Like a lot of us, I watched the Vikings play the Packers on Sunday. I won’t wade into controversy by talking about the result, but the game did make me think about something my pal Joe used to say when he campaigned for public office. He used to describe our current politics like a football game: legislators put on their opposing jerseys and go to battle like the Vikings and the Packers. I think he was on to something, and it isn’t good.
I spoke at a meeting of the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities last week. So much of the discussion was about how partisanship is making it hard to get things done in our communities. That’s true. Party bureaucrats sometimes play games that get in the way of serving the people. The alternative we often propose, “bipartisanship,” isn’t great either, though.
I’m sure we’ve all heard politicians praise themselves as bipartisan and then moments later disparage the other side. But even when it is sincere, “bipartisanship” is often a tool of partisans and our existing two-party structure. It describes a temporary arrangement between opposing forces that promotes the self-interest of each politician. It’s a term of convenience. It doesn’t prioritize the people and the problems we face, nor does it do anything to undermine our toxic commitment to party. I think we need to think about political parties differently.
Political parties aren’t static, monolithic things. They change over time. Joe Biden doesn’t fit easily in the party of Woodrow Wilson, and Dwight Eisenhower wouldn’t recognize the party of Trump.
I read a book recently by former Sen. Dave Durenberger, "When Republicans were Progressive." Durenberger tells the story of his life in politics, but he also talks about the development of his party in the 20th century. He explains how Republicans created the state income tax in Minnesota and founded the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, two moves that might seem strange to a Republican today. Parties change.
Parties are also complex. I have great friends in the DFL with whom I serve, and I disagree with them on a whole mess of important stuff. It is the issues themselves that matter, not the labels we give them. I think just about any policy can be justified in language that makes it sound "conservative" or "liberal."
But we often still act like political parties are simple and coherent, and we use party as a way of categorizing people, not just policies. A political party is not an identity. It is a tool to accomplish a public good. It is not an end in and of itself.
A while back I spoke with a neighbor of ours when we were both volunteering. She told me her story, how she’d lived a pretty standard middle-class life until her husband got sick. His medical bills bankrupted the family and he passed away. Now she lives alone, in debt and subsidized housing. No one should go bankrupt trying to keep a loved one alive. She could use a hand. She doesn’t care if it’s a Democrat or a Republican who helps her out. I don’t either.
This is Thanksgiving week. We hear a lot about politics around that particular dinner table where it seems conflict and resentment are as common as cranberries. Maybe we’ll even watch some football. But politics isn’t a game or a sport. It’s service. Period. And when we engage in the serious conversations we have to have about the problems that we have to solve, I hope we argue the issue but remember to love the person.
If you’d like to visit, I still hold office hours most Fridays from 4-5 at my office at 1729 W. St. Germain. And we continue to hold monthly town halls that you can find out about at our Facebook page. Hope we get to visit.
— Sen. Aric Putnam, a Democrat, represents Minnesota Senate District 14. His column is published on the fourth Sunday of the month.
This article originally appeared on St. Cloud Times: Political parties should be tools to affect policies that serve people