Minnesota Is Testing a Model To Add More Civility to Politics

Minnesota’s Civility Caucus helps develop fertile ground for understanding and collaboration across the aisle of the state legislature.

The Minnesota State Capitol building in St. Paul, Minnesota

The Minnesota State Capitol building in St. Paul, Minnesota (Photo by Bao Chau / Unsplash)

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Larry Kraft is a homemade ice cream aficionado. Kristin Robbins went to the same graduate school as a recently retired colleague. And it turns out that both Robbins and Sandra Feist care deeply about how social media impacts kids. It’s exactly these types of personal discoveries and connections that these members of the Minnesota legislature have made with each other through the Civility Caucus.

Launched in 2017 after a workshop on building trust through civil discourse at an annual legislative conference, Minnesota’s Civility Caucus is designed to bring members of the state House and Senate together across the aisle. The idea is simple: By getting to know members of the “other side” as people, rather than as presumed adversaries with stereotypically held beliefs, more effective, bipartisan legislation will get done.

There are similar efforts on the federal level, like the Problem Solvers Caucus and the Congressional Civility and Respect Caucus, as well as a broader civility in government initiative in New Hampshire, but Minnesota’s state caucus stands alone.

Although Republican Rep. Robbins clarifies that it can’t quite be said that bills have been passed just because of the caucus, she and one of her co-chairs, Democrat Rep. Sandra Feist, have co-sponsored a current bill on student cell phone use in schools.

“It provides a place for members of both parties of both the House and the Senate to have time together, to get to know each other as people. That relationship building leads to a foundation of trust that then helps get the leg work done when you’re negotiating, when you’re looking for a bill author,” Robbins says.

“When you have a relationship with someone personally, then you have someone you can go to for help getting a hearing or identifying someone else who might be interested in a bill.”

Minnesota Civility Caucus

The Civility Caucus co-chairs at a January 2023 event where former Sen. Roger Moe and former Rep. Joyce Peppin, a Democratic and Republican respectively, spoke to current legislators about legislative civility and bipartisanship. (Photo courtesy OCDR)

Bill Doherty — a professor of family social science at the University of Minnesota and co-founder of Braver Angels, a nonprofit dedicated to addressing partisan animosity in the U.S. — has given presentations to, and held workshops with, the Civility Caucus. He says that the establishment of such forums are valuable for creating a better political climate.

“Having these caucuses, even if it’s hard to point to concrete changes and successes, is important because we’re at least naming a problem of rancor and polarization,” Doherty says.

The Civility Caucus, which is coordinated by the state’s Office of Collaboration and Dispute Resolution, meets monthly during sessions. Robbins says that the free lunch is a big draw for busy legislators, a welcome reprieve from the granola bar she usually eats between meetings most days. And staffers aren’t allowed, just legislators themselves.

The first meeting of a session usually kicks off with an ice breaker, something like asking each member to share something surprising about their district. In other meetings, they share challenges or opportunities in their districts. “What was interesting about that was, going around the room, you realized that we’re all having similar challenges in our districts, rural or urban,” Robbins says of a common divide across Minnesota politics.

In March’s meeting, the caucus took a different approach to the food element with a classic Minnesota hot dish potluck. “You see a different side of people when they bring grandma’s recipe,” she adds.

For Doherty, the success of caucuses like this one rely on a foundation of communication skills for dealing with difference and disagreement.

“We use a term called achieving accurate disagreement,” he explains. “Accurate disagreement occurs when each of us knows what the other is saying and why, from their perspective, they’re saying it.” Accurate disagreements (versus distorted disagreement that comes from people thinking or assuming they know the reasons why someone else is disagreeing with them) is the fertile ground from which commonalities can emerge.

Take the issue of school funding. Democrats might assume that Republicans oppose a school funding bill because they don’t care about kids’ education, he says. In reality, the hesitation might be around a lack of accountability for how and where funding is being spent. With an accurate understanding of what the disagreement is, a potential solution like building more accountability into a funding bill can help lead to a bi-partisan outcome.

With these skills and built-in opportunities to get to know each other as individual people, cooperation can start to emerge again. “Every legislator and member of Congress we’ve talked to says that part of the lack of civility and cooperation is a decline in informal opportunities to connect,” Doherty says.

Digital lawmaking during COVID was a challenge for the Minnesota caucus, one they’re still working to recover from. Prior to the pandemic, the caucus averaged 40 to 50 attendees per every meeting. “Since then, I’d say we now get 15 to 20 people. A big loss is that … we’ve now had two classes of legislators that didn’t experience the pre-COVID ways we got work done,” Robbins says.

She adds that this year’s November election will make it too difficult, but an idea that’s been floated is hosting Civility Caucus events in a member’s district and inviting spouses. “We’re trying to do more things in the interim rather than just, ‘See you next year!’” Robbins says.

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Cinnamon Janzer is a freelance journalist based in Minneapolis. Her work has appeared in National Geographic, U.S. News & World Report, Rewire.news, and more. She holds an MA in Social Design, with a specialization in intervention design, from the Maryland Institute College of Art and a BA in Cultural Anthropology and Fine Art from the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities.

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Tags: minnesotapolitics

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