Professor Schier is the head of the political science department at Carleton College, political analyst for WCCO-TV, and commentator for Minnesota Public Radio. Below are excerpts from a November 14, 1995, discussion between Steven Schier and our Editor In Chief, Shawn Towle.
How would you describe the emerging changes in Minnesota’s electorate?
I think the issues that people are concerned about are very different than they were three years ago: less concern about the economy and more concerned about crime and social decay, family issues and moral decay, etc. Those are issues that potentially work well for conservative politicians. Also, I would say that independents in Minnesota are more conservative now than they were three years ago in terms of self- identification in surveys. All that suggests to me is that you are going to have a very competitive two-party state.
Which political party has the best opportunity to appeal to the independent voter?
I think that is unclear. I think both parties have a chance. The Republicans may be handicapped by their solitary focus on social issues; the Quist phenomenon is a good example. I think the Democrats also have a problem in that their core power base in the central cities has an agenda for spending and taxing very different from that accepted by independent voters, who are much more tax adverse and skeptical of government projects and government spending. I think each party has a problem reconciling its activist core with the preferences of the independent voter. That is the main reason that state politics is going to be unstable for the next ten years.
Currently, there are 13 suburban “swing” seats where both parties are courting voters. What issues are appealing to suburban voters?
Suburban voters are fiscally conservative but they tend to be more socially libertarian than, say, the social activists of the Republican Right. They’re clearly in favor of educational and environmental spending, however. What you’ve got there is an interesting mix of factors. They want education and environmental spending and they’re not that keen on the social activism of the Religious Right. All that will tend to help Democrats. On the other hand they are pretty strongly fiscally conservative and believe in cutting spending and cutting taxes where possible and that will tend to help Republicans
Can you explain the disconnect between the DFL Party and the DFL legislative delegation?
DFL party people are strongly motivated by particular issues and they tend to support candidates who agree with them and their agendas. When both DFL and IR parties prefer people like Allen Quist and John Marty, you know our political party system is badly flawed.
Democrats are returning to bread and butter issues as their focus, Republicans decry this as class warfare. Are income polarization, economic insecurity, and the decline of the middle class winning issues for Democrats?
There is no doubt that incomes have been stagnant. And we have had greater inequality. Greater inequality is a good issue for the Democrats. But overall the environment is one where the party that is advocating a lot of additional government action is going to have a tough sell to a skeptical electorate that doesn’t have extra spending room. And that is the way it looks for the next ten to fifteen years. My advice to Democrats is to retool your message and accept this reality. The old-time liberal religion is simply not going to be salable. And if they haven’t figured it out now, they need to get that message. Old time liberalism is going by the boards and you need to reinvent the Democratic party. I think that an organization like the Democratic Leadership Council is going in the right direction. Try adapting the Democratic party to the 21st century.
Political parties and movements are frequently identified by charismatic leadership. Who do you feel are the current leaders, and who else can step up to the plate?
If you were to name sort of two of the major figures in the state Democratic party right now, I would say ex-Congressman Tim Penny is one and of course Senator Paul Wellstone is another. Now let me tell you they differ on a heck of a lot of issues. On the budget, they are almost 180 degrees apart from each other. Democrats don’t speak with a unified voice right now. Republicans have Governor Carlson but I think he been sort of lax.
Analysis of Democrats frequently magnifies their differences. What are the core issues that Democrats hold in common?
I think, very simply, Democrats believe that government can help people; that there are a variety of things that government does well and should continue to do. Minnesota Care would be an example I think you’d find most DFLers would agree with. Educational spending; I think you would find strong support for that. The argument for affirmative government is one that is more or less held by all Democrats. Where they differ is the degree to which government should do these various things and how large government should be.
Most Minnesotans perceive government as too big, largely ineffective, and beholden to special interests. Is this accurate?
It’s overdrawn. People underestimate the good government can do. And a lot of the reason is that “the media” never tells them that government ever does anything well. Frankly, I think government can do some good, but it has to pick its spots and act more intelligently.
The political arena exists without a formal set of rules. Is this no-holds-barred environment providing quality elected officials and fostering trust in our government?
I think that the environment is a very poisoned one right now. And I think that the decision of Colin Powell not to run makes it hard to trust that there is a change in the political environment.
I don’t know what to do about this. We can try to clean up political ads; I tend to think things are beyond this and its probably not very effective. We really need a focus on the successes of government and its positive attributes. Candidates can try and do that but as long as the media focuses on the negative, things will remain in a fixed position. No-holds-barred is the way to put it.
For the 1996 election, predict the state’s legislative majorities, congressional delegation, and votes for President.
I think if it’s Dole and Clinton, Clinton wins but not by a large margin. I don’t think you will see a big change in the congressional delegation, and I think the Senate race will be too close to call until the very end. I think there is a good chance the IRs will take the state House and there is a 1-in-4 chance they will take the state Senate.
How have students changed during your tenure at Carleton? What are the external influences guiding their opinions?
One thing I have noticed in the last three or four years is sort of a survivalist mentality. I think student are pessimistic about their future. And they’re very pessimistic about the political system and what it’s doing to their future.