Archive | August, 2018

The Tyranny of Lazy Narratives

30 Aug

Today, I take to my keyboard to make a brief but important gripe. I’m here to lament the way in which local media so often frames narratives, and how that framing can, intentionally or unintentionally, become a force that sets the battle lines within debates without giving the consumers of the media a thorough understanding of a situation. It is a pervasive issue, and hardly limited to local media, though at least at this level I have some hope that something can be done about it.

My prompt for this gripe is the Duluth News Tribune’s coverage of some of the changes in store for Canal Park in Duluth, which emerged from the Imagine Canal Park process. Imagine Canal Park is a Knight Foundation grant-funded effort to engage the public and install some creative new features in the Duluth neighborhood that so many residents abandon to the tourists, particularly in summer months. (In the interest of full disclosure, my boss played a key role in launching Imagine Canal Park, though I will add that my own reaction upon learning of the process was a bit of a sigh and a few questions as to why we can’t put this type of effort into neighborhoods that are more oriented toward Duluth residents. That’s a debate for another time, though.)

The DNT, however,  took the innovations planned for Canal Park and turned them into a story about…traffic congestion. The required sacrifices were made before the altar of the Parking God, which must be appeased anytime anyone anywhere ever suggests any changes that might make someone park 20 feet further away or drive around the block again in search of a spot. The lede could have been the heaps of people the city engaged with in the Imagine Canal Park process. Instead, the story fixates on the concerns of a single “resident.” (A resident of what? Canal Park? Park Point? Duluth? The story never says.) People are upset, and apparently the media must reward upset people with coverage, because grumbling in a Facebook comment apparently now passes for news.

This isn’t to say that there aren’t some valid questions about traffic flow when closures like this occur. Those questions have a place in this story. But to frame it as if an annoyance caused by the change is more significant than the change itself resorts to a tired trope, and frames the debate in ways that bias the casual reader against the cause before it even has a chance to get off the ground. It becomes an implicit force for a status quo that is taken for granted, one that reinforces a lack of creativity and makes acceptance of the current conditions the default against which all efforts for change must overcome. And we wonder why local politics is so often dominated by inertia and a handful of powerful voices.

This particular article set me off because so many of the premises of the complaints are shaky. We know from decades of experience that people adapt to changes in traffic patterns pretty quickly, and learn to go on with their lives. (For similar reasons, added roadway capacity almost never reduces congestion.) Aside from some necessary accommodations for the disabled and elderly, Americans are fat and could stand to walk that extra 20 feet, and likely will not suffer for it. The “people will drive through it anyway” complaint does not exactly jive with the picture atop the article showing large orange barrels and ROAD CLOSED signs that would take some pretty serious cluelessness or alcohol consumption for anyone to drive through. And yet the entire story is framed around the complaints of one commenter with no obvious credentials to comment on the subject. While this is an especially grating example, it’s not hard to imagine any number of topics where the rants of the uninformed or lazy both-sides-must-be-covered-without-assessing-the-merits reporting predominates, and leaves an impoverished discourse in its wake.

Normally, I think the News Tribune does a reasonably good job on things like this. Most of its writers do their homework and give a much more thorough picture than one gets on, say, TV news, where simplified black-and-white narratives are far more pervasive. But that doesn’t excuse the tyranny of lazy narratives when it rears its ugly head, and anyone who writes should resist it at every opportunity.

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Crossroads

28 Aug

So often the places we visit become fixed in our minds in a certain instant. No matter how often I go back to them, I’ll associate Madison with early childhood, Washington D.C. with college, Minneapolis with grad school; I see Mexico City is a 20-year-old, and New York as a teenager. There’s an exception to the rule, though: I go to Chicago often enough, and for diverse enough reasons, that I see the city through different eyes, over and over again. It’s home to one side of my family, a tourist and business destination, and a waystation on journeys across the country. I’ve never lived there and likely never will, but Chicago has become a central city within my life, a crossroads for travels both literal and metaphorical.

