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Jon Olson and the “Carleton bubble”

As any civically engaged American knows, barring any sort of dramatic action by the federal government, our next class of elected representatives will be determined by voters (likely via mail-in ballots) across the country. Given the current domestic and international circumstances, surely the upcoming chapter in the saga of American national elections will represent one of the most consequential choices in the history of our democracy. The same holds true for elections on a smaller scale; across the country, Americans are pondering which candidates are best prepared to fight for and deliver on policy that will move their communities, states, and country out of the depths of social and economic disparity that the pandemic has laid bare. 

From April 25 to May 4, DFL delegates of Minnesota District 20 via mail, phone, and virtual vote determined candidates to endorse. There was a battle for the nomination of a DFL candidate for the Minnesota Senate between former Naval Intelligence Officer and former Carleton professor Jon Olson, and Davin Sokup, a carpenter and lifelong Northfield resident. 

Sokup and Olson, along with Northfield City Council member Suzie Nakasian, announced their candidacies during the fall term of this academic yearOlson and Sokup both were quick to amass small armies of Carleton students to support their campaigns. Olson’s roots in Carleton’s Political Science Department found him a handful of student workers, while Sokup’s political identity as a more progressive alternative mobilized a small group of Carls of his own. 

Despite both candidates having student interns, Sokup’s campaign was far more present on Carleton’s campus than Olson’s. The halls of the complex were decked with pro-Davin door hangings. The Carleton Democrats, many of whom worked for, or who openly supported, Sokup, organized a DFL candidate forum in the Weitz, where audience questions maintained an overt far left slant. Following the forum, articles were penned and published in the Carletonian which mischaracterized Olson, his quotes from the forum, and his general policy positions. 

One such article went as far to label Olson a conservative. The piece suggests that it is not wrong to label Olson, who breezed past Sokup when the delegate votes were counted, as a right-winger because he stresses the common ground, compromise, and promotes leftist policy that can legitimately be passed through the Minnesota legislature. 

I am not writing this article as a moderate (which I am not) critique of Mr. Sokup, his policies, or his campaign. I am not writing this as a testimonial to Jon Olson, nor as a “blue no matter who” think piece, designed to rally support around the flag of a candidate who by virtue of a DFL-endorsement label must automatically be superior to any other candidate vying for the endorsement. 

I write to rebuke the prevailing notion on campus that Carleton students should dominate conversations of politics within SD 20, though a very small portion of Carleton and St. Olaf’s student bodies actually call SD 20 home. Of course, it is always encouraged to be politically active in this country of ours. I find it very much entitled, however, to think that the decisions made by DFLers of the SD 20 community are less developed than out-of-district student agendas. It is important to remember that much of the people of SD 20 have lived in this community for their entire lives, with families whose Minnesota roots date back generations. As temporary residents, we must respect their political opinion as much as we respect those of fellow Carls. Of course, students have a right to voice their political opinions, just like everyone else. It does seem misplaced, however, to become openly incensed by the decisions of community organizations when the vast majority of us are visitors. The DFL community made their choice clear when they decided to endorse Olson for the nomination by a resounding vote. 

Love it or hate it, it’s undeniable that at Carleton, we live in an ultra-progressive bubble. Many close friends of mine of a central (and even moderately left) ideology do not feel comfortable even sharing their politics with strangers, for fear of broad social resentment. This phenomenon is destructive, and given the context of Carleton’s political leanings, demonizes all who do not subscribe to a genre of leftist politics that much of the Democratic party, let alone non-Democrats, consider to be radical. 

It is inherently critical for the function of our democracy to actually listen to those in our community. There are innumerable inequities in our democratic system, but at the ballot box, no one vote carries more weight than any other. I find that this fact of electoral democracy is forgotten when we politic with one another (myself included). As students at an elite liberal arts college, we often subscribe to the idea that our opinions are superior to others, and find ourselves explaining to others why our ideologies are infallible. 

Leftist intellect interpreted as arrogance has played a big part in causing enormous backlash from Independents and Republican voters against progressive policies and toward violently conservative right-wingers. Liberal academia is guilty of promoting an air of intellectual nobility that has done irreparable harm to itself, and has hindered the achievement of its own goals in the process. It’s part of the reason Donald Trump is in the White House, and is sure to work against the Democratic cause again this fall. 

This is not to say progressive policies are inherently divisive, arrogant, or wrong. Progressive Minnesota Representative Todd Lippert (20-B) has no trouble connecting with unaffiliated or right-leaning voters. From a singular conversation with Mr. Lippert, I know that during his 2018 campaign, he personally knocked on hundreds of doors in the rural part of the district, personally engaging in sometimes uncomfortable conversations with unfavorable voters to win a state legislative seat. Electoral victories like that of Lippert’s prove that, in the case of pitching far-left policy, genuine attempts to connect with traditional unfriendly voters can indeed be successful. 

Much of society’s knowledge about traditional bureaucratic politics at the federal level does not hold true for state-level government. State governments bear the burden of the work that the federal government cannot complete. Such work can be completed swiftly and uniformly in states where one party controls the legislature. Currently, the DFL holds a firm majority in the Minnesota House, while Republicans claim a three-seat advantage in the sixty-seven seat Senate.

When passionate progressives, as many Carleton students are, choose to promote a tangibly  slanted perception about a candidate because they are not liberal enough for their liking, it objectively undermines their goals of a just, equitable society. This phenomenon will be amplified this time around, considering the fragile composition of the Minnesota legislature. In order to achieve a DFL-controlled Minnesota, it’d behoove Democrats to operate inclusively this fall. It would seem shortsighted to mischaracterize and rally other progressives against a DFL candidate who has made such an effort to expand the DFL voter base, when flipping SD 20 could pave the way for a “blue” Minnesota that could work quickly to remedy the “status quo.”

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