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Reappraising ‘Minnesota: A State That Works’ 

Fifty years after the Time magazine cover story touting Minnesota as the nation’s model state, it’s time to reassess.

Reappraising ‘Minnesota: A State That Works’

“Reappraising Minnesota” is a commentary series that seeks to re-evaluate Minnesota’s basic condition today and its evolution since 1973, when a Time magazine cover story praised it as “A State That Works.’’  The author is Dane Smith, who wrote about politics and government as a reporter from 1977 to 2007 for both the Star Tribune and the Pioneer Press. Smith, now retired, also served for 10 years as president of Growth & Justice, a think tank that advocated for a more equitable and sustainable economy. Read other pieces in the series here.  

Few moments in Minnesota’s history have more favorably defined our state in the eyes of the nation and the world than 50 years ago this summer, with the publication in early August of a Time magazine cover story that proclaimed “The Good Life in Minnesota.’’ 

The cover photo featured a grinning, plaid-shirted Gov. Wendell Anderson, a DFLer then at the peak of popularity and riding a wave of liberal policy achievements and reforms. He was holding up a freshly caught northern pike, with one of our 11,842 lakes in the background. 

The headline on page 24 of the lengthy story inside praised Minnesota as “A State that Works.” The article described a veritable Camelot in Middle America’s flyover land, distinguished by an evenly shared prosperity, a sophisticated arts-and-culture scene, civic health, bipartisan cooperation between liberal Democrats and moderate Republicans, racial tolerance and acceptance, generous capitalists and upbeat creative people. The focus was on politics and public policy, but also on a relaxed lifestyle and Minnesotans’ reverence for the arts and their natural environment, especially their lakes, where even working-class folks had cabins. 

Minnesota, as Time portrayed us, stood out as a glorious exception during a period of national malaise, a funk that matches our own today in many respects:   a Republican president engulfed in scandal, the end of a failed war in Asia, inflation, rising drug abuse and crime, and  divisive unrest amid  growing conservative  backlash to social justice movements for people of color, women, and other marginalized Americans.   

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The article opened with a dreamy scene in north Minneapolis, kids playing in the front yards, dads mowing lawns, station wagons packed with gear, as folks headed for the lakes. It was “a slice of America’s Norman Rockwell past,’’ Time declared. “If the American good life has anywhere survived in some intelligent equilibrium, it may be in Minnesota.’’  

The Time piece helped foster the concept of “quality of life” as a measure for the well-being in a place, as opposed to just GDP and population growth or low tax rates. And for decades to come, in Minnesota news media and general public policy discourse, that 1973 snapshot became the default narrative, an iconic reference point, and a baseline standard against which new trends and developments were measured.    

Other national observers at the time reinforced a concept that might be called “Minnesota exceptionalism,” the idea that the North Star State was a better place to live because we valued equity and community more than other states and were not only high-minded but also practical and ethical and could follow through on good intentions.    

In the half-century that has passed, that golden glow has faded or has been lost completely, at least according to many of the voices that weigh in on the subject these days in state and national media.  

Particularly grievous damage was done to the reputation in 2020, when we again became the center of national and international attention. Our new defining image was that of a white Minneapolis police officer slowly murdering a Black man by kneeling on his neck for almost 10 minutes. A week of unprecedented chaos, a ransacked police station and scores of buildings on fire in Minneapolis and St. Paul, became our new cover story.   

The national media all at once seemed to be discovering what many racial justice advocates in Minnesota had been frantically signaling for years: that racist policing and some of the larger racial disparities in the nation, especially on economic security and educational attainment, were coming home to roost. Minnesotans of color, whose presence has increased twelve-fold as a percentage of our population (2% in 1970, 24% in 2020) argue convincingly that racial disparities, especially for Blacks and Native Americans, belie the reputation for “the good life,” and have all along. Disparities and unfair conditions also exist for many segments of the rapidly growing Latino and Asian community.

But the case for “Paradise Lost” actually has been coming from at least two other directions.

The national media all at once seemed to be discovering what many racial justice advocates in Minnesota had been frantically signaling for years: that racist policing and some of the larger racial disparities in the nation, especially on economic condition and educational attainment for Blacks, were coming home to roost.
The national media all at once seemed to be discovering what many racial justice advocates in Minnesota had been frantically signaling for years: that racist policing and some of the larger racial disparities in the nation, especially on economic condition and educational attainment for Blacks, were coming home to roost.
One, conservatives have always scoffed at the premise of the original Time story. A rightward ratcheting conservative movement in Minnesota has been pushing the message for decades that Minnesota’s goodness was due to western culture and the free enterprise of hard-working individuals and business leaders who emigrated from Europe, and that liberalism and multiculturalism were creating a failed state, always on the brink of total collapse.     

