In America's heartland, a battle over values

Posted in United States | 02-Jun-04 | Author: Roger Cohen| Source: International Herald Tribune


MINNEAPOLIS So who is going to win the American election? Five months from a vote that has already polarized the nation, the outcome looks like a tossup. Around the world, the agony of Iraq is widely interpreted as a sure indication that President George W. Bush will not be re-elected. But it is in heartland states like Minnesota that the vote will be decided, and here the situation is much less clear.

That's right, Minnesota. It may seem unthinkable that this state, long viewed as a Democratic bastion, home to Hubert Humphrey and Walter Mondale and solid Scandinavian values of social responsibility, could be in play. But America's Canada, as Minnesota was once known, has changed in ways emblematic of the country as a whole, and a close-run fight is on between Bush and his Democratic challenger, John Kerry.

It is not for nothing that Bush has visited Minnesota eight times during his presidency. The state borders two others, Wisconsin and Iowa, that are also among the 16 "swing states" where this election will be decided. Having lost to the Democrats in all three by a margin of 6 percent or less in 2000, the Republicans are investing heavily in trying to turn things their way this time.

"A critical region has emerged that I call the upper Midwest," said Larry Jacobs, a political scientist, referring to Minnesota, Iowa and Wisconsin. "Between them, they represent as many electoral-college votes as Florida, and they are all in play. Iraq has had an impact, but the top concerns here are the economy and jobs."

Minnesota has typically been a job-producing machine when the economy is growing, and employment has started to come back in recent months.

But about 50,000 manufacturing jobs have been lost overall during the tenure of Bush, who remains on course to become the first president since Herbert Hoover to see employment shrink on his watch. This provides political ammunition to Kerry, whose campaign staff has taken to referring to the "worst jobs recovery since the Great Depression."

But even with Iraq in a mess and a pallid economic picture, the Democrats are nowhere near locking in Minnesota, where most polls suggest the race is about tied.

The main reason lies in significant shifts of population and values as the suburbs around the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul have mushroomed, farming communities have dwindled, the strength of unionized labor has fallen and young professionals from other states have been drawn to Minnesota.

This state is home to the vast "Mall of America," and the suburban values that tend to go with such sprawling retail paradises - the quest for bigger homes, bigger sport utility vehicles, smaller government and lower taxes - have taken hold.

A lot of young people here want to work harder and get rich quicker; they care not a fig for the 40-hour week or strong social programs; some feel strongly about hunting and the right to bear arms. A Republican ethos often sits more comfortably with them than the old Democratic values of Minnesota.

Among these new suburbanites, increasing in number across the whole country, Vincent Waters, a lawyer, has noted a limited interest in international affairs, an enduring belief that Saddam Hussein and the attacks of Sept. 11 were linked and a sense that Bush is strong on security.

The Midwestern heartland of America has always been about certain core values: You talk straight, you work hard, you take care of your own, you look forward not back. In Minnesota, these were overlaid with a particularly strong sense of community responsibility and a conviction, rooted in the state's Scandinavian and Lutheran heritage, that the poor should be looked after and that appropriate taxation could preserve a social balance. Here lay the bedrock of Minnesota's Democratic identity.

But that bedrock is now gone, or compromised.

"The social values of our fathers and grandfathers are dying," said Edward Denn, a lawyer. "This is the got-to-have-it-all-now generation, with both spouses working, more credit cards and just a different ideological space. Midwestern husbandry is finished."

The difficulties of the Democrats are illustrated by the very name the party carries in Minnesota, the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party. Farmers and workers, many from the mines in the northeast of the state, formed the core of the party. But farmers have left the land as agriculture has turned into a large-scale industrial operation. The number of industrial workers has fallen.

Still, a strong Democratic tradition persists, one now incarnated by Paul Wellstone, a liberal Senator who was killed while campaigning two years ago and whose seat was then won by the Republican mayor of St. Paul, Norm Coleman.

Posters and bumper stickers of Wellstone can still be seen in the state's major cities.

They are expressive of the visceral dislike of Bush, the strong commitment to community programs, the abhorrence of the war in Iraq and the anger at job losses that may in the end help Kerry carry a state important to his ambitions.

But Bush's America is also strongly represented here. The state has a Republican governor; its House is controlled by the Republicans; its conservative business community is large.

At the same time, the state's Senate is in Democratic hands and it voted, very narrowly, for the Democratic candidate, Al Gore, in 2000. In short, Minnesota, like America, is split.

The Republicans believe they can win. Their electoral machine is up and purring as Kerry scrambles to get his organized. But Minnesotans, whatever their political stripe, do not like images of inhuman Americans: The prison abuse scandal in Iraq has hurt Bush.

He may also be hurt here by another factor. More than 5 percent of Minnesotans voted for Ralph Nader in 2000. This time, the Democratic and liberal ardor to oust Bush is such that a lot of those Nader votes may go to Kerry. That, in turn, may be an indicator of the eventual outcome of the national election.

Roger Cohen can be reached at