#71 A Democratic Experiment (2003)
All Rights Reserved © 2003 Thomas W. Day
Minnesota's experiment in participatory democracy ended in early January. Once again, the rats are winning the rat race. The lesson the state and the nation should have learned from our experience was distorted, or simply ignored. Mostly ignored. A lot of vested interests went well out of their way to pretend the last four years were either insignificant or a terrible mistake. I guess you could call that active ignore-ance?
As of January, our citizen governor’s, Jesse "The Body/Mind" Ventura, four years was up. He chose not to run again, most likely because he needs some time to wash the bitter taste of public service from his palate. The Independence Party fielded a strong candidate against a pitiful Democratic candidate and a downright repulsive Republican corporate mouthpiece. Minnesotans stood up on their hind feet and split the overwhelming majority of votes between Tweedly Dee and Tweedly Dumb. Dumb won.
Like most of the country, Minnesota's voting public was bought for a song (the rarely credible "no new taxes" refrain) and we're off on another four years of pointless politics, underhanded spending, and smoky room decision making. The politicians and the media call this "politics have returned to normal." This month, we learn that part of returning politics to "normal" includes the information that an insurance company that had agreed to a $3.5 million settlement decided to back out of that agreement because they discovered that a $10,000 "contribution" to the state Republican Party would reduce that penalty to $200,000 and a promise to stay out of the state for 5 years. Personally, I think missing out on a few decades of "normal politics" would be a relief.
In the aftermath of the last couple of elections, one of my favorite events is getting a call from one of the local news rags asking if I'd like to subscribe. I know this is sort of like picking on a fat kid, but if you're lazy enough to work for a newspaper you ought to expect a little abuse. We have two anti-newspapers in the Twin Cities and they regularly offer free bird cage protection in the hopes that I might decide to actually pay for my media drivel.
"No, not interested." I say. I always give them a chance to exit gracefully.
"How else are you going to keep up on what's happening in your neighborhood, your state, and your country or the world?" The solicitor always replies. It must be on their script.
Since the solicitor passed on a graceful exit, I can degenerate into attack mode without feeling unfairly malicious. "I talk to my neighbors, I read the free news websites (including AP) on Yahoo!, and that's about all the interest I have in what's going on in 'the world.' But newspapers are at the bottom of the list of information sources. You guys are the folks who couldn't uncover, then wouldn't report, the fact that a Presidential candidate had a long DWI record. Something, that any high school journalist student would know how to find. You guys spent eight years harping about Clinton's "I didn't inhale" comment but completely avoided Gee Wiz's spoon draining coke habits. You guys still insist on characterizing Gee Wiz as a 'jock' when the closest he ever got to being athletic was when he was a Yale cheerleader.
So where's the news?
"You folks have as much vested interest in dragging the country down into a two party system, because those two parties have all the advertising money. Anyone who's not pre-owned doesn't have enough cash to interest the media, so where's the news going to come from? It's not news if everyone already knows what you're going to say. I trust my local free radical rag and random internet news sites far more than the major media and that isn't saying much." I'm usually just getting started when the phone solicitor loses interest and asks to be excused.
My local Public Radio/TV contributor-hunters used to get polite conversation and moderate contributions. I've even volunteered to do time taking contributions on the phone for them, but no more.
In the last days of our state's congressional election the incumbent candidate, Paul Wellstone, died in a plane crash. The Demoplicans dredged the Mississippi until something, Walter Mondale, got caught in the nets. They propped him against a lectern and offered him as a memorial substitute for Wellstone. In a last minute attempt to focus the congressional campaign, someone decided that there ought to be a debate so that under-100 year old voters would know who Mondale was. Mondale threw an old fart's tantrum and refused to debate unless he only had one opponent on the stage. His attention span had, apparently, shrunk even further than it had been when he was Carter's vice-pres. So, even though the Green Party and the Independence Party candidates met the threshold for public financing, they didn't meet Mondale's standards for debate participation.
Remember, this is all taking place in a state where the "experts" claimed that, in 1998, Ventura wouldn't get 5% of the vote until the polls started to close and Jesse ended up being governor. Sometimes, the public actually gets to vote before the media proclaims the new king. But not this year.
