Can it be that Minnesotans are both deeply disgusted with the nation’s political establishment and reasonably content with the general direction of state government?
I got sufficient whiffs of both sentiments from my day at the State Fair to scurry back to the office and look up a line by Minnesota’s own F. Scott Fitzgerald: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”
Functionality, in this case, is evinced by the ability to simultaneously walk, gawk and gobble fried food on a stick.
Evidence of Minnesotans’ interest in a major shake-up in national politics was easy to spot at the State Fair HQs of both major political parties. At the DFL pavilion, two presidential campaign tables bearing literature, trinkets and volunteer sign-up sheets vied for fairgoers’ attention. As 2 p.m. parade time neared Wednesday, a cluster of fairgoers three or four deep stood around Bernie Sanders’ table, grabbing copies of “Bernie’s agenda for America,” scribbling messages on a white board, and offering their names and e-mail addresses.
“It’s been this way every day,” said Christine Carragee of Minneapolis, who heads the Sanders campaign’s events team in Minnesota. “We’ve been signing up 300, 400 people per day,” and employing six volunteers at a time. It’s no cult of personality she’s witnessing, she said. Rather, “people come with an issue in mind — preserving Social Security, improving health care access, income inequality.”
Traffic was much lighter at the adjacent table for Hillary Clinton. Clipboards bearing “I pledge to caucus for Hillary” forms bore just two names when I peeked. Solo volunteer Dorothy Baker of Eagan allowed that she’d love to see a woman elected president. “It would be such a moment for women in this country!” she enthused.
That it would. But Clinton’s potential to be a history-maker wasn’t drawing a crowd. A lonely-looking life-sized Hillary cutout near her table waited, and waited, for someone to stand close enough to snap a selfie.
“People are tired of lip-service” from Washington, offered Minnesota Farmers Union President Doug Peterson by way of explanation of Sanders’ appeal to fairgoers. They are annoyed with a political establishment that does not seem to listen to them, he said. “That’s why Sanders is bringing excitement. He’s like a prairie populist.”
Things were no better for established candidates at the GOP booth. The “corn poll” sponsored by the Minnesota Young Republicans allowed any comer willing to share a name, phone number and e-mail address to obtain a small paper cup of corn kernels.
Arrayed on a curved table were bottles representing the 17 GOP presidential candidates. Poll participants could divide their kernels among as many of the bottles as they wished to indicate their preferences.
As of midday Wednesday, the Donald Trump bottle had been filled and refilled 18 times. No other candidate’s vessel was as corn-filled. In second and third place, respectively, were retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson and former corporate CEO Carly Fiorina — perhaps not coincidentally, the two along with Trump in the big GOP field who have never held elective office.
That Trump-Carson 1-2 ranking matched the results of an Iowa Poll released the day before. So much for Minnesota exceptionalism.
Keith Downey, the Republican state chair, seemed unperturbed as he offered his analysis: “There’s a lot of disenchantment out there, and not just among Republicans.” He told of meeting DFL-leaning union members who said they like Trump’s outspoken style. To the extent such fairgoers supply their contact information in exchange for a cup of corn, they are widening the reach of the state GOP, Downey said.
Disenchantment with conventional politics and politicians — there’s this year’s theme, I thought. Until I arrived at the state House and Senate outposts in the Education Building.
“It’s as content and as pleasant a crowd of fairgoers as I’ve ever seen,” said Scott Magnuson, the dependable Senate Information Office director who has stood watch at the Senate’s fair stand for a few dozen years. Comments of dissatisfaction, either verbally or in writing on the annual fairgoers’ survey, are way down in number, he said.
Fairgoers aren’t always so mild-mannered at the Legislature’s counters. Four years ago, after a 21-day government shutdown, conversations were mighty testy, Magnuson recalled. A year ago, mutterings about the new Senate Office Building that’s nearing completion north of the Capitol were common. This year, even those complaints are few, he said.
Lt. Gov. Tina Smith — who may have logged more hours at the fair during its first week than any lieutenant governor in state history — said she too has encountered little dissatisfaction.
“Mostly, they’re talking to me about food, which is a good sign, I think,” she said as we shared the shade on the back porch of the Star Tribune booth. “It’s a good, humbling reminder to those of us who work at the State Capitol that most Minnesotans don’t spend every waking moment thinking about what we’re doing.”
They don’t, unless they see that they have to. The ability to trust government enough to turn away from it now and then is a luxury denied to many citizens in many places. The current custodians of state government can regard Minnesotans’ distraction as a backhanded compliment.
Fairgoing Minnesotans are showing both major political parties that they are not blind followers. They are neither disinterested nor resigned about the country’s course. They can and will question conventional wisdom and give unconventional candidates a chance. They’ll think for themselves, thank you.
To be spared a critical word from such an electorate is a compliment indeed.
Lori Sturdevant, an editorial writer and columnist, is at firstname.lastname@example.org.