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  • Minnesota and the “Populism” of Political Opposition
  • Lisa Disch (bio)

On November 3, 1998, Minnesota’s voters handed its established parties a big surprise by turning out in near record-breaking numbers to elect Jesse Ventura their first third-party Governor in over half a century. 1 The national news media recognized the political curiosity. But the surprise, as they framed the lead, was not that an alternative-party candidate had trounced the establishment. Instead, it was that the mild-mannered people of Lake Wobegon had elected a head-butting sport celebrity to the state’s highest executive office. Prominent newspapers chose to feature Jesse “The Body” Ventura on their front pages. The jewel-encrusted chin, Lycra tights, and flying hair said it all: Minnesota’s Governor-elect was Bozo the Clown on steroids.

Professional pundits jumped on what they unequivocally ruled a failure of political judgment. Steven Dornfeld, Associate editorial page editor at the St. Paul Pioneer Press , called Ventura’s victory “a triumph for political showmanship, anti-intellectualism and the trivialization of the electoral process” (1998). William Grimes of the New York Times agreed, charging that Minnesota voters were “faked out by an underplayed ad campaign” into believing that a Ventura vote made them “part of a small, independent-minded community making a creative choice” (1998, wk2). Several lay pundits concurred. They cast Ventura supporters as impulse voters who, empowered by election day registration to cast their ballots on a lark, left the rest of us with the political equivalent of buyer’s remorse. One letter writer, whose agitation can be read in her exclamation points, denounced Ventura’s victory as an “embarrassment” that “shows the ignorance of the younger people” and reveals a massive failure of civic education on the part of their parents: “Let’s get up from the couch, turn off the stupid box, and make sure our children can read! That is a parent’s responsibility! Let’s teach our children how society runs, so they can vote intelligently” (Knapp 1998, A26).

For their part, Ventura supporters refused the terms of this debate. They cast aside the role of citizen/legislator to position themselves as “citizen/dissidents” (Connolly 1995, 100) who had delivered a knockout punch against an entrenched political establishment. They touted the election as a “remarkable exercise in democracy,” that had shown party politicians and opinion shapers “a little spine and independent spirit,” and put Minnesota at the “forefront of a real national political movement” (Boehm 1998, A19; Norton 1998, A19; Wrzos 1998, A26). A vote for Ventura was a vote for internet organizing and whistle-stop campaigning (albeit by bus). It sent a wake-up call to career politicians to distance themselves from special interests, and back off the mass-market campaign techniques that their money buys. Ventura’s shoestring campaign exemplified “the purest form of democracy, a form that both the DFL and Republican parties have long abandoned in favor of consultant-based, planned, patterned and platitudinous campaigns” (Kaplan 1998, A25).

To his detractors and supporters alike, one thing was certain. The election of Jesse Ventura marked a resurgence of populism. Whereas some called it “cantankerous” ( Star and Tribune 1998), others “libertarian...antiestablishment”(Broder 1998), and still others “Porsche-driving” (Fischer 1998), all considered it to be uniquely Minnesotan. Certainly Ventura invited this label. His campaign was the consummate “populist persuasion” (Kazin 1998, 6). He captivated voters with his sense of humor, plain speaking style, and stated conviction that Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones are “two of the greatest rock bands ever.” He got their attention by refusing contributions from organized interest groups, and promising to return surplus tax money to the “hard-working people who paid it in” (North Woods 1998a). And he tapped into a peculiarly late twentieth-century version of the sense of “aggrieved peoplehood” that Harry Boyte has argued characterizes populist insurgency by denouncing car pool “sane” lanes as “insane,” calling for an end to the ban on snow mobile studs, and proposing to eliminate the safety surtax on personal water craft (or jet-skis) of which he owns five (1981, 61).

In short, Ventura managed (with the help of Bill Hillsman, the creative mind...

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