Last Updated July 14, 2003
Minnesota has long been a distinctive commonwealth, set far in America's frozen North, a state which in commerce, culture and politics has set one example after another for the rest of the nation. It is the node of transcontinental railroads that linked the winter wheat fields of the northern prairies to the greatest grain milling center in the world and the great Pacific ports of Puget Sound. It is also the birthplace of Scotch tape, Betty Crocker, Target and the Mall of America, the home base of dyspeptic chroniclers of small town America from Sinclair Lewis to Garrison Keillor. Politically, Minnesota over the last half century provided the nation with some of its most articulate and honorable leaders--Harold Stassen, Hubert Humphrey, Eugene McCarthy, Walter Mondale--and with traditions of probity, civic-mindedness and innovation which are second to none. Yet while commercially and culturally Minnesota has never been stronger, its recent political history has been unusual and on occasion tragic. For more than a decade, two political parties, the Democratic-Farmer-Labor and the Republican--have been dominated by activists of left and right stubbornly out of touch with ordinary voters. At least partly in response, voters in 1998 elected a former professional wrestler and suburban mayor, Jesse "The Body" Ventura, as governor. The bald, blunt-spoken Ventura, with his strong Midwestern accent and gift for pithy phrases, quickly became a national celebrity, a possible trend-setter as a political libertarian on most cultural issues and market oriented on economics. For three years he was highly popular; in his fourth he faced resistance when he tried to raise taxes and retired without seeking a second term. In the meantime, what had been one of the nation's more heavily Democratic states seemed to be moving to the Republicans. George W. Bush didn't carry Minnesota in 2000, but he lost by only 48%-46%; for the first time in half a century Minnesota cast a lower Democratic percentage for president than the nation as a whole. And in 2002 Republicans won the governorship, a Senate seat, and increased their ranks in the legislature. Their victories were narrow and may have been affected by the death of DFL Senator Paul Wellstone in a plane crash October 25. Still, something seems to be stirring in Minnesota.
Minnesota's distinctive traditions come from a distinctive history. The far northern states were ignored by most Yankee immigrants, who headed straight west into Iowa, Nebraska and Kansas. But others saw opportunity in Minnesota's icy lakes and ferocious winters. James J. Hill, the builder of the Great Northern Railroad ("You can't interest me in any proposition in any place where it doesn't snow"), and others operating out of Minneapolis and St. Paul--already twin cities by 1860--worked to attract Norwegian, Swedish and German migrants who would find the terrain and climate congenial. By 1890, the Twin Cities--rivals that year in a Census competition--were the nerve center of a sprawling and rich agricultural empire stretching west from Minnesota through the Dakotas and into Montana and beyond. Minneapolis and St. Paul became the termini of its rail lines and the site of its grain-milling companies.
The Twin Cities also became the center of a three-party politics and an economic radicalism reminiscent of the politics of Scandinavia. For our American regions seem a mirror image of the geography of Europe, with the East Coast resembling the British Isles and France, the industrial Midwest reminiscent of Germany and Poland, the relatively poor and always hawkish South a Baptist Mediterranean, and the Upper Midwest of Minnesota, Wisconsin and North Dakota as North American versions of Scandinavia. The Scandinavian flavor of life lives on: You can get lutefisk (smelly lye-soaked cod), around Christmastime in Minneapolis restaurants. It extends also to politics. Like Scandinavia, these Upper Midwestern commonwealths pioneered their continent's welfare states, with an effect on public policy far out of proportion to their numbers. Alarmed by the unprecedented concentration of economic power and wealth into the hands of just a few identifiable millionaires who lived on St. Paul's Summit Avenue or the hill above Minneapolis's Hennepin Avenue, the immigrants drew on their native traditions of cooperative activity and bureaucratic socialism.
As in Wisconsin and North Dakota, a strong third party developed here in the years after the Populist era. This Farmer-Labor Party elected senators in the 1920s and dominated state politics in the 1930s. Hurt by their ties to Communists, the Farmer-Laborites were beaten by Harold Stassen's Republicans in 1938. But this was still a New Deal state, and by 1944 the bedraggled local Democrats were merged with the anti-Communist faction of Farmer-Laborites to form the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party. A key role was played by Hubert Humphrey--mayor of Minneapolis in 1945, and the dazzling advocate of the civil rights plank at the 1948 Democratic National Convention. Humphrey's DFL--clean, idealistic, closely tied to labor, backed by many farmers--attracted dozens of talented politicians, including Eugene McCarthy, Orville Freeman and Walter Mondale. In 1948 Humphrey's speech helped put the Democrats on record for civil rights, and he was elected to the Senate at age 37.
