Nonprofit, independent journalism. Supported by readers.


From a state that works to shutdown: What changed in Minnesota politics?

The big change is the collapse of the moderate Republicanism from the 1930s (think Harold Stassen) to the Arne Carlson years and its replacement by the Tim Pawlenty-Tom Emmer-Tony Sutton version of today.Related: Dayton outlines what’s at

Left to right: Harold Stassen, Tim Pawlenty and Tony Sutton
Minnesota Historical Society/Reuters/Jay Weiner
Left to right: Harold Stassen, Tim Pawlenty and Tony Sutton

Most states face basically similar fiscal challenges, and several face similar splits between parties across branches. But only one has shut down its government.

Minnesota is also the only state going through a second shutdown within the decade. The previous shutdown, in 2005, lasted just nine days. This one is up to Day 7, and we’ll see. The breakthrough, when it comes, will probably come quite suddenly, just when things seem hopelessly stuck. But, at the moment, hopelessly stuck is exactly how things seem.

Why is this happening to us?

Several national newsies have noted that Minnesota in 1973 was labeled “A State That Works” in a legendary 1973 Time cover story. Now, they imply (or flatly state) that ours is a state mostly known for its political dysfunction.

Article continues after advertisement

Here’s the Politico piece, headlined “Minnesota nice turns nasty,” that originally set me off on what has become this post (although others like it are appearing). After setting up a fairy story in which Minnesota of yore was “the kind of place that sent poets to the Senate [that would be Eugene McCarthy] and produced politicians with nicknames like ‘The Happy Warrior’ [that would be Hubert Humphrey]” Politico explains how we are now viewed:

Sen. Al Franken
REUTERS/Rich Clement
Sen. Al Franken

“The state is now known for its political gridlock, the kind of place that sends a professional wrestler [Jesse Ventura] to the governor’s mansion and produces politicians [Al Franken] who write books such as “’Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot.’”

I’d be surprised if this was true, or if Politico’s James Hohmann has any evidence that this is what Minnesota is “now known for.” But let’s be reasonable and assume that what Hohmann (who, I should mention, grew up in Apple Valley) meant to do was identify the changes in Minnesota politics and government that explain the movement from the halcyon ’70s to the current shutdown.

Sorry, but if one is trying to think clearly about the differences between then and now in ways that will explain the current shutdown, Franken and Ventura aren’t even in the top 20 factors. Furthermore, it has little to do with “nasty” and “nice.” In fact, Minnesota is still way above average in the civility and cleanliness of its politics. It may not feel like it right now, but try spending some time in another state.

Some journalists are so caught up in the urgency of the balanced frame, even if the balance is a phony one, that they can’t bring themselves to notice the biggest thing that has changed:

It’s Minnesota Republicanism, or, more bluntly, the collapse of the moderate Republicanism that dominated the state party from the 1930s (think Harold Stassen) to the Arne Carlson years (he left office in January of 1999) and its replacement by the current Tim Pawlenty-Tom Emmer-Tony Sutton, no-new-taxes, compromise-is-evil version that prevails today.

That last paragraph surely can and will be taken as DFL whoredom by some. But I mean it as historical analysis.

Historically, Minnesota has long had liberal DFLers who were willing (Republicans might say anxious) to raise taxes, especially progressive taxes, to pay for the good things that they believe government can do — for education, for economic development, for quality of life for the middle class and to help the poor and the sick be a little less poor and sick. That formula, I should note, has helped a create a state with high taxes, a big government, high test scores, a high to ridiculously high spot in countless quality-of-life rankings and tremendously prosperous state relative to the rest of the country.

If we are looking for something that has fundamentally changed in Minnesota that brought about the shutdown, it would not be the ideological orientation of the DFL.

Article continues after advertisement

Gov. Mark Dayton
MinnPost/James Nord
Gov. Mark Dayton

Mark Dayton is not substantially more liberal than Hubert Humphrey, Walter Mondale, Paul Wellstone or Wendell Anderson, most of whom have been his friends and/or mentors. Dayton’s own oft-cited and revered role model is Rudy Perpich, the most pro-jobs, pro-business DFL leader of recent decades.

