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Minnesota 2020 Journal: What We Do Now

November 05, 2010 By John R. Van Hecke, Executive Director & Fellow

Wednesday morning, I came downstairs at 6am, flipped on the radio and started coffee. I scrolled through email and Twitter feeds, learning that what seemed like a gnawing possibility eight hours earlier, had become a reality. Anti-incumbent sentiment allowed conservatives to run the electoral table.

Republican caucuses will control both legislative bodies and Minnesota is headed for a gubernatorial recount. Expect conservatives to fight tooth-and-nail for more “no new taxes” policy. They’ll attack affordable healthcare initiatives. Transportation infrastructure will continue to crumble. And, despite considerable campaign rhetoric, actual job-creating economic development will continue along the lines established by Governor Pawlenty, which is to say, not much at all.

Pouring through the newspapers, I stopped attributing stomach rumbling to hunger and owned up to the truth. We lost. Voters weren’t buying what we offered.

This leads to two questions. What happened and what do we do now?

First, the quick post-mortem analysis. I may upset some people by saying this but it needs saying: a campaign lacking a clear, focused message is a doomed campaign. Process, however, inclusive and nurturing, is not a message. A solid research and message development process may yield an effective message but process, on its own, is just that.

Any process yielding a poor outcome is a poor process. Losing 34 legislative seats and majorities in both legislative chambers shouldn’t be explained with a “yes, but we had a really good process” answer. As a message, that translates into “let the conservatives win.”

I’m still at a loss, in Minnesota as well as nationally, to understand our message. By the end, it was “jobs” but not really jobs so much as a process about jobs. If public leadership aspirants can’t make the case for jobs, schools and affordable healthcare, maybe they shouldn’t aspire to leadership.

Years ago, in 1987, I caught lefty UK performer Billy Bragg at First Avenue in Minneapolis. It was a great show with a dialed-in vibe. Progressive groups were invited to table, connecting with the concert audience. During the performance, between songs, people would yell things like “US out of Nicaragua” or “End Apartheid now,” and Billy would gleefully repeat them. Then, somebody hollered, “Brits out of Northern Ireland,” and Billy said, “Well, it’s complicated, see.”

For 90 tortuous seconds, Billy Bragg went “off message.” He knew it. We knew it. Finally, he started another song and everyone put the awkwardness behind them.

I understood what Bragg meant by “it’s complicated,” because, yes, the United Kingdom’s relationship with Ireland is complicated. But, concerts, like political campaigns, are emotional and not rational experiences. The emotionally resonant point is rarely the rational one.

Lesson one from this week's drubbing: don’t make Billy Bragg’s error. Have an emotionally resonant message -I’m on your side; here’s how- and don’t complicate it. Don’t mistake the campaign rally for a legislative committee hearing.

Next, the more important question: what do we do now?

First, remember that Minnesota elected a new governor, Mark Dayton, committed to a progressive public policy vision. Conservatives are going to do everything they can to delay his taking the oath of office in order to continue the conservative policy agenda. That’s their priority. We shouldn’t be surprised that they continue to act on it by whatever means necessary.

Tuesday evening, I watched Congresswoman Michelle Bachman’s Fox News interview. Asked about her top priority with conservatives capturing the U.S. House of Representatives majority, Bachman said, “First, we’re going to make the tax cuts permanent.” She means that deep tax cuts for America’s wealthiest families, requiring regular congressional reauthorization, are more important than anything else.

There’s our opening. Conservative policy isn’t creating opportunity. It’s not making Minnesota’s communities stronger or safer. It’s not improving schools, expanding healthcare or investing in robust transportation systems. Nope, conservative public policy’s priority is taking care of a few well-off people at the expense of the rest of us.

Don’t yield to anger. The snarky, “how’s that ‘no new taxes’ policy working out for you?” riposte, aimed at frustrated, economically insecure, swing voting Minnesotans will only widen the gap between us. We’re on their side; they’re on ours.

