Monday, May 22, 2006

The Uncivil Society; another point of view

Katherine Kersten (again), the Strib's lonely conservative opinion columnist has struck a nerve again with a nice piece on the changes in our political landscape over the last 40 or more years.

She interviewed A.M. "Sandy" Keith, former Minensota State Senator, former Lieutenant Governor and former Chief Justice of the state Supreme Court as to what has happened to our politicians. They are now calling each other "liars" and "devils" and getting away with it. In Sandy's day, they both maintain, that was not the way things were. And our blogging partner, Mitchell Hadley, does a nice job of parsing her column and giving us some pithy analysis in his Our Word blog.

In the old days, especially in the smaller towns, political opponents had to get along with each other because they needed each other for other reason than votes. In essence the argument is that both our urban and rural worlds have become more isolated and politicians don't encounter each other daily and they really don't need each other to get along. Thus our society has been more fragmented into rigid fringe groups, often best described by using the red state, blue state metaphor.

I would guess there is a modicum of truth to that.

But, one of the advantages of having lived around here for a long time is that I remember that it wasn't quite so civil on the left and the right as Keith describes it. For you see, Sandy, one of the first of the modern politicians to be adorned with a JFK haircut, was one of the principals in a 1966 battle royal in the Democratic Farmer Labor (DFL) party that began the movement of that party to the liberal edge.

Karl Rolvaag, who had been Minnesota’s Lieutenant Governor, won the Governorship in 1962 in an election that took 132 days to decide. The margin was 91 votes out of 1.3 million cast over the Republican candidate. Most of the ballots in those days were done on paper, and everyone of those paper ballots was contested by teams of lawyers and professors and panels of judges. If the law said the ballot must be marked with an X and the voter marked with a check mark, out went the ballot. If the voter wrote in a name when the name was printed on the ballot, out went the ballot. I won’t bore you with the details, but the 284 pp. book, “Recount” by Stinnett and Backstrom, 1964 has them for you.

Minnesota's election laws were promptly changed after that election so that now the voter's intent is the basis of determining of whether a ballot if valid or not. If the folks in Florida had read this book, they certainly could have avoided their recent “chad wars.”

When it was time for re-election in 1966, Keith, who was Rolvaag’s Lieutenant Governor, and his allies decided that Karl wasn’t glamorous enough to be governor so he challenged him in the DFL Convention, where he lost, and in a Party Primary where he also lost. The Republicans won the Governor’s office in November. It was bloody and vicious and people that were closely involved probably still don’t talk to each other. The conservatives, generally the farmers and the unions had backed known quantity, incumbent, non-glamorous Rolvaag; The academics and students and professionals, the new Democratic elite, had gone for Kennedy-esque Keith. They were joined by two new groups, the environmentalists and what would become the GBLGT movement.

The split continued to grow over the years and after the Roe v. Wade decision in 1973, the Catholics started leaving the DFL to the point by the 1990s, the once invincible party was regularly losing statewide elections.

I think there is some truth in what Kersten and Keith came up with. But as you see, it was a little more complex than that.

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