Two, many older Minnesotans, not necessarily MAGA conservatives, worry about losing our “good government” reputation. They lament the pandemic crime rate spike (even though similar to national trends), worry about increased homelessness and housing affordability in the Twin Cities, and are alarmed by serious problems with basic public systems ranging from lax security and cost overruns in the transit system, to public school performance, to too many cases of waste and fraudulent abuse of state agency funds.  

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Clear-eyed unflinching self-inventory is always a good idea, and a half-century  after Time’s flattering portrait is a fitting time to reflect and measure again, transparently toting up assets as well as liabilities. 

This commentary will be the first in a series that attempts to do just that, to comprehensively reappraise Minnesota’s essential character and condition, and consider how our state has changed, and failed and succeeded, over the past 50 years. It will look to the past, present and future, offering hope and prescriptions for recapturing and living up to our egalitarian and communitarian essence.  

Reappraising Minnesota” also will strongly challenge the notion that Minnesota’s liberalism and traditional zeal for social justice has ruined the state. It will find credibility in the case for rethinking and reforming public systems. And it will embrace the proposition that racial disparities have become our most egregious flaw, and that various forms of effective reparation and reconciliation should rank as a top priority going forward.  

It also will make the case that Minnesota, especially lately, has somehow preserved or enhanced its essential advantage, with superior indicators on both quality of life and most measures of business health and socio-economic vitality. 

I’m grateful to MinnPost for agreeing to publish this rather wide-ranging series. Errors and omissions are inevitable, but I hope the series can be a work in progress and a spark for feedback and conversation in this publication and elsewhere.  

Reappraisals over the years

In the first couple decades after the Time cover, many other voices essentially ratified the premise that Minnesota was healthier, wealthier and wiser than most other places. In “The Book of America: Inside 50 States Today,” a seminal 910-page analysis of the state of all the states, published in 1983, the authors opened with this description of Minnesota: 

“Search America from sea to sea and you will not find a state that has offered as close a model to the ideal of the successful society as Minnesota … The state government has been a national leader in services delivered to people, and the quality of delivery has generally been so high that Minnesota citizens and corporations have been willing to pay a rather higher tax bill.”  

In 2003, both Minnesota Public Radio and the Star Tribune weighed in with analyses on the Time cover’s 30-year anniversary. MPR reporter Greta Cunningham went back to Chuck Ruhr, an ad executive who was quoted extensively in 1973. His reappraisal included the observation that Minnesotans were living “faster lives” and were more interested in “I” than “we,” but that it also was becoming a more diverse place and that this was a good thing. 

The Star Tribune article on the 30-year anniversary (authored by myself) quoted former Gov. Anderson, who insisted that Minnesota “is still the best place in the world to live, and that includes Sweden.”

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The traumatic events of 2020 provoked another flurry of commentaries looking back to 1973, mostly on the general theme of a tarnished North Star State.    

One of the latest to weigh in was veteran TV reporter Tom Lyden with a segment on Fox 9 in February. Reviewing a few statistical touchpoints, Lyden noted that Minnesota had slipped from 3rd lowest to 17th on overall crime rate, and from 1st to 4th lowest in the high school dropout rate Lyden’s story quoted State Demographer Susan Brower and University of St. Thomas history professor Yohuru Williams, co-founder of the school’s Racial Justice Initiative. Both observed that a dramatic increase in racial diversity had helped the state grow and prosper, but that many people of color whose labor helped create that wealth did not share equally in the growth. 

Reappraising ‘Minnesota: A State That Works’The author of the original Time piece, Lance Morrow, now a senior fellow for a conservative think tank, also rendered a verdict that aligns with that very different conservative critique of an overrated state in steep decline. His Wall Street Journal commentary just before the 2022 midterm election was headlined “How Minnesota Went from Tom Sawyer to Huck Finn.” Subhead: “Fifty years ago it was ‘the state that works.’ Now it’s become a microcosm of an America in crisis.’’  

Morrow focused entirely on the crime spike in the Twin Cities and assigned most of the blame to “a prospering woke’’ urban leadership that had demoralized the police department and did not react aggressively enough to the arson and vandalism that followed the protests.   

Although his 1973 essay had lavished praise on moderate Republicans and corporate leaders who cooperated with liberal DFLers to find solutions to social problems, Morrow in 2022 said almost nothing about the increasingly extreme and uncompromising conservatives who had taken over the Republican Party over the past few decades. Morrow also neglected to mention continuing high rankings on most measures of quality-of-life and economic condition, or remarkable population growth in the urban core over the last 20 years, reversing decades of urban flight to the suburbs.       

