Tag Archives: conservatism

Progress Uber Alles: Duluth City Council Notes, 3/27/17

29 Mar

Oh no, the black hole is sucking me back in: I’m writing about Duluth City Council meetings again. Perhaps I’m out of practice after a few years away, but Monday’s edition certainly ranked among the most uncomfortable public meetings I’ve ever witnessed. I attended mostly for the pre-meeting Committee of the Whole about opioid abuse issues in the Duluth area, a topic about which I know little and am somewhat curious, especially after just reading a book on how they can consume a post-industrial town. I did, however, stick around for the more memorable part of the night: a debate over “Transportation Network Companies,” or TNCs, which is legalese for Uber and Lyft.

My caveats before I start: I rarely take taxis, in Duluth or anywhere else. My handful of experiences with cabs in Duluth have been fine, though I’ve also had a couple of nights where they were unreachable, and had another ride in a memorably dented cab. I have used Uber and Lyft with some regularity in larger cities and enjoyed those experiences, mostly because of the convenience and ease of the platform they operate on. Being able to request a ride with a few touches of a screen, see how far away that ride is, know the fare beforehand, and easily divide fares among riders makes life easier, especially for more spontaneous trips. The nicer vehicles don’t hurt, either. I’m aware that Uber has some ethical issues and implications for existing cab companies, but hadn’t given them much thought until Monday night. One can only fight our Silicon Valley overlords on so many fronts.

While the council chamber was filled with cab drivers and their various allies, only four came forward to speak. All expressed worry about the damage TNCs could cause to their business; many expected to be done. It was a hardscrabble crowd. Unlike many large cities, where immigrants have come to dominate the cab industry, this group’s membership was almost entirely from that category we’ve come to call “white working class” this past election cycle. They came out in numbers, they were angry, and they were largely resigned to yet another defeat.

Councilor comments began with Councilor Noah Hobbs, the author of the resolution, explaining his many efforts to regulate TNCs in a fair way that imposed standards without being onerous. He pointed to stringent insurance requirements and a clear permitting process, even if certain fees were somewhat lower that with cabs. Councilors Barb Russ, Zack Filipovich, and Howie Hanson lined up to support the resolution, all thanking Hobbs’ work and acknowledging the complexity of the issue. They all hinted at a certain inevitability when it came to TNCs; while none of them expressed much of an interest in using them, they said they knew which way the world was going, and had little choice.

With four ‘yes’ votes in the books, Council President Joel Sipress took the microphone, and began a lengthy discourse on his concerns about TNCs. He worried about their effects on existing cab companies, lamented the practice of employing drivers as contract employees (thereby skirting labor laws), and expressed disappointment in seeing money from local transportation swallowed up by a large outside company instead staying in the community. He then asked CAO Montgomery to elaborate on the city’s regulation mechanisms, who allowed the entire council chamber an opportunity to nap through this lengthy recitation. Satisfied, Sipress then announced that, for all his reservations, he would support the resolution, as he knew it was going to pass anyway and wanted to acknowledge the hard work done by Hobbs and city staff to find something workable. With a fifth ‘yes’ vote in hand, the cabbies all marched toward the exit, some adding choice words on their way; one announced that his Superior-based cabs wouldn’t cross the bridge again. The measure ultimately passed by a 7-1 margin, with Councilor Jay Fosle as the lone ‘no’ vote. (Councilor Elissa Hansen was absent.)

In the councilor comments following the meeting, Fosle politely rebuked Sipress’s intimation that his no vote wouldn’t have mattered: “Voting no matters to the people who it affects.” As a frequent lone ‘no’ vote, Fosle would certainly know. In opposition to the ordinance, he mounted a defense of threatened individuals and businesses in the here and now rather than relying on vague hopes it would all work out, and promises to revisit the issue if it didn’t. Fosle is a conservative in the truest sense of the word: he is here to conserve what exists, to protect people from changes in regulation no matter their station. He consistently speaks for people who do not have it easy and who are not at ease in these stately halls, even if they are not a majority, and if their plight goes far beyond the control of this little city council.

