OPINION | Flying the distraction flag

Hennepin County is Minnesota’s most populous county, home to roughly one of every five Minnesotans. The county sits on the cutting edge of every Minnesota community challenge, from education and affordable healthcare, to transportation and economic development. Hennepin experiences need and opportunity in equal parts.

What did Hennepin County’s elected policy leaders do recently to address that need and opportunity? They voted to stop flying the United Nations flag.

Hennepin County contains amazing wealth and undeniable poverty. While the medium household income is over $61,000 per year, twelve percent of Hennepin County residents live below the poverty line. That’s about a point and a half greater than the Minnesota average.

Hennepin County schools enroll over 150,000 students. About a quarter of Minnesota’s workforce works in Hennepin County. The county maintains 137 bridges and 561 miles of roads, a figure doesn’t include federal, state, city or county roads and bridges. A quarter of Minnesota’s businesses are located in Hennepin County.

Given this broad, challenging mix of opportunity and hurdles, a reasonable question is where to start? Yet, taking down the UN flag that flies—flew—in front of the Hennepin County Government Center appears to be a more pressing policy matter than growing jobs, reversing Hennepin County’s home value slide or creating affordable healthcare.

I only know this because Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson took a victory lap on his campaign blog, trumpeting the achievement. In fact, if Minnesota Public Radio hadn’t noticed, including Johnson’s update in their daily news post, the entire episode would’ve escaped my attention.

But, this isn’t about the U.N. flag. No, it’s a distraction from the things that really matter to Minnesotans and Hennepinians. This waste of public time, energy and attention is another play straight out of the conservative public policy distraction playbook. Rather than confront Hennepin County’s very real, very pressing challenges, Commissioner Johnson chose the tempest in the teapot. Deeply concerned that the U.N. flag’s presence somehow compromised Hennepin County’s core functions by implying county subservience to U.N. authority, he allocated considerable public time and resources to removing the U.N. flag’s offending presence.

Let me share some ideological context. To right-wing conservatives, the United Nations is seen as a harbinger of creeping, one-world socialism. Many elected and appointed conservative leaders and staff have, for years, drawn generous public pay while devoting themselves to railing against the U.N’s many ills. Commissioner Johnson, in that regard, joins a rich tradition.

According to Johnson’s narrative, the U.N. flag’s presence has troubled him since taking office in 2009. I would’ve thought that Minnesota’s unilateral state action discontinuing its efficient state-county-local revenue sharing program or the housing market’s crash or even the county’s skyrocketing unemployment rate might also have troubled Commissioner Johnson, but I don’t know his mind. I only know what he discloses on his blog.

Johnson represents one front in a multi-faceted conservative distraction strategy. Already this year, the state legislature has invested considerable public resources placing conservative social agenda items on Minnesota’s fall ballot as proposed constitutional amendments. Elected on the promise of laser-focusing on job creation, state majority caucus leaders have concerned themselves with anything but job creation.

Even local conservative elected officials have jumped on the distraction bandwagon. In 2010, the metropolitan suburban city of Lino Lakes loudly, pointedly and publicly passed an ordinance forbidding publishing public documents in any language other than English. No one had ever requested a translated document. No one, not even the ordinance’s opponents, could think of circumstance where translated documents would be requested. Still, conservative city elected leaders pushed ahead with their policy distraction.

What was achieved? The same thing that Hennepin County’s new resolution forbidding the county to fly flags other than the American, the Minnesota and the county flag on the government center’s north plaza. Which is to say, nothing.

The U.N. flag no longer flies in front of the county government center. Yet, Hennepin County prosperity isn’t growing. Average home values haven’t improved. Unemployment levels remain unmoved. Hennepin County isn’t even freer nor has its liberty quotient expanded. Public policy distractions never improve policy. Instead, they preserve the status quo, allowing pressing problems to concentrate and magnify.

Ideologically-driven distractions are a red flag, warning Minnesotans to beware that our state’s stability and prosperity are under attack. If Minnesota’s public policymakers focus on what’s really important —schools, healthcare, jobs, safety—then Minnesota moves forward. Otherwise, they’re simply perpetuating the problem.

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    John Van Hecke's picture
    John Van Hecke

    John Van Hecke is the executive director of Minnesota 2020.