Friday, November 30, 2018

When Republicans Were Progressives–A Story of a Different Party and a Different Era

Minnesota is a DFL state.  Republicans are conservatives.  These are assumed to be two political truths.  Yet both are subject to qualification and David Durenberger’s When Republicans  Were Progressive, is  a recent book which tells not just a story about Minnesota politics both also one about the transformation of Republican Party politics both in Minnesota and nationally.  It is story about a party that Durenberger would say he did not leave but which left him and its values.  But in telling this story he also writes a book that, while it should be taken as a warning by Republicans, is instead being criticized by many of them.
I have known David Durenberger since the 1990s when I was with Common Cause Minnesota. I always considered him an ally on campaign finance reform and ethics in government.  We have penned essays together on ranked choice voting, and I place him among the Republicans I grew up with, worked with, or  admired, including Jacob Javits, William Scranton, and Nelson Rockefeller.  I knew a Republican Party that embraced government as a partner with the people to solve problems.  It was a party that built higher education, fought the Cold War, supported the War on poverty, and  cared about the poor and middle class. This is the party that David Durenberger represents, and he wants to tell about this party in Minnesota politics.
A conventional story of modern Minnesota politics would begin on April 15, 1944.  It was then the Farmer-Labor Party merged with Democratic Party to transform it into the dominant party in the state.  Prior to then, the Republican party was the major party, with the Democratic and Farmer-Labor parties splitting votes, often unable to capture state-wide offices in Minnesota.  But the merger, affected by Hubert Humphrey, ushered in a new era of Minnesota politics, often seen as dominated by DFL figures such as Humphrey and son Skip, Orville Freeman and his son Mike, Walter Mondale and his son Ted, and other politicians such as Olaf Martin Sabo, Nick Coleman, Wendell Anderson, Rudy Perpich, Sandy Keith, Roger Moe, and Paul Wellstone, just to name a few.   This is the lineage connected to the 1970s Minnesota Miracle that changed tax, political, and social policies regarding education, transportation, and so much more in Minnesota. It is a Minnesota that defines itself as DFL and progressive.
But there is another side to the story and Durenberger tells it as party of an autobiography for himself, the Minnesota Republican party, and the state.  It is a story of how he as a Republican US senator were part of Minnesota history, and they too were once seen as progressives.  His book begins with Harold Stassen in the 1930s as governor helping to lead Minnesota out of the Depression.  It discusses Governor Luther Youngdahl seeking to address problems of racial discrimination in the later 1940s and 1950s, Elmer Anderson in the state legislature and as governor championing the plight of those with mental illness (or fighting for fair housing) in the 1960s, and others such as Bill Frenzel, Harold LeVander, Al Quie, George Pillsbury, Arnie Carlson, and David Durenberger himself as US Senator.
The story Durenberger wants to tell is that at one time the Republican Party looked very different than it does today.  Today’s Republican party under Donald Trump is one that mostly of older white males, evangelicals, located in rural areas who oppose taxes, immigrants, reproductive rights, and civil rights in general, that was not always true. It was a party, at least in Minnesota, that was a partner in leading many of the major reforms that made the state what it is today in terms of leader.  Durenberger wants this message to come out and it does in this book, but he also laments the changes that have transformed his party statewide and nationally
Reading the book one learns an amazing amount about Minnesota and Republican Party politics.  But the real value in the book is in asking a more fundamental question–What has happened to the Republican Party?  How could a party, once a 150 years ago be the party of Abraham Lincoln and civil rights, or of Teddy Roosevelt and environmentalism, be the party of Trump it is now?  For those of us who believe there is a need for at least two if not more responsible parties, who have many Republican heros, and who think the American politics would benefit from a new political realignment that moves us away from the current partisan polarization, understanding what has happened to the party that David Durenberger yearns for is an important question to ponder.  Clearly the Democratic Party embracing civil rights and identity politics, both parties ignoring the enormous economic consequences of deindustrialization, globalization, geographic sorting, technology, and the exploding  gap between the rich and poor are part of the story. 
But the Republican Party of Trump is one that plays on fear, anger, resentment, and an “us versus them” politics that has managed to tap into the most base of human emotions.  It is a party whose embrace of these issues that, while it may have won in 2016, it lost badly in 2018 (both in Democrats winning the US and Minnesota Houses, picking up many governorships, and getting far more votes for the US Senate than did Republicans despite the latter picking two seats) and is on a long term demographic extinction as the coming generation of voters (young, suburban female, and people of  color) identify as Democrats.  If the Republicans continue on the current trajectory, they will face increasingly difficulty winning statewide Minnesota elections and even victory in the legislature.
This is the message that Durenberger wants to communicate.    In a sense, When Republicans were Progressive is an apologia and a warning.  But in offering both the author talks not of a party he walked away from, but a party that walked away from its values.  Contemporary Republican criticism of the book confirms the very point Durenberger wants to make.

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