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Citizen Politics -- a New Minnesota Miracle

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In the Civic Health Index conducted each year by the congressionally mandated National Conference of Citizenship, Minnesota leads the nation in civic engagement when a variety of measures, from voting levels and volunteering to involvement in neighborhood problem-solving and charitable contributions, are taken into account. Some years ago, the vitality of the civic culture in the state prompted a Time cover story called "The Minnesota Miracle."

This year, the efforts of Minnesotans United For All Families to defeat a so-called "Marriage Amendment," which would inscribe a ban on gay marriage into the state constitution, marks the state as a pioneer in "a different kind of politics," citizen politics on a large scale. It may generate another "Minnesota Miracle."

Such citizen politics, building civic agency, or the capacities to work across differences on common problems, draws on the philosophy and methods of broad-based community organizing. These schooled Barack Obama as a young organizer in Chicago, and his 2008 campaign translated citizen politics into a presidential election race.

Citizen politics is also spreading to colleges and universities in ways that create sustaining foundations for civic agency.

In Minnesota, the citizen politics used by MN United may show that a different kind of politics is not only civic -- concerned with the long-term health of the public culture, in addition to the issue at hand. It is also effective on one of the most contentious issues of our time.

Minnesotans United for All Families formed in May 2011, just hours after the Republican-controlled House of Representatives placed the Marriage Amendment on the November 2012 ballot. The coalition leaders knew they needed to do something different -- 30 consecutive fights to prevent such constitutional amendments had gone down to defeat, most recently in North Carolina.

All were based on the polarizing formula with roots in the 1970s door-to-door environmental and consumer canvass, now used by all manner of campaigns across the spectrum: find an enemy to demonize, develop a good versus evil script which removes complexities, and go into combat by appealing to people's outrage and sense of victimization.

Grant Stevensen, former president of ISAIAH, a broad-based community organization in the Gamaliel Foundation network for which Obama worked 30 years ago, directs faith-based organizing for MN United. He thinks polarizing politics reflects patterns that are hard to break. "There used to be mediating institutions like union locals, neighborhood schools, PTAs, or congregations where people interacted with a lot of diversity. Now we've lost them. People's public identities are thin. I think that's why they are held to so strongly."

But campaign organizers knew polarizing politics had been proven ineffectual by a string of defeats. "There was a lot of soul searching" about changing the approach, said one. Stevensen believes that "just about every aspect of our life drives us away from relationship and deep conversation, but we are very frustrated with being 'talked at' by campaigns. For starters, in developing a more people-centered politics, MN United talked to people on the other side to find out why they opposed gay marriage -- for the first time in any of the controversies.

They discovered that the language of "rights" and "benefits" and "discrimination" used in earlier efforts had done little to change undecided voters. They also discovered that faith communities were full of diverse views on this issue -- and none of the earlier efforts had organized among them.

Finally, they realized that "us versus them" politics wasn't changing the political landscape. "It's a slash and burn approach," says Stevensen. "In a polarizing campaign the question is 'who can keep standing the longest while we hit each other over the head.' But it never shifts the conversation." People stay in opposing camps and hope their side prevails with 50 people of the vote plus one.

MN United begins the way of broad-based community organizing, by recognizing the immense complexity and uniqueness of each person. "You're not a blue person or a red person or a green person, you're a person," says Stevensen. The campaign uses the basic approach of community organizing, starting where people are at, recognizing that each person has a story and a set of interests.

Organizers are trained not to argue but to listen. MN United's "Conversational Kit" -- found on its website -- stresses the importance of taking the long view. "Your job is to invite someone on a conversational journey. You're their guide. You don't need to reach the destination right away -- just start down the path together." Organizers learn to tell their own stories and respond to a variety of concerns with sympathy. Phone canvassers spend two to three times as long as the average campaign canvass.

Seasoned political operatives would see these numbers as hopelessly inefficient -- just as the Obama campaign took heat in 2008 for spending time on leadership development. But there are already significant results.

The language of rights, benefits, victimization and the evils of the opposition used in earlier campaigns has given way to a focus on the meaning of marriage, love and commitment, the importance of valuing the freedom of people to love whom they choose, and the need to keep government out of personal decisions.

All these themes have cross-partisan appeal. And they address worries, "the issue behind the issue" in hot-button controversies, that the social fabric is unraveling -- "coming part," in the language of the conservative Charles Murray -- in a culture of consumer choice and instant gratification. Stevensen sees a notable increase in appreciation for the value of marriage among young people in the campaign.

Different groups come into the campaign through different interests. Businesses such as General Mills have come out against the Marriage Amendment because of worries about its damage to the business climate. Libertarians want to keep government away from private choices. People of faith respond to arguments about the sacredness of each person.

The MN United coalition involves more than 500 member groups, with offices across the state. It is also diverse, including progressive groups like the ACLU, conservatives such as Minnesota Libertarians and Log Cabin Republicans, labor unions as well as businesses. The level of energy and experience recall the Obama campaign of 2008, with volunteers flooding phone banks and offices. Recent polls show the race volatile -- but at least some show opposition to the Marriage Amendment has been growing with a majority opposed.

Whatever happens in November, the MN United effort is a trailblazer. In a period of wide concern that we, as a people, are losing our ability to work across differences, citizen politics points to possibilities for regaining control over our collective destiny. This means revitalizing what can be called public experiences of work with different kinds of people, against the grain of a highly privatized and therapeutic culture when people post their most intimate secrets on Facebook, but have little sustained way of interaction with people who are very different.

Citizen politics is different. But it is also becoming increasingly popular.

Harry C. Boyte is National Coordinator of the American Commonwealth Partnership, director of the Center for Democracy and Citizenship at Augsburg College, and a Senior Fellow at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs. Hunter Gordon is a graduate student at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities and a democracy organizer for the Center for Democracy and Citizenship. He lives with his partner and daughter in Saint Paul, Minnesota.

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