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OUR OPINION: Minnesota: What's the matter

Next week, Walter Mondale will headline an event in Minneapolis called "Recapturing Minnesota's Edge." At the event, Mondale and former Gov. Arne Carlson will be "challenged to talk about ways we can recapture our historic advantage and reputatio...

Next week, Walter Mondale will headline an event in Minneapolis called "Recapturing Minnesota's Edge." At the event, Mondale and former Gov. Arne Carlson will be "challenged to talk about ways we can recapture our historic advantage and reputation as a progressive and prosperous state," reports Growth and Justice, the nonprofit group that is sponsoring the event.

The goal and the speakers are sure to add up to a fascinating event. And when Mondale steps up to the podium, he should start with the following as a frank description of the Minnesota of today:

"Minnesota is changing.

"In a state where the storied 'consensus' once meant a high degree of civic engagement and shared vision for economic, social and educational betterment in the state, we see divisions into increasingly irreconcilable camps.

"There is deep skepticism about public institutions and strong disagreement on their role, and abiding concern about the rapid growth and change in the make-up of our communities.

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"Clearly, the causes of these disruptions are multifold, including the changing economy, the increasingly racially diverse immigration into the state and the polarization of politics. Regardless, there is an increasing belief that community in Minnesota is on the decline, as fewer people know their neighbors, the quality of public schools seems to erode, transportation infrastructure fails to keep up with need, and taxes seem persistently high."

The former vice president should know those words because they introduce the major findings of the Minnesota Community Project -- which he founded.

The project's report was released in 2004, but it remains by far the best study of the recent changes in Minnesota's political climate. And if Minnesota progressives truly want to recapture the "progressive and prosperous" Minnesota of years past, it first must address the reasons that Minnesota slipped away -- reasons that the project's final report makes clear.

Mondale created the Minnesota Community Project while a member of the advisory council of the Humphrey Institute at the University of Minnesota. With the help of a team of pollsters, project members surveyed Minnesotans through focus groups and other means.

Their final report was titled "The Changing Shape of Minnesota." Its conclusion was clear:

"Minnesotans are convinced that government is wasteful and inefficient, and squandering hard-earned tax dollars on programs that are not run well or do not benefit all people equally."

That, Mr. Vice President, is the key.

Why isn't Minnesota as reliably progressive as it used to be? Because a majority of Minnesotans no longer are convinced that state government programs work. Growth and Justice -- the nonprofit sponsoring "Recapturing Minnesota's Edge" -- should put that conclusion on a banner and hang it at the event because it's by far the strongest force shaping Minnesota's political evolution over the past 20 years.

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The report, "The Changing Shape of Minnesota," still is online at the Humphrey Institute's Web site, but in all other ways, it has been gathering dust. Mondale should retrieve a copy, blow off the pixel dust, reread the report's tough conclusions -- and then use those conclusions to map where to go next.

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