When did Minnesota Nice give way to Minnesota distrust?

Andi Egbert and Kassira Absar from the American Public Media (APM) Reseach Laboratory didn’t have a precise answer for that question. But they had plenty of other numbers from their 2017 Ground Level project indicating that distrust of civic institutions — especially of public education, state government and (gulp) the news media — is now rampant in this state.

And distrust runs deepest among Minnesota fans of President Donald Trump.

Those data were on display at the annual Minnesota Policy Conference on Oct. 11. That confab, now in its 34th year, gathers state and local government folk to talk about their shared challenges. Its agenda usually steers clear of partisan politics. The attendees tend to be keen to stay on government payrolls no matter which party is in power.

But it was hard for those of us on the panel titled “Who Can You Trust These Days?” to talk about Minnesotans’ distrust of vital civic institutions without noting the partisan dimensions of that sentiment. The gap in the results of a year-old APM scientific survey was too wide to ignore.

How often do you trust public schools to do what’s right? “Almost always or most of the time,” said 53 percent of Trump supporters, compared with 69 percent of Trump disapprovers. How about state government? “Almost always/most of the time” was the answer from 26 percent of Trump backers, 49 percent of Trump non-backers. The news media trust gap was wider still: Just 22 percent of Trump fans mostly trust journalists’ work, compared with 57 percent of those who disapprove of the president who complains about “fake news.”

It goes to show what nearly 40 straight years of government-bashing can do, I postulated on the panel. Beginning with President Ronald Reagan’s 1981 Inauguration Day assertion that “Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem,” the Republican right wing has been advertising about government the way herbicide companies advertise about weeds.

Democrats typically don’t blast government in the same way. But plenty of them use the sort of attack ads that tear down voter confidence not only in their Republican opponents, but also in the offices they seek.

The GOP’s anti-government messages may have been most persuasive to Republicans themselves, the APM data suggest. But I’ll speculate that trust in state government, the schools it finances and the journalists who cover it has declined in Minnesota among both Republicans and Democrats in the last two decades.

I’ll further claim that if there’s a distrust danger zone — distrust so deep that it impedes the compromises that governing requires — Minnesotans may already be in it. High levels of distrust of civic institutions aren’t the only explanation for one state government shutdown and recurring episodes of lawmaking futility at the State Capitol in the last decade. But low public confidence surely contributed to that dysfunction — which in turn further eroded trust.

Seeking academic confirmation, I ran my surmises past University of Minnesota Prof. William Doherty, a family therapist who has been doing a fair amount of civic therapy in the past two years. After the 2016 election, Doherty helped create Better Angels, a New York-based, citizen-driven project to bridge the nation’s scary-wide partisan divide, one discussion workshop at a time.

He agreed: Declining trust in key institutions puts American democracy at risk.

“It’s a big concern, and it’s been growing for decades,” Doherty said. “There’s been a massive decline in people saying that they believe others can be relied upon to live up to their word. People end up only trusting their family, close friends and their own tribal group — which for a lot of people has become partisan. Politics has become part of people’s social identity.”

That creates a governance problem for the state and nation. It makes politicians unwilling to stray from their partisan bases to compromise, knowing that wrath and repercussions from their own tribes will result if they do.

Is there a remedy? There had better be, Doherty said. “We have to believe that this trend is reversible, or we are in deep trouble. … Neither side is going to vanquish the other. We have to figure out how to lead this country together.”

Here’s where I thought he might prescribe the election of candidates committed to rebuilding civic trust. Instead, the therapist said, “the antidote is relationships.”

He recommended what Better Angels offers: chances for Republicans and Democrats to meet in small groups for structured conversations, led by facilitators trained to elicit shared values and aspirations. About 30 such Minnesota meetings have been conducted to date.

“What we’ve seen is that people don’t so much change their minds about policies as they change their minds about each other. They tell us, ‘We’re not as different as I thought we were.’ ”

For example, he said, participants come believing that people in the opposite party don’t really care about a good education for children — that they care more about teachers unions (what Republicans believe about Democrats) or lower taxes for rich people (what Democrats believe about Republicans). After a Better Angels conversation, they’re more willing to concede that both camps want high-quality education. They still argue about the means to that end, Doherty said, but they do so in a manner that makes compromise more likely.

And when compromise then ensues, trust in public education (in this example) should grow.

The doctor intended his prescription for citizens, not candidates. But my professional columnist’s license allows me to prescribe a postscript: In the Nov. 6 election, Minnesota citizens would do well to reward candidates who show both eagerness and aptitude for building relationships with those in the opposite party — and to reject those who are trying to deepen distrust of the other side. We’ve got way too much of the latter already.

 

Lori Sturdevant is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. She is at lsturdevant@startribune.com.