Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

DFL in jeopardy

The party needs an economic populist to hold the governor’s mansion in 2018

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How does Minnesota’s DFL win back non-metro parts of the state? That’s a question that should be occupying the minds of every party leader as they ponder the 2016 election returns and look towards what could be a political disaster for the DFL, and the state’s progressive tradition, in 2018.

This last election represented a historic collapse for the DFL in rural Minnesota, where Republican Donald Trump crushed Hillary Clinton and where DFL legislative candidates lost once safe seats to the GOP. Even the Iron Range, long a DFL stronghold, flipped for Donald Trump. On the west Range, both Sen. Tom Saxhaug and Tom Anzelc, longtime members of the Iron Range legislative delegation, lost to Republicans. On the East Range, DFL victory margins hit historic lows.

That should cause sleepless nights for DFL party leaders as they look ahead to a 2018 gubernatorial race without a well-known incumbent at the top of the ticket. As things stand today, a Republican governor in 2018 turns Minnesota into the next Wisconsin.

So how does the DFL re-enlist non-metro Minnesota in their progressive vision for the state? By going back to the socio-economic policies and messages that used to win support from rural Minnesota.

George Lakoff, a cognitive linguist and retired professor from UC-Berkeley, has written extensively on how both progressives and conservatives frame political issues. His works include the influential “Don’t Think of an Elephant! Know your Values and Frame the Debate,” and “Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think.”

Lakoff identifies six strains within the progressive political frame, including:

1) Socio-economic progressives: i.e. New Dealers, like Bernie Sanders.

2) Identity progressives: those who want to advance the specific interests of their particular group or “identity.”

3) Environmentalists.

4) Civil libertarians.

5) Spiritual progressives: i.e. those with a nurturing form of religion; and

6) Antiauthoritarians.

There are different types of conservatives as well, but that’s a topic for another time. Most progressives combine one or more of these traits, yet typically have a dominant perspective within one of these subgroups. In the bigger cities, you’ll find a lot more progressives from types 2-6. But in rural America, progressives overwhelmingly focus on socio-economic concerns, and for most, that means economic populism. It was the economic message of DFLers like Hubert Humphrey and Paul Wellstone that attracted broad support to the party in places like the Iron Range and elsewhere in rural Minnesota. Bernie Sanders lit that fire in 2016, and he crushed Hillary Clinton in non-metro party caucuses last March. That same pattern held true throughout the primaries. Sanders won big in rural areas all across the U.S, but lost to Clinton in many larger cities.

Trump upset many traditional conservatives when he adopted (almost certainly disingenuously) the progressive socio-economic frame, but it allowed him to run the table on Clinton in rural parts of the country, including here in Minnesota.

Congressmen Rick Nolan and Collin Peterson managed to hang on, but that’s because they operate largely from a socio-economic political frame. It’s worth noting that both of them endorsed Sanders for that same reason. It’s also worth noting Nolan is reportedly thinking of a gubernatorial bid, and he could be a strong contender, although he would probably face pushback from the party’s environmentalist wing.

If the DFL hopes to hold onto the governor’s mansion in 2018, they’ll need an economic populist at the top of the ticket. The DFL can’t win statewide races on metro-area votes alone. It’s time the party start looking beyond the I-94 beltways for its future leaders, or it’s going to face a future of diminishing returns.

A strong, progressive and populist socioeconomic argument does just fine in rural Minnesota. It’s just that those of us in rural parts of the state don’t hear that kind of talk from many Democrats these days. If we don’t start hearing it soon, the Democrats can kiss rural America goodbye, probably for good.

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