Running on a slogan of “tax the rich” may have made Dayton look loony-left to some eyes — especially eyes that look from the right — in these taxaphobic times. But really, although most modern Dems might not like to hear it put so bluntly, a willingness to tax the rich to pay for programs to help the poor is pretty near the essence of U.S. liberalism since FDR.

Minnesota Republicans were, to a significant degree, important partners in the progress of the state over recent decades, winning many high offices, generally arguing for lower taxes and less government — at least compared with what some DFLers proposed. And they have often won the argument, at least at the ballot box.

Another erroneous element that creeps into the national portrayal of Minnesota is that our electorate undergone a big recent swing to the Republican side. The national politics crowd — which thinks of us as a solid blue state, because of the Humphrey-Mondale period and because we have been solid blue presidential elections since 1976 — might be surprised to know that since the late 1970s, Republicans have won most of the gubernatorial elections and most of the U.S. Senate races.

The fact that the DFL now controls the guv’s office and both Senate seats (and all statewide constitutional offices) is a rarity in recent history and renders silly the idea of a big recent redward swing.

But the one big Repub breakthrough of recent years was the unexpected (and unprecedented in recent history) 2010 capture of majorities in both houses of the Legislature.

The idea that Minnesota has gridlock because we have had several close elections (it’s a recurrent theme in these national whatever-happened-to-Minnesota pieces that we had an epic recount in the 2008 Senate election and a briefer recount but a very close race for governor in 2010) also doesn’t bear much analytical weight.

A closely divided electorate is not the definition of polarization — if the two parties can compromise their differences and work together as opposition parties have done throughout democratic history. The recipe for gridlock — or shutdown — has two key ingredients.

1. The division of political power between the parties is sufficiently close that neither party can ram through their program.

Article continues after advertisement

2. The two parties are far apart on core issues about which they feel so strongly that they have trouble making trades or splitting the differences.

It may be true that a closely divided electorate contributes to gridlock if it gives each side the feeling that they must hyperpartisanize everything in hopes of gaining a “win” or an edge heading into the next election. The Repub decision to push for voter ID seems to be in this category, since Repubs believe (but never acknowledge) that it will help them win future elections by suppressing the DFL vote.

But before we leave the question of how much the “closely-divided” angle contributes to the gridlock, let me make one simple point. If Tom Emmer had received just 9,100 more votes, out of more than 2 million cast, he would have become governor by an even smaller winning margin than Dayton’s. Our electorate would appear even more closely divided. But we would not have a government shutdown. We would be going through a different agony, the nature and details of which are visible right across the border in Wisconsin. It would be full-scale partisan and ideological warfare. It would be the enactment of the full Repub wish list. But it would not be gridlock.

So, what has changed and what has produced the shutdown/gridlock?

Arne Carlson
Arne Carlson

I’ve already given away what I believe about that. The Republican governors, from Stassen through Carlson, were mostly moderates and mostly dealmakers. They differed from the DFL Legislatures of their times, but they generally resolved their differences by compromise.

At some point, in the Goldwater to Reagan to Bush to post-Bush period, the fundamental approach shifted to a more rigid anti-tax approach and an increasing hostility to compromise. I gather many conservatives came to the conclusion that compromising with Democrats would never bring about the fundamental reversal that they seek in the growth of government and of taxes.

Minnesota’s Repub Chair Tony Sutton circulated a letter (to the news media no less) arguing that for anti-tax conservatives to split their differences with pro-tax liberals is “a compromise of good and evil.”

At the national level, congressional Republican are taking a similar posture in negotiations over a mutli-trillion-dollar deficit reduction and debt-ceiling package.

Some Republicans will argue back against the idea that they are the side that is refusing to compromise. They say they are willing to be flexible on a lot of things — just not new taxes. But, according to the normal concept of compromise,  Dayton has already offered to come more than halfway from his original position on taxes to the point that he seems ready to settle for a token amount of new taxes. Repubs say none.

Article continues after advertisement

The reason we have a shutdown is because the new brand of Minnesota Republican believes in something so strongly that they would rather have a shutdown than a compromise.