Nearing the climax of a local election that actually may be what most elections are called — that is, more important than most elections — Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey stands as an improbable personification of America's coast-to-coast sociopolitical crackup.
Frey is what passes for a sane and sensible centrist in America today — and he is caught in a crossfire, like so many in his suffering city. Frey is diving for cover from our era's political shootout between two radicalized gangs of puerile hooligans.
It's an admittedly spacious definition of "centrist" that includes this mayor. Recall that it was only two years ago, in the fall of 2019, when Frey theatrically cast himself as a progressive dragon-slayer. He publicly unwelcomed President Donald Trump's downtown Minneapolis campaign rally, demanded payment for security and forbade off-duty cops from wearing their uniforms to such an event. He was rewarded with Trumpian rage-tweets wherein Frey was labeled a "Radical Left Dem Mayor ... doing everything possible to stifle Free Speech."
One national writer noted that the trash-talking president had "spent much of the summer viciously smearing Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) … [s]o it's not a surprise that the Democratic mayor of Minneapolis, a city that comprises most of Omar's district, isn't a big [Trump] fan."
In fact, it's not altogether clear that an urge to defend Omar played a big part in the motivation for Frey's Trump-taming heroics. What is clear is that if there ever was any such feeling of loyalty, it is far from mutual.
This month, Omar burned her sizzling national brand onto the Defund Police movement Frey refused to join, and onto that movement's candidates in Tuesday's vote — and, if her star power helps carry the day, onto the long-dominant DFL machine of Minneapolis — by promoting an anyone-but-Frey strategy for voters to employ in the ranked-choice balloting for mayor.
And so there stands Jacob Frey, a battered and wobbly embodiment of America's swelling population of makeshift moderates — a forlorn faction consisting of liberals who can't quite fly all the way to never-never land with the left, and of conservatives desperate to somehow regain control of the ideas and institutions Trump and his hordes have hijacked.
The Minneapolis vote may serve as one vivid test of whether any middle ground remains where those experiencing political homelessness can pitch an encampment, and where common sense can dig a last ditch.
Ours is an age of magical thinking. Government, we've been told under the auspices of "Modern Monetary Theory," can borrow any amount of money it pleases without consequence, and policymakers have long behaved as if they believed this. So naturally we're puzzled to see inflation rising, even after a decade and a half of easy money and easy spending (and with more, very much more, to come).
We're surprised, too, by a broad worker shortage, especially of workers willing to take or return to tough jobs at modest pay. But many sage observers seem sure that it couldn't have anything whatsoever to do with 18 months of pandemic-inspired stimulus checks, supersized unemployment benefits, bans on evictions, etc., etc.
We were surprised to see the Taliban swiftly take charge in Afghanistan when U.S. forces left (or at least our commander in chief was surprised), just as we're surprised by an unmanageable surge of illegal immigration at the southern border ever since a more tolerant attitude was touted.
Looking forward, we're advised to be confident that price controls on prescription drugs couldn't possibly stunt innovation, and that anyhow most alleged drug innovation is just "incremental" (but for God's sake, get the vaccine already!). And of course no minimum wage ever could rise so high as to kill jobs.
Minneapolis and St. Paul voters, meanwhile, are being asked to consider two adventurous theories about local-level policies:
Are we sure strictly controlling rents won't cause the rental housing supply to shrink and deteriorate, as it's done substantially everywhere it's ever been tried?
And are we sure fewer police — and less vigorous policing — won't just continue to mean more crime, as we've seen in jarring levels of violence as the Minneapolis force has shrunk by nearly a third over the past year and a half?
The trouble is that the natural law of supply and demand can't long be ignored, while a lot of society's laws can and will be ignored if there's no cop around to enforce them.
It is worth thinking through all these mysteries carefully — a luxury afforded city residents by the home rule charters of Minnesota municipalities and rules in state law governing their amendment. These constitute the checks and balances on local government powers, equivalent to limits on the powers of any current majority in state and federal governments, established by constitutions and by rules legislative bodies and courts have developed.
All such boundaries are under attack in our era's free-for-all among aspiring authoritarians. Donald Trump tried to expand presidential powers to ban travel, change immigration laws, doctor the census, build his wall, interfere with election counts and much else. These days, Washington progressives clamor to dismantle the filibuster, pack the Supreme Court, abolish the Electoral College and much else out of similar impatience with limits on majority prerogatives.
Charter provisions and related state laws place these same sorts of guardrails around City Hall majorities. They give voters a chance, like the one they could seize this week, to intervene and slow the overconfident politicians' rush toward half-considered hypotheses.
I should note in closing that the Star Tribune Editorial Board, on which I serve, has performed its own complicated dance with Frey and Omar. The board scolded Frey for being ungracious toward Trump in 2019, or at least toward his supporters (which may have been the friendliest thing it ever wrote concerning the former president). But it has endorsed the incumbent mayor's re-election bid this year and has often criticized Omar, as have other commentators published on these pages.
For these and many other transgressions, Omar recently denounced the Editorial Board, with its "overwhelmingly white and male managers and editors," putting her imprimatur on an "open letter" which demanded, among other things, that the board "end the practice of electoral endorsements."
I can assure Rep. Omar that many a Minnesota Republican has wished for the same reform over the years. So it appears the board, including its female and minority members, has been pushed into makeshift moderation as well.
The board has offered no response to Omar. But speaking as just one overwhelmingly white and male editor, I do have a modest counterproposal:
Defund the Thought Police.