As a young child, Chicago was a frequent destination for family visits and cultural enrichment, and one of the few places outside of Minnesota or Wisconsin my family ever went unless someone else was paying. My early elementary school writings included a memorable lament about the traffic on the Eisenhower Expressway. I also have fond memories of the city’s excellent museums the view from the top of the then-Sears Tower when it was the tallest building in the world. (The Willis Tower, somehow diminished with a new name that accompanied the decline of its former namesake, no longer cracks a worldwide top 20.) As a child, Chicago was big, gaudy, and also a bit scary. I remember my parents always switching drivers at the Elgin toll on I-90 because my dad, who otherwise did all the driving, wanted nothing to do with Chicago traffic. I also recall my parents locking the doors and rolling up the windows even as we drove through certain neighborhoods, something we sure as hell didn’t need to do in Duluth or in Edgerton, Wisconsin.

Later, the trips into the mess of the city decreased, or at least seemed to in my mind; our visits instead came to consist of long meanders by car through suburban subdivisions, an exercise that always left me exhausted and peevish. Perhaps my inner urban planner was born on these journeys. These annoyances found their counterbalance in baseball, my favorite teenage diversion. The bleachers at Wrigley were always the highlight of any trip to Chicago, where I somehow always managed to catch memorable games, like the 90-some degree game with the Mets that at the time set the record for longest nine-inning game, Roger Clemens’ failed crack at a 300th win, or the game in which the Cubs lost when a ball bounced off the top of Aramis Ramirez’s head. But I’d settle for the White Sox as well, and this most recent visit reminded me what a delight it is to be in a place that actually cares about one of my favorite sports. (Sorry, Twins fans: the difference in passion is night and day.)

In my undergraduate days, I’d often have a layover in Chicago as I made my Amtrak journey from Minnesota to DC and back. Sometimes I’d try to connect with family or high school friends who went to college in the Windy City, but sometimes I’d just wander it myself, meander down to Buckingham Fountain or pass out on an outdoor bench beside the Art Institute. In this era, another side of the city opened up to me: hangouts in Wicker Park or Pilsen, those neighborhoods that were once ethnic enclaves but are now getting overwhelmed by those awful young white professionals who like elaborate food and urban living. And as I came to recognize the importance of family in my own life, the allure of the strong ties I have in that city pushed aside any grumpiness over long drives.

My urban planning education painted Chicago in a completely different light. Machine politics, racism that sometimes called worse than that in the South, Robert Taylor Homes and Cabrini-Green: the hubris that stuffing poor people like sardines into projects would somehow improve their condition, and the perhaps even greater conceit that knocking down all those projects with no follow-up plan would somehow make it all better. Chicago is perhaps the most American of cities, emblematic of both remarkable wealth and beauty and misery and squalor, all living side by side. Nowadays, its politics of the past century look more like a predictor of the future instead of some relic from a bygone era.

On my most recent visit, I came on business for the first time, and had a window into Chicago as the financial capital of the Midwest. I marched down downtown streets in a suit, the capable guide for those in my traveling party less familiar with the city. I passed through security checks and up elevators in towers with magnificent views, and schmoozed in a box at a baseball game and over dinners and drinks paid for by other people’s corporate cards. Suddenly, Chicago was a world of opportunity that put old Duluth to shame. As I basked along the Riverwalk during a break between meetings, I was consumed by a rush of rightness, a sense that I’d made it that I hadn’t felt since my early days at Georgetown. An insatiable ambition was, momentarily, appeased.

I know I tend to come off as a diehard Duluthian, of being as deeply committed to my city as anything in my life. But it would be a lie to say I don’t waver, and waver often. Part of me could be very happy in Chicago, and at my core I’m probably more at ease in Logan Square or Oak Park than I am in small towns. But I am, maybe paradoxically, most content in a place where I can easily inhabit both extremes, and any number of places in between. I experience the world far too vividly to cut off any edges in pursuit of comfort. I’m a lover of cities and people, but they are still just one side of a whole. The hellacious traffic, lack of topography, and relative lack of green space in Chicago—or even relatively convenient escapes to large areas of green space—would grate on me in time. And while I have family there, my connections for work purposes aren’t exactly robust.

But the visits to Chicago will continue, with three more slated for this year alone. It will continue to inspire, confound, and shed new light on different stages of life. It will always be a home away from home.

