Congratulations to the Center of the American Experiment, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary this summer, and to Mitch Pearlstein, its founder and president.
I recently had a great chat with Pearlstein about his love affair with the Twin Cities and his experience running a conservative think tank in this (generally) liberal place.
Pearlstein, a kid from Queens (the New York borough), drove cross-country with some friends during a college summer and came through the Twin Cities for the first time.
“I just loved the place, and I still do,” he told me, and so he started looking for an opportunity to make a life here. He first moved here in 1974, as part of the retinue of C. Peter Magrath, who had just been named president of the University of Minnesota.
“If I had to come up with a couple of adjectives to describe what attracted me to the place, I would describe it as ‘measured’ and ‘less crazy,’’ Pearlstein said. True, “less crazy” is not technically an adjective, and it prompts the question: Less crazy than what? Pearlstein explained: “There was something about the whole East Coast that I wanted to get away from.” (I am also a native of the East Coast megalopolis, and I know what he means and I feel the same way.)
After working for Magrath and then for the Pioneer Press (as an editorial writer), Pearlstein had an opportunity to go to Washington (which had also been on his bucket list) and work on education policy, a major interest (still is). But …
“Once I got to Washington, which was an experience I had thought I really wanted to have, almost right away I missed the Twin Cities and started thinking about how to get back here.” His plan: start raising funds and creating the infrastructure for a conservative free-market think tank based in the Twin Cities. It took him two years, but when he was able to move back here “it was like coming home.”
He is weirdly enamored of the fact that we are in the smack middle of the United States (at least on the east-west axis). “It feels good being surrounded by my country,” he says.
Civility in Minnesota
When I press him for qualities (other than “measured”) he likes about Minnesota, he started talking about the deep strain of civility: “There’s something to the idea of civility here. Sure, politicians certainly know how to beat the crap out of each other when they are running against each other, but the quality of the beating is more substantive and not as ‘vicious’ as it is in some other places we could think of.” For example, Pearlstein said: He can’t imagine a Minnesota paper that would descend to the rudeness level of New York Post headlines. And if one did, Minnesotans would reject it.
Not long after CAE launched, he recalled, he organized a large conference on homelessness and welfare-reform featuring some nationally prominent conservative thought leaders on those topics, including an NYU professor named Larry Mead. Many of the out-of-town guest speakers agreed to come for free, Pearlstein said, because they didn’t believe a right-leaning think could pull off such an event in Minneapolis (or, perhaps, they thought they could say yes and not have to show up).
Afterward Mead marveled at the way he was received while expressing righty views in such a liberal town. “In New York I would have been pelted with fruit,” he told Pearlstein.
Pearlstein also suggests that Minnesota is not quite as liberal as its reputation. Republicans win lots of big statewide elections (fewer recently, but during the 1980s and ’90s, this was most definitely true). But, Pearlstein conceded: “I do recognize that, everything else being equal, a Democrat is usually gonna win here.”
But there are plenty of smart, thoughtful conservatives here to keep the center going. “When I was laying the groundwork to start the center, I was totally confident that there were more than enough people here who would like to read the kinds of things that we would produce and like to hear the kinds of speakers that we would be presenting,” Pearlstein said. “We sold out the Civic Center for Margaret Thatcher. Some people here go absolutely batty crazy for Charles Krauthammer, who we’ve had here to speak more than once.”
I asked him how conservatives deal with the fact that Minnesota adopts so many policies that conservatives suggest should be inconsistent with producing prosperity, low unemployment and so on but gets such good results. His reply began:
“On the surface, it does look like conservatives are in a bind on that one. But we believe that we [Minnesota] might be even better off if we had lower taxes. Those on the right tend to think so. Personally, do I believe that, over time and on average, lower taxes lead to higher growth? On balance, I absolutely do.
“Do I believe that a lot of folks on the left are oblivious to the fact that Minnesota being an outlier on the estate tax is leading — absolutely is leading — to the departure of a lot of folks who might be called deep-pocketed, the folks we also call the donor class. I absolutely do.
“Go out and speak to some financial advisers right now about how often people are coming to them, people of high net worth, and saying, ‘I don’t want such a large portion of my estate to go to the government. I want it to go to my kids or to charity.’ And they are making sure that they’re out of Minnesota every year for six months and a day.
“There are a lot of people, and maybe most of them are Republicans, who choose to believe that they ought to have first dibs on their own money. Democrats generally think that government has a stronger claim to those dollars than Republicans tend to think.”
“I’m not trashing our economy or anything about this state. But do I believe life in Minnesota would go to hell if we lowered taxes? I definitely do not.”