Howie Hanson, sounding as eloquent as I have ever heard him, pushed back. “I’m not sure our role is to protect businesses; it’s to level the playing field,” he said, hoping the regulations would do that. He pointed out how much the internet has changed things in countless fields: “you have to change or die.” As someone in the publishing industry, he would have some knowledge of this. “It’s scary. It’s hard to know what’s our role,” he concluded, sounding a very fair philosophical question.

The counterpoint comes from Celia Scheer, one of the cab drivers who spoke. It was difficult for her to come to this meeting, she said: it was the birthday of her late son, who had died of a heroin overdose in the past year. That might seem coincidental with the committee meeting on opioids at the start of the night, but the parallels here are all too real. She blamed government regulation for this and a previous job loss, though I think she misses the degree to which politicians are responding to market forces (on this issue, at the very least). Still, it is difficult not to see Ms. Scheer and her fellow drivers as victims of a changing world beyond their control, the poster children for the white working class that has been battered time and again by economic and social disruptions of recent decades.

The cab drivers are among the people with no safe home in a knowledge and technology-driven economy, and for whom even our most creative theories on community and economic development do little. If we’ve learned anything from the past few decades in politics and urban development, it is that decline and loss have particularly harsh effects. They linger, affect different generations, and can trap large swaths of the country in different worlds from its more successful enclaves. Nor is the political party typically associated with support for the downtrodden much of a voice here: all of the DFL-endorsed councilors supported this resolution, while the lone holdout is its most frequent critic. A more rigid partisan than I might use this as an opportunity to blast the direction of the Democratic Party, but I’m not sure that would be right, either. The emotional, raw side of politics has had a good run over the past year and a half, and while I do think we need that rawness to get beyond platitudes and fully understand people’s humanity, we also need to be able to step back and see the big picture.

As Councilor Hanson suggested, it’s hard to justify keeping a struggling industry alive for the sake of propping up the status quo. One speaker mentioned how he and other cabbies could have days where they earned little to no money. If that’s reality, frankly, it’s a sign that the market has too many drivers and not enough riders, and could also benefit from a near-universal real-time app that better matches supply to demand. Regulations might just be propping up a bad business model that distorts the market and passes off costs on consumers, who struggle to organize in response. Sure, the city could continue to prop up the cabs if it wanted to, much as the national government does with, say, the steel industry, another local economic driver that has had its share of misery in recent years. But this is a practice that can quickly grow out of hand and overly political, and with real service improvements from TNCs, comparatively few jobs at stake, and none of the geopolitical or national security implications of something like the steel industry, it’s hard to make a coherent case for the cabbies. If these jobs are on their way out the door, there’s no reason for the council to give false hope, when in reality we may just need to bite the bullet and admit that certain ways of life might just not be sustainable anymore. The city council just finds itself in the unenviable position of needing to deliver that message from on high.

Fortunately, we do have some evidence on the effects of TNCs beyond Duluth. Stories from some major cities point to clear drops in cab drivers, while the most recent and rigorous academic paper I can find on the topic points to no loss in employment, though there is some decline in income among traditional cab driver income only partially offset by the gains in the non-traditional sector. Many of the cabs will survive, though a number of the drivers will likely migrate over to TNCs, and overall options for transportation in Duluth will get better.

This is, however, little consolation to the people who stayed to plot their next moves alongside a row of cabs parked on Government Plaza, their alienation evident even from a distance as I trudged past to my car after the meeting. Even as I look forward to my first Uber ride in Duluth, this night will linger.

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The State of Duluth Politics, March 2017

23 Mar

Longtime readers will know that this blog grew up on coverage of Duluth politics. While my current job is politically sensitive enough that I’d rather play it coy on many issues in front of the city these days, I will aim to venture a few comments here and there going forward. This past week is as good a chance as any, following the State of the City address; names are starting to pile up for this fall’s elections too, and as usual, I can’t resist the urge to comment on the ISD 709 school board.

Mayor Larson’s Coming-Out Party

Emily Larson delivered an eye-opening State of the City address on Monday. For the most part, Larson hasn’t set out to be a show-stopper, either during her time on the city council or in her rise to the top spot in City Hall. She’s a team player and a listener, and the first part of her address was devoted to recognizing the everyday work done by city employees to improve Duluth. But Monday night also hinted that there may be more to Emily Larson.