Next, we make the case for change by doing the research, developing data sets, sharing policy impacts and articulating a strong, coherent story that persuades people to support policy change. Read Minnesota 2020’s reports and articles. We’ve spent the last three and a half years studying Minnesota public policy. We’ve worked hard to explain what works, what doesn’t, and why. Our policy advocacy flows from our research, not the other way around.

Lastly, understand that this election’s outcome is part of a larger on-going struggle for a better, more prosperous Minnesota. Only strong schools, affordable healthcare, robust transportation infrastructure and job-creating economic development will move Minnesota forward. And, when we say that, people support progressive policy change.

So, that’s what we do now. Any questions? No? Ok, let’s get back to work.

Thanks for participating! Commenting on this conversation is now closed.


  • Greg Kapphahn says:

    November 6, 2010 at 11:02 am

    The mistake I feel we make so often is that of the High School math teacher for whom math has always been easy.  We enjoy “math” so much ourselves, and are so enmeshed in the joys of it’s very complex higher levels that we have a very hard time wrapping our heads around the idea that there are lots of “kids” who enter our classrooms who “just don’t get it.”

    (I don’t mean to pick on math teachers, by the way - leaders/teachers in every field have the same challenges.)

    But when you’ve always been passionately interested in something and you’ve always been good at it and understood it easily, it can be VERY hard to explain it to someone who just “doesn’t get it.”  (It’s hard to comprehend Calculus if you don’t understand that 2+2=4.) 

    Out of your frustration at not being ABLE to get into the heads of your “students” and figure out how to help them make the connections necessary to comprehend the concepts at hand, it’s very easy to start blaming those students or attributing their lack of intelligence for their poor progress. 

    Thus do a lot of students come to hate math.  Thus do a lot of adults come to hate politicians and politics.  They “don’t get” the complexities of government, government financing, government policies, marginal tax rates - they don’t get ANY of it, nor do they comprehend how many ways the government (or lack of it) affects their lives. 

    I think this is where we are as liberals/progressives.  We’re like frustrated teachers who can’t find a way to help their students “get it,” and whose frustration comes across as dislike and even disdain for those students; dislike and disdain the students, in self defense, return in equal measure,...

    What we need to become are truly excellent teachers.  What we need to do is learn to CARE PASSIONATELY about all those whom we haven’t found a way to help “get it” yet. 

    When the math teacher, whose subject is hard for you to comprehend, makes it clear that he/she genuinely cares about you, cares that you’re struggling, and is going to keep trying every way they can come up with to help you “get it,” it might not end your struggling, but it keeps you from hating math and feeling like a defective person because you’re having those struggles.

    This is what Bill Clinton was so successful doing, as was Paul Wellstone.

    The general public doesn’t understand the factors that are negatively impacting their lives at this point. 

    If we don’t find a way to be loving (but NOT condescending) teachers - to care about our fellow citizens, to love them, even, while gently building their awareness of what’s really going on and not tweaking their natural and very strong defense against realizing how much they’ve allowed themselves to be taken advantage of, the big money, big government, big business, Wall Street cabal will steal this country out from under us all.

    So… TEACH someone a basic truth today.  Offer it gently, lovingly, don’t argue, just put the evidence in front of them.  Continue to care about them, even if they vehemently attack you for questioning the assumptions on which they’ve built their world view (and, for God’s sake, don’t use the words “world view”). 

    Let the truth you’ve offered work its way into their consciousness.  Add another truth tomorrow. 

    We can do this.  We can care about and teach our fellow citizens, but first we have to realize how far back we need to go to be sure they’ve got the most basic truths, ideas and ideals in place.

    Let’s see… 2+2=4.

    And, by the way, let’s not waste our time and energy on the people whose world view is so rigidly based on their own psychological dysfunctions that they will never allow facts or truth to disturb what they must believe about the world to be comfortable living in it.  When you run into someone like that, just move on. 

    (It’s very hard to successfully teach math to those who are absolutely determined that 2+2=5 because that’s what their daddy or their heroes pounded into them as “the truth”).

