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John Hinderaker on taking over the Center of the American Experiment: ‘I want to be communicating to millions of Minnesotans’

Hinderaker succeeds Mitch Pearlstein, who founded the Minnesota-based think tank 25 years ago.

John Hinderaker: "Some on the left are holding up Minnesota [as evidence] that the blue state model can still work, is still viable. One thing we can do and will do … is to inform some basic realities about how the state is really performing."
MinnPost photo by Brian Halliday

The focus of the Center of the American Experiment will not change under the direction of its new president, John Hinderaker. 

But the style will. 

Hinderaker succeeds Mitch Pearlstein, who founded the Minneapolis think tank 25 years ago. Hinderaker, who just retired as a law partner at Faegre Baker Daniels, already had a successful sideline as the founder of Power Line, the conservative blog where he and his colleagues launch verbal grenades at such targets as President Barack Obama, Hilary Clinton, Donald Trump, gun control and global warming, and where he will continue to be a contributor. 

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In an interview with MinnPost, Hinderaker explained his plan to make Minnesota, and the world, more aware of the center’s policy initiatives on education, the economy, family, and the environment: 

MinnPost: Does a think tank still have role in the political world today, where the public seems to be less interested in policy and more in venting their anger and frustration? 

John Hinderaker: The center has an absolutely vital role to play here in Minnesota. To start with, politicians in general don’t lead, they follow. And they follow where the voters want to take them. So I think the vital task is much more important than lobbying around the edges. With some laws, the vital task is to communicate with people and to educate people on issues they care about like, for example, the state of Minnesota’s economy, like education. These are things that voters do care about and I think the center as a think tank is really uniquely positioned to communicate substantative facts and ideas to voters. I think ultimately that’s what’s going to change the political philosophical culture in Minnesota.

MP: So you’re confident that voters today are still willing to listen to policy ideas and not simple and simplified solutions?

JH: Sure. I’m not saying every voter is a policy wonk. That’s obviously not true, but as I said before, there are certain issues that people are concerned about, and the economy and education are two. I think one thing that an organization like the center can do, that political organizations are not good at doing, is to disseminate information to Minnesotans. For example, I think people believe that our economy is doing much better than it actually is, relative to other states. Some on the left are holding up Minnesota [as evidence] that the blue state model can still work, is still viable. One thing we can do and will do … is to inform some basic realities about how the state is really performing. 

MP: What is the misinformation you think Minnesotans have about our economy?

JH: For example, over the last 10 years Minnesota has ranked … 30th in the rate of job growth; 32nd in per capita income growth; 36th in disposable income growth — the difference obviously being due to our high taxes. That’s below average performance over the last 10 years and I don’t think most people in Minnesota know that. What we really want to do by disseminating that kind of information is stimulate discussion and debate. I want a lot of Minnesotans to say, ‘Gosh, I thought we were doing better than that.’ A tag line you are going to see repeatedly in our videos and our ads is Minnesota can do better. To be interested in solutions, people first have to perceive there is a problem.

MP: There are statistics and rankings that contradict your premise – studies that show Minnesota ranks high in its work force, high in innovation with sectors like medical technology …

JH: In its time, when they were newer, rising companies, as opposed to mature companies, the medical products companies that we have in Minnesota — which are fantastic companies, no doubt about it — were very high tech. And they still are, in a way, but if you look at the Kauffman Index on innovation, we rank very, very low. We were the original Silicon Valley.

MP: So what do you think happened?

JH: We have taxes that are way to high. We have stultifying regulations. We have a political culture that is way too complacent. Part of the problem is that we Minnesotans have been way too complacent, way too easily persuaded that we’ve got the right solutions, we’re doing things the right way. Everybody else should learn from us. While we have been resting on our laurels, the truth is we have been slipping behind. 

MP: Do you plan to take the center’s policy initiatives in a different direction?

JH: No. We’re not going to go in a different policy direction. What we are going to do is broaden our efforts at communication. Historically, the center, like most think tanks, has really undertaken to communicate with a pretty limited audience: the relatively limited number of people who are interested in things like research papers and programs about public policy issues. That’s a relatively thin slice. It’s an important slice, but I think that to really impact Minnesota’s political culture — and I mean that in the broad sense, not in the partisan sense, but in the broad sense of philosophically of how people feel, how they think about government — to be really influential we’ve just got to talk to a lot more people. I want to be communicating to millions of Minnesotans.  And I know a little bit about doing that. I know a little bit about mass communication.

MP: You mention the need to go beyond partisanship, although your Power Line blog is quite partisan. How do you mesh the two ventures?

JH: They are totally different entities. [But] I am going to use the Power Line to promote the center. And I am going to use the center’s content … as a source of supply for Power Line. But they are operating in different media. They’re different entities. They’ll remain different.

MP: Does Minnesota have a role to play in developing national policies?

JH: Absolutely, the distinction between local issues and national issues is just almost obliterated these days. Any local issue you can talk about is reflected on the national scene.

MP: How are you planning on doing that?

JH: Research papers, which lead to op-eds and which give rise to radio advertising and Internet videos. We are going to record our first radio ads next week, and I think our first Internet video is going to be finished tomorrow and you’ll be seeing some of these things.

MP: Were you always a conservative?

JH: Oh heck, no [laughs]. At one time I was way, way over on the left. I didn’t go to jail, but I was very far on the left and then I made a very gradual transition. I voted for Jimmy Carter in 1976. I voted for John Anderson in 1980. I’d figured out that Carter was disaster, but I thought Reagan was a dangerous radical and it was really observing the successes of the Reagan administration in the 1980s that caused me to become a conservative. And also just the experiences of life. Practicing law, living the real world, observing from that vantage point how things actually work, dispels a lot of left-wing illusions I think.