Her State of the City was an ambitious, effective speech. She hammered home three key themes: combating the opioid epidemic, creating affordable housing, and reducing energy emissions. It was a clear, broad vision, and while I’m sure many of us could lobby for certain other things getting higher billing, she does understand how these all interconnect. Her remarks on housing were particularly strong, both for the ambition of her plans and in the acknowledged nuance of housing policy and the market forces that drive it. Her comments on climate change drew the largest cheers from a staunchly liberal crowd, but this wasn’t some diatribe about the direction of national politics; while she acknowledged all of that, she repeatedly made it clear that the way forward required a focus on local action, on controlling what we can control, and shutting out the broader noise. “Ours is not the task of fixing the entire world all at once, but of stretching out to mend the part of the world that is within our reach,” she said, quoting from a constituent letter. (Whether or not she reads a certain local blog that rather likes this topic, it’s refreshing to see that sort of consistency of vision.)

On Monday night, Larson showed she has the acumen necessary to keep together the broad governing coalition built by her predecessor, Don Ness. This is harder than people think, especially when it’s such a wide-ranging coalition that includes both the Chamber of Commerce crowd and an increasingly vocal activist left. Even though I’m fairly certain I know Larson’s opinion on the issues that have divided these two groups over the past year–oil pipelines, non-ferrous mining, earned sick and safe leave—she’s a smart enough operator to know not to waste her political capital on those debates. She puts herself in positions where she doesn’t need to fight tooth and nail to get her agenda done; she just provides the energy to spur it along, and builds complete movements. Unlike too many politicians who preach unity while ignoring half of their constituents, she actually does want to keep everyone on board. (Whether they will all be willing to stay there may be a different story.)

In contrast to Ness, Larson has never been deeply involved in the Democratic Party apparatus; perhaps for that reason, I had yet to give much thought about her as a candidate for higher office. But in this speech, I saw someone who has the charisma and the political skill that could allow her to make that run. With the climate change push, she’s even taking on an initiative that could be scaled up to another level, although she would certainly need to be even more nimble to succeed in a political environment such as the Minnesota 8th Congressional District. If she has the desire and can continue to balance the competing interests in her coalition, I think she has the skill to pull it off. Duluth has itself a powerful mayor, and while the form of power may not match a traditional definition of power, it is power nonetheless.

The Moribund Right

There will be little resistance to Larson’s agenda. To the extent that there are any cracks in the Ness-Larson coalition, they’ve come from people on the leftward flank of that coalition who aren’t fans of the business class, not from a challenge to the right. One doesn’t have to go too far back in Duluth political history to find a long tradition of fiscal conservatism, with recent proponents such as Jim Stauber, Garry Krause, Todd Fedora, and Chris Dahlberg. They were never a majority, but they had a consistent voice, and exercised some influence. Nowadays, with the partial exception of Jay Fosle—a somewhat more complicated figure—that species is all but extinct in Duluth politics.

To some extent, this reflects broader shifts in the American right. Older, civic-minded moderate patricians have much less of a place in the Republican Party now than they did a few years back. In some ways, Chuck Horton’s run for mayor presaged the Trump candidacy; while I wouldn’t draw too tight a parallel, they both tap into a stream of testosterone and had a white working class following. That sort of politics has a fairly low ceiling of support within Duluth proper, though, and (again, with the semi-exception of Fosle) doesn’t seem like much of a winner.  At the same time, the Ness Administration was pretty disciplined fiscally, so there wasn’t much ground to attack it on that front. There’s a lot less ground to occupy here. The only recent attempt to run a distinctive campaign on a nuanced, Duluth-specific conservative platform front came from state senate candidate Donna Bergstrom, and she was running in a race she couldn’t win.

I doubt, however, that the Duluth electorate has changed that much in the past five years. Especially now that a few city councilors are taking a much harder leftward tack, I think there’s a clear opening for some center or center-right candidates to do well in elections here. The fourth district (Duluth Heights, Piedmont, Lincoln Park), which elected Garry Krause not that long ago, has an election for what will be an open seat this fall, and would be an obvious target. And while the at-large field is crowded with two incumbents (Zack Filipovich, Barb Russ) plus a few other left-leaning figures, it’s not hard to imagine a more distinctive voice running through a crowded field to at least make it past the primary. After that, a strong candidate would at least have a fighting chance, especially if there’s any division among the DFL ranks over whether to support the comparatively moderate incumbents or not.

