s skin is. We don’t first ask where the person lives, or whether they are an immigrant, or how they worship. We just know everyone deserves help to get their car moving. We also know that the next time it could be us that gets stuck, or needs help in some other way, and that we are all in this life together.

But as the legislative session ended and the election season ratchets up, those values haven’t been on display much. In fact, the gridlock and scapegoating is enough to make many Minnesotans want to tune out and lose faith in our government — which, unfortunately, may well be the point.

Much has been made of the Legislature’s inability to reach a “compromise” with Gov. Mark Dayton. But political dysfunction in Minnesota — as in other parts of the country — has a much more basic cause: We’re having the wrong conversation.

The biggest debates this session revolved around tax revenue and budget investments — often discussed in dollars-and-cents language that feels remote from the day-to-day concerns we face as Minnesotans.

In this together

I’d like to suggest that’s the wrong place to start. It’s not that budget details don’t matter; of course they do. But it’s far too easy to get lost in the details and forget that we’re all in this together. Because our government can and should be a vehicle for collective decision-making about how to live well together, we should start by talking about what we care about and how we get there.

It turns out, when you start there, you find that black, brown and white Minnesotans across the state share quite a lot in common. We want to see our kids succeed in school and life, we want to grow old with dignity, we want to have meaningful work that enables us not just to survive, but to flourish.

I’ve also found that — at least outside the corridors of the Capitol building — Minnesotans actually care about caring for each other. While I’ve worked for progressive causes for more than 40 years, I’ve found that the most powerful and enduring values aren’t actually left or right, they’re human.

But too often, in this hyperpartisan environment, our hackles go up when we look at the budget numbers or step into the voting booth. We seem quick to forget everything we believed just a few minutes before. We were happy to shovel that neighbor’s car out, but now we are wondering if they might be Muslim, or if they’re to blame for being stuck in the first place, or if they are living here without papers. Now we’re not so sure that we are all in this together and instead we are more focused on making sure we get ours.

A cynical strategy

Those suspicions aren’t there by accident. Some politicians have decided that the best way to win elections — and deliver results to their wealthy corporate backers — is by pitting Minnesotans against each other. It’s a cynical strategy aimed at making us forget our shared humanity. And it’s key to rigging our economy to benefit the greedy few.

If we follow our curiosity, instead of our fear, we find that Minnesotans — white, brown and black, citizens and immigrants, from all corners of the state — have far more in common than we have dividing us. More than that, we need each other. Every human being has something unique to contribute, and we all do better when we work together to find solutions.

As we head into this election, when we’re sure to be inundated by millions of dollars worth of television ads from wealthy out-of-state donors who want to drive the conversation in Minnesota, I’m going to be keeping my eye on the conversations that matter. My sense is that despite — or perhaps because of — the gridlock in St. Paul and the vitriol coming in Washington, more and more Minnesotans are getting involved in politics for the first time. It’s an opening to have a different kind of conversation, one about what we value and what we need. It’s time to start listening.

David Mann, Senior Fellow with the Grassroots Policy Project, consults with organizations working to change the public conversations that shape the parameters of public life here in Minnesota. 

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