The root causes of this year's State Capitol impasse

  • Article by: LORI STURDEVANT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 25, 2011 - 9:56 PM

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Usher John had a bulletin and a frown waiting for me at the church door last Sunday.

"You should be a lot harder on those people," he said, gesturing in the general direction of the State Capitol. "They're the biggest bunch of egomaniacs we've ever had there."

"I wish I could agree with you," I sighed. If John's diagnosis were accurate, this year's budget stalemate wouldn't be so worrisome.

His comment implied that the impasse over the size of the 2012-13 budget (which persists at this writing, though talks continue) is the result of an unlucky draw from the candidate deck last fall.

If that were so, a redistricting shuffle and a new draw in 2012 and 2014 would be sufficient to set things right. The "state that works" order that was once a Minnesota trademark would return.

But the fight that threatens to shutter some government operations next Friday doesn't strike me as a character flaw.

I know DFL Gov. Mark Dayton and Republican legislative leaders Amy Koch and Kurt Zellers to be likable, well-meaning people possessed of ordinary egos, at least on the political scale. On that scale, Dayton might even register as humble.

The inability of these nice folks to bend enough in the other's direction to set a budget tells me that a bigger failing is at play.

It may even be bigger than what ails American politics. The extreme polarization of positions, the demonizing of the opposition, the loyalty to party first and country or state second -- these too could be manifestations of something in American culture that's out of sync with what democracy requires.

Democracy demands compromise. Yet today's culture disdains compromise as weakness. Instead, it glorifies the heroic individual, standing against the odds and holding fast to principle, even when that principle is not well-chosen.

The religious institutions that have been on the rise are those that emphasize personal salvation. Communitarianism is out of vogue.

Democracy requires a sense of "all for one" that, at a minimum, guarantees equality of opportunity.

As U.S. income inequality has soared to record proportion in the last two decades, the odds have increased that Americans born poor will live and die poor. Yet a culture that once celebrated the American Dream doesn't register much alarm as the dream fades for millions.

Democracy also requires a can-do optimism that holds that shared problems can be solved through shared action.

It's not clear that Americans still have that faith. Disillusionment with government and other collective institutions is a recurring theme in popular culture. That reinforces cynicism and makes it tough for elected leaders to rally citizens behind a shared cause, let alone ask for shared sacrifice.

Lately I've been running my "it's the culture" musings past people who know more about leadership than newspaper writers do. Former Augsburg College President William Frame caught my attention when I heard him say that too often what passes for leadership is really just "lobbying for the status quo."

Since retiring from the Minneapolis liberal arts college in 2006, Frame has become a leadership scholar and a national consultant to potential and incumbent college presidents.

He's found that leadership failure is likely when a leader and the group being led -- a state, say -- haven't arrived at a common understanding of "who we are and who we are trying to be."

He's not the first to observe that consensus is lacking at the Capitol on the kind of state Minnesota should become.

"Without that, leadership becomes a partisan battle. You try to get what you want while others around you try to get what they want. The result is increasing polarization."

Sound familiar?

"The only way out of this polarization is to find the thing that both sides' constituents are part of, and build on that," Frame said. "In the case of the Legislature and the governor, that has to be Minnesota itself. They have to be capable of institutional thinking, putting the institution that is Minnesota ahead of themselves and ahead of their constituencies. ... They have to be willing to buckle down together to answer the question, 'How might we all be better?'"

State loyalty isn't what it used to be in American culture, either.

But a week that might end with Minnesotans simultaneously observing the nation's birthday and state government's shutdown seems an excellent time for a little old-time revival of Minnesota boosterism.

This week, tell a legislator and a governor how much you love this state. Tell them that they will be heroes in your eyes if they put Minnesota first, and compromise.

Lori Sturdevant is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist.

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