Gopher Ties

17 Aug

I’ve been out of graduate school for two years now, and a wedding of a former classmate this past weekend gave me a moment to look back on those two years of my life. My time at the University of Minnesota has misfortune of living in the shadow of a very different academic and institutional environment from my undergrad days—one that is hard to compare on many levels. But it was still a formative experience, and if readers of this blog know anything, they know I have a fondness for reflecting on formative experiences, so it’s time to give my time as a Gopher the same treatment I’ve given to my other alma maters.

I earned a master’s degree in Urban and Regional Planning from the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs. The fact that the U of M’s planning program is located in a policy school, and not an architecture school or somewhere else, is unique in and of itself. It gave planning a valuable social context that I think it deserves, as opposed to a more technical engineering-focused education. That said, the MURP program was also Humphrey’s red-headed stepchild; the dean would make good-natured but all-too-true jokes about how he didn’t know any of us. Our program was a forgotten little corner of a sprawling research university, and as a result many of us in it developed some chips on our shoulders. It could be a lonely world, but also one that built its own fierce tribe that stuck together through grad school and beyond.

Perhaps the biggest difference between my undergraduate life at Georgetown and Humphrey was the level of institutional support for students. While there are good and bad professors everywhere, the range of teaching quality at Humphrey was much wider than it was at Georgetown, where duds were few and far between. Some, including the current MURP program director, met a fantastic ideal of intellectual heft, ability to teach, and care for students. Others were so weak or so transparently more interested in their own careers than their students that it was hard not to check out in their presence, especially for those of us who preferred not to BS our way through things. I also had several unfortunate encounters with incompetent middle-level bureaucracy, from Humphrey human resources to the broader university’s health insurance system, which left a very sour taste in my final semester. The contrasts between the Georgetown financial aid office professional who went the extra mile to make sure I had everything I needed and the U of M’s automated and soulless systems, or between the Georgetown advisory dean who oversaw a four-person seminar for my major and one poor, overworked guy for a whole Humphrey, was striking. Funding for educational support staff is necessary at all levels, period: the difference in students’ mental health and career readiness is night and day.

The size of the U of M wasn’t all bad. I enjoyed the trappings of life at a Big Ten school; even though most of the major sports teams sucked during my time there, it made for excellent atmosphere on game days, and I will always feel a certain sense of home amid the frenetic energy of undergrads. The U of M is also so large that it’s hard for a single culture to dominate, as Georgetown’s East Coast preppiness sometimes could, and everyone could find their own little communities somewhere on campus. The urban campus gave access to an intriguing city, especially on the West Bank, where Humphrey sat a stone’s throw from the Somali-populated towers of Cedar-Riverside. We grad students mostly lived a bit further afield, clustering in neighborhoods that gave us access to plenty of good living beyond our schoolwork. In a phase of life where I had no pressing need to own a vehicle, it was a great place to be, and a large urban area is an excellent laboratory for aspiring planners.

Unlike Georgetown, which was caught up in a much larger mystique and set of life goals, I chose Humphrey for largely instrumental reasons. It is comparatively cheap, and its name and location provided access to networks and a ticket to a job in my field in the city where I wanted to be. It is reasonably well-regarded, though prestige means relatively little for a planning master’s program unless one is going on to a PhD. I find it somewhat ironic that this is the degree that gets me jobs when I think my undergraduate experience was more rigorous, more formative, and did more to prepare me to navigate through the adult world. But that, I suppose, is the world I live in. Higher education is a remarkably valuable thing, but not for the letters on the pieces of paper that students get at the end.

Even as a staunch defender of higher education, I could see how falsely this race to acquire credentials rang for so many of my peers, and had some sympathies when they rolled their eyes at the university system for leeching off of it. But if this was the price I had to pay, it was modest and reasonable, and more often than not was worth the cost. I was dismissive when classmates said they weren’t getting enough real world skills such as interpretation of zoning code, and nothing since then has altered that outlook. That’s not what grad school is for. Instead, it’s an immersive step outside the humdrum routine of working life, and a theater for students to negotiate crucial questions of what the actual outcome of their work will be. The debates we had in the MURP lab over beers at bars down the street or at Liquor Lyle’s set the table for everything that came after. Take it from Frank Bruni’s college admissions friend in this timely, excellent overview on how to get the most out of college: “The more you regard college as a credentialing exercise, the less likely you are to get the benefits.”

