Minnesota 2020 Journal: David versus Goliath

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Minnesota 2020 is the sand in Mitch Pearlstein’s shorts.

Mr. Pearlstein runs the conservative Center of the American Experiment think tank. This week he posted an opinion piece offering an overview of Minnesota’s think tank community, implicitly anointing CAE as the standard against which all others are measured.

CAE launched in 1990, applying the national conservative movement’s think-tank model on a state level. It claims to “bring conservative and free market ideas to bear on the hardest problems facing Minnesota and the nation … driving Minnesota’s transformation from a liberal, high tax, big government state toward a more conservative and free market future.”

The right is obsessed with intellectual legitimacy, most cogently observed in the Cato Institute’s work and values framework. Its name is drawn from Cato’s Letters by two 18th century British writers inspired by 17th century British philosopher John Locke’s work. The letters invoke Roman statesman and stoic philosopher Cato the Younger, famous for his incorruptibility and spirited defense of traditional Roman institutions.

Cato was something of nut job. A great orator and thinker, he was also uncompromising, surrendering practical considerations to pure principle. In many respects, Cato the Younger lived in the world he wished for rather than the world that was.

That, in a nutshell, is the Center of the American Experiment.

Mr. Pearlstein’s intellectual paternalism shows when he tries to divide think tanks into “good cops” and “bad cops.” Respectful, deferential progressive organizations are his idea of good cops. Minnesota 2020 appears to be Mr. Pearlstein’s only progressive “bad cop.”

Supporting his argument, Mr. Pearlstein quotes my colleague John Fitzgerald without attribution, lulling casual readers to believe that every sentence at mn2020.org conveys anti-conservative invective. Mr. Pearlstein is apparently waiting for right-wing radio or the Taxpayers League to “bad cop” for him, filling in detail and saving him the dirty work. That’s how good cop-bad cop interrogation works.

Now that Mr. Pearlstein occupies the status quo, he is not eager for change. But rebuking criticism as ungentlemanly is a poor substitute for discursive rigor. Mr. Pearlstein is, I believe, most comfortable with a think-tank community that yields to his vision of genteel civic engagement.

Minnesota 2020 is not so inclined. Our mission moves Minnesota forward, focusing on what really matters: education, health care, transportation and economic development. We believe that our future lies before us, not behind.

Still, I am not immune to provocation, and I’m certainly not worried that Mr. Pearlstein will blackball my Minneapolis Club membership application. Let me suggest an opposing view.

Minnesota’s think-tank community is isolated from much of the state. It represents too few voices. Many are more interested in navel-gazing rather than genuine exchange. Policy values are not the preserve of the few, but of the many.

New media technology reflects our middle class democracy’s demand for information and participation. It’s awkward, uneasy and unready, but it’s here. Get used to it.

In the Bible’s first book of Samuel, the Israelites face the Philistine army, creating a stand-off. Goliath of Gath, a well-regarded, physically-imposing Philistine warrior, proposes resolving the conflict through single combat. The losing champion’s side would surrender.

Fearing Goliath, every Israelite soldier but David refuses the challenge. Facing the boy, Goliath is underwhelmed. “Am I a dog that you come at me with sticks?” he taunts.

The rest is history.

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