Some context should be added to David Orrick's excellent piece, "Mpls. City Council's course on the ballot" (Sept. 24).
Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont lost the Democratic nomination to Hillary Clinton in 2016. Rather than concede, Sanders gave a call to action to his followers: "We need to start engaging at the local and state level in an unprecedented way … we need … to start running for school boards, city councils, county commissions, state legislatures and governorships." In two weeks, over 7,000 people signed up for kits on how to run for elected office.
The Sanders campaign was the first Democratic campaign to truly organize through social media. Before, in a single-party jurisdiction like Minneapolis, politically active people all went to the same events, same fundraisers, served on the same committees. If you ran for office, people involved in politics knew you personally and helped get you elected. Party regulars might fight like cats and dogs, then go out for a beer, because you were one big, albeit somewhat dysfunctional, family.
Social media changed this. Suddenly, people didn't need to meet you to support you. The deep ties built through attending DFL events could be supplanted by posts and tweets and follows. This was transformational to politics.
Lisa Bender was the face of the Sanders movement in Minnesota. When Sanders ended his campaign, she turned his online campaign machinery inward to elect local candidates. In 2017, Our Revolution Twin Cities, the offspring of the Sanders campaign, endorsed 14 candidates for City Council. Nine got elected, delivering Bender the council presidency in 2018.
Social media platforms drive engagement by fostering anger and outrage. More divisive posts rise higher in people's feeds. Personal attacks, harassment and outrage grew. Soon, there arose two distinct groups in city politics: progressives (organized predominantly through social media) and moderates (organized through traditional methods). Many people left civic life because they did not want to run the gauntlet of harassment from social media. This has also driven the lack of candidates for office.
By 2021, Question 2, the effort to remove minimum staffing levels for the police department (also known as the Defund Amendment), exacerbated the division in the city. Progressives predominantly supported the amendment. Moderates predominantly opposed it. The campaign was brutal and ugly, obscuring substantial agreement over almost everything other than the number of police. Ultimately, the amendment was defeated with 56% opposed, showing moderates with a slim majority of city voters.
In 2023, the same gulf between progressives and moderates remains. On the progressive side, the Sanders campaign has evolved into the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). They have endorsed five candidates. The progressive PAC is called "Minneapolis for the Many" and they have endorsed five candidates, three of them also endorsed by DSA.
The moderate PAC, "All of Mpls.," has endorsed seven candidates.
Each faction has the possibility of gaining a majority of the council, which requires seven votes. Unless something unusual happens, it is unlikely progressives will get the nine votes needed to override mayoral vetoes. As Orrick notes, if progressives get seven votes for their agenda, they will still face a moderate mayor who would likely veto much of it. This could put Minneapolis into gridlock.
A political party exists to move forward a list of shared goals, called a "platform." The platform defines what a party stands for. It was the goal of the Sanders campaign to take over the Democratic Party. But in Minneapolis, the DFL has endorsed four progressives and four moderates. It is no longer clear what the Minneapolis DFL stands for, given its endorsements of candidates with two very different agendas.
The question is, can the rift be healed? One hope is that social media itself is changing. Twitter seems to be dying. Facebook is evolving. More people are using platforms that do not lend themselves so much to attacks, like Snapchat and Instagram.
Until the tools for how we communicate change, however, it is hard to see the divisiveness easing.
Robert Rothstein lives in Minneapolis.