In the years that followed, the DFL dominated Minnesota politics, while a series of progressive companies led the development of a strong, diversified economy. The DFL stood for a generous, compassionate government, for strong labor unions and high wages, for an expansionist fiscal policy to encourage consumer-led economic growth, for civil rights, and for an anti-Communist, but not bombastic, foreign policy. Its base was among blue-collar workers in the Twin Cities, in Duluth and the Iron Range, and among farmers of Scandinavian origin. Minnesota's business leaders were conservative politically and innovation-minded in their work: Control Data was an early high-tech pioneer; 3M was famous as an inventor of new products from Scotch tape to Post-Its; IDS was one of the first mass-marketers of mutual funds; the Dayton family retail empire helped invent the indoor shopping mall, the discount store, and the national bookstore chain. New entrepreneurs rose in the 1990s, and Minnesota's incomes rose to 11th in the nation; the slowdown after 2000 was less severe than in many other states. It is part of a long pattern: Minnesota's economy hums along, growing robustly in prosperous years and not falling behind in recessions, and squeaky-clean if sometimes eccentric Minnesota has levels of crime, divorce and aberrant behavior most states should envy.
On this solid economic base Minnesota has innovated in public policy. It produced the nation's first anti-smoking bill, one of the first public campaign financing schemes, and the nation's first statewide educational choice plan and authorized charter schools. It was one of the first states to have HMOs and boasts of its MinnesotaCare plan intended to hold down costs and provide health care coverage for the poor. In 1997, at the insistence of Governor Arne Carlson and over the furious opposition of the teachers' unions, it instituted a form of school choice. Poverty declined in the 1990s and incomes among blacks Hispanics and Asians grew twice as fast as among whites.
Minnesota has more social connectedness than any other large state, Robert Putnam notes in Bowling Alone, and this spirit of civic participation is echoed in the party precinct caucuses and party conventions. The early DFLers were proud of this system, which allowed plenty of political participation and ended control by party bosses. But by the 1980s the conventions came to be dominated not by laborite Humphrey followers or the wives of management Republicans, but by left-wingers and counterculturites, right-wing abortion opponents and religious hardliners. The result has been the nomination of left-wing and right-wing candidates usually rejected by the voters in primaries or general elections and in shrill offputting political rhetoric. All this left Minnesota open to the appeal of Jesse Ventura, candidate of the Independence party in 1998. Ventura was already known to Twin Cities television viewers--nearly three-quarters of the state's voters--and his clever ads tended to overshadow his more conventional rivals, Attorney General Skip Humphrey and DFL-turned-Republican St. Paul Mayor Norm Coleman. Ventura scored in the low teens in most polls, but he sparked a huge rise in turnout--Minnesota has election day registration--and won with 37% of the vote, to 34% for Coleman and only 28% for Humphrey--less than half the 60% his father won in his first electrifying election for senator exactly 50 years earlier.
It was, literally, a new Minnesota that elected Ventura. In the Twin Cities core, Hennepin and Ramsey Counties, with one-third of the vote, it was an almost even three-way race, with Ventura leading narrowly with 36%, to 32% for Coleman and 31% for Humphrey. In the one-third of Minnesota beyond the range of Minneapolis-St. Paul TV stations on which Ventura concentrated his meager TV buy, Ventura finished third, with 27%, to 38% for Coleman and 35% for Humphrey. Coleman carried the ancestral Republican base--heavily German counties in southern Minnesota and the heavily Norwegian counties north and west of St. Cloud--and Humphrey carried the far north with pluralities plus Austin, site of the bitter Hormel strike. Ventura's breakout came in the counties outside the Twin Cities core but within the Twin Cities media market: Call it the Ventura Belt. In this one-third of the state, turnout was actually up 2% from the presidential year of 1996, and up a whopping 28% from the last off-year of 1994. This is the youngest part of Minnesota, with many young families moving out from the Twin Cities core: the voters less closely connected to traditional politics. Ventura carried these counties with 45% of the vote--a stunning performance for a third-party candidate--to 34% for Coleman and only 21% for Humphrey.
Ventura seems to have detached many young voters from the DFL loyalty of their parents. This is apparent from the results of the elections of 2000 and 2002. George W. Bush, like his father in 1988, got 46% of the vote in Minnesota; but the Democratic percentage declined from 53% for Michael Dukakis in 1988 to 48% for Al Gore in 2000. Almost none of this drop came in the Twin Cities core and a little in the counties beyond Twin Cities TV; most of it came in the Ventura Belt, where the elder Bush ran even, 49%-49%, in 1988 while George W. Bush ran ahead, 50%-44%, in 2000. In 2002 Coleman lost the Twin Cities core and the counties beyond Twin Cities TV. But in the Ventura Belt, Coleman won 56%-41% over Walter Mondale. The last time Mondale ran for the Senate, in 1972, when those counties cast little more than half as many votes, he carried the area 53%-47%. In the 2002 governor race there was a similar pattern. Republican Tim Pawlenty won because he carried the Ventura Belt 51%-30% over the DFL's Roger Moe, with 17% for Independence party candidate Tim Penny. Minnesota's DFL has a long and noble tradition--but one that is perhaps too old for voters in the newest and fastest-growing part of the state. To be sure, these were late-breaking races, and there was strong revulsion against the Democrats after the October 29 memorial service for DFL Senator Paul Wellstone turned into a campaign rally. But the response in the final week also reflected attitudes held during what had been a tumultuous campaign year.
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