One of the real advantages of planning is the diversity of backgrounds of people who come into it, and for that matter in what they do coming out of it. A laundry list that includes architects, policy wonks, philosophers, map enthusiasts, and recovering bankers go in, some straight out of undergrad and some with varying degrees of working world experience. Developers, hardcore activists, academics, consultants, and traditional government employees all come out. We all tested each other, learned from each other, and became more complete people thanks to one another.

I made the decision to go to urban planning school at a point where my career ambitions were at a nadir, and am not sure if I would make the same choice today if not for the community that Humphrey built. We had good debates in classrooms, yes, but what Humphrey truly cultivated was a group of people with whom I can continue to make sure I’m doing what I want to do. The cozy MURP program gives its graduates a ready community of practice who, in the event that I have some sort of question on effective policy programs for particular issues or the value of adopting some technological tool, will give me an immediate, comprehensive response if I share it with my network. And for deeper dilemmas of where exactly we’re going with our work, they’re there, too.

This isn’t to say the network was without some frustrations. There was a general political groupthink to both the MURP program and the broader Humphrey, with only rare deviance. Within the MURP program itself, the lack of diversity was a frequent source of frustration for administration and students alike. And, as with any small group of people, it’s not hard to fall too deep into the weeds and lose track of other things, a fact of life that is mostly harmless but sometimes limiting. (During the wedding, I overheard one person declaiming loudly on bar graphs; over the course of the day, I had at least five people ask me if I’d heard of the latest incident of Minneapolis political outrage in which some low-grade elected official made a hash of trying to silence a bothersome hyper-local journalist.) Small communities will always have their internal little incidents that can disturb the peace. That’s life with other people.

In our best moments, my grad school cohort built exactly the sort of little community that we planners are supposed to uphold in the world. And now, out in that working world, we are spreading that seed. I struggle to define the emotion I feel upon seeing a rush of babies born to the married members of my class in the two years since graduation: it puts on hold a life so often driven by calculation and ambition, and I am left only with a sense of humility, a moment of rightness before the power of creation. While I don’t begrudge those who choose different arrangements (or are unable to choose it), child-rearing is central to my vision for a sustainable, healthy community: if we truly believe in leaving the world better than we found it, how can we not bring life into it ourselves? How can that not be the ultimate task, the ultimate test of our ability to stand up for what we claim to believe in? No matter where I may wander from here, that desire to live in community and contribute to it will be central, and I have my time at Humphrey to forever fuel it.

Minnesota Primary Election Reactions, 2018

15 Aug

In the wake of Tuesday’s primaries in this most unique of Minnesota election years, here are a few stray thoughts that worked their way through my mind today.

In the Democratic gubernatorial race, Tim Walz eased to victory on the strength of his performance across the state, particularly in his southern Minnesota base. Erin Murphy struggled to gain much traction beyond deeply urban areas (and dear old Cook County), which was always the concern with her campaign. Lori Swanson ran well in some initial polls, but from my vantage point, ran one of the more tone-deaf political campaigns I’ve ever seen. While any political campaign will make its share of calculated moves to win support, the degree of pure cynicism, woodenness, and poorly disguised politicking here was about as egregious as it gets. She did best up north, where she enjoyed the coattails of embattled running mate Rick Nolan, but struggled in the metro, and fell behind even supposedly rural-unfriendly Murphy in parts of southern Minnesota. The end result was surprisingly lopsided, and shows Walz’s strength as a candidate this fall.

Over on the Republican side, anyone surprised by Jeff Johnson’s win over Tim Pawlenty wasn’t paying attention. The political moment very much favored Johnson, and much like the Swanson campaign, Pawlenty’s efforts to dodge engagement and float in on name recognition and a money dump demonstrated a terrible sense of the pulse of primary politics. Johnson likely faces an uphill battle; he lacks Pawlenty’s fundraising prowess, and his path to victory likely laies in running up margins in rural Minnesota, where the Democrats have nominated the candidate most likely to resist that tide. That said, Johnson is a canny operator who was able to channel Trumpish political instincts without ever sounding very Trumpish, and that ability to seize the moment is going to win Republicans some elections in the coming years.