For now, however, there are zero candidates stepping in to take that chance. I’d like to see someone try, even if I may not agree with said person on everything. One-party rule of any variety is cause for concern, and elected bodies should approximate the full range of views within a city. We’ll see if any viable takers emerge.

Meanwhile, Back at the School Board

Speaking of moribund…

When I started covering school board meetings on here nearly four years ago, I was very critical of the anti-Red Plan crowd, which at the time consisted of Art Johnston and a few hangers-on. They sounded devoid of ideas, and more interested in reliving a war that had already happened.

How the tables turn. Johnston, who benefits from having allies to keep him on point, has added Harry Welty and now the dynamic Alanna Oswald to his effort to needle the administration; over at the Reader, Loren Martell’s columns have become increasingly lucid. Agree or disagree with them, the school board minority is now putting creative ideas forward for dealing with the district’s issues, and has a new wave of energy. As for the majority and the administration? Well, current district teachers are now writing letters to the DNT editor filleting Superintendent Bill Gronseth’s job searches in other communities. At this point, I’m honestly not sure what the ISD 709 establishment stands for other than opposition to whatever it is that the minority supports. That’s a curious way to govern.

Four of the seven school board seats are up for grabs this fall. Since he was re-elected over a strong opponent with a favorable political climate four years ago, I suspect Johnston can have a third term in his far western district if he wants it. On the far east side, Rosie Loeffler-Kemp, the most steadfast opponent of the minority, is up for re-election. Two of the three at-large seats are also up; Welty will run for re-election, and I’d expect that Annie Harala will be back for another cycle, too. They’re both fairly strong incumbents, as Welty enjoys name recognition and the general tide of public sentiment, while Harala won very comfortably four years ago. At the time, she ran as a post-Red Plan unity candidate, and while she made some efforts to bridge gaps near the start of her term, she’s become a full-on member of the majority over time. That race will say a lot about the ISD 709 school board electorate, though the ability of the minority to recruit a capable candidate is paramount to making it competitive.

If the current minority can hold Johnston and Welty’s seats and pick up just one of Harala and Loeffler-Kemp’s, they’ll no longer be a minority. That would change the tenor of the board room debate in unpredictable ways; it could make things far more contentious between the board and staff, but it could also open up what has long been a stultifying debate. Are Duluth voters willing to take that chance?

Even more so than at the city council level, I think this has the potential to be a huge election year for the school board. There hasn’t been any noise about candidates here yet, but depending on how people play their cards, we could be in for a dramatic shake-up. I’ll be watching things here very closely.

Dead Greek People V: Living in the Shadow of Empire

8 Nov

I kicked off this detour into Dead Greek People after attending a Peace and Justice Series talk at the College of St. Scholastica, so it’s only fitting that I wrap it up (for now, anyway) after another talk. Last night, Duluth was treated to Andrew Bacevich, a scholar noted for his attacks on “American exceptionalism” and U.S. military policy in recent decades. He trashed U.S. military strategy from Vietnam to Iraq, and quoted Jimmy Carter’s 1979 “malaise” speech with approval—the one in which Carter committed political suicide by telling Americans to stop using so much energy and be less materialistic and instead turn down their heat.

So Bacevich must be a flaming lefty, right? Well, no: he self-identifies as a conservative. (To understand why, I highly recommend this article.) Obviously, he isn’t the sort of conservative who would’ve been very popular among other self-identified conservatives in the Bush Administration, and one could argue that, if “conservatism” is something both Bacevich and Ayn Rand lovers would claim, the word has been stripped of all meaning. To get away from this confusing word, we might say that Bacevich’s platform has a whiff of Aristotle about it. (Indeed, he’s a Catholic, and a lot of intellectual Catholics are closet Aristotelians, thanks to the work of Thomas Aquinas.)