Morrow went on to predict that in Minnesota and the nation “the left, now dominant, will pay the price. Fantasies of retaliation will play vividly in voters’ minds when they go to vote in November – just how vividly, the Democratic Party and President Biden will discover.”    

Reaffirming the brand in 2023  

Morrow’s critique aligned closely with the central themes of the Center of the American Experiment (CAE), a conservative think tank based in Minnesota and founded in 1990. In recent years, its voice has become increasingly harsh in opposing racial equity policies, climate action, urban core community leadership, public employee unions, and of course, taxes and the public sector in general.     

The CAE’s pre-election 2022 fall edition of “Thinking Minnesota” magazine all but guaranteed a conservative tidal wave and a Republican sweep, with articles and a cover headline that announced, “Minnesota Malaise: Disquieted voters have flipped the script on the state’s usually sunny disposition as they prepare to head to the polls this fall.’’   

Morrow and the Center of the American Experiment were wrong about what would happen in November, and especially wrong about Minnesota. Voters rejected extremely conservative candidates who demagogued crime issues, demonized Black Lives Matter, denied factual evidence of climate change and defied public health measures aimed at containing the COVID pandemic.  

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Rather than turning harder right, as neighboring Midwestern states have in recent years, Minnesota reelected Gov. Tim Walz and a DFL trifecta that produced the most sweeping and comprehensive progressive agenda Minnesota has seen since at least the 1970s. 

Dane Smith
Dane Smith
This policy agenda places unprecedented emphasis on racial justice, climate action, a larger increase for public schools akin to the 1970s Minnesota Miracle featured in Time. It provides paid family leave, universal school nutrition entitlement, climate action incentives, protections for our transgender population, restoration of the right to vote for felons on parole, and large increases in funding for a multi-faceted crime prevention initiative.     

In tandem with Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan, the first Native American Minnesotan to be elected to statewide office, and aided by more legislators of color and more women in top positions than ever before, Walz is shaping up in his second term to become the most impactful progressive policy champion in Minnesota since Wendell Anderson. Many national news organizations have published stories on this phenomenon in recent weeks, with headlines that could have been written about Anderson and the DFL majorities that swept to power in 1974  

How did we get here, to full circle? And what lessons can we take from the last 50 years of our shared history?

Minnesota and me

The 1973 Time magazine cover story that put Minnesota on the map as one of the nation’s happier places has special personal meaning for me. I actually bought a copy of that “Good Life in Minnesota” edition hot off the newsstand in the Philadelphia airport, on Aug. 6, 1973. I was a 23-year-old Texas native who had grown up in Alaska and had just finished serving four years in the U.S. Navy. I was on my way to build a life in the North Star State, having recently married a Minnesotan. On my flight to the Twin Cities that evening, I avidly read every word. I remember feeling like I had hit the jackpot, that fate had landed me in a blessed place. Over the next 50 years, in my career as a news reporter and then a public policy advocate, I came to understand that the story, if hyped and incomplete, was mostly true. And I have tried to do my small part to preserve and enhance my adopted state’s best quality: its distinctive aspiration for fairness and equality for all its people.   

Subsequent articles over the next six months will  examine this winding journey from many angles. These include: an exploration of causes and effects of our dynamic racial diversity and worrisome disparity, a review of 50-state rankings, the philosophical origins of our political culture from statehood in 1858 to 1973, a recap of political twists and turns  since 1973, analysis of the growing rural-metro divide, the impact of our environmental movements, the state of the economy and business trends, our status as an arts mecca, reflections on restoring good-government models and a more inclusive democracy, and plausible prescriptions for ensuring a  good life in a state that works for every person who lives here.  

Up next: Minnesota’s great racial reckoning.

Sources and Links:   

AMERICAN SCENE: Minnesota: A State That Works – TIME – Aug. 6, 1973 

The Book of America: Inside the Fifty States Today: Peirce, Neal R., Hagstrom, Jerry – 1983

George Floyd’s Search for Salvation – Star Tribune – December 27, 2020 

How Minnesota Went From Tom Sawyer to Huck Finn – Wall Street Journal – January 21, 2022  

Minnesota Untold: An iconic story from Minnesota’s ‘Golden Age’ shows its rust –  Fox9 – February 6, 2023 

After 30 years, Do We Stand the Test of Time – Star Tribune – August 31, 2003

Looking back at ‘The Good Life in Minnesota’ – MPR -August 12, 2003   

“Minnesota Malaise,” Fall 2022 edition of Thinking Minnesota, Center of the American Experiment 

“Is Minnesota a progressive ‘Laboratory’ or an exceptional exception” – The Week – May 29, 2023

Opinion | The Minnesota Miracle should serve as a model for Democrats – Washington Post – June 4, 2023