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These comments are responses to the Civic Caucus interview with

Former Congressman Tim Penny
October 23, 2015

Narrow interests, partisan divide impede broad collective action on public problems

Overview

The proliferation of interest groups focused on a narrow set of issues makes it harder for people to come together on a broad range of important public policy issues, according to Tim Penny, former U.S. House member from Minnesota and now president and CEO of the Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation.

 

Another development that has helped change the culture of decision-making over the last 40 years, he says, is that now people can get their information the way they want to get it, whether on the liberal or conservative side. The audience is segmented and the media are only interested in talking to their share of the audience. And the fact that people don't all read the same local newspapers anymore has eroded our sense of community and our sense of how to resolve public policy problems.

 

Penny laments the partisan divide and the failure of most attempts over the past 20 years to overcome it. He believes the two sides often start the debate over an issue too far apart to even find common ground. And insisting that people admit they are wrong before agreeing to talk to them is a nonstarter.

 

He offers a number of proposals that could change the way people think about being a citizen and could encourage people to work collectively to solve problems: (1) instituting universal service at age 18; (2) encouraging community service tied to academics in high school; (3) helping students register to vote before they graduate from high school; (4) forming a blue-ribbon commission to redesign state government; (5) urging local communities to address their own needs, rather than looking to Washington; (6) setting Congressional term limits; and (7) convincing business leaders that it's essential to cultivate working relationships on both sides of the aisle.

 

For the complete interview summary see:  Penny interview

 

Response Summary: Readers rated these statements about the topic and about points discussed during the meeting, on a scale of 0 (strongly disagree) to 5 (neutral) to 10 (strongly agree): 

  

1. Topic is of value. The interview summarized today provides valuable information or insight.

 

2. Further study warranted. It would be helpful to schedule additional interviews on this topic.

 

3. Narrow interests make agreement harder. The proliferation of organizations that care only about their own narrow agendas rather than a broader range of problems makes it more difficult to achieve agreement on solutions to public problems in Minnesota.

 

4. Narrow interests more unyielding now. Such narrowly focused organizations have become more unyielding in their views than in the past.

 

5. Easier to tap like-minded news sources. Meanwhile, it's much easier today for people to get their news from sources that reflect their own positions, rather than a balance of views.

 

6. People less likely to join traditional civic groups. The shift toward narrower perspectives is also evident in community involvement, with individuals less likely to join traditional, broad-

based civic organizations in favor of working only on projects reflecting their specific interests.

 

7. Narrow interests dominate political nominations. Narrowly focused organizations not representative of a cross-section of the community now dominate the process of nominating political candidates.

 

8. All should have broader community exposure. People should learn more about one another through exposure to broader community endeavors, such as military or other public service.

 

9. Schools should promote service, voter registration. Community service should be a part of school curriculum, and students should be encouraged to register to vote before finishing high school.

 

Response Distribution:

Strongly disagree

Moderately disagree

Neutral

Moderately agree

Strongly agree

Total Responses

1. Topic is of value.

0%

0%

0%

31%

69%

13

2. Further study warranted.

0%

0%

0%

46%

54%

13

3. Narrow interests make agreement harder.

0%

0%

8%

15%

77%

13

4. Narrow interests more unyielding now.

0%

0%

8%

38%

54%

13

5. Easier to tap like-minded news sources.

0%

0%

0%

23%

77%

13

6. People less likely to join traditional civic groups.

0%

8%

15%

31%

46%

13

7. Narrow interests dominate political nominations.

0%

0%

8%

23%

69%

13

8. All should have broader community exposure.

0%

0%

0%

31%

69%

13

9. Schools should promote service, voter registration.

0%

0%

15%

23%

62%

13

 

Individual Responses:

Cheryal Hills  (10)  (10)  (5)  (5)  (10)  (5)  (5)  (7.5)  (7.5)

 

Larry Schluter  (7.5)  (7.5)  (10)  (10)  (10)  (7.5)  (10)  (7.5)  (7.5)

 1. Topic is of value. We need more discussions like this with many different viewpoints.

 

2. Further study warranted. We need to have additional interviews to see if anything has changed.

 

3. Narrow interests make agreement harder. Very little will be accomplished if we cannot get past our own little agendas.  We need to think broader.