The problem is that it’s well-near impossible to apply Aristotle to a modern country, because his ideas—on the definition of freedom, on citizenship, on economics, on the importance of virtue—just don’t compute for most of us moderns. Just look at the comments from the readers on the Bacevich article, some of which are quite intelligent: some people try to cram contemporary politicians into his worldview; some are inclined to agree with some or even most of his ideas, but have one or two disputes that make them skeptical; and some are all on board but have no hope for actually seeing these ideas come to fruition in modern American politics. It is something foreign; something weird. To understand this, and to find the way out of the problem, let’s go back to Athens.

When we last left our Dead Greek People, things weren’t looking terribly good for Athens. The Spartans had won the Peloponnesian War around 400 B.C., leaving Athens seriously weakened. Sparta was the leading power for the next few decades, though Thebes eventually knocked them off, and after that no one really ran the place. Even so, Athens thrived despite its lack of military power. Plato and Aristotle founded their schools, the democracy largely remained intact, and Athens was still the cultural capital of the world.

By the 330s B.C., all this intrigue among Greek city-states wouldn’t matter all that much, either. Alexander the Great came down from Macedon, gathered all his Greek brethren, and set off on a campaign across Asia. The age of city-states was over, and the age of empires had begun. But even when Alexander’s empire fragmented after his death, the Greek influence endured. Athenian thought caught on from far western Europe to India, most importantly in Alexandria, Egypt, where they built a pretty big library to preserve all those ideas. When Europe fell into the Dark Ages after the Romans collapsed, Africa and the Middle East picked up the burden, and Greek philosophy was eventually re-introduced into Europe by conquering Muslims. If it weren’t for Alexander’s imperial ambitions, we probably wouldn’t know the first thing about Plato or Aristotle today.

Even if Alexander was good for the preservation of Greek thought in the long run, he was rather a problem at the time. Up until that point, political philosophy hadn’t thought much about empires, quite rationally pointing out that they were far too big to control. Some of the Tragedies, and historians like Thucydides, made this all too clear. Plato’s Republic imagines the perfect city, not the perfect empire; similarly, Aristotle’s political philosophy takes the community as its base unit, and his entire understanding of human nature comes out of human interaction within those communities. Neither are of much use in explaining life under the new imperial order; what’s worse, Aristotle actively helped bring about the demise of the old world by teaching and encouraging Alexander, and realized his mistake a bit too late. (There are claims that he became involved in a plot to kill Alexander so as to end the madness, though they are unsubstantiated.)

Aristotle

Aristotle teaches Alexander

Massive land empires, you see, are far too large to function as happy little communities in which everyone plays a role. They’re run by powerful people in some distant capital, and while it might be possible to work one’s way into power, the odds aren’t very good. A few groups within the empire will likely take up arms or use other means to protect their more particular identities, but this can be exhausting, and might incur the wrath of the imperial armed forces. Instead, most people become resigned to the fact that they lived in a system beyond their control, and try to carve out the happiest existence they can manage. This brings us to our last Dead Greek Person, Epicurus, who came of age just as Alexander died.

Epicurus, jaded by the political strife all about him, had a very different approach to political philosophy than his Greek predecessors. He had no vision of the ideal state like Plato, nor did he put much stock in an active citizenry living in community, as Aristotle might. He simply counseled that his followers retreat from those grandiose and often toxic affairs, and said the only things that mattered were individuals’ abilities to avoid pain and anxiety. He didn’t have much use for the gods, though if they made people feel better about themselves, good for them. He is technically a hedonist, but he took a very long view of what involves “pleasure,” and therefore wouldn’t counsel people to follow any old desire just because it made them feel good; they had to find pleasure in things they wouldn’t come to regret later on. Epicurus cautioned against falling too far in love: after all, that can cause a lot of pain. He didn’t let gender or class restrict who he welcomed into his school, which he named The Garden.

Epicurus’s ideas have been incredibly durable. His suggestion that people seek happy lives outside the political sphere would prove highly useful for many subjects of the Alexandrine and Roman Empires, and also in many of the feudal and imperial states that came afterward. John Locke, who was probably the most important philosopher for the founders of the United States, thought quite highly of him. His notions of maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain were taken up by utilitarians centuries later, and might be seen as the foundation of modern economic theory. One could easily argue that most people are, and perhaps always have been, far more Epicurean than anything else: they care far more about the things that make them feel good or bad than any grandiose political affairs, and they only get whipped up into a political frenzy when someone or something threatens their comfort.