  • Ginny says:

    November 9, 2010 at 12:20 pm

    I think this article is right on the mark, as is Gregg’s comment. How do we get the facts and consequences across to people? When the air is filled with Faux news and hatred and vitriol, it’s hard to rise above it.
    I am dismayed by how few people read newspapers—even some of my intelligent and educated friends. True, local papers are not very good, but it’s a start. Why isn’t the PBS news hour a big hit? Or many of the special programs that public TV provides.
    It’s too much bother. When I was knocking on doors before this election, that’s exactly what one guy told me when I asked him if he were going to vote.
    And along with willful ignorance is the loss of the attitude that we’re all in this together. What a loss! How can we build a decent society when we have no interest in or care about our fellows?

  • Everett Flynn says:

    November 10, 2010 at 1:09 pm

    I really like your approach on these issues, Mr. Van Hecke.  And, as usual, I agree with you in almost every respect.  However, I think there really is another, generally forgotten element that we must find a way to promote.

    I think one thing that needs to change is we need to start expecting our fellow citizens to stop behaving like Pavlovian dogs.  It’s important to remember that the no-new-taxes strategy of Republicans that has prevailed in Minnesota over the last eight years—and the tax cutting strategy that has prevailed nationally over a much longer span of time—has persisted simply because it’s been effective in winning elections.  As long as it’s effective in that regard, it will continue to persist and we will continue to be stuck with poor public policies—policies that are hostage to the concept that all taxes are unquestionably bad and any cutting of taxes and/or reduction in spending by any agency of government is unquestionably good.

    What bothers me is that people seem so entitled and self-righteous in making their voting choices solely on the basis of what’s in it for them.  So, one party offers a puny tax cut, and so many of our fellow citizens effectively drool all the way to the voting booth.  I’m not saying we shouldn’t consider our own limited self-interest when we make choices about which candidates and policies to support.  But I AM saying that self-interest ought not be the sole criteria we consider.  And, for goodness sake, we ought not be so willing to sell our voting allegiances so cheaply.  And for the great majority of us who are moved by candidates who promise to cut our taxes, we give our votes in return for very little in tax cut impact.  And, as in the case of Minnesota over the last eight years, for no overall tax cut impact at all.

    We must begin to expect people to consider more than limited self-interest when choosing how they will vote.  Elections are about more than just me.  They’re about my community, my state, my society.  They’re about our schools and our parks and our streets and bridges.  They’re about police and fire services and countless other things that we all expect of our government and so easily forget that we’re all relying upon.  Personally, I think progressives lose the argument so often because the essential premises that we’ve already conceded seal the deal.  If we can’t change the custom, if we can’t push our culture to evolve and change the ethic that says I’m entitled to consider my own needs and no other thing when making my voting choices, we’re not going to win any of the other arguments.

    There used to be a time when our personal and collective civic responsibilities were held in high esteem.  There used to be a time when our willingness to sacrifice for the good of our community and our society was considered admirable and part of the duty undertaken by patriots to further not just our communities, but democracy itself.  We must find a way to bring qualities like that back into vogue.  If we fail to do so, the tax cut blather and platitudes about slashing government spending will continue to be a winning election strategy for conservatives.

  • Dan Greising says:

    November 11, 2010 at 7:28 pm

    OK,let’s get back to the two questions and an old line.  (KISS) you know, keep it simple stupid.  No offense intended to anyone.  First I believe what happened was many of us who have supported DFL for many years were more than a little bothered by some we supported and fought to gain a majority in Congress bailed on us.  We gave you the Majority and you wilted and laid by your dish.  The “Public Option” was way more important to many of us and we just don’t want to talk about it.  Simply put ,the “Public Option” WAS Health Care Reform to many of base who could never really put their arms around a several thousand page bill.  One of our Senators came in late and left early in support.  What impact will that have in 2012? What to do?  KISS. Regular folks want it straight.