Statewide, there’s been talk of Minnesota as a unique opportunity for Republicans amid political climate that favors Democrats, and the attention is worthwhile after the razor-thin 2016 presidential election in this state. However, it’s worth recognizing how historically strong Trump’s performance in rural Minnesota was, and any Republican who wins a statewide race is going to have to outpace that rate. That is a very tall order for anyone in an election where the fundamentals will favor the Democrats, at least to some degree. The fairly straightforward race unfolding in the competitive Senate seat between Tina Smith and Karin Housley will also operate under these general political headwinds, and while I think it’s winnable for Housley, she will need some things that aren’t on our radar right now for things to break her way over the next two and a half months.

If there is a race where that is most likely happen, it may be in the contest for Attorney General. Keith Ellison has run as an unabashed progressive. Last-second domestic abuse allegations have now saddled his campaign, and there’s the lingering question of how well a Muslim man will play outside of his safe congressional district. The next few months will allow the former storyline to play out, and we’ll get a sense of just how much the latter matters.

Up here in the northeast corner of things, Pete Stauber rolled to victory, and will give the Republicans one of their best chances to pick up a Democratically-held congressional seat in the country. Joe Radinovich, meanwhile, had a very strong showing in the DFL primary, and has earned himself a battle with Stauber. Radinovich has a number of things going for him that could help keep CD-8 blue, including a fresh face amid a branch of the DFL that needed one and a lot of outside money. (I should call him by his proper title, Iron Ranger Joe Radinovich, as the outside Super PAC that clearly does not understand anything about CD-8 geography sold him in mailers to Duluthians. Meanwhile, the Stauber camp has already developed a Trumpism for Radinovich: Metro Joe, an attempt to shove him in with those Big City Liberals like Minneapolis mayor Jacob Frey, whose campaign he ran. It’s going to be a long fall, CD-8.)

Progressive favorite Michelle Lee finished comfortably in second, despite running a very low-budget campaign. Her rise was a signal of the base’s strength, but to win, she really needed Radinovich and Jason Metsa to cannibalize each other in the moderate wing of the party. Instead, Radinovich rolled while Metsa, despite the backing of the traditional DFL power players on the Iron Range, put in a surprisingly distant third-place showing. That says a lot about the state of the Iron Range DFL, both in terms of the influence of its bosses and their ability to activate a pro-non-ferrous mining wing of the party without seeing said wing just defect to the Republicans. Meanwhile, I give a lot of credit to Kirsten Kennedy, who ran even with Metsa despite no name recognition beyond a town of 10,000, no money, and no natural constituency in the mining debates that activated many CD-8 Democratic primary voters. I suspect we haven’t heard the last of her political career.

The Stauber-Radinovich fight is going to be brutal, and all corners of this sprawling district are in play. As a Cuyuna Country native, Radinovich has some base to work with in the western, reddest parts of CD-8, and a national map that favors the Democrats will stem any bleeding in the growing exurban part of the district. All signs point to Stauber making gains for the Republicans on the Range, where Trump’s coattails are longest and displeasure with the Democrats’ mining divisions runs deepest. That means the election could turn on the greater Duluth area, which has been an afterthought in recent campaigns, to the point that Stewart Mills didn’t bother having a presence in the city. But Stauber has local name recognition, while an activated base and high turnout in Duluth proper could be Radinovich’s saving grace. The real key, then: do the committed anti-non-ferrous mining activists plug their noses and vote for the vague Radinovich, or do they defect to independent Skip Sandman or stay home?

The Swanson and Pawlenty experiences, coupled with the results of other races dating back to 2016, have made me rethink a theory on how to win elections. In an era of negative campaigning, candidates often don’t win elections so much as they don’t lose them (especially if they have money), and the safest way to lose them is to lose the pulse of one’s base. Pawlenty and Swanson did, and while Walz wasn’t as attuned to the Democratic base as Murphy, he moved just enough to show he understood the moment, and avoided some of the unforced errors of his opponents. I don’t foresee him having the struggles to unify the party that Hillary Clinton had, or that Joe Radinovich will have. Radinovich didn’t run to the base, but did enough to keep much of it on board, and focused on the overall goal, which he pitched as keeping MN-8 blue. He, too, avoided any unforced errors, reacting well when Rick Nolan’s harassment scandal broke. Stable, mistake-free messaging can mean everything.