The obvious problem here is that it can be very hard to know how much pleasure or pain certain actions will cause in the long run. Even more problematic, in my opinion, is Epicureanism’s rather dismissive take on human ambition. There is a danger of it wandering over into Stoicism, which again can be a practical approach in some situations, but tries to suppress those ambitious and aspirational urges and make them go away. It can lend itself to defeatism even more than Aristotle’s acceptance of the world as it is, and when people encounter obstacles, it often tells them to simply desire less. It’s practical advice in many ways, but if it’s too puritan, it won’t work for long. Repressed urges tend to erupt in time, often in ugly ways, and shunting those impulses aside and making them taboo doesn’t quite work. They need healthy outlets. This was Aristotle’s approach: acknowledging those animal drives, and channeling them into something good. He was right to see human interaction as some form of politics, even if many people don’t like that fact.

Epicurus’s value, then, isn’t as a guide toward some utopia where we all forget about politics and live happy little lives. Instead, he grounds us, and reminds us that any ambitions we might have beyond tending our own little gardens have to remember where we all come from. Epicurus was no rebel; he simply had a much better grasp of reality than many of his politically-obsessed contemporaries. This is why Bacevich’s ideas don’t jive with our idea of modern politics: despite claiming to be prudent, they’re not something that we can bring about by electing one or two good leaders.

To his credit, Bacevich acknowledged this in his talk. He had a rather pessimistic view of modern politics, and quite rightly suggested that we tone down our expectations for it, and be glad that one or two individuals can’t change it too easily. Instead of building the ideal city or state from the top down, via a national party or some effort to change Washington, it has to start from the bottom up. (Just ask Jimmy Carter.) If we want a world that believes in a human scale instead of being forced to make do with the empires (literal or figurative) we’re stuck with, we need to start at home, and live it in our daily lives. Instead of focusing on the vagaries of politics beyond our reach, we need to change the things we have the ability to change, and closely guard things we think ought to be preserved. For all their differences, that is the enduring lesson of all the Dead Greek People: that human life is grounded in community, and everything else must follow from there. With that as our starting point, we need not be so pessimistic. In that realm, we really can make a difference.

Here’s a related post on Aristotle’s demons to round out this series.

Picture of Alexander and Aristotle from http://www.heritage-history.com/www/heritage.php?Dir=characters&FileName=aristotle.php. Picture of Epicurus from http://newepicurean.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/01/Epicurus-sculpture-crop.jpg

Case Studies in Conservatism

29 Jun

Much like “liberalism,” the word “conservatism” has come to mean any number of things, and most of the time is used as code for “things I agree with” or “things I disagree with,” depending on one’s political ideology. Here, I’m going to use an old definition of “conservatism” that is not always followed closely by self-described conservatives: essentially, a conservative believes that the road to hell is paved with good intentions, and is skeptical of (but not always opposed to) government action. While I don’t always agree with their critiques, I do think they are important voices in government, which otherwise tends to attract devoted public servants who are excited to do good for their constituents, often to the point that they start throwing money about so freely that they run out of it, or regulate things to such an extent that law becomes unintelligible to most people (if not contradictory or unenforceable). Every political body needs at least one sober, perhaps cynical voice to, in the words of Bill Buckley, “stand athwart history yelling ‘stop.’” This is especially true in a city like Duluth, which does not have a shortage of well-intentioned people in government.

The problem with this conservatism is that people usually say a lot more than just “stop,” and their attempts to rationalize their opinions can make all the difference. Take the case of two local politicians who show the best and the worst sides of the conservative mindset.