Minnesota Public TV broadcast the two-party debates. Mondale proved himself to be a crabby old used-to-be-a-liberal, currently-a-corporate-shill fool. Coleman managed to keep his feet spread far enough that he didn't trip over them. And the two best candidates spent the evening watching the election being thrown by "public broadcasting."
That piece of history will save me a good bit of time and money in the future. Having controlled an election and actively worked to exclude substantial third-party options, Public Broadcasting threw its hat in with the rest of paid media. I think this is a sad moment for Americans, who have put time and contributions into trying to hang on to a small spot of media control, but the past is the past and we have to move on. Something Ventura's moment in politics provided for Minnesotans. A moment in the sun for Democracy. The last Presidential election, also an embarrassment for democracy and our electoral system, trashed the credibility of national elections. Our local election finished off hope for the Minnesota Fifth Estate. Good thing we have the Internet.
However, Minnesotans learned quite a few things about government during The Body's reign. We learned that anyone with reasonable intelligence can manage a state at least as well as professional politicians (a world class oxymoron). That should have been obvious, but testing the theory with a professional wrestler was a pretty dramatic example. Jesse made up for his own lack of experience and training by packing his administration with a diverse and skilled group of people that even the media and Republicrats were impressed. I think this demonstrated that the best people for the job of managing the country try very hard to avoid politicians, not politics.
There's an old adage about management and politics that says "anyone who wants the job shouldn't be allowed to do it." Jesse's candidacy was founded on testing that theory. When he started his campaign, he was trying to make a political point. He had next-to-no expectations of winning the election. His campaign was half entertainment, half protest movement, and zero political ambition. Of the three candidates for governor, Jesse was obviously the best choice. For once, that mattered. Four years later, the least capable candidate of that same trio, Norm Coleman, has been elected to the U.S. Senate, Jesse is retiring from politics, and our new governor is a conservative corporate hack. It's comforting to see that humans are still predictable and gullible.
Jesse got a lot of heat from characterizing the media as "jackals." The heat all came from the media. Anyone who's watched a press conference would have a hard time disputing the jackal label. On average, the media is lazy, elitist, vicious, disinterested in the truth or issue complexity, and observes pack mentality etiquette more closely than traffic on the San Diego Freeway. I think calling the media hacks jackals is slandering a perfectly reliable animal.
I didn't vote for Jesse. I was so worried that the Republican idiot, Coleman, would win that I flushed my vote on the Demolican candidate, who I disliked slightly less. It's the first time in thirty-some years of voting that I chickened out and the first time that a candidate I really wanted to see elected ended up in office. Go figure.
Jesse was thin-skinned, tended to whine when he felt abused, he could be a bully, he was often overly-dramatic and a little paranoid, and he would rather settle serious issues in the parking lot. He was also quick to admit when he needed to study a subject before commenting on it. He took advice and could tell good advice from vested interest advice. He cared more about taxpaying citizens than he did the tax-avoiding rich. He's not a coward. He has principles and tried to live by them, even when they were politically incorrect. He came into the office with the same standards he took when he returned to life as a civilian.
My only serious disagreement with Jesse came when he was hanging out with a New York talk show. He said that St. Paul was much more poorly designed than Minneapolis. He joked that the place had been laid out by "drunken Irishmen." Having just experienced far too much of Minneapolis' organization, I couldn't agree less. I think Minneapolis was designed by a pack of drunken professional wrestlers. The city, obviously, couldn't decide if it wanted to use the compass, the winding and merging rivers, or the random escape route of a scared rabbit as a street planning device. So, a little of each was applied. Getting from point A to point B involves passing through Egyptian hieroglyphs and the Russian alphabet.
So, Jesse, you were a good governor. Some of us learned a lot about politics and the state's activities while you were in office. I'm proud to have been a Minnesotan during your term. I'll miss you and your honesty and, maybe more than you, the members of your administration. You "shocked the world" and this brain-dead place is better for it. I hope, someday, we Americans find the courage and creativity to test the American Experiment again.