Important words are allergic to adjectives. So it goes with the term “conventional wisdom,” which indicates only the lack of actual wisdom.
Such is the case on Northern Minnesota’s Iron Range, where conventional wisdom continues to misinform dramatic changes in demographics, economics and culture.
Historian Pam Brunfelt calls the blue collar mining towns of the Iron Range an “industrial frontier,” and if that seems a unique label it’s because this is an unusual region. Geographically isolated, neither urban nor rural, both abundant and foreboding, the Range was a cauldron of immigration, social strife and opportunity just three generations ago. Today, iron mining continues but the old ramparts crumble. Well-worn roads are traveled both ways, originally with bare feet and more recently with minivans. Not just Chryslers. Toyotas. Hondas, even.
This year has been replete with conventional wisdom about the changing Iron Range and its political proclivities. 2014 began with people arguing the merits and dangers of new forms of mining on the East Range and in the surrounding region. That argument spills into politics. Republican challengers for governor, senator and the local seat in Congress, desperate for narrative in a ferociously boring campaign, seek to bend Iron Range votes their way by exploiting internal DFL arguments over mining permits.
Here we enter the realm of conventional thinking. The great steel industry collapse and reorganization of the 1980s and 90s shrunk the overall population, birth rates and school enrollment of Iron Range cities by 30-50 percent. As 2010 census numbers came back, it was clear that what the region needed was an infusion of young professionals.
Recent months, however, have provided new data showing that though overall population losses have had their effect, young professionals are indeed gradually returning to most rural Northern Minnesota counties.
Demographics are a complicated measure of the health of community and not all of Northern Minnesota’s trends are bad. What matters more is how people engage with their communities. It is in this truth where we see greater woes in some Range towns — apathy, institutional decay and parochial glad-handing — problems that neither political party seems particularly interested in addressing.
Political campaigns, however, don’t respond to this nuance very well. We know the electorate is changing, but why? Successful campaigns melt down complex issues into blunt sound bites to be used as clubs in rhetorical street fights. That’s what’s been happening in the U.S. Senate race and MN-8 Congressional race, where both Republicans Mike McFadden and Stewart Mills, respectively, have used the longstanding gap between Iron Range unemployment rates and state averages to suggest that A) DFLers like Sen. Al Franken and Rep. Rick Nolan are somehow causing or are complicit in this gap, and B) that new mining, unfettered by the deliberate environmental review process now underway, would eliminate this gap.
This talking point has been debunked, but that didn’t stop the Range’s largest daily newspaper, with its fervent mining company bias, from printing a story that suggested it might be true anyway.
Conventional wisdom about the Iron Range — that it alone controls the fate of MN-8, that it’s all about mining, that it will “flip” MN-8 or the Senate or Governor’s race — is falling apart. Mining is an increasingly automated industry using highly-paid, highly-educated personnel. Its economic impact is real, but it’s ability to address poverty, wages, social problems, or workforce training for the currently unemployed is only partial.
No Democrat or Republican candidate is innocent of bending data to fit a narrative. It’s pretty much the business these days. But those who rely on bad interpretations of data will pay the price. Right now I don’t think any of the major party candidates are connecting with the changing demographics and dynamics of Northern Minnesota. If they were, people would be much more engaged. As it is, I join many of my friends and neighbors up North waiting for the storm to pass so we can enjoy a new season. These new days will come no matter which way the election turns out. Perhaps in coming years more adaptive leadership will emerge in our political process. That's certainly what we need.