What’s a Minnesotan, Anyway?

Earlier this week, the Star Tribune reported on a forum planned for Wednesday night at the Walker Arts Center, at which a series of panelists would grapple with the question of whether Minnesotans are “Midwestern” or not. This might seem like tiresome semantics, and an exercise in one of the more stupid definitions of “culture.” But as one read the article and dug down into the motives at play, there was a lot more going on here than the headline lets on. Another commitment prevented me from attending, but that won’t stop me from having an opinion.

Growing up in Minnesota, it was always easy to call it part of the Midwest, sometimes with the qualifier “Upper” before the Midwest to indicate our higher latitude and relative lack of corn fields. Still, my idea of the Midwest didn’t line up with everyone else’s; for example, I’d never have called Ohio “Midwest,” but that seems to be exactly what East Coast people associate with the word. There’s an awful lot of stuff wrapped up into Midwest, and Minnesota, as one of its most distant extensions, sits more awkwardly in that region than many other states. The phrase has some less-than-stellar baggage (flyover country, empty cornfields), so I can buy the need for a new region.

So when it comes to the proposed alternatives, “North” does have a nice ring. I appreciate the way it’s pitched as a shameless embrace of our cold. So what if it’s cold? We have fun with it. Still, I will quibble: Eric Dayton claims the U.S. doesn’t have a “North,” but, well, we did. It was a combatant in the Civil War. We no longer think of that North as a region because it doesn’t have the historical memory of its antagonist, the still-extant South, but claiming the Northern mantel might have some unexpected connotations. (Minnesota was an infant state at the time of the Civil War and certainly contributed to the Union cause, though it can hardly claim a central role.)

There’s also the question of whether anyone else actually belongs to Minnesota’s region, and could unabashedly embrace the North. The parts of North Dakota along the Red River Valley make some sense, but anything to the west is decidedly Great Plains, and would be an odd mix culturally. Iowa isn’t quite North in the way that Minnesota is. That leaves us with Wisconsin, which I do think is a reasonably good fit once we get over the Packers’ ownership of the Vikings, and perhaps the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, which is very North. It’s not much, though. Are we really celebrating our region, or just our state? For that matter, are we even still bothering with the half of the state that does look a fair bit like Iowa?

Here I will confess a fair amount of unease around the real motive here: this attempt to stake out a regional identity seems to slide into a marketing campaign for Minneapolis and St. Paul. I live in and like Minneapolis, but there are still worlds of difference between it and northern Minnesota, which is essentially what the people quoted in the Strib are after. It sounds as if these scions of the creative class want to appropriate all of the Lake Wobegon homeliness and the wilderness allure of Greater Minnesota for the MSP brand while at the same time dismissing small-town Minnesota as “slightly hick.” Those towns are just relics of history, insufficiently vibrant for any properly urbane “creative” person, but we’ll gladly claim their boots and backpacks as ours, because aren’t we so rugged here in Northeast? Spare me.

I’m at some risk of turning this into a Wendell Berry rant about how the cities strip-mine rural America, a relentless brain drain that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. (We’ll save that discussion for another day.) I’m not sure how much we can fight the tide. Regional power would be a valuable thing for MSP, and if it snaps up some of the cultural cachet of its surroundings for its own, at least that’s being valued and passed along in some form. My own city, Duluth, is aiming to follow the same path on a more modest scale, and I have no burning desire to open up a kangaroo court and judge people by some measure of alleged authenticity. On the whole, the hipster ethic at the heart of the New North blends vestiges of local culture with cosmopolitan city life, making for a richer experience for the rest of us. If done right, it really could shore up the foundations of a regional economy.

Still, I feel the need to sound a few alarm bells. The creative class theory currently in vogue has serious shortcomings. It is a mindset fully in the thralls of current economic winds, and it can further the split between this new elite and those on the outside. It’s enjoyable if you’re an upper middle class liberal (that is, the people who run Minneapolis and St. Paul, or any of the people who appeared on the panel), but for other groups, it’s a trickle-down effect at best.

So by all means, MSP, claim the mantel as the capital of the North. I may gripe, but better here than anywhere else. Just remember that your relationship with your region ought to have some give-and-take, rather than you simply being the metropole sucking all else to the center. Remember that people who are not on the cultural vanguard deserve a spot at the table. And don’t think for a moment that branding yourself as more “varied” and “diverse” will be some engine of balanced growth. It can certainly help, but there’s a lot more to it than that. And if you can acknowledge that fact, us kinda hick people from the hinterland might be a bit more willing to come along for the ride in your great new North.

Election Reactions 2014

Time to exhale in relief: the election is over. It’s hard to think of a more exhausting campaign season, or one so devoid of any sort of positive platform—and that’s a pretty low bar. The GOP won big by virtue of not being Barack Obama, and a presidency that once inspired optimism even in parts of the right is now lurching toward a tired end. The President has spent the past few months in a bunker, rarely venturing on to the campaign trail; it seems a fitting sign of the distance between all American politicians and the people who elect them.

It’s easy to blast the whole exercise. The relentless attack ads made a mockery of rational debate, as does a celebrity-obsessed media filled with people shouting at one another. (I turned on CNN for the first time in years last night, to watch the results come in; I didn’t last fifteen minutes before fleeing elsewhere in search of some sanity.) It was obviously a good night if you’re a Republican, but it’s not like the GOP has some grand Contract with America or Compassionate Conservatism in mind. For that matter, even the Tea Party energy wasn’t anywhere near what it was four years ago. Most know that Obamacare repeal isn’t really realistic, and were careful not to overplay the social issues. (If anything, excessive focus on social issues hampered some of the Democrats who failed to realize that abortion is probably not going to swing an election in this sort of political climate.) They played it safe and delivered, and the blankness of the national political agenda could, one supposes, leave room for some creativity. Or just an even more blatant brand of gridlock.