For all the talk of a progressive wave, meanwhile, Minnesota only really turned left in its areas that were already quite left, with the possible exception of Ellison’s primary win, which has a lot of asterisks right now. This is a pattern consistent with the rest of the country: Alexandria Ocasio Cortez won in the bluest of districts, and democratic socialism has not really caught on in places where one might not expect it to. The result is a Democratic Party that is running very different races in different parts of the country, with Ilhan Omar and Joe Manchin marching under the same banner, playing to the moods of their respective constituents. That may seem incoherent from a national standpoint, but the Republicans have managed to win plenty of elections over the past decade despite an ongoing feud between the Tea Party and Chamber of Commerce wings of the party, so on paper I don’t see why the Democrats can’t have a similarly broad tent. I’m not convinced that party unity is all it’s cracked up to be when it comes to winning elections. When it comes to governance, on the other hand…well, time will tell.

More than Civility

9 Aug

Duluth was in the national news again this past week, and this time in a much more flattering piece than the dreck that appeared in Rolling Stone last month. This time, Gerald Seib at the Wall Street Journal lauds the Civility Project, an effort to establish norms for polite public discourse that he claims has made Duluth politics a bit more pleasant. (I’m linking to a Tweet that has the link because that is the WSJ’s bizarre method of allowing people around their paywall.)

It’s not quite that easy. It’s true that, for much of the past decade, Duluth city-level politics did coalesce around a broad, quiet, and largely civil consensus. I think that probably had more to do with the good vibes of the Don Ness era and his unique talent for making politics boring than the norms listed on a poster, but they certainly didn’t hurt. While still largely following in that same vein, it’s not hard to sense a few more cracks  in the Duluth consensus these days as both regional and national political forces have activated more people to express strong opinions.

It’s also not a universal experience. Critics of the school board will argue that the norms of civility have been used as a bludgeon to silence opposition, as honest and well-meant critiques are called uncivil; that point has had real merit at times over the years. Duluth also is a relatively homogeneous city, and there is pretty good evidence from social science that this makes political debate much easier given the shared culture; I’m not sure how applicable its lessons can be to a nation more starkly riven by questions of racial and cultural identity. (This is not to downplay the divides that do exist in Duluth, but more of an empirical observation on their centrality to day-to-day discourse.) It’s easy to look good when a large majority of people share a common culture agree on many things.

Even with those caveats, the Rules of Civility seem almost quaint now, as if they were a throwback to a more innocent era. Still, they exert a certain power. I would like to think that a bunch of well-meaning people can get together at the local level and build a healthier culture by bringing people together to talk in rational ways. There are, and likely always will be, scenarios where that can happen, and when they happen, that is only a good thing.

One of the more fascinating aspects of our current political moment, however, is how it has made cynics of us all. I try to be wary of narratives that pretend as if the loss of civility or decency is something recent. (Remember: if you want to understand a person’s worldview, figure out what the world looked like when that person was 20, or some comparable early formative age. It’s easy to imagine the decline and fall of political discourse is a new thing, when instead it just stems from the point at which the people in question gained a new level of political or social consciousness.) But I do think there is something particular about the milieu from which those norms of civility emerged from, one that has left us behind for something more complicated.

The Rules of Civility emerged in a time and a place when it seemed like a broadly liberal consensus was destiny. They are the guiding principles of a culture confident that it can bring people together under a common cause and include everyone in the push toward a better tomorrow. They are the rules of a world ruled by a meritocracy, where careful arguments win out and rewards flow to the people who have earned them through reason in the public square. This culture has always had some place in American political culture, but it reached its zenith after the fall of the Berlin Wall, when this worldview came to seem completely triumphant. There is still no clear alternative, but it has undergone a steady erosion amid endless low-grade war, the late 00s financial crisis, and now a wave of political backlash to the whole notion.

