Broken politics: ending the shutdown and fixing the state


Minnesota politics and its once pristine national reputation are broken. Politically, the government shutdown is only the mostly recent reminder of how decrepit and polarized it is. A near shutdown in 2001, partial in 2005, a botched unallotment in 2009, heated recounts in 2008 and 2010, and now 2011 all point to something beyond personalities and more structural in Minnesota. The faces have changed, yet the problems persist. The State’s reputation for the Minnesota Miracle, the land of Lake Wobegon, a state where government is clean and works, is shot. Even states like California, with persistent budget problems, or Wisconsin under Scott Walker, do not shut down but eventually manage to adopt budgets. We stand alone as a dysfunctional example of political polarization.

Divergent ideologies, combined with partisanship and rival claims of electoral mandates certainly feed the impasse between Dayton and the Republican legislative leadership. But the roots of this impasse go deeper. Demographic and electoral forces in Minnesota explain how ideology created the shutdown, offering clues both to short and long term solutions to ending this current crisis and perhaps addressing future ones.

Ending the Shutdown this Time

Dayton and the legislature appear not to have a sense of urgency in resolving the deadlock. This is the argument I made on Fox 9 news on July 6, with Heidi Collins. see There are many political reasons for this lack of urgency.

Short term the shutdown does not end unless one side surrenders or both sides compromise. Surrender is difficult, no one wants to look like they have caved in. Conversely, with the two sides ensconced in their rival positions, compromise too looks like capitulation. Any good mediator will tell you that the way out of the current problem is something that allows both sides to claim victory–a perceived face-saving or win-win situation. Republicans cannot give on taxes and revenue unless they get something else their political base wants–new laws on social issues. Thus, not a surprise that prior to July 1, the Republicans seemed willing to give on some revenue, but in return for limits on stem cell research. The Republicans need to show something to their base if they are to compromise. Similarly, Dayton has been willing to give on taxes, but needs something else such as a global agreement on spending, to look like a victor and appease his base.

But while one waits for the compromise or capitulation to occur, one has to ask what forces will drive the two sides to this compromise? Clearly appeals to the public good have not worked for the last six months. Once the shutdown occurred, and the longer it goes, the short term sting from it decreases as life under partial government become normal. Moreover, the courts, the special master and even Dayton seem willing to let the judiciary order more spending, thereby reducing more pain. It appears no one trusts the political process to do the right thing.

What about an outside force to resolve the dispute? The Carlson-Mondale blue ribbon panel was stillborn from its inception, both because the Republicans do not trust Arnie Carlson who is not one of them anymore, and because adopting recommendations of a panel would imply deference to reason and rationality and not politics. The panel could have offered political cover to the two sides to compromise, but its logic appeals to moderates and swing voters, not the political bases who are driving the impasse. Perhaps the bases need to feel the pain of the shutdown? For the Republicans, something is necessary to make millionaires demand an end to the shutdown, something that coss them money. The same is true for the Democrats.

But perhaps a different outside force is needed to bring the parties together, but what? This is the structural issue.

Broken Politics and the Electoral Connection

One would have thought that political anger of voters would drive legislators and Dayton to the table. But that presupposes they and Dayton fear reelection. Certainly some legislators, maybe 30 or less, live in swing districts where this is an issue. But for the vast majority, this is not a concern. Minnesota is a red and blue state. The partisan distribution of the state has a clear geographic pattern. The DFL solidly have the Twin Cities and some of the other urban cores as well as St. Louis County, the Republicans the rest.

The geographic partisanship is hard to correct with redistricting given residential patterns. This means the electoral forces that should drive elected officials to compromise do not exist. Instead, fully partisan areas simply reinforce the current ideological divide. Longer term, then, one of the causes of the partisanship is the geographic red-blue divide in the state reinforced by districting. Addressing this problem is an imperative, but the solutions are hard to envision. In the short term, impetus for ending the shutdown may come from the legislators in the swing districts who are fearful of losing in November 2012.

Partisanship is also exacerbated by the caucus system. It rewards extremists on both sides who have the time and tenacity to outlast everyone else in seeking to influence the direction of the major parties. The caucus system nurtures zealots, ideologically opposed to the other side and often unwilling to compromise. Abolishing the caucus system, or at least seriously restructuring it to encourage more diversity within each party, should also be on the horizon.

At the gubernatorial level, not since Arnie Carlson’s reelection in 1994 has a governor been elected with a majority vote. Since then, the winners have been elected essentially by their political bases. The presence of a third party candidate has literally guaranteed minority governors not to be beholden to swing voters for their election. Adoption of ranked choice voting for statewide offices might resolve this, making governors indebted to more swing voters might force them to compromise.

Non-Solutions: It’s not the gift ban law

Finally, two non-solutions. Some will call for the return to non-partisan legislative elections as Minnesota once had. Removing the party labels will not remove the underlying partisanship. Second, some will point to the state gift ban law, contending that because lobbyists can no longer wine and dine legislators, members of the two political parties no longer socialize. The gift ban law does not prevent legislators from socializing, it simply says special interests cannot buy influence through gifts. Blaming the gift ban law for the impasse is no different than a legislator stating: “I will not cooperate with the other side unless a lobbyist buys me a meal.” This sounds like a five year old threatening to hold his breath until he gets the toy he wants.

Overall, the government shutdown is sourced in partisanship rooted in demographic forces accentuated by an electoral system that makes compromise more difficult. It renders both a short and long term solution difficult, damaging the governability and reputation of Minnesota.