The stories we tell each other profoundly affect our shared lives. For 43 years, the story this newspaper has allowed me to tell is about the unique state I’ve adopted as my home — and about the stewardship that’s required for it to continue to be America’s best place to live.
Please indulge me as I extol Minnesota’s civic exceptionalism one more time.
This state was populated long before the mid-19th century. But it was New Englanders, arriving en masse in the 1850s, who gave Minnesota its enduring civic character. They were the descendants of Puritans who came to North America to build shining “cities on a hill,” ruled not by kings or bishops but by themselves, through highly participatory democracy.
To them, government wasn’t an alien force. It was an extension of themselves, a tool with which to meet their mutual needs. And it was everyone’s responsibility. (Well, every man’s. Women weren’t allowed to vote in Minnesota, save for school board elections, until 1920.)
More than many other Americans of their day, Minnesota’s founders felt the need for education. In town-meeting governance, it matters that the fellow next to you knows a thing or two. You might disagree, but if he can persuade a majority to his point of view, you either yield or forge a compromise. That was the essential norm of New England democracy, practiced and refined for 200 years before it came to Minnesota.
The pioneers valued education so much that the State Constitution they wrote in 1857 made the Legislature — not local powers — responsible for providing a “general and uniform … thorough and efficient” system of public schools. That would matter a great deal in years to come.
It was this state’s good fortune that the immigrants most attracted to Minnesota after the Civil War were similarly devoted to democracy and education. Scandinavians in particular reinforced the New Englanders’ communitarian spirit. They became so quickly involved in Minnesota politics that a Norwegian immigrant, Knute Nelson, was elected governor just 34 years after statehood.
Those 19th-century founders made a series of smart decisions that helped make modern Minnesota distinctive (as well as one indefensible one, expelling much of the state’s Dakota population after the 1862 U.S.-Dakota war). A crucial move: locating the centers of government, commerce, education and even corrections all near the confluence of the Minnesota and Mississippi rivers. Those decisions made today’s Twin Cities possible.
The message for today from that history crash course is that Minnesota’s success isn’t the result of common blood or soil. It isn’t about nature’s bounty, though Minnesota has been granted an ample portion.
Rather, what mattered has been Minnesotans’ shared values — industry, community, inclusivity, education, sacrifice for the future’s sake — and smart choices. The 19th century pattern of aggregating rather than scattering the state’s assets legitimized the robust state government that evolved in the 20th century. The pioneers’ vision for state-supported public education wasn’t taken to heart by legislators until the Great Depression threatened to close schools. The state investments in education that followed gave Minnesotans a huge competitive advantage as a knowledge-based economy dawned.
Those values and choices give today’s Minnesotans a marvelous birthright. The rest of this column could be consumed with the accolades Minnesota routinely receives for health, longevity, educational attainment, business prowess and — perhaps most significantly — civic participation. Minnesota was back again this year in its customary spot, at the top of state voter turnout rankings. High citizen engagement is crucial to sustaining a state government of, by and for the people, Lincoln’s famous tripartite formula for democracy.
But I’m less interested in where Minnesota ranks today than in how it will fare tomorrow. Can Minnesota exceptionalism be sustained?
One esteemed scholar of this state’s civic life isn’t sure. John Adams, University of Minnesota geography/economics professor emeritus, offered what I consider a gloomy prediction: A rather different national culture is slowly overwhelming Minnesota’s distinctions.
Minnesota’s remote location relative to other U.S. population centers once encouraged regional independence and a communal self-reliance, Adams said. But in a web-connected world, Minnesota isn’t so isolated.
“We now have a media-shaped national culture that isn’t much different from place to place. We don’t have a Minnesota economy; we have a national and, in many respects, a global economy,” Adams said. “Regional differences have been muted. Class differences have become more prominent in understanding how people feel about their place in the world and what they want from government.”
To his point: Median household incomes in much of greater Minnesota last year lagged those in the Twin Cities by nearly $20,000, a gap that has grown in the last decade. Not coincidentally, so has this state’s partisan rural-urban divide.
But even as that trend has diminished Minnesota’s uniqueness, another has reinforced it. Minnesota’s latter-day immigrants are doing just what northern Europeans did 125 years ago. Their devotion to community, sacrifices for future generations, and desire to participate in democracy are reinforcing the civic culture that’s already here.
Dane Smith, president emeritus of Growth & Justice and my former Star Tribune colleague, helped me make the point. His work in connection with the Rural Equity Project convinces him that “our new people are in total keeping with the Minnesota spirit.
“They understand the value of an inclusive society. They are community-minded, industrious, innovative. Look at how involved the Hmong community is in every aspect of democracy. Same goes for the Somali community. There’s a burgeoning entrepreneurial spirit in the African-American community, too, as unfair as our system has been on them. They continue to emphasize the need for education, just as earlier Minnesotans did.
“I’d say that the degree to which we embrace them will determine whether we can sustain Minnesota’s quality of life indefinitely.”
I’d say so, too. If indeed Minnesotans’ values — not race or class or creed — gave this state its quality of life, there’s reason to think this state’s exceptionalism might hold.
Lori Sturdevant is retiring on Dec. 31 after 43 years at the Star Tribune, 26 of them as an editorial writer and columnist. She plans to be an occasional contributor to these pages in 2019, and will still be at firstname.lastname@example.org.