As a child of the 90s, I was a product of this largely unquestioned culture. I thrived in its environment, climbed the ladder of test scores and college admissions exactly as I was supposed to. It was a source of anxiety at times, yes, but on the whole I rather enjoyed it. The path was clear, as were the rewards, and I grew up in a community where playing by those very civil rules earned respect. No one ever really questioned whether or not I’d earned what I got, and those of us caught up within it learned not to question the rules of the game.

Now, however, the critiques of the system have emerged in force. The first is the internal one, common among liberals: the idea is right, but in practice our meritocracy has been far too exclusionary. Many people of color (and a chunk of mostly rural white people, for that matter) face such large systemic barriers that they cannot break through; women thrive in certain areas of the ladder but often hit glass ceilings when it comes to leadership positions. The answer, then, is to level playing fields, perhaps through affirmative action if need be, and ensure that social mobility becomes a possibility. If we all just follow the code of civility to its fullest extent, we’ll get there in the end.

A second critique attacks whole logic that the meritocratic winners who have been groomed to rule actually deserve to do so. The best and brightest who went to Wall Street ran the economy into the ground in the late 00s, and even the scholars and pundits who saw warning signs have been unable to devise a humane economy that gives the losers of the macroeconomic shifts of the past decade any level of dignity. The foreign policy consensus bungled its Middle Eastern adventures that decade, leaving thousands dead and no discernable achievement of non-military goals. Over in Europe, the European Union, instead of being some enlightened post-nation-state government, is instead a creaking and unaccountable machine with an egregious mismatch of fiscal and monetary policy that should have been obvious to anyone who’d taken Econ 101, but somehow got pushed through anyway.

While in college at the tail end of this era of good feelings, I read and listened to a lot of triumphal bloviating about the march of democracy and rights and so on that in retrospect seems wishful, if not naïve. And yet there has been little to no reckoning for these failures, and critiques of the elite consensus have often been left outside the bounds of serious political debate. Anyone who suggests otherwise is uncivil. Why should we trust the people who gave us all of these things, or the institutions that produced them, if they can’t get anything right? Our supposedly meritorious ruling class has much to answer for, and precious few of its members have attempted anything resembling an examination of conscience for their failures. Instead, they just drift into cushy lobbying jobs when they get voted out of office. The swamp, according to this take, is very, very real.

Both of these critiques capture some of the truth, but are inadequate on their own. The liberal critique is dead accurate, but fails to step out of the cave and consider whether this way of doing things is the best we can do. The new critique, which can come from either the left or the Trumpist right, raises that issue, but largely fails to present an alternative that doesn’t sound hopelessly idealistic or retrograde. Simply suggesting an alternative seems ridiculous: how does it make sense to run anything without a civil debate of the merits, or without the most qualified people? They may not know everything, or their expertise may come in unconventional ways, but there has to be a way to agree to a basis and sort and choose from there. We’re still a long way from mob rule or authoritarian whim becoming the law of the land.

Civility is great, but trying to cure the nation’s ills with a civility project goes nowhere near to the source of the malaise. Civil discourse can also only emerge at any scale from a common culture that agrees on at least some basic foundation of how to order a society. Without some underlying vision we are left only with critique for critique’s sake, an endless argument that aspires to nothing more than disruption, to use that useless, canned Silicon Valley word that dresses up chaos in the garb of progress.

On a national level, it’s easy to despair about the possibility of the common cause from which a civil governing consensus can emerge. Perhaps, then, the answer must be local. If Duluth’s history over the past ten-plus years is a model of anything, as I’ve argued (with much nuance) that it can be, it starts first with a common vision, and a common narrative that acknowledges but then breaks from a past. Civility is as much a product of such a vision as it is a precondition of it, moving in virtuous feedback loops as eclectic groups come together to advance some common goal. Building and sustaining such cultures won’t be easy; they all have flaws and require serious interrogation at every step, and even with the best of intentions, they will struggle to accommodate everyone in a community of any size.

We live in a world in which the underlying truths that sustain nations and foundations of faith have crumbled. In many, if not all, cases, there is good reason for the critiques. But the project of this century won’t come through continued disruption of already tattered truths, or context-free attempts to make politics nice again. It will come from a concerted effort to build a common future in spite of the myriad obstacles before us. We must imagine Sisyphus happy.