 

4. Narrow interests more unyielding now. How can this be changed?

 

5. Easier to tap like-minded news sources. This will continue to be the case with more people getting their news from their computer.

 

6. People less likely to join traditional civic groups. People have busier lives now and will be involved in groups that have a more personal appeal to them. 

 

Very good interview.

 

Alan Miller  (10)  (7.5)  (10)  (10)  (10)  (2.5)  (10)  (10)  (10)

 9. Schools should promote service, voter registration. Penny is correct; we are losing civic responsibility as part of the educational process, and voting should be automatic—perhaps even registration at birth—but registration is not enough by itself without engendering a commitment to community and the democratic process.  As we slip into a world dominated by social media, we lose history, tradition, the humanities and social sciences upon which this nation was built.

 

Bruce A. Lundeen  (10)  (7.5)  (10)  (7.5)  (7.5)  (10)  (10)  (10)  (5)

 1. Topic is of value. An interview is needed on why term limits are a bad idea.  Even [an] out-of-the-box thinker like Tim Penny overlooks the value of legislative experience. If all elected people are to be little more than freshmen legislators, the bureaucracies will rule. In fact, Tim Penny's admonishment to empower public employees may just reveal a socialist inclination. I think the self-interest public employees practice shapes policy to a greater and more detrimental degree than has been admitted.

 

9. Schools should promote service, voter registration. I am not sure young people have the experience to vote, and from my experience as an election judge, certain naturalization processes have been abbreviated to stuff ballot boxes. For instance, I did same-day registrations for people who could not look at the form and determine what box they were to sign, let alone what was to go in previous boxes. When one foreign language speaking election judge was available, there was no check on [what] that election [judge] was telling the voter.  I was told to "just stand there".   

 

"We no longer have a Federalist system", yet many necessary things have come from Federal mandate. Maybe not everything, but many things.

 

Scott Halstead  (10)  (10)  (10)  (10)  (10)  (10)  (10)  (10)  (10)

 There needs to be a coalition of organizations leading the reform of state government, especially legislatively. The number of legislators should be reduced to approximately 100. We have the 5th largest legislature in the nation. Term lengths - all 4 years; term limits; full time legislators; non-partisan redistricting; publication of voting records; reform the legislative process.    The Center for Public Integrity 2015 report was D- for Minnesota.   Minnesota Government is broken and the citizens and organizations such as the Civic Caucus and Citizens League and many other non-partisan organizations need to lead the way.

 

Dave Durenberger  (10)  (7.5)  (10)  (7.5)  (10)  (5)  (10)  (10)  (10)

 

David G Dillon  (10)  (10)  (10)  (10)  (10)  (10)  (10)  (10)  (10)

 

Dennis Carlson  (10)  (10)  (10)  (10)  (10)  (10)  (10)  (10)  (10)

 1. Topic is of value. Really a wise man with great insight.  Too bad that leads to depression.

 

2. Further study warranted. Yes, if you can find people of Tim Penny's caliber.

 

3. Narrow interests make agreement harder. A great analogy is in music. When I grew up there was one radio station out of Duluth that all of us teenagers listened to because that is all there was.  We all heard country, folk, blues, pop, and rock.  We heard African-American performers, Hispanic, even totally foreign songs from other countries occasionally. Today there are hundreds and hundreds of listening options but no common source to expand your interests or hear anything other than your personal taste.  Everyone follows their own music and they never have to listen to anyone else's interests.

 

4. Narrow interests more unyielding now. Could not agree more. In education we have a state School Board organization, an Administrator organization, a parent organization, an early childhood organization, a Metropolitan organization, a rural organization and a low property wealth organization, and so on, and so on.  No wonder we can't agree on approaches like Universal Pre-K.

 

5. Easier to tap like-minded news sources. This one really hurts us I think because we are all using different "facts" we have received from our news sources. Another challenge is that many people get "news" from talk shows and cable shows that don't even pretend to be fair or balanced—the Daily Show for example is a comedy show, not a news show.  I confess John Oliver's show (Last Week Tonight) on HBO is my personal favorite and definitely shapes my views on hard news stories.

 

6. People less likely to join traditional civic groups. They seem to be dying in our communities and consist mostly of old people—like myself, I might add.  Rotary, Kiwannis, and others all struggle finding new, young members.