At the Duluth City Council meeting this past Monday, I witnessed a clinic in compelling local government conservatism. Councilor Garry Krause voted against the grain on every contentious issue before the Council, and in several cases took the time to explain exactly why he voted the way he did not support added regulation or new development. Councilor Krause was concise, stated his principles, listed examples of negative ramifications of Council meddling, and had a knack for pithy lines that summed up his arguments. Though he disagreed with his colleagues, he remained congenial (in public, at least), and the other councilors often made an effort to respond to his critiques. They seemed to respect one another, and Krause showed a willingness to work with the other Councilors when they do find some common ground. His perspective seems to understand the world is a very complicated place, but he knows where he stands within it, and looks to carve out a niche that leaves his conscience comfortable at the end of the day. While his frequent partner in dissent, Councilor Jay Fosle, comes off as a loose cannon who picks his battles (and his words) haphazardly, Krause manages to be a man of conviction without putting on any airs of self-righteousness.

On the other end of the spectrum, we find people like the Member Art Johnston of the Duluth School Board. Like Krause, Johnston is a reasonably effective public speaker who can put together a solid sound bite. He is also not a dumb man, as evidenced by his encyclopedic knowledge of District bylaws and procedures, and by his careful consideration of issues on which his anti-Long Range Facilities Plan ideological framework does not have much to say. Even his greatest critics would never deny that he is true to his principles.

Yet Johnston is no Krause. He evinces self-righteousness and resentment par excellence. He is disruptive, holding up such routine processes as the approval of meeting minutes. He votes against practically everything before the Board even when those votes serve zero practical purpose, largely to keep up his ideological consistency. His relentless attacks have so alienated the rest of the Board that they only rarely acknowledge his presence, and simply work past him instead of working with him. Whatever his broader political views may be (and I have no idea what they are), his style is reminiscent of some Tea Party politicians: it is virulent, hard-line, and takes no prisoners. As I left the building after the meeting, I overheard him telling a companion, “I don’t know what’s wrong with those people. Actually, I do.” Whatever it was that he understood or did not understand about “those people” (a phrase that immediately sets off alarm bells in my head), his world is clearly one of rigid, Manichean distinctions.

The easy conclusion to this piece would be “Krause good, Johnston bad,” and to say the world needs more conservatives like the former, and fewer like the latter. Reality, unfortunately, is not that simple. Taking the time to develop a complex view of the world while also balancing that with a few core principles is not easy, and is not a trait found in many politicians, who are usually rewarded at the ballot box for taking firm stances. Voters don’t always appreciate nuance.

Furthermore, telling history to stop is a very difficult thing. Both Krause and Johnston hardly ever win. And when one never wins, it is easy to understand the allure of a Johnston, who at least makes the world well-aware of his presence. For all his faults, Johnston has a committed following, and a few of his supporters still come forward to thank him at the end of every meeting. Krause, on the other hand, has no fan club. As he himself noted at last week’s meeting, he is, effectively, the defender of the “mundane and boring.” And when one is not viciously screaming at the opposition, it is not hard for other committed conservatives to see one as too compliant, too much of a loyal opposition, leaving the principled conservative with very few allies. Thus the Garry Krauses of the world face a dilemma: do they sell their souls and join the Art Johnstons, going down screaming? Or do they stay true to basic standards of decorum and fight only the necessary battles, praying the voters will recognize their efforts? It is not too hard to see some immediate parallels between this debate and one of the key rifts in today’s Republican Party.

I’ve set up two ideal types here, and it’s worth noting that they didn’t emerge out of vacuums. At present, the Duluth City Council seems to be a fairly agreeable body, and while it makes its mistakes and may have a certain groupthink to it, it usually manages a constructive conversation. Within the confines of its mission and realistic standards, it is an effective body. The School Board, on the other hand, is still in the shadow of an extremely divisive school restructuring plan, and its culture remains poisoned by a near-existential war. It is easy to dismiss Johnston’s motives as sheer resentment, but his views had to be honed and hardened by something. It is the responsibility of the non-conservatives to understand his mindset, and not in a simplistic way that is just as black-and-white as Johnston’s worldview. The same is true at the national level: it is unfortunate that Washington can barely manage civil discourse anymore, but there are underlying cultural reasons for the breakdown in civility, and there is plenty of blame to be spread around on that front. No one is innocent.

The Elephant in Every Room

14 Apr

I ended my last post by suggesting that individual freedom is the driving force in just about every social change. Today, I’ll flesh out that argument a bit more.

