Reeling from President Donald Trump’s daily tweetstorms? Sometimes it helps to step back from the news barrage and take the long view, Ted Kolderie advises. That’s what he does in his newly published memoir/history/policy case statement, “Thinking Out the How.”
Kolderie, 87, may be Minnesota’s most durable policy wonk, and ranks among its most effective. His arrival at the Minneapolis Tribune preceded mine by a couple of decades. By the time I showed up in the newsroom, he was already on to good work at the Citizens League, followed by the Humphrey School, Education Evolving and numerous consulting gigs. He’s been called the father of the chartered-school movement for his 1991 work with the Legislature developing the first charter law in the nation.
He’s also no slouch as a historian. When I caught up with him last week, he was ready with a big-trends explanation for the Age of Trump.
The nation is witnessing the slow, tortured exhaustion of an idea that former President Theodore Roosevelt first fully articulated in 1910, Kolderie explained. Roosevelt’s idea was that as corporate interests gained enormous power, a vigorous public sector was the best countervailing guardian of the interests of the people. That public sector in turn was best operated at the national level, under the stewardship of a president whose role was that of “steward of the public welfare.”
First called the New Nationalism, that idea of “moving decisions into the public sector, up to the national level and over to the executive branch” morphed into the New Deal in the 1930s, the Square Deal in the 1950s and the Great Society in the 1960s, Kolderie teaches. It’s been in decline at least since the 1980s. Kolderie thinks the nation has lately witnessed its death throes.
What should replace it? Kolderie has a ready answer. “Of necessity,” one state at a time, Americans will reclaim an older idea — federalism. It’s the notion that on matters of domestic policy, states and local governments should take the lead.
“The national government is overloaded; national politics overwhelmed by its responsibilities,” Kolderie wrote. Federal failures in domestic policy matters — health care, education, housing, transportation, urban development — are all too evident. Congress has become so prone to gridlock that even single-party control no longer prevents it — as witnessed last week.
“Washington politics is not a safe arena for system change,” he wrote, describing the scene at our nation’s Capitol as a clash of conflicting interest groups that leaves the public interest in the dust. “Much if not most of the work on domestic problems has got to be handled by the states and in their communities.”
That’s an idea that fires the imagination of a State Capitol watcher — even one who’s aware that state government isn’t as reliable as it once was. After all, much of what Minnesotans know about government shutdowns comes from surviving partial state closures in 2005 and 2011. The same interest groups that pull strings in Washington have St. Paul politicians in their clutches, too.
Nevertheless — as Kolderie’s success with charter schools illustrates — “policy innovation has a chance” at the state level.
What policy innovation? Settle in for a long answer if you ask Kolderie that question. For nearly a half-century, he’s been preaching that governments need to be more thoughtful about how their work gets done (hence the title of his book) if this nation is to thrive.
Somewhere between bureaucratic bloat and laissez-faire neglect lies a politically unifying sweet spot, he contends. It’s where governments maximize efficiency by contracting with private or nonprofit service providers, unleashing the power of both competition and cooperation, and incentivizing citizens to make choices that coincide with the public interest. That’s how government can perform better at lower cost and earn public trust to do more, he argues.
I’ve watched plenty of sincere governors and legislators wrestle with “how,” as Kolderie says they should. But he also says that elected officials ought not do so alone. They need citizen help, preferably through the nonpartisan offices of organizations like the Citizens League, the Civic Caucus and the League of Women Voters.
Such organizations need not be flush with funds to be effective, he notes. But they need committed, open-minded participants in bigger numbers than they have today. The retirement of the baby boom generation should present a recruiting opportunity to such groups. So should the large and socially conscious millennial generation.
Building up such organizations could be the best thing Minnesotans can do to give this state an edge as New Nationalism gives way to New Federalism, Kolderie says. Doing so creates “the culture of the commonwealth. That can be a countervailing force to petty politics.”
One year into the Trump presidency, I’d say the nation needs all the countervailing forces to petty politics that it can get. (Kolderie’s book is available at Common Good Books in St. Paul and online at Amazon.)
Lori Sturdevant is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. She is at firstname.lastname@example.org.