So, how’s a jaded citizen to respond? In one of two ways, I’d think.

The first is one to which I am temperamentally inclined. This election simply shows how stories of grand sweeps of progress are never really right, and how two-party democracy always trends back to a balance point. It’s a cycle, one that could well swing back in two years when it’s the Republicans’ turn to defend a lot of Senate seats in blue states. New people come in, old ones get pitched, and we move along. Yes, the losers will moan about how everything is going to hell, but somehow, we all survive. We survived eight years of Bush, we’ll survive eight years Obama, and we’ll survive whoever comes next, too.

The process isn’t smooth. It isn’t going to please anyone who wants drastic changes. The legislation that comes out of it is always a mash-up of special interests and people working at cross-purposes. Still, we find a way to muddle through, and it isolates us from drastic shifts that could destabilize everything. If you look around at the rest of the world, you’ll be hard-pressed to find something better (with the possible exception of a couple homogenous northern European countries, some of which are on the verge of demographic crisis). The old Winston Churchill line comes back: democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others. Disappointment comes only to those who have a far too rosy view of their own power and the vagaries of human nature. Backers of each party must soldier on, looking for little wins here and there and hoping they can claim some victories in the long view.

***

There is a second narrative, though, that expands on the first one, and it has some merit. It says that there is more than just a balancing act going on, and that there is a broader cultural shift that is slowly carrying the whole system along with it. One side of the spectrum rails against the expansion of the state, while the other fears the whims of the market unchecked. The argument, however, says that this is all a false choice: the two are joined at the hip, natural outgrowths of a philosophy of individual liberty.

This is an old critique of possible pitfalls of democracy, with roots in Aristotle and Tocqueville. As equals in mediocrity, everyone lives out their lives in an economic rat race, doing what they can to accrue status. With everyone fending for themselves, the state must step in and do something to guarantee order. And so the government creates complicated codes from on high, regulating things to keep us quiet and perhaps confused. We hold elections, but they don’t really matter. We trade one distant elite for another, all life subjugated beneath a tutelary power.

This isn’t a critique of the left or the right; both major parties are implicated. That mashed-up form of governance may work for a spell, but there will come a time when the contradictions are too serious to hold together. We want Medicare and social security, so long as we don’t have to pay for them; we want all our liberties, but anyone who disagrees is a bigot unworthy of a spot at the table. We end up with corporate welfare or a nanny state or whatever pejorative name you’d like, and a national security state fed by a military-industrial complex. The insidious trends of money in politics and greater inaccessibility leave us with only a shell of the supposed democracy.

This isn’t a very reassuring story. But, unlike the other one, it invites action. If this is reality, we’d better do something, and soon. Not a revolt in the hills; revolution has had its day.  Not the libertarian alternative currently in vogue; any realistic implementation of that vision only feeds the beast. Instead, we’re left with my old hobbyhorse: a retreat to the local, carving out little spheres where we makes things as right as we can in our own little corner.

Do I buy this wholeheartedly? Not quite. We still have a ways to fall before I’m convinced. I’d like to hope it isn’t true. But I can handle a world in which it is.

***

How does Minnesota fit in to all of this? It actually had a pretty unique election night. While the Republicans did regain the state House of Representatives, Minnesota remains an island of blue amid the red tide. DFLers swept the statewide races and retained the rural congressional districts that were up for grabs, most notably Rick Nolan’s Eighth District. This is really what makes Minnesota politics unique. The Twin Cities and their suburbs tend to behave by normal urban-suburban left-right dynamics, but Greater (Don’t-You-Dare-Call-It-Outstate) Minnesota just doesn’t cooperate. Some of this is probably the lingering power of an old guard from a different generation, as in the case of Collin Peterson and certain parts of the Iron Range. But still, Democrats have an awful lot of staying power in Greater Minnesota.

There’s been an attempt to argue that the Minnesota 8th District is now a swing district due to its relative cultural conservatism and the decline of union power of the Range. This story is pretty much wrong. The 8th could turn red again as the suburbs sprawl northward while the northeast shrinks, but Republicans won’t win in northeast Minnesota until they find a message that is more than boilerplate conservatism (perhaps with some lip service to mining tacked on top). It’s going to take something creative to dislodge the DFL machine, and said creativity is nowhere to be seen. The next generation of Range politics looks a lot more like Carly Melin than it does like any Republican.

Duluth, to no one’s surprise, remains a DFL bastion, with the incumbents and newcomer Jennifer Schultz whipping the opposition in the local House races. Most of their opponents were also-ran sacrificial lambs, and the local Republicans just don’t have the infrastructure to muster anything serious. As on the Range, the DFL has been the adaptable party here, fielding candidates like Schultz and Erik Simonson who reflect the particularities of their sides of a rather divided city. Of course, one can be a pretty mediocre Democrat and still win in Duluth, but the onus is on the opposition to come up with something new that actually inspires people beyond the true believers. The same could no doubt be said of Democrats in deep red areas. Once again: if you don’t like the system, the way out is a focus on the local.

On a final note, there was one Duluth-area result that made me do a double-take: Marcia Stromgren won a seat on the Soil and Water Conservation District board. Yes, that Marcia Stromgren. The rest of the Soil and Water Conservation District board has my deepest sympathy.