The answer to refugee-baiting? Minnesotanness.

Protesters rally against President Donald Trump's executive order halting refugee admissions for 120 days and banning entry to the U.S. for citizens of seven predominantly-Muslim nations, at Reagan National Airport in 2017. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

I often joke that my graduate studies in anthropology became a life skill when I moved to Minnesota. The classic tools of the discipline — where one is traught to observe, analyze, and come to conclusions about often “exotic” other cultures — prepared me well for Life Among the Minnesotans. Some aspects of Minnesotanness will always baffle me, as I am reminded every time I get myself into trouble by my prickly tendency in conversation to say what I mean.  But as my almost 20 years here attests, there is much I love about the quirky place I have made home.  

Topping that list is that clunky word Minnesotanness. It’s a thing. What is and isn’t “Minnesotan” is discussed, debated and defended. When a national writer publishes nonsense about Minnesotans and their grape salads, we roar back with a vengeance. Politicians often denigrate their opponents’ positions with one killer phrase: “that is un-Minnesotan.”  A Minnesotan might agree that only Texans rival us in our pride of place, but she’d likely add, “But do they have to be so loud about it?” No need to be boastful: Minnesotans may be passionate about their state, but that exuberance is often stored, with other emotions, deep down inside.

As a Latino in this state, I sometimes wonder, as I know many people of color also do, if that ethereal concept of Minnesotanness includes us. I have been thinking about this especially since reading news of what to me is the opening salvo of the 2020 election year: Beltrami County’s 3-2 vote to bar refugees from resettling in the county. No, there are no pending proposals to bring refugees there and none have been resettled in the county in the last five years. But that vote didn’t come out of nowhere: it’s the direct result of a Trump administration decision this past October to allow local jurisdictions and states to opt out of receiving refugees.  

Even though several other Minnesota counties voted to welcome refugees, and Gov.Tim Walz declared that “the inn is not full” in Minnesota, the vote in Beltrami County has garnered local and national media attention precisely because it feels like a bellwether for the coming year. Will this refugee-baiting strategy turn Trump’s narrow 2016 loss here into a 2020 win? Even more broadly, what kind of Minnesotanness will prevail? 

Luckily, progressives in Minnesota have very recent examples to build on as we continue to craft a definition of Minnesotanness that is not based in fear and exclusion, but is rooted in connection, welcoming and working together to solve problems.

In 2018, Minnesotans rejected Republican Jeff Johnson, who did his best to stoke fears of the other by running on halting refugee resettlement, in favor of the Walz-Flanagan vision of “One Minnesota.” Before Walz became the DFL nominee and his slogan was heard statewide, however, advocates across the state worked on a campaign to spur conversations among Minnesotans that rejected the right’s fear-based vision of our state. They called it “Greater than Fear.”

The Greater than Fear Campaign, led by Faith in Minnesota, Education Minnesota, SEIU (where I was a leader at the time)  and other progressive groups across the state, worked with political communications researcher Anat Shanker-Osorio to present a vision of a Minnesota where “we’re better off together,” best exemplified by a digital ad featuring a familiar winter sight: neighbors helping each other dig a car out of a snowbank:

The hashtag associated with the ads, #GreaterThanFear, became close to ubiquitous, with Democratic candidates adopting it in their own messaging. Voters from districts that had not even been targeted still reported having heard the slogan. And an election eve poll to assess the campaign’s impact couldn’t find a control group of people who hadn’t heard it.   

There are two main lessons from the 2018 Greater Than Fear campaign.

First, a winning progressive message shouldn’t run away from race: it should put race front and center. Some traditional Democratic messaging consultants have seen a situation like Beltrami’s vote and argued “we need to get back to basics,” like healthcare and pocketbook issues. As Beltrami County has shown us, refugees, immigrants, and race will be a part of the conversation. The question for progressives is, will we be a part of it too? Telling a collective story that is about race and class doesn’t just represent our values well: it also works. We don’t avoid the issue, we boldly state that in Minnesota, white, black, brown and indigenous folks move forward when we work together and reject the politicians who try to divide us.

Second, what defines a winning progressive message isn’t how much it molds itself to what “people in the middle” want to hear, but how much our base wants to carry it. For years, the consultant class has advised the immigrant-rights movement that the way to win “the middle” is to present ourselves as defenders of humane legalization and tough enforcement. But the messages about immigrants that they recommended were often so harsh — for example, that immigrants must pay a fine for “breaking the law” — that our base didn’t want to carry them. In general, the progressive base is tired of carrying excessively focused-grouped, middle-of-the-road messages that imply we have to hide our values because we’re told we can’t win with them.

But in 2018, our base wanted to carry the “greater than fear” message because it conflated progressive values with the thing Minnesotans love most: Minnesotanness. The campaign and viral commercial told progressive Minnesotans that they didn’t have to hide their light under a bushel anymore. That’s why an army of volunteers from churches, unions, and community groups worked so hard to carry the message in tens of thousands of in-person and online conversations with voters. (This conversation-based approach had a lot in common with the one that defeated the 2012 marriage amendment — against all expectations.) The “people in the middle” came with us because the progressive neighbors they trust chatted them up about it, and because those neighbors were  authentic with them about the message.

Relying on our base to be the messengers of our authentic stories is contrary to what we’ve been advised by the D.C. consultant class. 

Instead of relying on polls to tell us what to say to voters, we get to craft messages that actually reflect the world we want to live in because our base will carry it. 

In 2018, that base said that in Minnesota, we are Greater than Fear. Beltrami was the warning shot that this vision of Minnesota will be under attack in 2020 more than ever. Let’s rise to the challenge.