Minnesota is a distinctive state, a fact that its state's residents are quick to point out to those of us who originated elsewhere on the planet. I am one such person. Though I have lived in Minnesota for 31 years, in important ways it remains a sort of “terra incognita” to me. Aspects of the state's politics culture and society still strike me as strange.
Minnesota is a distinctive state, a fact that its state's residents are quick to point out to those of us who originated elsewhere on the planet. I am one such person. Though I have lived in Minnesota for 31 years, in important ways it remains a sort of "terra incognita" to me. Aspects of the state's politics culture and society still strike me as strange.
Let me explain. I grew up in parts of the U.S. possessing a very different cultural heritage. That is best illustrated by reference to some cultural and political categories created by theorists of America's regions. Political scientist Daniel Elazar in 1965 labeled geographical variations in America's "political culture." Elazar labeled Minnesota a "moralistic" political culture focused on community pursuit of abstract moral values. Personal and public virtue is highly valued in such cultures; politics is centrally concerned with grand conceptions of the common good.
That describes the politics of our state's two major parties quite well. The DFL seeks to build a successful society with an active and comprehensive government; new programs are proposed in regular supply. The state's GOP finds virtue in a contrasting, ideologically conservative vision of a limited government and a population guided by traditional faith, family and markets. Both parties are highly ideological and consumed with broad moral questions.
Why is Minnesota like this? According to Colin Woodward's recent book, "American Nations," it's because the state is part of an American region known as "Yankeedom" that is characterized by the culture the Puritans founded and Scandinavian immigrants continued. One trait of Yankeedom is a faith that public institutions can perfect society. Another is a great respect for intellectual achievement. This region includes New England, Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota.
Well, this is a bit strange to me. I did not grow up in such a region, and spent most of my formative years in places with very different social and political attitudes. I was raised in far southeast Iowa on the Mississippi River, next to the Illinois and Missouri borders. Elazar labels that area's political culture "individualistic." In this culture, government is a practical matter, a business. It performs necessary duties but is not the tool of grand crusades.
In Fort Madison, Iowa, that is how government was viewed. Woodward puts it in the region of the "Midlands," a land of pragmatism and moderation. The Midlands stretch from southern New Jersey all the way to the central Dakotas, bypassing Minnesota.
However, my hometown also borders on his region of "Greater Appalachia" just across the river in Illinois and across the border south in Missouri. This region extends from southwest Pennsylvania all the way to central Texas. In these areas, small government is the goal, and affronts to individual liberty are not tolerated. This region is also one of great faith of the sort emphasizing personal salvation.
Strong elements of this affected my upbringing as well. No one led big political causes in my area. Life was a practical matter. Evangelical, Mormon and Pentecostal churches were prominent, along with Methodists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians and us German Catholics. I assume there was a Lutheran church in town, but cannot remember where it was – nor did I know anyone who grew up Lutheran.
I went to college in central Iowa, still part of the Midlands, and did not leave the region until I was 22. I made my first foray into Yankeedom when I studied for my Ph.D. at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. This was during the 1970s, and Madison was a state capital of Yankeedom, brimming with campus causes and political crusades. It was a new world to me.
Upon graduation, I moved to Greater Appalachia — Clark County in southern Ohio, home of Wittenberg University, where I taught for three years. It was a socially conservative, working class region, very much boasting the religiosity of Greater Appalachia. Government was a minimal, practical business there, with a considerable amount of self-seeking. Political corruption was not unknown.
The move to Minnesota was a big cultural jolt for me. It was like a return to graduate school in Madison, with big causes and big dreams very much the stuff of state politics. My departmental colleague, Paul Wellstone, was a moralistic crusader of the first order. Teaching in the same department was a vivid education in the politics of the crusade.
Minnesota varies greatly from other American regions. In addition to "Yankeedom," the "Midlands" and "Greater Appalachia," Woodward's book identifies several other American cultural segments. They include the "Left Coast" (Coastal Northern California, Oregon and Washington), "El Norte" (Mexican borderlands of California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas), "Far West" (a big swath of land from the Dakotas to eastern Washington, Oregon and California),"Deep South" (South Carolina to East Texas), "Tidewater" (coastal Delaware, DC, Virginia and North Carolina), "New Netherland"(New York City and Northern New Jersey) and "New France" (southern Lousiana).
What is Minnesota's contribution to this national stew of regions? It brings clean government, intellectual sophistication and an admirable concern with the common good. Those traits at times lead to crusading excesses that offend my Midland sensibilities. But there is much benefit in Minnesota's contribution as well.