AP Acts As If Misunderstood 'Minnesota Nice' Is at Stake in State Govt. Shutdown Battle

I had to do a double take when I looked over this afternoon's dispatch out of St. Paul, Minnesota from Patrick Condon of the Associated Press.

Readers unfamiliar with the Gopher State budget impasse to this point would fail to learn from the AP report that the dispute is all about raising taxes. Democratic Governor Mark Dayton wants tax increases on "the wealthy" (which really means high income-earners, whether or not they happen to be wealthy). The state's top marginal tax rate is already a very high 7.85%.

Dayton has chosen to shut down the government because the Republican-controlled legislature won't pass a budget containing his desired tax increases. It really is that simple. Minnesota's government is closed (actually, partially closed) because Mark Dayton chose to close it. Period.

Having premised his story on spending cuts instead of tax increases, Condon cynically invoked something known as "Minnesota Nice" -- as if imposing tax increases on roughly 7,700 taxpayers to pay for increased spending fits that definition. What's really amazing is that if one digs into what "Minnesota Nice" really means, it's not at all complimentary.

Here are several paragraphs from Condon's concoction:

Minn. shutdown a battle over big-spending legacy

Facing Republican demands to limit enrollment in assistance programs and trim historically generous state benefits, Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton has a frequent response: "That is not Minnesota."

The remark sums up one side of the wildly diverging views between Dayton and Republicans about whether Minnesota should preserve its reputation as a progressive state where taxes are high but the vulnerable are protected. That dispute underlies a government shutdown that hit its seventh day Thursday.

What Democrats see as the popular local saying "Minnesota Nice," Republicans see as unchecked and irresponsible government growth fueled by taxes they say are crippling to businesses that create jobs.

"I don't think that Minnesota Nice is going to go away," said state Rep. Mary Liz Holberg, the lead budget writer for House Republicans. "But I certainly would like to see our business climate get out of the bottom 10."

Ms. Holberg should never have accepted the premise of whatever question she was asked about preserving "Minnesota Nice." From all appearances, its use is an artificial contrivance which had nothing to do with politics until the Democrats and the establishment press decided to make it so.

Here, from an audio transcript at Minnesota Public Radio, a place Mr. Condon would be likely to consider unimpeachable, is Syl Jones in December 2009, explaining what "Minnesota Nice" is:

Tracing the origin of "Minnesota Nice"

Minnesotans know it's not nice to call someone "Minnesota nice." It's a synonym for phoniness and passive aggression. And Minnesota playwright Syl Jones says he's uncovered the roots of Minnesota nice. He traces it all back to the Scandinavian immigrants who settled here more than a century ago. Jones argues in this essay that his discovery goes a long way toward explaining all kinds of strange Minnesota phenomena.

Syl Jones: In the 1930s, a Danish-Norwegian novelist, Aksel Sandemose, described the unwritten laws that governed his fictional town of Jante. He listed 11 so-called Janteloven, or Jante laws, but three are enough to give you an idea:

Don't think that you are special.

Don't think that you are good at anything.

Don't think that you can teach us anything.

Sound familiar? It should. Jante Law explains a lot of what goes on in Minnesota. Former Gov. Wendell Anderson met his downfall because people thought he'd forgotten to act like he wasn't anything special. Former Gov. Jesse Ventura enjoyed initial success because he appealed to people who thought the political establishment had nothing to teach them. Unfortunately, he also forgot to act like he wasn't anything special. These principles, which may have been intended to maintain a measure of egalitarianism back in the old country, find their cultural expression in what we call Minnesota Nice. People who have grown up with it know that Minnesota Nice doesn't have all that much to do with being nice. It's more about keeping up appearances, about keeping the social order, about keeping people in their place.

Those who are curious about all 11 Jante laws will find them here.

Dang. It would be reasonable to conclude based on Jones's riff that Mark Dayton and Gopher State Democrats are more interested in keeping up "progressive" appearances than they are in competently running state government. It takes a special degree of hubris to take something clearly considered uncomplimentary and try to turn it into a supposed desirable feature. Nice try, Mr. Condon and Minnesota Democrats. No sale.

Someone ought to ask Mark Dayton what would happen if he gets his way and a just a few hundred of the 7,700 income tax increase burden-carriers decide that the state isn't being nice enough to them any more and move to another state. People, especially excessively taxed people, have been known to vote with their feet.

Though one never knows how things are going to turn out, it's hard not to think that when the establishment press and Democrats (but I repeat myself) have to resort to arguments normally reserved for spending cuts which in essence try to say, "You're not a nice person if you don't want to increase taxes," it's not looking good for Minnesota's Democratic Farm Labor partisans.

Cross-posted at BizzyBlog.com.

Tom Blumer
Tom Blumer
Tom Blumer is a contributing editor for NewsBusters.