First, the evidence: personal liberation has been at the heart of nearly every liberal or leftist achievement since the 1960s. The civil rights and feminist movements, while not necessarily complete, made great strides. Likewise, sexual autonomy has taken off dramatically. Yet when it comes to collective action, the left has stalled. Despite the efforts of many politicians and community activists, poverty remains entrenched in many American communities, and inequality has only grown. Unions have gradually lost their power. The environmental movement records most of its victories on an individual level, with consumers embracing green shopping but minimal political action on such issues as climate change. Universal health care came about only through appeals that every person deserved the right to some level of care, and remains far less centralized than Europe’s single-payer systems.

On the right, it hasn’t been any different. The past half century has seen decreases in tax rates, deregulation, and the proliferation of free-market economic theories that rally against state intervention. Most liberal social issues have done well over the past half-century, yet gun control legislation rarely goes anywhere, with the Second Amendment as the guiding light. The conservative ideals under duress are far more communal in nature: traditional family structures, church attendance, and perhaps the predominance of “traditional” American culture generally associated with white, Anglo-Saxon Protestants.

There are some issues that don’t line up so evenly. On abortion, for example, both sides can play the freedom card: the left demands rights for women to control their bodies, while the right demands rights for the unborn. National security—that paradoxical enterprise by which we take away freedoms so as to protect freedoms—doesn’t line up very nicely, either. On that front, the politicians in power almost always favor the collective definition of freedom, despite complaints from both ends of the spectrum. Still, I think this is the exception that proves the rule: collective action only seem to advance when the populace feels sufficiently threatened by some outside force, and enthusiasm for more rigid national security has faded away now that Islamic terrorism is not perceived to be the existential threat it was decade ago. Clearly, there are times when public opinion rallies against the steady march of individualism, and slows the tide for a spell. But the fact remains that the side that can best monopolize arguments for individual freedom just about always wins.

Appeals to individual rights resound with voters on a level that vague appeals to the greater good cannot, just as photos of a single starving child tend to move more people to action than a ream of statistics on child poverty. Self-interest tends to take priority, and in a society where the majority of people are relatively secure from outside threats, collective action often seems needless. On an individual level, this makes an awful lot of sense; the problems arise when we dare to ask what might be lost by such a narrow focus.

It’s important to note that this does not necessarily mean the advancement of individual liberties at the expense of state power. In some cases, government policy is seen as the best means to drive individual liberation, and the state sure hasn’t gotten any smaller over the past few decades, even with “conservatives” in control in Washington. Some even argue that individualism and growing state power feed off of one another in a vicious cycle. What have suffered, on the other hand, are voluntary associations that make up civil society—groups that citizens join to affect the communal good. In my opinion, the greatest threat this country faces is not its debt load, nor some external foe, nor an immediate lack of social justice. It is its failing social fabric, and without it, none of the other issues really matter.

My point here certainly isn’t to say that the government needs to control more things, or that we need to subsume all our individual desires to the collective. If I lived in a different country and in a different era, I might have lamented the opposite trend. My point is that our basic ways of thinking about politics—as a battle between the individual and the state—is fundamentally flawed.

Instead, we ought to recognize that humans, for all the unique traits of each one of us, are forever doomed to live within communities, and have to find some way to make them work as a collective. Certain problems can only be solved via collective action, and we also tend to be happier when we have our most fundamental beliefs validated by groups of people with similar interests or concerns. Conceiving of the human being as an autonomous individual who is forced into living with others is an impoverished view of human nature, to the extent that we can define such a thing. We have our moments when we operate alone, yes, but we also have moments where we must operate in concert, and we can’t ignore either one and expect to come out with a sensible philosophy about life.

At this moment in history, individualism has the upper hand, and while individual liberation has brought us many very good things, it isn’t without its dark side, and we must acknowledge it. This, of course, leads to the question of what can be done to counteract these trends; unfortunately, I don’t have a whole lot of great answers on this front yet, beyond the basic suggestion that we should all get out a little bit more. It may, in fact, be hard to do much of anything until a lot more people become aware of the trends driving modern American life.

To that end, I suppose, this blog post is a start. We’ll see where we go next.