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A moderately progressive mandate for U.S. and Minnesota

Date Published: 11/15/2012

Author: Dane Smith, President


Dane SmithWe may just be reaching a consensus on what most Minnesotans and most Americans really believe about taxes and the size and role of their governments in an increasingly diverse state and nation.

First, amid all the exultation over a “New America,” let’s just make it clear that conservatism’s death has been greatly exaggerated. That durable philosophy is very much alive, if not all that well right now, and its more responsible adherents will always be competitive in America’s political marketplace.

Winds and tides will change, sometimes as dramatically as they did with the anti-government Tea Party revolt of 2010, sandwiched between the even larger progressive waves of 2008 and 2012. (Note that voter turnout was roughly 20 percentage points higher in 2008 and 2012 than in 2010, reflecting a larger consensus.)

At the very core, the 2012 elections were mostly about how to deal with public obligation, public debt and budget crises, and growing economic inequality. And a clear majority of voters said they value public investments and the fundamental things their governments do for health, education and more economic security for ALL our people. These are assets that provide a better life for the increasing percentage of disadvantaged people, and these assets create a foundation for stable business growth. Most broad-minded people understand that.

Despite the tidal fluctuations — and as wealth and income has shifted toward the top — it has become increasingly clear that most folks want their good governments to do a little more of that classic constitutional role of moving toward “a more perfect union” and promoting the “general welfare.” A consistent majority wants government to help provide minimal sufficiency and greater opportunity for all of us in the vast middle and those left behind, whether it’s defined as 99 percent, the 47 percent who do not earn enough to pay federal income taxes and were famously dismissed by Mitt Romney, or the 20 percent of our American children living in poverty.

For those who cynically think voters are fickle and can’t make up their minds, consider this: In five of the past six presidential elections, a majority of Americans have voted against the candidate carrying the anti-tax, anti-government message.

That’s two elections apiece won by Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, and Al Gore won the popular vote in 2000 by a half-million, losing the presidency only because of the Florida debacle. Only in 2004, when President George W. Bush was actually seeking more government spending at home (No Child Left Behind and Homeland Security) and abroad (huge expenditures on two wars, paid with debt instead of taxes) did the anti-tax candidate win a national plebiscite.

Bush’s former speechwriter, Michael Gerson, nailed it with this declaration last week on what his party must do to reclaim viability, given that they keep losing national elections with an anti-government, exclusionary message:

“Conservatives will need to define a role for government that addresses human needs in effective, market-oriented ways,” Gerson wrote in a post-mortem that offered a refreshing contrast to the denial from many other quarters. “Americans fear public debt, and they resent intrusive bureaucracies, but they do not hate government”(emphasis added).

The strident, uncompromising, anti-government, anti-tax fundamentalism of Grover Norquist, Fox News, Ayn Rand and presidential candidate Ron Paul was exemplified by the libertarian faction that essentially took control of the Minnesota Republican Party in the 2012 caucuses. That brand was rather soundly rejected, most decisively in the Minnesota U.S. Senate race between incumbent Amy Klobuchar, a centrist who embodies a pro-business progressivism, and Kurt Bills, a doctrinaire libertarian. Klobuchar was rewarded with an astounding proportion of votes in a statewide race, nearly 70 percent.

This conservative message in the presidential election was careening toward a historic clobbering, trailing by almost double digits right after the national conventions. Gov. Mitt Romney was badly behind in polling until he dramatically emerged as “Moderate Mitt” in the first debate. Instantly, he became the candidate who no longer talked about tax cuts for the wealthy, or those “severely conservative” credentials he claimed in appealing to the hard-right base of primary voters, and he distanced himself from his own statement about 47 percent of the nation being unproductive entitlement-takers.

It was too little and too late for most voters, however. And the eventual outcomes, wrote progressive columnist E.J. Dionne, reflected a victory over “an increasingly militant conservatism intent on vastly reducing the responsibilities of government and cutting taxes even more on the wealthiest Americans. In the process, [Obama] built a broad alliance of moderates and progressives who still believe in government’s essential role in regulating the marketplace and broadening the reach of opportunity.”

In Minnesota, there already is fairly wide agreement on what we mean by broadening the reach of opportunity and reversing the trend of increasing concentration of wealth and income in the hands of the top 1 percent.
It means more public funds and better attention to measurable outcomes in education and workforce training, and ending the race and income disparities in achievement and attainment. It means pushing ahead toward affordable, accessible health coverage for all children and families. It means sustained investment in transit and other physical infrastructure to foster commercial growth. And given inexorable demographic realities, it means a reasonable increase in state revenues and a more progressive tax structure.

Finding balance between policies that foster business growth and those that provide economic justice is never easy. And the 2014 and 2016 election outcomes will again depend on the direction of the economy.

Almost before the champagne bottles were emptied, the new legislative majority leaders in St. Paul were sending the message last week that expectations should be lowered, agendas scaled back and budget demands trimmed.

That’s wise. But they shouldn’t forget that they do have a mandate for reducing inequality and broadening prosperity in Minnesota beyond the top 1 percent or 10 percent or even 53 percent.

And they ought to remember the almost poetic way that Obama in his victory speech called for a proper balance between the conservative ideal of individualism and progressive visions of a more communitarian society.

The election moves us forward, Obama said, because it reinforced “the belief that while each of us will pursue our own individual dreams, we are an American family, and we rise or fall together as one nation and as one people.”


A version of this column originally appeared in the St. Paul Legal Ledger Capitol Report on Thursday, November 15, 2012.

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