Minnesota 2020 Journal: My Republican Friends
Do I have Republican friends? That’s an interesting question. The answer is, yes, of course I have Republican friends but that doesn’t address the true, underlying question: how do we move forward, past partisan gridlock?
Earlier this week, participating in a discussion panel about democracy’s future, an audience member asked if panelists had Republican friends. The panelists, including me, were center-left progressives. And, yes, we all happily acknowledged our many Republican friends.
I’ve been chewing on this exchange ever since. The question—do I have Republican friends—reveals more about the questioner and his consideration of our state’s and our nation’s political divide than any panelist answer could possibly match. To begin with, the question isn’t about Democrats and Republicans as partisan organizations. Instead, it concerns the partisan divide dominating legislative bodies.
A frequent and fashionable observation concerns members of Congress’ regular travel between the home district and Washington, DC. Members, this argument goes, once got along better and got more done because their daily lives were in Washington. They chatted informally at the same cocktail parties and saw more of each other socially than they do now.
This is a compelling argument but it’s ultimately a symptom, not a cause. Consider that Minnesota’s part-time state legislators work in close proximity to each other with shared, minimal staff support. During session, many members live in the same hotel within walking distance of the State Capitol. They see each other at the same receptions. State House members walk the same underground tunnel route—the only tunnel route—from the State Office Building to the Capitol. Despite all of this, Minnesota is experiencing the same bitter, partisan divide as the Congress.
So, if it’s not familiarity’s absence, what is this conflict’s source?
In a democratic society, collective investment creates individual gain. We expect a portion of that gain is owed to the community and the public infrastructure. We’re fighting over the degree of sharing individual bounty with the community.
Roads and bridges are collective investments. So, too, are the courts, property protection, law enforcement, schools, parks, airports, public safety services, public health services, bank regulators and the guy operating North Hero Township’s road grader. Infrastructure is an essential commercial element. Without public infrastructure, business costs skyrocket. Sharing common expenses that serve the collective good creates greater prosperity than electing to go it alone.
Not everyone, however, wants to contribute to the shared cost. Consequently, we create laws compelling participation. That doesn’t stop a minority from loudly insisting that an enforced shared obligation is tyranny. The challenge, in our large, complex society, is that most folks don’t directly experience most of the community’s broad reach. That’s a good thing because we’re not all the same but that isolation makes it harder for folks to understand our interdependence.
Prosperous, safe communities don’t just happen. They require regular citizen participation and contribution which includes a willingness to accept that most of us don’t use the same services and public infrastructure at exactly the same time in exactly the same way. Benefits are not always a straight path.
Objectors, typically conservatives, bring cost-benefit analysis to the debate, noting that the collective gain from some public investments isn’t terribly efficient. They’re right. Progressives, particularly in the era of conservative ideological assault on government, have developed their own bunker mentality, refusing to consider service overhaul, viewing proposals as more ideological budget cuts. How do we get past this stand-off?
I have a suggestion. Rather than insisting that all government is too much or that only government can address societal ills, let’s consider an outcomes-based framework. Are we happy, for example, with the quality of Minnesota’s transportation infrastructure? Since use eventually consumes road and bridge productive capacity, we have to plan for replacement. It’s easy to delay recapitalization of these massive edifices because they appear and are formidable. But, nothing lasts forever. How can we proceed?
We can’t allow the pursuit of the great interfere with achieving the good. We can’t fall in to the trap of insisting that the policy equivalent of a unified field theory be enacted before we deal with our many practical challenges. Simple solutions for complex community problems are rarely simple; we have to work them anyway.
Progressive-conservative friendships are a good thing. Don’t get me wrong. But, from a public policy perspective, only a willingness to engage, research, debate and compromise moves Minnesota forward. Outcome-based policy helps focus Minnesota’s collective mind on what really matters. Schools, healthcare and jobs create opportunity. My Republican friends will, I think, agree on this. Agreement creates a great starting point on the path to prosperity.