I hope that there are many of us in Minnesota who are watching the “Trump Train” and are shaking our heads. Except that we aren’t entirely shaking them in disgust–we’ve seen this show before, and we know how it reads from beginning to end.
We’ve seen this before because way back in 1998, we Minnesotans elected Jesse Ventura–political outsider and former pro wrestler using his stage name on the ballot–to be governor of Minnesota.
And in the interest of full disclosure and hoping for some absolution, I must admit that in hoping for something different, I too voted for Jesse Ventura.
Oh, I hear the chorus from you out there telling me that Trump is not the same as Ventura, that things are different nearly 18 years later. That Hillary is innovative and full of new ideas and can get things done. That the parties are in total disarray and unresponsive to the people they claim to serve. That there’s a discontent calling for a change. That there are threats that must be responded to. That we, the people, can fix our broken government by electing someone who clearly has opinions, some of which even mirror our own.
Nope. It was the same line. All the way along. Really.
You see, in addition to being a former pro wrestler, Ventura was a former mayor of a second-ring Minneapolis suburb. At any other time with any other personality, he would be easily overlooked and forgotten by politics. But then he became the host of a local radio talk show where he could offer opinions almost without fear because he was above the political fray. He could say what Joe Everyman was thinking and people loved it because it hit that chord that no one else dared hit, at least out loud.
And in 1998, after about eight years of a likable but somehow polarizing-to-everyone Republican governor in the person of Arne Carlson, the state was tired and weary and demanding a new direction. He wasn’t liberal, conservative, or centrist enough. To anyone. Go figure.
What new direction? Any new direction? Except those that we’ve already tried…
The Republicans offered up Norm Coleman, the up-and-coming St. Paul mayor whose charm and political savvy somehow evoked JFK. He had the eastern accent and that strong look in a suit that made him the political “it” child. He had built a new arena, brought hockey back to St. Paul, breathed new life back to downtown, and indeed had started to bring the rest of the city back from being Minneapolis’ tired eastern suburb. He was the shiny new toy to the twin cities, but a complete unknown to the rest of the state.
The Democrats in this state were old and tired, and stuck on a one-note symphony. They opted for Skip Humphrey (Hubert the III, if you’re really wondering), a giant among Minnesota Democrats, taking what would turn out to be one final swing at the top office in the state and fulfill his family’s political legacy in spite of never having made it further in his political career than attorney general and state senator. He spoke like his father, held many of the same beliefs, and generally sounded like someone whose platform was pulled out of the 1968 election with his father. He appealed to the iron range (northern Minnesota), and to farmers because his father had appealed to them. But that was about it for him. In short, he was a safe choice.
And to say there was a degree of “ho hum” about the whole election would be an understatement.
Minnesotans are a politically wily bunch, make no mistake. In spite of our historically liberal leanings, we don’t like to go too far with things unless they really benefit everyone (think of the clean indoor air act prohibiting smoking in indoor public areas, which was passed in 1975 as one of the first acts of its kind). We like a certain degree of consistency in our government. But perhaps the constant drumbeat of a couple of parties who clearly no longer understood the entire state finally had triggered a revolution within the populace.
Jesse Ventura led the charge. First from his radio show, where he could say things and get away with it because he wasn’t running for anything. He held no political office. And the only real responsibility he had was to his show’s advertisers. And even then he frequently didn’t give a damn.
There quickly came a groundswell of voices calling for him to run for governor. And eventually, he heeded the voices and ran. His campaign practically invented the modern grassroots campaign, with catchy cheaply produced TV ads and internet fundraising. And he won in a three-way race as an independent candidate. He said he shocked the world, and he did, as most polls had him down 6-8 points going into election night behind Norm Coleman.
And the morning after the parties, most of us asked what the hell happened.
Here’s where it ties together. Jesse said what people thought, and he became a populist for it, which was fine. Trump says things that are popular, and often hard to argue. I mean, just listen to his speeches sometime, and you’ll hear him giving broad generalizations that lack any definition or plan “We’ll get America working again,” or that tax law will be made fairer, and jobs more plentiful, and government smaller, and the world safer.
But the ugly flip side to populism in politics is the truth that you need to work with a few other governing bodies in order to achieve your political goals. A governor or president can yell and scream and offer plan after plan as much as they want, but they’ll never become law unless the legislative branch acts on them. And with the exception of a few cases, the Minnesota legislature, still owned and operated by the Republicans and Democrats in 1999, only acted on those items that were truly popular with the people–the tax rebate being a prime example.
So Trump is this year’s Jesse Ventura, and Hillary Clinton is yet another Democratic retread with a family name attached to political legend. The 2016 presidential election is very much the same as Minnesota’s gubernatorial election in 1998.
The point is this: there can be populism with an individual candidate as long as there is an understanding that either the entire political process and system must be remade, or it must be made to work from within. In other words, blow up the two-party system, congress, and the election process, or make it all work together to achieve what everyone says they want to accomplish: serving the people. Otherwise, we’re guaranteed four years of the same from Washington: infighting between and within parties and bodies, and a total lack of action.
Just like there was for four years in Minnesota. Remember, we’ve seen this story before.