Forget Kansas. What’s the matter with Minnesota?

For the past few years, self-satisfied progressives have tossed that sneering jibe of a question at Kansans, to describe the disconnect between their politics, their professed values and even their self-interest.

Increasingly, it seems that the same question can be fairly aimed at Minnesota’s progressives, given the sorry, even shameful, track record that has been unfolding here. Our assumed superiority, our enlightened ability to avoid the missteps of so many other states, has been taking quite a beating.

A few examples:

Nowhere else in the nation is the achievement gap between white kids and kids of color as vast as it is in this state — even as Minnesota children in the aggregate continue to sail far above average.

At the same time, segregation of the schools (not to mention a shockingly large number of neighborhoods) appears to be growing, years after school choice and funding equalization were supposed to head off the educational apartheid that was the rule elsewhere.

It’s not just the twinned issues of race and class, either. In an attempt to nurture family cohesion, the state’s child protection structure has allowed far too many children to tumble through the cracks and fall prey to violence and neglect.

And Minnesota’s ostensibly humane aim of helping the mentally ill and disabled gently merge into the wider society has left too many of “those people” warehoused, marginalized and hopeless.

Even in the unlovely case of sex offenders, Minnesota leads the nation in the number of these de facto lifers cut off from any hope of due process or rehabilitation. It may be a constitutional affront, but it keeps everyone feeling safe.

It’s quite a litany of smug complacency underlying policies too long unexamined that have had the unintended effect of driving vulnerable people into the ditch.

None of the above describes the political culture I thought I was moving to (from Kansas, as it happens) 30 years ago.

Down there, for all the pieties granted to William Allen White’s style of populism, there was scant expectation that a respectable live-and-let-live Republicanism had much to do with humane or enlightened public policy. Why should it? Kansans came from hardy stock and were perfectly capable of taking care if themselves.

But here? This was the land of Humphrey and Mondale, of Wendell Anderson waving that damned fish and proclaiming that the good life had indeed taken root here. We Minnesotans took care of each other and took pains to be sure that the least among us had a fighting chance to attain what the rest of us already had.

It was a progressive mind-set in the best, most traditional, sense of that word. In Minnesota, the pursuit of frankly liberal policy goals was a point of pride rather than something to be ashamed of.

No, this wouldn’t be a place where schools were ostensibly equal but forever separate, where entire swaths of cities were no-go zones, depending on the color of your skin. The rule of law, leavened with compassion, meant something here. And this newcomer discovered that Minnesotans were both proud of that liberal heritage and determined to hold on to it.

Somewhere along the way, the best of initial intentions were deemed to be enough, while the policies they spawned trundled along on cruise control. Sure of their virtue and rightness (maybe spiced with a bit of self-righteousness), the architects acted as if launching a program or policy was enough. Paying for it or subjecting it to a rigorous review became an afterthought.

And so the drip, drip, drip of bad news about Minnesota continues.

What’s the matter? The short answer is that the policies Minnesotans have long been justly proud of simply aren’t working anymore. Good intentions aren’t enough — not when the problems are far more intractable (and expensive) than anyone guessed.

Back in Kansas, we wouldn’t have recognized many of these social pathologies that Minnesotans have tried to tackle — much less confronted them. But I’m not in Kansas anymore, and I want the place I call home to do better than it has.


Bob von Sternberg, of Minneapolis, is a former Star Tribune reporter.