Opinion editor's note: Editorials represent the opinions of the Star Tribune Editorial Board, which operates independently from the newsroom.


One of the unsung privileges of living in a place like Minnesota is that you can go about daily life without worrying if the fire hydrants work, the library will open tomorrow or the police department needs a new squad car. That's because hundreds of good neighbors and fellow citizens show up to do that work for you: They run for local office, sit through tedious meetings, study tiresome reports and make civic decisions in the best interests of their community.

So it was disturbing to see the recent story by the Star Tribune's Reid Forgrave on the poisonous strain of politics that is turning Minnesota's public meetings into shouting matches and innuendo contests. This isn't just unpleasant and childish, it's driving good people out of public service. In Fergus Falls, two promising candidates for a City Council vacancy chose not to apply after voicing concern about the nasty tone of civic discourse. In the metro area, talented candidates for judicial office are reportedly turning down recruiters for fear of becoming punching bags. University of Minnesota Prof. Kathy Quick told Forgrave: "People are increasingly saying, 'Why would I ever sign up for that? I'm out.'"

Now, there's nothing wrong with showing up before the City Council or school board to complain — it's a long and healthy tradition of local democracy. Anyone who has spent time in a suburban city hall knows that some of the finest public servants are those who first ventured into politics because they were irate about their property taxes or a smelly foundry down the street.

But today Minnesota is seeing something different. In Rochester, enemies of Mayor Kim Norton filled her Facebook page with vile and misogynistic comments and posted the contents of her grocery delivery. In Fergus Falls, critics of Mayor Ben Schierer actually called his neighbors to dig up dirt on his family. The West Central Initiative, a foundation based in Fergus Falls, says that entire counties of western Minnesota are now "leadership distressed" because too few people want to run for public office or help lead local nonprofits. It estimates that Minnesota needs 1 in 21 of its residents to serve in some sort of local leadership role in their lifetimes if civil society is going to function.

Americans' cynicism toward public institutions has been growing for a long time — at least since the disastrous Vietnam policy of Lyndon Johnson and the Watergate scandal of Richard Nixon. But the era of MAGA politics has introduced something more pernicious and caustic: It prizes revenge, embraces conspiracy and delegitimizes anything that gets in its way: the military, the courts, law enforcement, doctors, scientists, schoolteachers, neighbors. What's the endgame of this nihilistic path? You don't obey the law? You don't pay your taxes? You don't encourage your sons and daughters to enter military service? That's how democracy collapses.

Minnesota doesn't have to succumb to this trend. The West Central Initiative has launched a project called Rural Democracy, which encourages people of goodwill to run for public office and trains them in the mechanics of local government. The U's Humphrey School introduces midcareer policy fellows to the issues and workings of state and federal government.

For those who don't want to work quite that hard, there are simpler solutions. Attend a public hearing when you're not angry about something and simply appreciate your neighbors doing the thorny work of making democracy function. Or, Schierer suggests, simply approach your City Council representative or school board member and say: Thanks, I appreciate your work on our behalf.