By Iric Nathanson
“Minnesota nurtures an extraordinary society,” Time told its readers in 1973.
On August 13 of that year, the weekly news magazine showered this state with accolades in a glowing profile, “Minnesota: The State that Works.” As a lead-in to the profile, Time featured a flannel-clad Governor Wendell Anderson on its cover.
"If the American good life has anywhere survived in some intelligent equilibrium, it may be Minnesota,” the magazine noted. “It is a state where a residual American secret still seems to operate. Some of the nation’s more agreeable qualities are evident there: courtesy and fairness, a capacity for innovation, hard work, intellectual adventure, and responsibility.
"Politics is almost unnaturally clean—no patronage, virtually no corruption. The citizens are well-educated and remarkably civil.”
Time went on to comment about a major legislative action two years earlier. In 1971, Anderson and the Minnesota Legislature had agreed to a package of state tax hikes that would boost revenues by more than a half-billion dollars. Those new revenues would be used to increase state spending for public education. At the same time, the 1971 measure would lessen the burden of local property taxes, then the major source of support for local school districts.
"It was a major piece of social legislation,” Time observed. “… [W]ithin a six-year period it will virtually equalize the per-pupil spending for education throughout the state and thus go along way towards equalizing education in the cities, suburbs, and rural areas.”
In its ode to Minnesota, Time failed to note the political dynamics that propelled what came to be known as “the Minnesota Miracle.” In 1971, party designation was not yet in place in the Minnesota House and Senate. The caucus groups were identified informally as Conservative and Liberal. Most, but not all, Conservatives identified themselves as Republicans, while Liberals were virtually synonymous with the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party.
Remarkably enough, the Minnesota Miracle occurred at a time when the House and Senate were both controlled by the Conservatives. While the Conservative caucus leaders supported the 1971 tax bill, a majority of their members voted against final passage of the bill at the end of October. Even so, 30 of the House’s 70 Conservatives and 12 of the Senate’s 34 Conservatives took a public stand in support of one of the largest tax increases in the state’s history. In July, most Conservatives had supported an earlier version of the bill that would have raised state income taxes by 23 percent. But Anderson vetoed that bill because he wanted even more from the legislature in revenues.
Following final passage of the tax bill, state Republican Party leaders took some partisan shots at Anderson, calling him “the spendingest governor in the history of our state.” But even those party leaders acknowledged that the final bill was considerably better than it might have been if Anderson’s original proposal had been adopted.
The commentary about the Minnesota Miracle at that time stressed the policy differences between the state’s two political parties. Today, viewed from a twenty-first-century vantage point, we can see a commonality of purpose during that earlier era that may have been obscured at the time.
In the 1970s and throughout much of the last half of the twentieth century, sharp partisan divisions over legislative specifics existed, but those years were also characterized by a broadly shared outlook—what might be termed a “grand consensus”—about shared political values in Minnesota. Those shared values acknowledged government’s role in improving the lives of its citizens. The Grand Consensus also encompassed a common view about the importance of fiscal responsibility and the need for an appropriate balance between public obligations and public resources.
Within each of the state’s political parties, there were ideological shadings ranging from left to right, but it was still possible to achieve a consensus on broad questions of public policy. Liberal-leaning DFLers argued for a more extensive government role while conservative-leaning Republicans advocated for a smaller role, but the differences were in degrees, not in kind.
While the Grand Consensus remained in place through the 1970s, new political pressures began to erode that shared view of government in Minnesota. The 1973 U.S. Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade injected the highly emotional issue of abortion into the political discourse. Initially, both parties had pro-choice and pro-life factions, but with the rise of a deeply committed Christian conservative faction within the Republic Party, abortion and other social issues would soon separate the state’s two political groups.
While the Reagan years would move the national Republican Party to the right, it was still possible to achieve consensus about government’s proper role in Minnesota even into the 1990s, when a Republican occupied the governor’s chair for most of that decade.
After 2000, as the Republican Party drifted even further to the right, an ideological rigidity within the party took hold that eroded the consensus of an earlier era. Now, many conservatives came to view government as inherently evil. Less government was always preferable to more government, they maintained. Some who took the “no new taxes” pledge wanted to steadily decrease public revenues as a way of shrinking the scope of government, an approach known as “starving the beast.”
A Minnesota Miracle would no longer be possible in the current era of political gridlock. Sadly, the ties that once securely bound our political system are beginning to fray. Those ties, forged during the last half of the twentieth century, may not have been especially visible at the time, as political battles of the day raged in the halls of the state Capitol. But the common bonds of those years have become all the more apparent today when viewed through the lens of our fractured system in Minnesota in this second decade of the twenty-first century.