 

7. Narrow interests dominate political nominations. Local caucuses may be the demise of our major political parties. A small minority of voters define the ballot and many of our best potential leaders get shoved aside for someone who must live up to the strict standards of a chosen few.

 

8. All should have broader community exposure. Community Education has a strong youth service program across the state in cooperation with their middle schools and high schools. State funding is minimal but it can be a solid program for many students. WE Day has also really expanded youth service across Minnesota in the last three years. Could we reduce student loan debt through community service after college?

 

9. Schools should promote service, voter registration. Should be part of their diploma.

 

Tim's interview reminds me how much we miss true leaders and true statesmen and stateswomen in Minnesota. Leadership seems to be a lost art and leaders a dying breed. I think we should create an Elder's Board much like the Native American culture does to offer guidance to the community and the young. Tim should be on it. 

 

Vici Oshiro  (10)  (10)  (10)  (10)  (10)  (10)  (10)  (10)  (7.5)

 8. All should have broader community exposure. I have a theory. Our generation (one before Tim Penney was born) and our parents experienced both the Great Depression and WWII.  Both taught us the importance of working together. Those born after WWII mostly got a message on the importance of individual accomplishment and success (too often defined in $$$). I suspect that the millennials and their successors will get some similar hard lessons from the changing climates.  A few more Storm Sandys and they'll have to figure out how to work together.

Interesting to hear from Tim again. We first met when he was still very young and running his first race.

 

Bob Brown  (10)  (10)  (10)  (10)  (10)  (10)  (10)  (7.5)  (5)

 3. Narrow interests make agreement harder. The special interest groups and their SuperPACs have undermined the political parties and made them either narrower or nonexistent.

 

5. Easier to tap like-minded news sources. Because of their finances general newspapers have reduced the number of news and editorial staff that used to play a major role in informing the public and laying out alternatives for public debate.

 

I think there should be much more discussion about these topics, but I am not capable of typing fast enough to comment at length.

 

Paul Hauge  (9)  (10)  (9)  (9)  (10)  (8)  (8)  (9)  (10)

 

Tom Spitznagle  (8)  (6)  (9)  (8)  (8)  (9)  (8)  (10)  (10)

 The U.S. has been evolving towards a top-down government whereas, in the past, most important cultural and government beliefs/programs/ideas were formulated at the grass roots level, by the people, which resulted in much greater buy-in.  A large number of citizens resent the top-down approach.  People also like stability in important cultural and political matters.  The bottom-up approach is generally more stable whereas the top-down approach is more volatile since it is subject to the political whims of whichever party is in control at any point in time.  We have seen society’s long-standing cultural and political preferences crushed by top-down Supreme Court decisions, Executive orders and Congressional legislation. Sometimes this is necessary but too often it only creates more problems in our society. Roe vs. Wade is one example – the Affordable Care Act another.  This leads many citizens to conclude that government is the enemy and that they must fight it instead of working with it. The top-down approach is favored by Democrats and the bottom-up approach by Republicans – generally speaking. This, I believe, is what has driven people, and the political parties, so far apart.

 

Wayne Jennings  (9)  (9)  (10)  (9)  (9)  (8)  (8)  (10)  (10)

 Penny labels governance issues that disgust people. Frustration with the Legislature and Congress ability to agree and act retards the state’s future.

 

 

To receive these interview summaries as they occur, email civiccaucus@comcast.net         Follow us on Twitter

 

The Civic Caucus   is a non-partisan, tax-exempt educational organization.   The Interview Group  includes persons of varying political persuasions,
reflecting years of leadership in politics and business. Click here  to see a short personal background of each.

  John S. Adams, David Broden, Audrey Clay, Janis Clay, Pat Davies, Bill Frenzel, Paul Gilje (Executive Director), Randy Johnson, Sallie Kemper, Ted Kolderie,
Dan Loritz (Chair), Tim McDonald, Bruce Mooty, John Mooty, Jim Olson, Paul Ostrow, Wayne Popham, Dana Schroeder, Clarence Shallbetter, and Fred Zimmerman

 

 

 


©
The Civic Caucus, 01-01-2008
2104 Girard Avenue South, Minneapolis, MN 55405.  civiccaucus@comcast.net
Dan Loritz, chair, 612-791-1919   ~   Paul A. Gilje, coordinator, 952-890-5220.
 

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